Given all the hubbub this past holiday season surrounding the opening of Peter Jackson's newest venture into J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I think it's time to shift the spotlight onto a little known sub-subgenre tucked away, much like a hobbit hole snugly abutting a hillside, within Amoeba Music's extensive Rock Various Artists section: Hobbit Rock.
Now, I have to admit the first time I clocked the Hobbit Rock bin card I was taken aback, gagging on the question: what the heck is this? Browsing though the titles it began to make sense. Much like unfolding a map of Middle Earth to explore a visual representation of the diverse cultures and histories that Tolkien invented to people his fictional universe, browsing Hobbit Rock is to peruse a collection of music that either inspires sincere impressions of Middle Earth or is unequivocally informed by Tolkein's fantasy writings.
In other words, if an artist makes blatant Tolkien-esque references in lyric (apparently Led Zeppelin couldn't resist slipping more than a little Middle Earthliness into practically every album) or otherwise artistic content (see my list below) then that, friends, is pure, gem mint ten Hobbit Rock.
For something of less Middle Earth-obvious influences to qualify inclusion into this very specific category a decidedly progressive folk (or folkish prog) sort of rock ensemble most definitely seems to characterize the sonic gateway to Hobbit Rock admission. But that's something of a foggy notion, unless one considers the significant formative influence that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings had on the emergent hippie generation, taken together with the dewy-eyed archaisms of British folk of the same era (like Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day or just about anything by Bert Jansch), the Prog-Folk wave that followed (think Lindisfarne or Renaissance) and in the more freakish, otherworldly strains of British psychedelia (like Incredible String Band and maybe a little Hawkwind before they went 200% galactic) that would, in time, saturate into the 1970's as Progressive Rock. Peering through the Hobbit Rock lens listeners could, fathoming the above passage, stumble upon some mainstream American Folk-Rock (think Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair/Canticle") and ultimately stub their big hairy toes on a little something called Acid Folk (like Forest or Jan Dukes de Grey).
Having seen the most recent motion picture adaptation of The Hobbit (or at least the first third of it so it would seem) I feel as though Hobbit Rock selections must and shall promote a hearty harp contingent, erring on the Celtic side of things. Alan Stivell comes immediately to mind as well as a little ditty called "Street Song" on Drag City's recent reissue of Carol Kleyn's Love Has Made Me Stronger, circa 1976. And lets not forget that little slice of Old Forest HoRo chicness Joanna Newsom served up on Portlandia last February, sitting in a little wilderness (with a bunch of crunchy kids) chanting "Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadil" in tune with the plucking of her harp, all awash in golden sunlight. I'd bet Tolkien himself would mistake her for Goldberry, the "River-maid" -- Bombadil's ladylove. In any case harps and their ethereal tones featured prominently in scenes from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Bilbo & Co. inevitably arrive at Rivendell for a spell. The only element I'd have liked to see incorporated into to the Elvish party scene: copious amounts of boxed Rosé. And maybe also a crystal soaking tub.
Then there is the whole Metal, particularly Death/Black Metal, element which could, or probably should fall into the spectrum of Hobbit Rock in that a Metric Fucktonne of the stuff claims inspiration from the deepest, darkest depths of Mordor, and pretty much Mordor alone. From band names (Amon Amarth, Burzum, Crebain, Cirith Ungol, Gorgorth, and Nazgûl just to name a few) to album titles (like Nightfall in Middle Earth by Blind Guardian, natch), lyrics (Summoning not only base all their albums on Lord of the Rings but also feature Orcish language lyrics), and artwork (like Summoning's second album, Minas Morgul, pictured right), headbangers worship the dark side of Tolkein's universe with as much fervent devotion as they do Lucifer and his brimstone domain. Plainly put, Mordor is Mecca for Metalheads.
But like any map of Middle Earth, there worlds within worlds and nooks crannied with nooks and crannies; Hobbit Rock may be one of the skinniest sections Amoeba stocks for the browsing, but the cap of its mushroom hovers dense, wide, and heavy.
