Friday, 8 November 2013

...AND ALL THE MAGIC & MIGHT HE BROUGHT

Band: URUK HAI
Title: ...And All The Magic And Might He Brought
Format: This initial pressing comes as a digipak 'deluxe edition' CD on 21 September 2013 through W.A.R. Productions (Austria), with tracks recorded between October 2011 and January 2013.  An alternative CD pressing (in jewel case) and tape version are also to be available shortly, which will be reviewed in due course.
Edition: Digipak limited to 300 unnumbered copies.  

Track Listing:
01. From the Ashes  03:37
02. Far Away  06:00
03. Ancient Wisdom  05:13
04. Rise & Fall  04:57
05. Fallen Leaves  03:42
06. The Door to the Paths of the Dead  07:06
07. Valinor  02:28
08. Immortality  14:04
09. Wrath  04:07

Deluxe Edition bonus tracks  
10. March of the Forest Elves  04:24
11. Legolas  02:33
12. Glaurung  04:15
13. The End of the Road  04:17

Although Nazgul doesn't have all the variants of this particular release in his possession yet, it seems a timely moment to put a review of this new album up on Honour and Darkness not least because it is the brand new album from Uruk Hai and there's a tremendous amount of interest in it at the moment.  One assumes that you - the handsome, intelligent reader of this Blog - would have rushed out and bought a copy already, but in case you haven't (or you're a neutral who has chanced upon this as a solitary online review of the album) then let's plough ahead with the review, and cover the different formats in a later update.


Firstly, let's establish some context for this album: it's not, as it turns out, a straightforward affair.  We're used to Uruk Hai releases being the sole property of Alex "Hugin" Wieser, one-man Austrian ambient army and purveyor of fine wares.  On this 2013 outing, however, Hugin is joined by a panoply of notable muso-types, drawn from his various W.A.R. connections into the music world.  To that end we have less of a solo project and more of a virtual band (the tracks being assembled through contributions sent in, rather than performed as a collective together in a studio).  

Now this immediately rings a few potential alarm bells: Collaborative recording can be an immensely beneficial thing if each member brings something of value and doesn't overwhelm the whole.  Hugin has recorded more than a few successful demos and songs with outside contributors aboard - a notable example being with John Kirkwood on the Drachenfeuer demo - so in of itself this isn't a problem.  There is at least one occasion though - and we're talking about the Hrossharsgrani "Schattenkrieger" album here, folks - where the collaboration idea didn't really work and Hugin's own personality got lost in the mix, quite literally.

The trick, therefore, is to retain the core sound and ethos of the project whilst augmenting it through the addition of exciting new personnel.  If those same personnel change the sound or feel of the band too much, it might well end up sounding like a kick-ass record but ultimately will have little to do with the project under which it is named.

And let's remember, much as the road to heaven is paved with good intentions the road to rock 'n' roll stardom is paved with ill-fated collaborations.  There have been some tragic collaborations in recent memory - Metallica and Lou Reed, Slash performing the end of 'November Rain' with Jamie Foxx and T-Pain at the Grammys; Coal Chamber and Ozzy's disastrous Peter Gabriel cover; and Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page all spring to mind.  Those of us with longer memories will remember some ill-fitting band combinations too - Brian Robertson's stint in Motorhead, or Glenn Hughes in Black Sabbath two good examples of something that seemed like a good idea on paper but sucked in reality.  Just because artists are competent individually doesn't mean you can lock them in a room together and expect some audio dynamite to emerge.

So who exactly performs on this Uruk Hai opus?  In no particular order, they range from the relatively well known (Tony Dolan on bass, M:Pire Of Evil and ex-Venom; Joe Matara on guitar, an established solo artist on the W.A.R. label, Pr, Sergiy of Moloch, providing some screams and also continuity from past work with Hugin), the should-be-better-known (Trevor Sewell on guitar, ex-Tygers of Pan Tang), together with talents that you may be unfamiliar with: Rich Davenport (from UK's Greyhound Bridge) playing guitar, and Teresa Chillcut-Guiterrez (Vos Intereo), Bart Piette (Dead Man's Hill), and Janos Krusenbaum (Seeking Raven) all providing vocal contributions.  

