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ARKENSTONE'S SPARKLING `QUEST' TAKES AN OTHERWORLDLY JOURNEY

Four years after the success of his Grammy-nominated instrumental fantasy "In the Wake of the

Wind," composer-performer David Arkenstone returns to J.R.R. Tolkien fairy-tale territory with "Quest of the Dream Warrior." Again he provides an effervescent soundtrack, and of course a short story and a map, for an ambitious, otherworldly adventure.This time Arkenstone - with vigorous folk-cinematic themes swirling from his keyboards and abetted by a string and horn orchestra, electric guitars and percussive flourishes - is musically illustrating the story of the raven-haired Kyla. She's the daughter of the warrior Kylaar, who disappeared when driving the Shadow of the Great Darkness from the Land.

As you'd expect, the Shadow returns; a blight and a plague of nightmares descend upon the people of Kyla's city, Darnaak. Kyla is at the center of the dreams. The people turn against her. A quest is in order.

As with "In the Wake of the Wind," you can dive into the mystical story (more thoroughly, if episodically, fleshed out this time in the accompanying booklet with the help of fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey - and inspiration perhaps from Oz's L. Frank Baum) or leave it pretty much at that sketch and let Arkenstone's sparkling melodic gift and full-bodied arrangements sweep you away.

Several of the themes are as riveting as anything he's ever done, among them the energetic "The Journey Begins," the exotic tone poem "The Temple of Vaal" and the multicultural conclusion, "Homecoming."

Arkenstone has been predominantly an instrumentalist during his decadelong Narada recording career. However, on his last album, "Another Star in the Sky," he effectively added his voice to the instrumental mix in a few places. "Quest" takes it a step further, as about every second or third song has imaginative, if flighty, lyrics or chants and vocalizations. The result, though not as word-oriented overall, is a near-cousin to the progressive-rock concept albums of Yes ("Close to the Edge"), Renaissance ("Scheherazade") and especially the Alan Parsons Project ("Tales of Mystery and Imagination").

What goes around comes around. Arkenstone, it seems, might have dreamed of making albums like this in the '70s. But his day in the sun is the new-age '90s. Able to evoke the music of many lands - real and imaginary - he's updating, expanding and making the genre very much his own.

Neither of his fantasy projects tells its story other than through a short written narrative and the music. Both would lend themselves to animation projects - or perhaps radio plays - to make the tales and their expansive sound-tracks come even more alive. Public radio has ventured into this territory. It would be a delight if Arkenstone's fantasies could find an aural home there as well as on record.

RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.