Review Summary: A unique concept album that will delight, wow, sadden, and frighten a multitude of listeners. It's also damn good fun.
There’s no music to begin with, just a voice. The voice of the late great Richard Burton. The voice does not tremble, mutter, or stumble over words, but what it says is frightening; an almost overwhelming sense of foreboding creeps into Burton’s voice, as he fairly whispers, ‘….slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us’. A musical adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells story, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds
is an exciting, finely orchestrated and occasionally terrifying production that makes use of character narration, dialogue, audio cues, and a progressive rock soundtrack that is the perfect accompaniment to the astonishing story. The key word here is ‘concept’, as the story is the main focus of the listening experience, with the music painting a broad aural picture that encompasses a wide range of emotions, assisted in no small part by impressive performances from the majority of voice actors appearing on the collection. Spanning two disks, the story is told chronologically, and follows the journalist, a cynical but idealistic character whose triumphant narration is perhaps best attributed to Burton’s performance. Throughout the story he meets a multitude of characters, all the while attempting to reach safety and secure the safety of his lover, Carrie. The narrative is captivating, but the character voices only serve to propel the story forward; the music is the real star of the show. Conveying dread and terror through melodies that sound jaunty and lively is no easy task, but through the use of clever implementation of subtle asides and eschewing conventional structures for rhythm and depth, Wayne has successfully married two elements in a union of utter genius.
Beginning in the setting of England, the first CD charts the arrival of the Martians through to the fall of Thunder Child. The first half of the release exudes a more exciteable and lucid sound overall, as opposed to the second disk which features quieter, more considered tone. Strings ascend and descend at intricately arranged speeds, set to a simple but fulfilling drum rhythm and a synth undertone that seems to build and build throughout the first half. The journalist describes in detail the sight of luminous gas erupting from Mars and speeding towards earth; a literal countdown to extinction of epic proportions. The assurance of a local astronomer does nothing to quell the quiet sense of dread conveyed both by the music, and Burton’s gravelly acknowledgment of the horror beginning around him. He later describes the crater that has appeared in the middle of a local common, a capsule, white-hot, sitting in its centre. The opening of ‘Horsell Common And The Heat Ray’ utilise a low bass along and a high synth slap bass, paired with Burton’s narration to emulate the fright building in the congregation of people observing the phenomenon. The moment when the alien emerges from the pod is a personal highlight from the album, as the appearance of the creature is punctuated by clipped soundbites that feel almost industrial but perfectly illustrate the appearance of the monstrosity. The melodies that follow this, and continue throughout the first CD, are excellent, using pitch-bent harmonics and the wonderfully eerie alien mantra of ‘Ulla!’ to create a dismal, hopeless world where civilisation has now devolved into a surreal game of cat-and-mouse. The use of the repeated choral section, ‘the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said’, is smart and well-implemented, and the repetition serves to create a consistently more unsure atmosphere. The classic tripods the martians build and pilot are referred to as ‘fighting machines’ that crush or incinerate everything in their path, and the score serves as a magnificent reflection of this, mirroring the panic of the people, and the methodical coldness of the visitors.
A dialogue soon ensues between the journalist and a young artilleryman, played by British musician and actor, David Essex. The exchange is a little laboured, but the brief respite provided by the exchange allows listeners to settle into the story and ready themselves for the music soon to follow. Learning that a second UFO was heading for Carrie’s location, the journalist and the artilleryman set off together, beginning a pleasant but still dark interlude section that uses a simple guitar melody to imitate the sound of the frequency whines of the martian’s technology. Burton’s journalist eventually reaches the house of his beloved Carrie, only to find that both she and her father have fled. This leads into one of the album’s very many highpoints; an acoustic ballad, ‘Forever Autumn’, performed by The Moody Blues’ own Justin Hayward. It is an achingly beautiful and sombre composition, utilising Hayward’s vocal range impressively to orchestrate the clarity of the tragic melody and the hopelessness of the journalist’s situation. In many ways, despite being one of the few traditional ‘songs’ on the release, it is the purest rendition of the predicament experienced by the characters, the species, and the planet. Lyrics such as ‘a gentle rain falls softly on my weary eyes, as if to hide a lonely tear, my life will be forever autumn, because you're not here’ conjure up images of the hollow shell that used to serve as Carrie’s home, and Hayward’s painfully subdued delivery feels just as poignant as it ought. The first CD comes to a close with the journalist seeing his lover on a steamer boat attempting to leave port. Thunder Child, a naval torpedo ram is destroyed whilst stopping the martian’s machines from attacking the steamer. The boat leaves safely, but the ram is gone, taking mankind’s last chance of salvation with it. This bittersweet ending teases listeners with the presentation of a hopeless situation, and the small victories that will eventually lead to a triumphant climax.
