Sweeping, cinematic, Celt-inspired fantasy-prog that’s designed to take you to another place

   Return to Arda

   Artist: Dave Brons


15 tracks 64:29     


I write this review shortly after returning from a much-needed vacation. If you’re familiar with the work of Dave Brons you’ve probably already guessed that my ‘vacation’ was actually listening to Return to Arda, Brons’ latest Middle-Earth masterpiece: a musical ode to Sea, Soil, and Sky that will flood your senses and spark your imagination as you listen. Principally written by Brons, John Biglands, and Daniel Day, Return to Arda is the kind of sweeping, cinematic music that’s best listened to in the spirit in which it was made (to quote the liner notes of Procol Harum’s first album), without distraction, and preferably with one’s eyes closed to better facilitate the journey. In fact, in the album’s wonderful booklet, each song has a listener’s guide in addition to informative notes on each composition - evidence of the personal investment that Brons puts into the project and his encouragement for the listener to do the same. If, like me, you love the details, Brons provides plenty to digest. I suggest listening and reading along at least once and then returning to just experience the music alone for the purely sensual experience. The music is sweeping, cinematic, Celt-inspired fantasy-prog that’s designed to take you to another place (unabashedly inspired by the work of JRR Tolkien). The ethereal, lighter-than-air vocals of Sally Minnear are featured on four tracks but the album is mostly instrumental, with more than half of the songs over five minutes long. There’s no sense of posturing, no anger, pretentiousness, or pointed messages here (and you get a lot of that in prog circles), but instead an appreciation for what Earth/Arda is, was and can be for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.


The ‘sea’ portion of the album starts things off with a brief narration (Alan Sisto) on “The Primordial Chord,” leading into an atmospheric tempo-less wash of sound eventually joined by the airy vocals of Minnear on “Song of the Sea,” which follows seamlessly. Big percussion leads into some strong in-the-pocket playing led by powerful guitar lines eventually getting back to Minnear’s vocals. Piano, Uillean Pipes, and some sweet violin takes us into “When the Snow Thaws.” After a languid start the song’s tempo speeds up and we’re in one of those ‘jig’ sections full of impossible guitar/pipe runs all in contrast to powerful electric guitar phrases. The pace slows again to a pastoral section, restating the theme and ending the piece beautifully and with flourish. Next, Brons takes us “Beyond Where the Waves Break,” establishing the theme on electric guitar, carrying the melody to a series of majestic crescendos.


Another short narration from Sally Minnear (who delivers a spritely, lively vocal as well), “Song of the Earth” starts off the ‘soil’ section. This vocal track is propelled by melodic, active bass lines and inspired drumming. Dave’s guitar absolutely soars, full of fire and passion, with some amazing interplay, trading off with the horns at the end. Minnear effectively paints the walls of this track with vocal harmonies. “The Call of the Mountain” will delight the ‘guitar fans’ with a more aggressive approach - early on in the composition drums and bass kick in for some Celtic funk. Brons’ amazingly tasty tone choices should be noted here and throughout the album. The song ends in a mellower mode, leading into the forest-like setting of “Beren and Luthien,” with two complimenting themes, bass notes mimicking guitar lines, an orchestral turn, and some Theremin-like guitar moments before the powerful end section featuring a stunning guitar run. Lord of the Rings meets Lord of the Dance next, as “Joy Beyond the Walls of This World” gives us a celebratory Celtic feel, featuring tempo changes and more soaring, wailing guitar work. Dave Bainbridge gets to do a piano improvisation of Brons’ melody for “Into the Woods of Lothlorien” and the results are stunningly beautiful. I mean, he’s Dave Bainbridge, after all... You’ll hear the rain (or tears, really) as you listen to “The Tears of Nienna,” featuring evocative harmonics from Brons’ guitar and Minnear’s delicate vocals closing out the piece.


A short narration introduces the last section: sky. Appropriately, the guitar soars throughout “On Eagles Wings,” with Brons’ once again using fantastic tone choices along with impressively fluid, strong, melodic playing. The ethereal tones of Sally Minnear, along with acoustic, guitar, flute, and some wordless vocal harmony make “Yavanna’s Song” a pastoral joy. “Beauty and Starlight” might be the most easily accessible song on the album, featuring a full ‘band’ sound, a vocal sung in more of a ‘full voice’ style, lyrical guitar, some impressive riffing, a celebratory feel, and a real, solid ending. The ‘band sound’ continues in the slightly more aggressive “Gathering in the Clouds,” a rhythmically ambitious composition, both gutsy and beautiful. Brons turns in some stunning guitar and John Biglands performs some complex drum work before the song changes mood and ends in a more enchanting, ethereal mode. The ‘sky’ section - and the album - ends with “Last Journey Across the Sea,” a lament recalling those that have departed. The final narration declares, “I will not say the day is done, nor bid the stars farewell...”


Once again, Dave Brons has created a musical world for us to escape into for an hour or so. If you love the music of Iona or the soundtrack to Braveheart or the books of JRR Tolkien you’ll find much to your liking here. The principal songwriters mentioned above were joined in collaboration by Catherine Ashcroft on “Last Journey,” Dave Bainbridge and Sally Minnear on “The Tears of Nienna,” and Dave Bainbridge on “Woods of Lothlorien.” Dave Brons played all lead guitars, classical guitar, mandolin, acoustic 6, 12, and 7 string, and ‘easy’ piano parts as well as arranging. Daniel Day played mandolin, acoustic guitar, bass, whistles, additional keyboards, and did backing vocals. John Biglands played drums, some acoustic guitar, and ‘hard’ piano parts. Dave Bainbridge is responsible for additional orchestration and ‘very hard’ piano parts. Catherine Ashcroft played Uillean pipes and whistles. Sally Minnear sang and did narration. David Fitzgerald played sax and flute. Frank Van Essen provided strings. Ian Brons played cello. Stephan Bradnum played French horns and Tenor and bass trombones.


Watch your step as you leave the Shire....



- Bert Saraco 

4 1/2 tocks 

You can see Bert’s concert photography by visiting www.facebook.com/express.image