The Chronicle of the Black Sword

Hawkwind

Review score: 81%

Review Date: December 2012
Reviewer: Paul Jack
Source: Rock Hard Reviews
(www.rockhardreviews.com)

Amazon UK: Buy CD | Buy MP3 / Amazon US: Buy CD | Buy MP3

December 2012 has seen another sad loss from the old school of rock . Just heard on the news that Huw Lloyd Langton passed away aged 61, following a two year illness. Us folks at Rock Hard Reviews send our respects and best wishes to Huw's friends and family.

Huw was well known for his work with Hawkwind back in the day, and for ongoing appearances with them throughout the decades. We decided to postpone our upcoming article about Ozzy, and instead write a retro review of Hawkwind's album The Chronicle of the Black Sword, upon which Huw is credited for guitar and vocals.

Way back in 1985, long haired Paul Jack picked up a copy of The Chronicle of the Black Sword and was suitably impressed. Being a prolific reader, PJ was very familiar with Michael Moorcock's novels, especially the troubled character of Elric. (For all you modern fans of The Witcher, Paul Jack recommends you check out the Elric stories from way back when, you might just be impressed). So, over to Paul Jack, who promised not to mention Black Blade by Blue Oyster Cult:

Wow, I thought, when I saw the CD cover on the shelf. A whole rock album about Elric? Could it be?

I had read lots of Elric stories during my youth. Like so many others, I found the lead character both interesting and intriguing. Tall, skinny, physically weak, dependent on drugs to function in daily life, Elric was a troubled albino Emperor. The opposite of Conan in so many ways – by design, I think. And yet Elric was skilled in other, subtler arts which eventually lead him to possession of the black sword Stormbringer, sentient and possibly the most powerful thing in all the world. (cue a crash of thunder and a musical duh, duh, duh, dummmmm)

Elric endures many adventures and tragedies throughout numerous books and short stories written over many decades. When paired up with his soul stealing sword he becomes something else entirely , carving his way through friend and foe alike, alternately saving and destroying people, places, the world even?

Hawkwind should be the right group to bring a musical version of Elric to life when you recall Michael Moorcock's relationship with the band. So, how does a studio album stand up to scrutiny 27 years after its original release?

Song of the Swords

The music might appear a little softer and rough around the edges in the 21st century, but the guitars felt fresh and energetic when Song of the Swords kick started the album back in the eighties. This track combines good riffs with eclectic keyboards / synths while the lyrics announce the clash of steel and blinding light of the eternal conflict between chaos and order which Elric is joining when he takes up the Black Sword. But is he merely a pawn or a player in his own right?

Shade Gate

Not rock, not metal, but an Eighties keyboard-fest mildly reminiscent of Jean Michelle Jarre. It's unusual in this day and age, and I like it.

Sea King

Tells the story of Elric's sorcerous escape from an assassination attempt by his cousin, who finds Elric exhausted and struggling to stand aboard their flagship after winning a naval battle. He kicks 'the weak one' overboard in full armour before declaring our anti-hero dead and seizing the throne. Guitars and keyboards track our hero as he sinks, drowning and calls upon denizens of the supernatural to honour an ancestral pact and help him realise his destiny.

Pulsing Cavern

More synth work, this time portraying the supernatural location which Elric penetrates in a blend of what feels like dream and reality in order to retrieve the Black Sword, Stormbringer in a race against his cousin to win their power struggle. OK, I wouldn't buy this track on MP3, but it serves as an intro for...

Elric the Enchanter

So our hero takes up the struggle, uses the dark power of the sword to steal the souls of enemies and unwittingly the occasional friend or loved one too, eventually to sit victorious and restless on his ruby throne. The story won't end there of course, Elric will be embarking on many, many quests using drugs and sorcery alongside his evil sword to battle for chaos or for balance in a crazy multiiverse.

Needle Gun

To understand Needle Gun, you need to understand that Moorcock is a prolific writer. One of many consistent themes in his work is the idea that across many worlds and universes, there is an Eternal Champion. Elric is but one manifestation. Imagine if you will, a flamboyant British spy, not at all like James Bond.

