Saturday, 29 January 2011

WAR ANTHEMS

Band: URUK HAI
Title: War Anthems
Format: 6CD compilation in a wooden box released in September 2010 by the Tryby label (Poland), catalogue reference 02/2010. Each disc comes housed in a plastic wallet and has a two-sided black and white cover. The box-set also contains two colour postcards, a sticker, a black and white photo-card of Hugin, and a map of Middle Earth detailing the albums and edition number of the set. All albums contained in this box-set have been previously released on the Wulfrune Worxx and Front Line Productions labels.
Edition: 15 hand-numbered boxes

Track Listing:

CD1: A Dark Force Shines Golden
01. Helms Deep 09:34
02. Precious 06:09
03. Beneath The Moon, Beneath The Sun 11:24
04. Blood Of Heroes (bonus track) 28:56
CD2: After the War (Orcish Battle Hymns Part IV)
01. After the War 40:29
CD3: At the End of the First Age
01. At The End Of The First Age (An Opera About Ered luin, The Blue Mountains) 27:21
CD4: Balrog
01. Balrog Parts 1 and 2 57.52
CD5: Morgoth
01. Morgoth Parts 1 and 2 59.38
CD6: Die Festung
01. Dunkler Herrscher 13:55
02. Eisen Hölle 09:09
03. Belagerung 08:38
04. Der Eisenkerker 02:12
05. Die Grosse Schmiede 27:31

On the face of things it would seem positively churlish to complain about a compilation of Uruk Hai material released in such an elegant wooden box-set as this. For many years followers of Uruk Hai would have chewed off their own right arm at the prospect of such a deluxe compendium being released, and in recent months we have been positively spoiled with a veritable cascade of boxed output from this project. The humble wooden box has evidently become one of the in-vogue ways of presenting releases at the premium end of the market, and this first attempt from Polish label Tryby is a well constructed and well intentioned dip into such tempestuous waters.

Of course, your old Uncle Nazgul has a few thoughts of his own about this release, a mixture of both positive and negative. In order to handle this inner conflict, let us therefore proceed along the route of what is colloquially known in management-speak as the 'criticism sandwich': two positives literally sandwiching the negative 'filling' in the middle!

Well, first impressions are good. It's a sturdy light-coloured box, fastened with a nice metal clasp and bearing a cover sticker that has rather a good concept to illustrate it. Sure, one could be picky and suggest that the 'eye' is not shown entirely in the right perspective given the direction the drummer boy's head is supposed to be facing, but the overall effect is a happy marriage of both war and Tolkien imagery and overall it's really quite a striking (and slightly unsettling) image.

Inside the box the exclusive content has also been well chosen: there is a postcard depicting Sauron's tower with our hero Hugin, a second card showing the Great Eye of Sauron, a small colour map showing the box contents and edition number (Nazgul's is #5/15), an Uruk Hai sticker (modern logo in gold on black background), and a black & white photo card of Hugin in chainmail and with his broadsword.

So far, so good, but this is the bit where Nazgul assumes his 'grumpy old man' mantle. Now, to be fair, some his gripes stem from Nazgul's fairly lucky position of owning a significant proportion of Uruk Hai output already, and so would not necessarily resonate with other owners of this set or more casual fans. One of the main advantages of a collection such as this is, after all, that it makes available a number of albums that were previously only in cassette format (with the exception of "A Dark Force Shines Golden" which has appeared as a split CD already). This in itself is a boon for customers who were unable or unwilling to invest in the original tape releases.

However, bear with Nazgul whilst he makes his case. Let's move to the discs themselves. The first disappointing issue is the black and white covers on the CD sleeve inserts: for what is a fairly pricey box-set (it was around £35 I seem to recall) you might suppose that colour covers could have been used, which would have been a definite upgrade from the monochrome inlays that the Wulfrune Worxx tapes were adorned with. You might reasonably expect a tape release to use copied inlays to keep costs down and the price affordable, but in the case of a box-set like this I think not! Given that a simple online search can instantly locate the colour versions of the "Balrog" and "Morgoth" covers for example, it seems likely that most of the covers were sourced via the Internet and thus could have been depicted in colour?

