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Don't make a sound; we're all out of miracles. - 60%

Diamhea, April 8th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2001, CD, Frontiers Records

Nice to see Bob Catley poignantly setting trends as candidly expected, ever-so-slightly predating the still-resilient Lord of the Rings mania and adapting Tolkien's exhaustive narrative to coalesce brilliantly with his mature, characteristic tones. I personally bifurcate this project's output into two markedly divergent halves punctuated by a shift in songwriting faction. While the material commencing with the authoritative and impactful When Empires Burn features multiple contributors including Magnus Karlsson and Uwe Reitenauer, the first three Bob Catley records were dominated by accomplished keyboardist/producer Gary Hughes. While this regrettably means that variation becomes something of a premium if quarantined and analyzed on their own, plenty of unique appeals dot the fantastic mental landscapes evoked from such mythological/historical fare as evoked on the multifaceted Legends, which dedicated each song to a different fable.

Although Middle Earth obviously lacks such eclectic diversity, if there is any set of pipes up to the task of transposing Tolkien's works via the (then) fresh route of melodic hard rock, Catley is your man. Clearly playing this one for keeps due to impending pressure engendered by the reformation of Magnum the very same year, Catley pushes the framework introduced on The Tower to its logical finalization. Middle Earth suffers a modicum as a result, finding stumbling blocks where once springboards resided in the form of Legends' (and the remainder of Catley's solo output, honestly) debonair cadre of strengths. The preceding/following records, albeit flawed at times, proudly accommodated a rare breed of the melodic and dynamic, fueled by mighty AOR refrains supported by a threading of progressive flair. Basically everything a fan of Bob, and more importantly Magnum, puts flagrant stock into when citing a preferred Catley listening experience. Middle Earth shines brightly at times, but seems devoid of many of the fundamentals so desperately required.

Perhaps an artifact of the fact that Gary Hughes dominated the recording sessions, former Asia guitarist Vinny Burns is relegated to third-string benchwarmer at best, lacking the required exposure and resources to flesh the compositions out. Legends managed to squeeze by courtesy of powerful numbers like "Carpe Diem" and "The Pain." Considered lean even by Magnum standards, the riffs on Middle Earth are sorely both underused and underdeveloped. Hughes' deftness on the ivories helps strive poignancy into ultimately-convincing orchestral epics like "The Wraith of the Rings" and especially "City Walls," but a void is most certainly felt. Catley's voice is still resounding and emotive here, both aspects that have waned somewhat in the past decade or so (dude is in his mid '50s for this record) - and he ends up carrying the record on his weary back with diminishing returns.

But as flawed as it is, Middle Earth still largely has it where it truly counts when locked in the zone, featuring the crystalline diatribes of Hughes' twinkling keyboard lines run up against the widening frontline of Catley's emphatic narration and penchant for persuasive storytelling. "Return of the Mountain King" can go toe-to-toe concerning atmospheric quality with the Summoning equivalent, in this regard shooting for the stars with that harmonious chorus and falling slightly short due to an unnecessarily long running time; an inadequacy which seems to be a trend throughout. The stronger tunes are of course built well enough to weather the storm of exhausting length, but the lack of compact, upbeat rockers is what truly undermines Middle Earth more than it could possibly hope to mitigate.

Credit to Bob in any event, even his weakest record has its fair share of arguable winners that refract varying degrees of quality; at times nearing the engrossing patina of a freshly-buffered palantir. "Return of the Mountain King," the exotic female-vocal driven "Against the Wind" and the sanguine closer "The Fellowship" are all highlights, and potentially worthy candidates for a compilation if one should ever surface. At the end of the day, Catley made a damn good showing of this misstep, ultimately finding a way to intermingle both his heavy metal and progressive/pomp rock roots into a modern product well worth partaking in to this day; a warm flood of substance and emotion that embodies one of the most enduring rock vocalists of all time.

A Worthy Tribute To Another Realm - 96%

Skarnek, September 12th, 2012

Uncle Bob is nobody to toy around with in an opinionated matter. Subjectively, Middle Earth is what is. It's a transcendental and inspired work of melodic fantasy. The lyrics are directly about what is arguably the most renowned fantasy epic in literature. As for theory, the music is done just right for this type of palette- joyfully, mournfully, and emotive; calling upon the right chord sequences and minor notes that travel seamlessly with the sentiment of the stories contained. Whether one enjoys this kind of thing relies entirely on the listener's taste. If approached by a person who appreciates fiction, saccharine melodicism, and AOR-flavoured vocals; then this album will be appreciated. If approached by someone who deflowered his teen girlfriend to the bludgeoning of Pantera in the background, well then...it won't be received kindly. One must be appreciative of a more cerebral and surreal experience than that of mere animal instinct. This is for the dreamers.

Having said that, I will attempt to describe some of the intangible realities of this wonderful tribute to Sir Tolkien. The dramatic cymbal swells and keyboards opening the album are an immediate indication of the type of vastness those that care to go on Bob's (and Gary Hughes', respectively) journey are in for, crescendoing with building tom-work and flamboyant guitar squeals. No emotion is held back by anyone on this inspired concept album. It's obvious that every performer knows and feels high fantasy.

As a shameless fanatic for this album and artist (I know, I know...I somewhat blew my attempt at 'subjective'), I feel the cornerstone, the heart, the timeless classic of this work is "Where You Lead, I'll Follow", a touchingly tender song about the one and only Gandalf. Bob's aching, caring voice calls to this walking allegory of a character, amongst some of the most easily-treasured melodies ever recorded. That sounds like a stretch, but, believe you me, if you've read thus far; there's a good chance you are interested enough to find out.