The contributions vary greatly in proportion: Tony has a spoken word part on the first track and that's him done; Rich Davenport and Trevor Sewell contribute to two songs on the album, one apiece, whilst Bart Piette and Pr. Sergiy also have the one appearance each on vocal duties.  The majority of additional material therefore comes from Joe Matara and Janos Krusenbaum.

Some interesting c.v.'s there, so the prospect for an exciting album is nicely established.  And yet - the seeds of trepidation continue to flourish quietly: Hugin's keyboard-driven Uruk Hai of old (and indeed recent) times has been quite the fragile and ethereal thing, gossamer thin melodies floating on wisps of inspired creativity.  Having "a group of rock 'n' roll motherf*ckers in his ear" [© Honour and Darkness reader who wishes to remain anonymous] may not be the ideal way to bring his talents to the fore, and the risk there is that no matter how rousing or glossy an album this might be, if it doesn't feel or sound like an Uruk Hai release then will it ultimately be doomed to fail.


"Well, that's all fine and dandy as an introduction, Mr. Nazgul," you might be thinking, "but what does the bloody thing sound like?"

So to answer that quite literally let's inject a little independence into this review and undertake an assessment of the album on a track by track basis with the thoughts of Ceremony Of Innocence vocalist Nick Diak (in green) interspersed with the lunatic ravings of your truly:

From the Ashes
"An awkward opening track for this album it sounds like it should be opening for a sports game. At any given point I thought Joe Matera's guitars were going to break into the American national anthem. Tony Dolan gives an unnerving introduction at the end of the track that is too brief"
It acts as a clear opening statement that things are going to be different on this album, and so it proves.  An Uruk-Hai release opening with a guitar solo?  Unprecedented!  An Uruk Hai album opening with a song not even featuring our man Hugin?  Bizarre!  The unsuspecting Uruk Hai fan who bought this album without noticing the additional personnel will by now be opening up their CD player to see what disc is actually in there!  It came as a surprise that this short vocal contribution was Tony's sole role on the album, but that said he is a very busy man.

Far Away
"To me, this should've been the opening track of the album. It starts off slow, but builds up a little bit. The 'plucking' instrumental at the beginning recalls the song 'Underground Sewer' from the soundtrack to Chronotrigger [Nazgul's note: a Japanese computer game, apparently!] Joe's guitars are far better here than they were in 'From the Ashes', the brief bit at the 2:55 mark is really nice. The biggest surprise for this track, are the vocals from Janos Krusenbaum. They have a real epic and grandiose quality to them that recalls Blind Guardian. If Uruk-Hai is trying to break into the adventure metal genre with the likes of Blind Guardian and Kamelot, the vox from Janos is certainly the way to go. The last minute of the song is back into pure Uruk-Hai territory with a fantasy oriented musicscapes"
And there, in that last but one sentence, is the rub.  The combination of performers on this track does make it sound very much like a power metal band, and Nick's reference to Blind Illusion is a good one.  There's nothing wrong with that, and taken in isolation the song is perfectly enjoyable, but it's not the Uruk Hai that we're familiar with.  More of that anon...

Ancient Wisdom
"A nice instrumental, it recalls times of when Uruk-Hai is at their most verdant in sound. This is a piano/synth track with some nice string work that gives it a soothing, but at the same time, sombre feel"
The predominant use of piano gives the song a far more mature feel, and also sounds rather classy it has to be said.  