Personally, Nazgul would also have preferred a proper jewel-case for each album rather than the plastic wallet approach, although space and weight were presumably the considerations here. On the plus side, the paper sleeve inserts do all have a different image inside, which for those of you keeping track of such things are: "A Dark Force Shines Golden" - the Great Eye of Sauron; "After The War" - Hugin with sword #1; "At The End Of The First Age" - the war anthems 'drummer-boy' cover; "Balrog" - Hugin with sword #2; "Morgoth" - the map of Middle-Earth (showing the land in and around Rhovanion and Haradwaith); and "Die Festung" - Hugin with sword #3. The rear panel illustration for each inlay shows the track listing for each album on a background of the Dark Lord himself, which incidentally is the same image as appears on the 2010 Uruk Hai demo "Wrath Of The Ring".

Nazgul's other moan concerns the lack of any obvious bonus for the fan who already owns the tape versions of these releases. Other than the one bonus song on "A Dark Force Shines Golden" the track listings are exactly as the original cassette releases. And, it has to be said, that bonus song - 'Blood of Heroes' - is not unique to this set, but was the Uruk Hai track on the split CD "Nachtkrieg" released by Dungeons Deep Records in 2009. Now, it could well be that of the 15 customers for this release Nazgul is in fact the only one who owns all the tapes already, and thus the cry of "more fool you, then" rings out from the masses. However, given the cost of this set and the fact that only 15 were made, it's not unreasonable to assume that it is more the dedicated fan who would buy it rather than the casually curious. Would one therefore also reasonably assume that such a fan is also likely to have some of the preceding tape releases already? Nazgul would be interested to hear from any owners of the set about this....

Allowing for all of that moaning (sorry - normal service now resumed!) this is still an interesting representation of Uruk Hai circa 2009-2010. It's almost Wulfrune Worxx's 'Honour and Darkness' tape series replicated on CDr, except for the crucial fact that one of the six releases in that series is not present. Have you worked out which one it is yet? Yes, quite right, it's "Black Blood, White Hand" that's missing, but given the fact that this particular album has been given the royal treatment in a box-set release of its own this omission is not really unexpected. Instead, the sixth album to find a home in "War Anthems" is the "At The End Of The First Age" release, formerly part of the 'Remember CC' series on Wulfrune Worxx, and also a 'Split Series' tape release with Orcrist.

What the assembled releases do have in common are some pretty epic tracks - the "Balrog" and "Morgoth" are each nigh on an hour of instrumental work, whilst 4 other tracks across the box crack the 20 minute mark. Only "Die Festung" and "A Dark Force Shines Golden" offer more digestible songs, and four of these are pushing 10 minutes or more each! The net result is a box-set that you'd struggle to dip into just to play a couple of quick songs before you'd run out of options, but on the other hand Tryby provide enough ammunition for the listener to settle down for a quiet night in with some absorbing listening ahead.

It's a bit of a mixed verdict for this release, ultimately. If Nazgul was new to Uruk Hai and owned little by way of prior material, then I think his opinion of the worth of this set would be somewhat different. It's very possible that such circumstances existed for the majority of customers who bought this box-set, in which case I think you'd have to argue that at an average cost of around £7 per album plus a nice box to house them in, it's far from a bum deal. Longer term fans who already support the band (and underground labels) through tape purchases may have steered clear of this for reasons of economy or lack of necessity. Nazgul, being Nazgul, has one of everything and thus something of an unusual situation arises when it comes to collections like this. All of which is probably a fairly long-winded way of saying "you pay your money, you take your choice!"

With only 15 copies released by Tryby it's doubtful whether any boxes remain unsold, which now makes the whole 'to buy or not to buy' argument somewhat moot. Nazgul is happy enough with his purchase and the freedom it gives to stick something like "Die Festung" on the car stereo rather than being limited to the tape deck inside the Castle. I maintain there was a lost opportunity not to add a disc of rarities to "War Anthems" - there's plenty of Uruk Hai tracks out there that merit a reissue compared to material from as recently as 2009, not least the excellent songs on the 2004 split album "Melancholie Eines Herbstes In Drei Akten". Then again, the looming presence of the soon-to-be-advertised (so Nazgul is told) 40CD box-set of Uruk Hai's discography should keep even Nazgul quiet about such matters when Steinklang finally unleash it on an unsuspecting planet...!

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