Feeling adventurous? Here are some of my favorites harvested from the Hobbit Rock patch:
Gandalf the Grey - The Grey Wizard Am I
This is the first thing I ever pulled from Hobbit Rock and perhaps one of the most mega-obvious examples of what makes something Hobbit Rock-relevant. In 1972 Chris Wilson made his ultimate homage to Tolkien's literary opuses when he cut this acoustic folkadelica album chronicling his fantastical Greenich Village rambles under the name Gandalf the Grey. It's a treacly relic of bygone weirdness dripping with lyrics inspired by Tolkien's landscapes and shout outs to characters like Strider and Treebeard, particularly in "My Elven Home" and the title track. Definitely not a cup for everyone, but then again anything this chimerical is the kind of cherried obscurity that makes Hobbit Rock worthy of it's bin card.
Gryphon - Midnight Mushrumps
I'll never know what compelled someone to file this in Hobbit Rock but it is definitely one of the most charismatic progressive folk records I've ever heard (reason enough, really). The eighteen minute title track is a sonically impressive piece that incorporates medieval, baroque, and classical-era influences in its shifting structure with nary a dull moment to be met. It is the thing listen to whilst tucking into the beginning of The Hobbit or any other tome of chivalric fantasy fiction. It would also provide a choice soundtrack for anyone gearing up for a Ren Faire, LARP meet, or a costume banquet where the only dining utensils are daggers. Remember: charisma isn't learned. You must roll for it when you initially create your character and then add the appropriate bonuses.
Gandalf - Gandalf
Anyone encountering this record for the first time would likely take no issue with it's being cross-filed under Hobbit Rock until they popped it on the ol' hi-fi for a listen. Gandalf's self-titled debut is about as Gandalf-y as The Hobbits' Down to Middle Earth LP is Hobbit-y. That is to say these two records are prime examples of Tolkien's influence on the 1967 rock scene and it's reduction of his work to light-minded ephemera best pinned to a jean jacket collar. Gandalf's psych-rock covers of Tim Hardin and Eden Ahbez songs and The Hobbits' sickeningly sunshiney corn nut of a pop record with songs like "Treats" and "Daffodil Days (The Affection Song)" are possibly better indulged when mega-baked. Or perma-fried.
Bo Hansson - Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings
This may come as a surprise but there's nothing that can beat out Swedish instrumentalist Bo Hansson's 1970 record for best adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in both the Album Title (duh!) and Album Artwork (double duh!) Hobbit Rock categories. In fact, I urge you to check out the alternate covers of this release as they are all bad-ass, especially the 1977 reissue with a mounted Ringwraith on the front. While this record boasts zero vocal tracks it is a pleasant concept album based on Lord of the Rings. Plus it comes with a siiick LP sized insert of Tolkien himself posed on a stump. I wish there were an album of a similar calibur dedicated to The Hobbit that isn't the Rankin/Bass soundtrack with Glen Yarbrough singing "The Greatest Adventure (The Ballad of the Hobbit)".
Comus - First Utterance
Sounding like a blend of everything one could imagine being beautiful and terrifying about embarking upon an unexpected journey through Middle Earth, Comus' 1971 debut is a fascinating, otherworldly (thus timeless) danse macabre blend of acoustic folk, progressive rock, and pagan psychedelia. Heavy themes pulse like a doom tattoo beneath a skin of acoustic guitars, violin, flute and quasi-elven, almost Arcadian, lyrical female vocal harmonies that cloak tracks like "The Herald" -- a sprawling epic that clocks in at twelve-plus minutes. Though this isn't straight up obvi Hobbit Rock, it more than conveys the sort of Dark/Acid/Folk/Prog/Rock compositional sound/vibe clash that makes it nothing if not a requisite HoRo title.
Starcastle - Starcastle
I think this one was accidentally filed in Hobbit Rock as it is crystal cut, lost seventies progressive Camelot Rock, if anything. I like to think that this wasn't necessarily a mis-file as it was a wishful symbolic gesture cast by someone who longs for similarly sprawling, Yes-like proggy fantasies mirroring Starcastle's excellent lead off track "Lady of the Lake" but with a more Tolkien-inspired take. Or something. At any rate, any track from this record could do worse than to be book-ended with any song from side two of Wishbone Ash's Argus or perhaps the greater part of Rush's Caress of Steel when creating a mix of music to read Tolkien to. Taken all together, with everything else covered here, that Tolkien mix'll surely dominate.
Interested in yet another, totally different take on what Hobbit Rock could be, please see the What's In My Bag? interview video below featuring actor Elijah "Frodo" Wood of The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings fame walking us through some of his digs, treasures and choice selections found at Amoeba Music.