A needle gun (not a Walther PPK) is the preferred weapon of Jerry Cornelius, the anti-Bond. The needle gun fires drug filled needles, different needles for different effects. Naturally, if Jerry Cornelius is a parallel universe version of Elric then the needle gun is an alternate version of the Black Sword.

And so the song tells a short story from Jerry's perspective. It's a simplistic and fun rock song with dark overtones as the lyrics hint at the weapons soul stealing power. I like this one, if you are into old school rock then I recommend giving it a listen.

Oh, before I forget, there is even an Amy Pond era Doctor Who novel released in 2011. It's called the The Coming of the Terraphiles, and successfully blends the Doctor Who multiverse with Moorcock's, and feature a sci-fi Jerry Cornelius playing the role of space pirate. No, I'm not making this up!

Zarozinia

Probably my favourite track on the album. Zarozinia was one of Elric's lovers in yet another tragic story. The keyboard heavy Hawkwind song successfully captures the haunting desperation of Elric after he loses her to an horrific fate. Lyrics conflict the elements of fire and water as a mirror to the conflict of dream and reality, and the cold fire seizing our hero as he regains his senses and despairs. This is a beautiful, gentle song.

The Demise

A bit of acting and sound effects. Quite entertaining as Elric summons his patron demon Arioch to save him in exchange for the blood and souls of Elric's victims, Greedy Arioch bursts through screaming and eager. It's not music though, so I wouldn't recommend buying this track alone, but it adds value to the album as a whole.

Sleep of 1000 Tears

I like this one, it's a nice, simple rock song with some good guitar playing blended in. The song appears to tell of one of Elric's many quests in a dream state as his body sleeps while he experiences real quests, loves, losses, battles and conquests in alternate universes and maybe even as an alternate version of himself.

Chaos Army

A weird filler track which is not worth buying standalone. It's not music, but the sounds of an army of mutated warriors of chaos passing by, repetitively chanting the name of the demon Arioch on their way to bring suffering to the world of law and order. It only works as part of the album, or maybe a really freaky ring tone!

Horn of Destiny

This is a good one. Great eighties guitar sound played well. I knew this story from the novel simply entitled Stormbringer. This is it folks, the multiverse is ending and one world remains. It needs to fall in order for everything to be reborn and the great cycle to continue. Elric continues to fight on right up to the end of the world, but ultimately the burden falls upon him, the Eternal Champion, to complete his destiny . Existence crashing down at the mercy of the treacherous Stormbringer and the higher powers. And so Elric's tragedy is complete.

Album art

Weird, funky, retro, Stormbringer .!If you're a Moorcock fan, need I say more?

Conclusion

The Chronicle of the Black Sword is not very typical of Hawkwind's music. But then it is a concept album, endeavouring to capture in music the allure of an epic fantasy series of yesteryear, so it seems appropriate to sound a bit rough and read to young 21st century listeners (hello Tali).

The album doesn't really portray the full horror of the institutional inhuman cruelty of Elric's people, but it does pick out themes of the character's inner conflict with his dependency on Stormbringer, mirroring the global conflict into which he is inextricably woven.

Would I recommend it? OK, here's my recommendations to the modern audience:

1. If you enjoy fantasy novels then expand your horizons and read some of Michael Moorcock's books. He is a very talented author, whose writing matures through the decades.

2. If you own an imagination and like to use it then this album will appeal to you. It brings the stories to life.

3. If you are an old rock fan like me then do listen to Hawkwind. Whilst this album is a bit atypical of their work as a whole it is fun and enjoyable listening.

4. If your name is Peter Jackson and you have finished making movies about Tolkein's books then you absolutely must make a full-on dark fantasy movie about Elric. No doubt about it :-)

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Track List (may vary)

  • Song of the Swords
  • Shade Gate
  • The Sea King
  • The Pulsing Cavern
  • Elric the Enchanter
  • Needle Gun
  • Zarozinia
  • The Demise
  • Sleep of a Thousand Tears
  • Chaos Army
  • Horn of Destiny