The second half features a two part composition entitled ‘The Red Weed’; a melancholic and hauntingly contemplative song that tells the story of the Mars vegetation taking root on earth. It’s the most ambitious and epic piece on the whole collection, utilising much the same sound as the quieter parts of earlier tracks, but telling the story in a far more restrained way by illustrating the weed as a silent hunter rather than a vicious, malevolent entity. ‘Spirit Of Man’ a decidedly more story-focused effort, introduces listeners to two new characters; Parson Nathanial and his wife, Beth. Deep Purple frontman Phil Lynott overacts when in character as the Parson, but as soon as the duet between the two of them start, the song becomes an exciting rock track with a solo that mimics the album’s main overture. It’s a saddening and desperate piece, thanks to the combination of the up-tempo but remarkably harmonic music, and the impressive vocal abilities of the two performers. Tambourines and a two-note bassline are accompanied by a synthesized trumpet as the song becomes fainter and leads seamlessly into the second half of the ‘Red Weed’ track. The story continues through this track, and there’s a considerably higher air of tension in this track, which uses a more ambient sound to underscore the narration, before the scratchy alien sound and the trumpets introduce a more heroic, hopeful aura, as the martians begin to orchestrate their own downfall.
Thus begins the final tracks of the album, made up of ‘Brave New World’, which is definitely the most jolly composition on the album. It features David Essex on vocal duties and he does a good job, the upbeat nature of the tune suiting the tone of his voice, as he declares mankind’s next move is to go underground. There is also some interesting instrumentation introduced in this song, such as a more pronounced acoustic guitar, and drum brushes that create a sweeping percussive effect, in a catchy rhythm. Contrasting this song immediately after is ‘Dead London’, a sister piece that features a large number of alien sounds woven into the music. The destruction caused by the visitors is shown through a vivid composition, with a large number of high-pitched whines, a chiming rhythm in the background, and the voice of the journalist in the foreground. It’s bizarre and completely overwhelming, the bittersweet conclusion of the story mirrored through a wonderfully melodic but troubling guitar section. The instantly recognizable flute and the opening strains of the first track are also used again, although now to illustrate the aftermath.
The depth that is apparent in this brilliant collection is startling and unbelievably detailed. There’s an incredibly well-composed score here that is the perfect way to experience the classic story in under two hours. The rather camp 70’s voice performances are a little hard to take seriously at times, but the vintage nature of the script and the readings of the lines are endearing, and don’t need to be taken too seriously. The combination of expertly produced instrumental tracks and heartfelt rock ballads is well-judged and consistent, with a number of the elements overlapping to create a blurry, ethereal effect. It may be a little outdated, but a detailed booklet is provided with the double CD, which features song lyrics, dialogue and narration scripts, beautiful concept art and information on all the performers; it really is an excellent way to follow the story. The main thing about The War Of The Worlds
, though, is the experience. There are certain songs that can be taken out of context and listened to on their own, but nothing compares to the enthralling, twisted experience gained from listening to the entire story. The darkly ambiguous ending is a fine conclusion to a story that has delighted many for generations, and now, through a different medium, the story can be experienced again by way of Jeff Wayne’s uniquely musical vision.