There are numerous other highlights on Middle Earth. Finding your own golden moments should not prove to be a difficult task. The musicianship is top-notch, Mr. Catley's inimitable voice shines with the passion many singers lack (in favor of soulless technique or worse- laziness), and the story is- well- *epic* in the true sense of the word, and the songwriting is so well-done that I can almost hear Bob and Gary in their rehearsal room discussing how they can't mess up something as important as an album with Tolkien as the subject matter. Maybe they just didn't want to be snubbed off for Blind Guardian...Whatever the case, Middle Earth is a triumph.

A Massive disapointment - 43%

Warmaster, March 21st, 2004

Again, No, this is not a Metal album, and again, for that one, go see ¡§When empires burn¡¨

This album was a crushing disappointment to me, and still is for the most part. It concentrates on ¡§the symphonic¡¨ and not the ¡§rock¡¨ and as such turns out to be a very mellow album, probably the mellowest album Bob has ever done, I mean even the more popish Magnum albums had more crunch than this. But it is just not the mellow nature that does it to the album, the songs themselves are not as well written as on the previous albums.

Well, as you can guess, this is a Lord of the rings Concept album, something I had thought bob, who sung (and now, again, sings) with the proto-power metal group Magnum, would excel at. He does his job well, but he did not write this album, and thus it is not his fault for the problems. The production is also not as clear as I would like, with the symphonics often overpowering the lead guitars.

Well, the album opens with ¡§The Wraith of the rings¡¨ This song is quite long and has lots of instrumental passages. But in most of them it is just a long stream of ambience. The vocal passages are quite good, and the solos are reasonable, when I can hear them, but it is nothing on ¡§Dreams¡¨ or ¡§The Pain¡¨ the vocals are also hard to understand, I¡¦m not sure if it is Bob himself, or the production, I will guess the latter, and as such this song is quite a poor opener, I can¡¦t hear what he is singing, the solo¡¦s are buried, and the song seems reasonably flat, not very good all in all.

The fields is recall (with emissary and the reprise) Starts with a little piano intro. This time, when the vocals start, I can hear them. It is all piano driven to start with, and then finally, I hear some decent lead guitar, what it only took about ten minutes into the album before I got some. As such, this song does pick up somewhat in the middle This song is the second longest on the album. We have some very ¡§squeaky¡¨ keyboards, but again, then the vocals begin to take the back seat somewhat to the instruments and I struggle to hear the words. The Riffs then pick up a great deal, bringing the center section of this song almost on to a metal level with some real crunching stuff. Some lead guitars follow that sound good, but all in all, this song again does not really get top marks from me, it is inconsistent and not overly catchy. Sorry bob, this doesn¡¦t cut it.

Song 3 is ¡§City Walls¡¨ This is rather more ¡§happy¡¨ song, the vocals are easier to hear, and though it is rather mellow to start with, then we have some crazy lead guitar and a keyboard solo for about ten seconds before everything picks up the pace at frigging last! A very bouncy song, very catchy, even if it is miles from being anywhere near a metal song, at last, a good song.

Then it is ¡§Against the wind¡¨ harpsichord and a bass solo as an intro???? Ok, that new, but the song ain¡¦t. it starts too mellow, and despite a decent solo in the middle, it dies mellow, even some female vocals, which are buried in the mix, don¡¦t help. Sorry mate, you get thumbs down from me on this one.

¡§Where you lead I¡¦ll follow¡¨ (with Stormcrow and Pilgrim and the Reprise) Follows. This starts, you guessed it, with some symphonics and a piano. However, this song finally gets some really catchy melodies and eventually, after nearly three minutes, the guitars kick in, and we get some nice solos in the middle. But the end, since it is a reprise, ends like the beginning very slow and mellow. Again, this song ain¡¦t very good. It¡¦s a pity really, because the middle three minutes of it sound great, but the rest is worthless.

¡§Return of the mountain king¡¨ is next. I¡¦m not even going to comment on the intro as its basically the same as all the others. There are some good keyboards in the middle and a couple of solos, and the occasionally catchy lyric. But all and all, this song really doesn¡¦t work either.

¡§Return of the summer¡¨ (Galadriels theme) May seem, from the title, to be another ballad like piece, well it is, but its harder rocking than almost anything else in this album! Perhaps that tells you what is wrong with this album them. It has some nice solos and some catchy lyrics, so I¡¦ll give it a reasonable to good mark.

¡§This Gallant band of Manic Strangers¡¨ follows. I love the title, and this is the best song on the album. Pity it is also the shortest at only 3 and a half minutes odd. This is the only song which sounds anything like his previous two albums. Bouncy, reasonably fast, with a great drum solo in the intro, and all in all, rocks.

Finally this album ends with ¡§The Fellowship¡¨ a Ballad, mellow, not very catchy, sounds like something I¡¦d hear in a church, not by Bob Catley. And so it ends.

Its hard to place one thing wrong with this album as there are so many. It has its moments, but criminally over used keyboards (something I¡¦d never thought a member of Magnum would be guilty of!) songs with no direction, far too much mellowness, not enough guitars, and a naff production really do ruin this album. Easily the worst of his four albums. No wonder he got someone new to write his next album after this, and that¡¦s why we then get a masterpiece ¡V forget this one ever existed. Really. Pity it was all to do with Middle earth at all really ƒ¼