The Lord of the Rings by English author and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the bestselling trilogies ever written; published in 1954, it began as a sequel to Tolkien's 1937 children's book The Hobbit. Decades later, it was turned into the OSCAR®-winning epic film series by Peter Jackson. It has been called the most widely read and influential epic fantasies of all time.
David Arkenstone, a Tolkienite now for quite a few decades, very precisely recalls the time in his young adulthood when the Middle Earth of Tolkien’s imagined mythological past first captured his imagination. At 18 -- long before he became a 5-time GRAMMY® nominated icon for his wildly prolific 35-year career as a new age, ambient, Celtic, electronic, and game music composer -- he was swept away by the Trilogy, a perfect lunchtime escape from his tedious day job.
As he releases Music Inspired By Middle Earth, Vol. II (on his QDV label), the long awaited sequel to his bestselling 2001 album Music Inspired by Middle Earth, Arkenstone reflects on the world’s ongoing fascination for all things LOTR. “My take on why Lord of the Rings has captivated so many millions over time is the richness of the stories and characters,” he says. “Tolkien’s hobbits have characteristics that closely resemble humans and he put them in relationships that make sense. Then of course, there’s also the good vs. evil aspect that’s essential in literature.”
“There are so many heroic depictions in the books. I think people are drawn to the relationships and the aspects of these characters going way beyond what they thought they could do, pushing themselves to accomplish their task. I love the idea of people thinking they want to be that way, finding a purpose and goal that can change a common man into a hero.”
One of the original core artists on the roster of famed New Age/World Music label Narada, Arkenstone’s first opportunity to fuse his love of Tolkienesque mythology with his artful synthesis of a multitude of instruments – keyboards, acoustic and electric guitars, flute, pan flute, fretless bass, pennywhistle, accordion and mandolin – was In The Wake of the Wind (1991), which hit #1 on the Billboard New Age chart and earned the artist his first Grammy nomination. The deeply orchestrated music was based on a fantasy story (contained in an accompanying illustrated booklet and map) that tells of a strange wind called The Lion’s Breath and a young man named Andolin who desires to vanquish it. It was the first volume of a trilogy of albums that included Quest of the Dream Warrior (1995) and Return of the Guardians (1996).
When Arkenstone was on Narada, he was limited to releasing about one album a year under his own name – a limitation that led him to create an offshoot trio, Troika, that recorded a total of five albums for the label between 1996 and 2003. Once his solo deal wrapped, he and then-wife and still frequent collaborator, singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist Diane Arkenstone, formed their own label, Neo Pacifica while living in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.
The two made a list of projects they wanted to do. Her first solo release on the label was The Healing Spirit and his was Music Inspired By Middle Earth, (2001) which at long last allowed him to explore his love for the LOTR universe of characters and places via his own musical imagination.
“The first “Inspired by Middle Earth was an intimidating album to do,” Arkenstone says. “It ends up reflecting the journey Frodo was on, starting with the Hobbits, with me trying to put myself in the Shire where they live. The LOTR story is basically theirs, but then breaks off to include other characters. Two or three tracks in, I had the idea for an epic song that turned into ‘The Quest,” which had a general feeling of the quest to destroy the Ring.
“The way I created the first album and now Volume II is choosing elements of the story I wanted to illuminate musically, then closing my eyes, getting the instruments in front of me – guitar, keyboard, flute, pennywhistle – and then experiment by putting sounds together, like a form of impressionism,” Arkenstone says. “It’s a lot like painting on a canvas. Not every melody popped out instantly, but my aim was always to make music I thought reflected what I felt about Tolkien’s words. On a technical level, one of the great differences between the first and second volumes is that for the first time in my career, I have my own state of the art Pro Tools studio on my property on California’s Central Coast. It’s the culmination of a 30-year dream, and so much better than composing in makeshift studios in bedrooms and closets of my previous houses!”
Though Arkenstone can now envision creating several more Music Inspired By Middle Earth projects down the road, when he released the first one, a quick sequel was the last thing on his mind. In the 20 years since, he’s released over 60 albums, including a handful on his QDV label (starting in 2013 with Barcelona Lounge No. 1), countless thematic projects commissioned by Green Hill Music and five soundtracks to The World of Warcraft multiplayer online games. His latest Grammy nomination was for Pangaea, his collaboration with South African flutist Wouter Kellerman.
The composer’s main criteria for his return to Middle Earth? “I didn’t want to go to the same places I ‘visited’ on the last album,” Arkenstone says. “It was a fresh palette and I wanted to do something brand new, so I picked a series of fresh vignettes. The only aspect Volume II has in common with the first album is that both pretty much follow the sequence of events in the story. The point was not to build a narrative and to create a journey as if you were traveling through Middle Earth, following Frodo’s journey from the beginning to the destruction of the ring. What’s interesting is that this album is being introduced in a digital/streaming era that didn’t exist when I released the first. There are now many more ways for fans to consume and enjoy it.”