Rise & Fall
"This track starts off in classic Uruk-Hai / Hrosshargrani territory with samples of an epic battle and the screaming vocals of Pr. Sergiy who has appeared on prior black-metal Uurk-Hai tracks. However I think Pr. Serlgy is upstaged by the clear but epic vocals of Janos that carries most of the track. This is some great rhythm from the drums and Matera’s guitar work that propels the song"
Not a cover of Helloween's song after all, although after the power-metal start to the album the jury was out on that one for a time.  Nazgul likes the screams of Pr. Sergiy, they remind him of the black chambers deep beneath Castle Nazgul.

Fallen Leaves
"Another fantasy oriented instrumental, it reminds me of some other Uruk-Hai tracks of this ilk, such as 'The Shire' from Lost Songs from Middle Earth. A nice, fantasy-ambient treat"
Agreed, and just before complete confusion reigns Hugin wisely rolls up his sleeves and whips off a timely reminder of his trademark sound and the fact that this is, after all, an Uruk Hai release.

The Door to the Paths of the Dead
"This song starts of with great music but poor vocals. The wind instruments in the background sound awesome and makes me think of lonely, misty mountains. However, Bart Piette's vocals don’t compliment the music or the atmosphere at this point.  At the 3 minute mark of the song, the song changes focus with the guitars picking up. Here the vocals are a better match for the most part, but I feel they over stay their welcome as the song carries on. Trever Sewell's guitars are excellent here however - they have a grindy quality to give the song an action-cinematic feel to it when they are present"
Once again  our man Diak has his finger on the pulse.  Bart's vocals do improve as the song progresses, and the song grows on you with repeat listening.

Valinor
"Another ambient/fantasy instrumental. This is a good 'prelude' track, as in when you listen to it, you get the sense that something big is about to happen and this is the precursor to it. The war drums are peppered through the song with some complimentary incantation-like hymns that give it a good feeling"
There are also a few discreet female vocals on this one that give the song an almost Tristania-like vibe at times.  Rather good

Immortality
"A longer track, but unfortunately a pretty nondescript track.  It's 14 minutes long and it pretty much sounds the same at any given part except for the last minute. The female vox from Teresa Chillcut-Guiterrez are serviceable, but not remarkable and sound mumbled in some parts. The Joe Matera guitars are decent, but I feel they would’ve been in better service for a shorter song. Over all, a little on the boring side"
You can't have immortality without a longish duration though, so perhaps there's some cunningness at work here?  It would benefit from a bit of editing though, and the female vocals do add another dimension to the song.  Nazgul is still struggling with guitar solos in Uruk Hai songs though: performed very well, to be sure, but just not complementing the music in the way that keyboards can.

Wrath
"The final track of the album proper (before getting into the bonus tracks). Hugin's vocals sound pure evil here, and actually are not too bad to service the theme of the song. The music itself is pretty top notch, there are some ambient effects, but also some drumming that give it a menacing feeling. Then the guitars kick in two-thirds of the way into the song. It has an operatic/metal feeling, and maybe it’s a good way to book end the album with the guitar driven opening in 'From the Ashes'"
Hugin manages to do a remarkable impression of Blix from the film Legend on this song, and frankly it's all the better for it!

March of the Forest Elves
"The first of the bonus tracks, the rest of this album is all instrumental. This is an interesting mix-up of tranquil sounds (probably the forest) and some guitar work (the marching). A song to get pumped to"
An enjoyable romp through Middle-Earth, and stirring stuff to get the blood circulating!

Legolas
"A guitar driven instrumental about our favourite elf. The guitars are not bad, but the underlying layer of music I think is a bit better"
We said at the outset that the guitars on track one were a statement of intent.  This guitar led song - with a positively vicious riff - by Hugin is also a statement: that the Uruk Hai sound can change under his own hand just as readily as with other musicians taking part.  An unusual song in the canon of other solo works, but one that does fit the general feel of the album.  Speaking as the Witch-King of Angmar, I can't say I've ever had a favourite elf....

