War of the Worlds - music review

This odd artifact from 1978 is a schizophrenic hybrid of its era. On the one hand, its use of orchestra and synthesizers -- combined with electric guitars, bass and drums -- suggests an ambitious prog-rock effort; on the other hand, much of the background music consists of a repetitive disco beat that undermines the grand scale and ambition of the project. Essentially a double-disc rock opera when it was originally released (a la Pink Floyd's THE WALL and The Who's TOMMY), Jeff Wayne's concept album is actually closer in spirit to keyboardist Rick Wakeman's groundbreaking recording of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, which also took its inspiration from a classic piece of Victorian Era science-fiction, and dressed it up with electric keyboards, an orchestra, and choir played on top of a rock-and-roll back-up band.

Like JOURNEY, Wayne's album uses a combination of classical orchestrations, pop-rock songs, and spoken word (narration and, in this case, dialgoue as well) to bring its fanciful tale to life. Set at the end of the 19th century, this musical dramatization of WAR OF THE WORLDS is more faithful to the H.G. Wells source material than either big screen version; in condensed form, it includes most of the famous scenes and incidents from the book.

Nevertheless, some minor changes have been made. The story's narrator, an unnamed journalist played by Richard Burton, no longer has a brother, so the record's version of the character has to perform the action handled by both characters in the book -- which means he covers an awful lot of territory in order to be in the right place at the right time to see the action.

There are only four complete songs on the record: "Forever Autumn," "Thunder Child," "The Spirit of Man," and "Brave New World." (There is also a fragment of a song near the beginning, but it is so brief that it is not even discretely titled.) The rest of the album relies on narration and dialogue to set the scene, while the background score and sound effects dramatize the action as if in a musical radio play.

In general, the songs are good, but the background music and instrumental passages are too repetitive: the same synthesizer riffs and guitar solos accompany every piece of battle action, for example, and the aforementioned disco rhythms often undercut the otherwise serious tone of the work. On the plus side, the use of the orchestra is often striking and dramatic.

The musical highlight is definitely "Thunder Child," a song about an ironclad battleship that manages to save a boatful of people, taking down one of the Martian war machines in the process, before the Martian heat ray sends the valiant ship to the bottom of the ocean. The lyrics (sung by Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann) are abetted by brief bits of dramatic narration and some effective music, creating a truly moving close to the first half of the record.

Overall, the album does not quite sustain peak interest for its full length. The narrative passages are interesting, but the instrumentals linking them together go on for too long; even a relatively creepy piece like "The Red Weed" outstays its welcome. Also, the vocalists' attempt to create the Martian ulalation described by Wells is less than effective, inspiring chuckles rather than awe.

Nevertheless, this is an admirable piece of work. The late Richard Burton is perfectly cast as the journalist-narrator, his distinctive tones lending a touch of class to the production. And there is something endearing about this distinguished star of stage and screen (a Shakespearian actor whose previous musical experience consisted of playing King Arthur in CAMELOT) sharing the microphone with rock stars like David Essex, The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward, and Thin Lizzy's Philip Lynott.

Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978). Produced, Composed, Orchestrated & Conducted by Jeff Wayne. Lyrics by Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass. Text by Doreen Wayne, from the novel by H.G. Wells. Dramatic and narrative sections directed by Charles Dubin and Jerry Wayne. Voices & Vocals: Richard Burton, Justin Hayward, Chris Thompson, Phil Lynott, Julie Coington, David Essex.