As we journey with Arkenstone through the 14 tracks, from the gentle, lyrical orchestral driven “The Shadow of the Past” (which sets the mood and introduces his overall musical impressions of the story) through the reflective, ultimately percussive and sweeping finale “The Returning” (featuring choir, English horn and harp), the element of water recurs most often, as the title and theme of three set pieces. The first of these is “Daughter of the River,” a soothing, elegant ode to the mysterious Goldberry, Arkenstone uses lilting harp and flutes and the dreamy wordless vocals of Jillian Aversa to fashion a soulful and watery homage.
The challenge with the next water related tune, “The Great River/The Argonath,” was balancing the sense of floating effortlessly with the sudden, dramatic appearance of The Argonath, aka the Pillars of Kings, a great monument of Gondor which rises several hundred feet above the water. He opens with harp, woodwinds, and a melancholy melody, then builds an ominous tension with a bold brass element. The third water-centric piece is “The Forbidden Pool,” a relaxing ambient illustration which features a blend of soft voices and muted strings to illustrate a basin of water created by the waterfall that concealed one of the two entrances into Henneth Annun, the hiding place of the Rangers of Ithilien.
Arkenstone’s music from track to track illuminates great contrasts in mood, from the lively Celtic styled dance featuring pennywhistle, concertina and Luanne Homzy’s playful fiddle, at The Green Dragon pub (where the Hobbits hang out) to the enveloping mystical choral and harp/flute energies of “Caras Galadhon” (one of the most magical spots in Middle Earth), the darker surroundings and organic, percussive sound effects of the Fangorn Forest and the frightening, foreboding march into Minas Morgul, one of the most dangerous places in Mordor.
Because we’re now in an era where streaming and playlist inclusions are necessary parts of consuming and marketing music, Arkenstone chose to release the lush, sweetly rendered flute and solo violin driven “The Houses of Healing” as the first single. Real life outside the fantasy world impacted on this choice, as the terrible plight of Ukranian refugees were on his mind and he felt it would be proper to offer a composition about hope and healing at this time. The second lead single is “Shadowfax and the White Rider,” an exciting, adventurous romp dedicated to the one of the most majestic horses in Middle Earth, with accompanying video below:
Longtime Arkenstone fans and those new ones who become instantly captivated by the magical vibes of Music Inspired by Middle Earth, Vol. II can take heart with his statement that he feels he could write ten more of these collections. In the meantime, though he insists that “I don’t like to do the same thing over and over, and like to move from flower to flower.”
Fans of the music, lovers of all things Tolkien and classic vinyl collectors looking for fresh product can look forward to the release in October 2022 of the double vinyl album version of this extraordinary project. Perfectly in line with his love for mythology, whether Tolkien’s or his own, it will be Arkenstone’s first vinyl release since In the Wake of the Wind.
Reflecting on this extraordinary album, it feels like there are more than a few excellent reasons why, 20 years after Vol. 1, Music Inspired by Middle Earth, Vol. II is an essential part of Arkenstone’s wildly expansive discography.
First, the initial collection is one of his biggest sellers, and though released years before SiriusXM radio existed, its tracks continue to receive spins on that platform’s Spa channel. Considering his passion for every detail of this realm, there were many narrative elements, characters, experiences and set pieces to work with to weave another musical travelogue through Tolkien’s multi-faceted landscape.
Over the past two decades and dozens of recordings in a multitude of genres, Arkenstone has become an even more dynamic composer, with greater technology and sonic tools – plus his aforementioned full home studio - to craft his sonic universe from. Since the first visit to Middle Earth, he has also become a top video game composer, and that has an impact as well. Beyond the music, there are many new marketing tools available, including all forms of social media and many places to stream and be included on playlists. When the original was released, it was mostly available in brick and mortar stores, with CDs available on the online outlets that existed.
It seems the nature of music fans and consumers to compare the first volume of any series with the next, no matter how many years come between. Yet there’s no need to do that with these two grand visits to Middle Earth. Vol. 1 and Vol. II are equally inspired masterworks, fully complementary to each other, illustrating different facets of Tolkien’s mythological world and telling an original story in a fresh, stylistically diverse way – as only a musical imagination as fertile as Arkenstone’s can. Hopefully, the first of the “ten more” he is musing about will regale our eagerly anticipating ears and allow us to journey back to Middle Earth much sooner than later. . .
Official Website: www.davidarkenstone.com
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