Glaurung
"Some more samples put this in old school Uruk-Hai territory. This is a menacing instrumental, the pace of the guitars and the strings give it the pace that you’re getting chased"
This is indeed more of an old school song, and most welcome it is too.

The End of the Road
"Not just the end of the road, but the end of the album as well. This is an ethereal track, which give a nice and relaxing feeling, which is needed after doing an adventure or listening to an album like this!"
Hear, hear, Sir!

In conclusion:
"'From the Ashes' and 'Immortality' are both busts. The instrumentals were all nice, and carry that Uruk-Hai fantasy-ambient canon that we all love, which I also prefer. The biggest surprises were 'Far Away' and 'Rise & Fall', with the vocals from Janos Krusenbaum being very nice. I do hope he pops up in more Uruk-Hai tracks, I much prefer his vocals over some of the black-metal screaming, indecipherable ones that have been used in the past. The incorporation of varied guitars from Matera and Sewell into the other tracks takes Uruk-Hai in a more adventure metal direction, and for the most part it’s pretty successful.  Over all, this is a fairly accessible Uruk-Hai album, it's less extreme than some other output but idiosyncratic enough to have a little something for everyone. I think the Fallen Angels Production version of this album has the better cover art, but you'll miss out on the great bonus instrumentals by going that route, however" 


Nazgul came away from this album with mixed feelings, in truth.  The first thing to say that it is a very good album, and one that Hugin and all of the contributors should be very proud of.  It must have been a labour of love to chase the respective contributors for their parts and stitch it all together, and Hugin deserves an immense amount of credit for doing that arduous task so well. 
  
However, to Nazgul's ears it's intrinsically not an Uruk Hai album, or to be more accurate, not what Nazgul expected of an Uruk Hai album.  It takes the project into other genres and mixes up different vocal styles with no real explanation of why there's a move away from the band's output of yore.  Now progress and change is all very good and a natural part of development and evolution, and there's nothing wrong with that.  I guess at the end of the day Nazgul is something of a traditionalist.   

One of my 'problems' with it (and Nazgul is quite prepared to accept it may be a problem unique to him!) is that if you leave the bonus tracks to one side for the moment, other than the occasional instrumental personifying Hugin's signature sound the rest of the album sounded like another band recording under the name Uruk Hai.  I honestly think that if I'd listened to this without knowing who it was, I wouldn't even have recognised it as Uruk Hai, except perhaps in very fleeting parts.  And that surely must be a cause for concern?  Having multiple vocalists at work also creates some issues: at best, it gives the album the feel of rock opera (as Nick alluded to), in the vein of releases by Ayreon.  At worst, it provides for a disjointed listen and gives the album a schizophrenic feel. 

In some ways, it feels like two albums shoehorned into one: a solo album, with the instrumental songs that we can recognise as Hugin's own, and the 'band' tracks on which Hugin plays.  On these latter songs - and with some inevitability - the vocals and guitar parts tend to dominate the mix and the style of the sound, and although you know Hugin is in there somewhere you can't always hear him.  This may well have been the final intention, to evolve the Uruk Hai project into new directions, but it sounds alien to these ears to hear guitar solos where keyboards once reigned supreme.  Had a few songs in this new style appeared as bonus tracks on an previous release then maybe we would be better prepared, giving us a bridge of transition although, to be fair, a medley of music from this album was available online via YouTube so some 'advance warning' had been given.

Strange as it may sound, a major sticking point for Nazgul simply boils down to the band name used here.  If the album had been released as a new side project under it's own banner (oh, I don't know, a band name with a bit of zip, something like 'Tony Dolan's Underpants' maybe?) then we'd all be proclaiming it the best thing since sliced bread, and then looking forward to the next Uruk Hai album proper.  

As it stands, Hugin's flagship project seems to have been inadvertently hijacked or sidetracked, and sounds less like his own work than you might suppose.  You wouldn't buy the thing and expect it to sound like Bob Seger or the Pussycat Dolls would you, so why would you necessarily expect it to sound like Blind Illusion?  But - and it's an important 'but' to bear in mind - it IS still a very decent album if listened to with open mind and ears, and no historical expectations.

