The Isle of Ailynn is a theatrical tour de force and fully immersive musical otherworld.
Have you ever witnessed a performance — whether on TV, the big screen, or on stage — where an actor has so thoroughly embraced their role it seems as if their character has wholly subsumed them? That is what we call commitment: to fully embody a character’s present, their history, and their place in time and space. It is no easy feat for any actor, let alone for a musician who has taken it upon themselves to conjure a completely new mythical realm, populate it with characters of diverse backgrounds, and then write music that tells their stories.
The Isle of Ailynn, then, is a theatrical tour de force, a fully immersive otherworld sprung from the mind of Tom Meikle’s musical alter ego, Mappe Of. The fictional world of Ailynn may be dotted by Tolkienesque geography and inhabited by Carroll-like characters but its stories and history mirror our modern-day struggles and existential crises. Part cautionary tale, part dystopian epic, The Isle of Ailynn is a complete package: from its music and lyrics down to the elegant artwork accompanying each of its nine tracks. Meikle’s commitment to his vision is heroic and admirable even though the conceit of the album doesn’t always click.
When it does work, the results are nothing short of stunning. “Ailynn” is a sprawling, orchestral anthem of lush, mossy synths. For all its resplendent beauty, the song lyrically marks a dark and desolate journey: “ All these sacred templates crumbling down / I never knew this place to be so violent / So cruel to the coming of strangers,” Meikle notes as he sings of the “charred black mounts of the Omvak” and “the plains of Thessalon.” Though none of the place names have any terrestrial meaning on our earth, their description and the emotional weight of Miekle’s delivery draws the landscape out in your mind. By the time you get to the reel-like folkiness of “Thessalon” itself, its verdant folk instrumentation feels natural and inevitable, like a place you’ve heard so much about but haven’t yet visited yourself. Like “Ailynn”, its story of environmental destruction and an all-too-human reckoning suggests that while Mappe Of’s concept for this album may be fantastical, its subject matter is far from light and airy. That sense of sombreness weighs heavy on the sumptuous piano ballad “Volcae”. As if to underscore and highlight lines about being born in magma and swells of lava, the crackling of flames burn through the early embers of the song before it ignites into a full-on orchestral wildfire.
Each of The Isle of Ailynn’s songs sounds like a genre-specific example spun from Meikle’s fictional universe’s own musical history. They are chapters of a broad, epic story too big to be contained in a single volume of nine songs. For some, that’s where the album will fall short: it’s overall presentation is grandiloquent in substance and style but the narrative is missing essential context to connect it to our world. Those willing to invest the same level of commitment into Mappe Of’s ambitious sophomore album as Tom Meikle has in creating it will find souvenirs galore to take home from a journey to The Isle of Ailynn, and much to contemplate and savour on repeat visits.