Hmmm - an interesting one!  It's true to say that the album grows on you with repeat listens, so with the benefit of hindsight and time perhaps it will all come together and make complete sense.  At the moment, if Nazgul was in the mood to listen to an Uruk Hai album then this wouldn't be the one I'd immediately reach for, yet if I want to play an album simply to enjoy some good music, I might.  Confused....?!

Incidentally, one interesting consequence of this new style is that the album is definitively more 'rock' or 'metal' than recent Uruk Hai releases - so what will the erstwhile folk at Metal Archives make of it, having recently deleted the band entry from their site?!  It will be interesting to see if some form of reinstatement is petitioned....

To wrap things up, traditionally Nazgul tries to illuminate the dark recesses of albums reviewed, so tidbits of information for this album are as follows.  The excellent artwork (on this W.A.R. deluxe version) is courtesy of Nottorno (who you will remember as the driving force behind the 'The First Ring' compilation featuring Uruk Hai).  The album title is a part of the Lay of Leithian, a long Elvish lay (poem) that told the story of Beren and LĂșthien, their Quest for the Silmaril, and their return from Mandos.  The actual couplet reads, "The chanting swelled, Felagund fought, And all the magic and might he brought".  

Looking through the information printed on the inlays there is a strange omission in that credits for the third bonus track 'Glaurung' are missing, so let Nazgul fill in the gaps by letting you know that Hugin is responsible for all of the music on that song.  And, errr, that's about it for the moment, until the two other versions are snared in the Castle.

Look, it's been a long review and if you've made it this far you're probably either (i) as confused as Nazgul, (ii) seething with indignation, or (iii) the owner of the album yourself and nodding in agreement with some of this commentary whilst being convinced that Nazgul is away with the fairies in other respects.  My advice to you would be to invest in this if you've not got a copy, as one way or other it will be a pivotal moment in Uruk Hai history so you'd not want to miss out.  And who knows, your adventure might start here as you discover that this new approach floats your boat far more than the music of old.  And for those of us in possession of a copy, to play it one more time to see if all the magic and might Hugin brought will finally sink in...!

HUGIN REPLIES:

It only seemed fair to elicit a view from Hugin to this post, given the comments made.  Whilst half expecting a reply of "You, Sir, are an arse" the actual response - gentleman that his is - was as follows:

"Thanks for your honest review - I have not seen it from this point of view to release it under another name rather than Uruk-Hai, but I wanted to change something in the sound of Uruk-Hai and I think all the 2013 splits are in the same vein. I changed a lot in sound, its a bit more Metal and the vocal tracks are definitely different but that's what I always wanted to do: to have different singers to make it sounds a bit like a radio play or a musical - still everything is connected to the Lord Of The Rings and each song tells a little story of it featuring different characters.

I think it also sounds so different because of the long period of time I worked on it, it gave me plenty of time to change things from the first takes to the final versions, and I never did it that way before.  Such a lot of work deserves the name Uruk-Hai more than all my other work I think :-)
 
One strange thing is I got a lot of feedback from fans and they all liked different tracks - there is not one track that I could say is the most beloved one by the fans!!"

In terms of the future direction for recordings, Hugin reports an ongoing interest from many who took part in this release:
 
"Trevor offered me to do another solo for an upcoming Uruk-Hai track again - that's so cool.  Joe did 3 more guitar parts for Uruk-Hai the last months, and they will be released soon too!  Rich told me he will be honoured to be again part of an Uruk-Hai song!!  Bart Piette will always do some vox or guitar or even didgeridoo for me too!  I have some new vocalists now too they will be part of future releases too - this time its more Black Metal screamed stuff :-)"


There's a lot going on in the world of Uruk Hai, that's for certain! 

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