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Class ?

Main Category: Art Rock
Also applicable: Mood Music, Pop Rock
Starting Period: The Interim Years
Also active in: The Punk/New Wave Years, The Divided Eighties,

From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Mike Oldfield fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Mike Oldfield fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1973

I may not be breaking new ground in calling this one Mike's finest hour, but I ain't betraying the truth, either. Some of the music on here may be familiar to those who have seen the 1973 creepy blockbuster The Exorcist; but as far as I know, Oldfield did not compose the music specially for the film, and the general impressions from listening to this don't exactly coincide with the impressions one gets from watching a renown horror flick. I do remember reading some reviews from a rather paranoid guy who was complaining about the music's scariness; but as far as I see, the only "scary" moment on here is near the middle of side two, when Mike, apparently bored with the proceedings, suddenly begins to impersonate a werewolf (and does it pretty well, too - I wonder how he managed to do that low-pitched grrrowl?). But even that one's not really scary - more parodic and childishly silly than anything else.

Anyway, if you don't know it, Tubular Bells is a lengthy, two-side-long composition that is nevertheless not at all a clone of Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick. It is fully instrumental, apart from the werewolf imitation and a short bit at the end of side one which I'll get around to in a minute, and it doesn't really rely on the principles of musical dynamism; most of the themes are looping and repetitive, so that Tubular Bells have often been called one of the first groundbreaking New Age releases. "Proto-New-Age", I think, would be a better term, not only because it precedes the whole movement by a good six or seven years, but also because there are certain differences. First of all, looping and "staticness" of music are not necessarily an exclusive New Age priority; New Age and "ambient" music are supposed to be nothing more than tasteful 'aural wallpaper', while Tubular Bells amount to a full-fledged composition (suite? symphony?), merging together jazz, folk, rock, pop and classical elements. No wonder it has been since redone in an orchestral arrangement - and could you imagine Brian Eno or any "ambient master" reinvent their vintage ambient works with an orchestra?

But enough with the terminology definition. The music on here rules. Not in a grandiose and cathartic way, of course - none of the parts move me to tears or anything - and some parts of this are actually rather self-indulgent (I mean, doesn't it sometimes seem that Mike was simply so puffed up and proud of having the possibility to demonstrate his mastership over the 28 instruments he plays?), but both overall and in details, this is a pleasant listening experience. It doesn't carry you away to fantasy worlds, but it puts you in many different moods, and it's diverse enough to guarantee a lack of boredom. Along the way, Mike adds some classical acoustic guitar parts; a couple harder-rocking sections with fat distorted guitars that do not at all sound tame; and a couple grotesque pop excursions - his werewolf howlings, for instance, are overdubbed on a catchy, bouncy, poppy melody.

The best parts, for me, are the side endings. Particularly the first side - Mike goes into a strange looping synth rhythm, and then, as he adds instrument over instrument in a grandiose build-up section, one of his assistants loudly announces: 'grand piano', 'glockenspiel', 'base guitar', 'two slightly distorted guitars', 'Spanish guitar', 'mandolin', etc., and ends it with a flourishing 'TUBULAR BELLS'! Maybe this is self-indulgent, but even without the voiceovers, I love the way the build-up is constructed - and the bells near the end crown it all off. Oh, this is also the only section to feature some female backing voices, led by Mike's sister, Sally. And as for the second side, after all the "pretentions" it suddenly ends in a lightweight, cheerful folkish jig - not with a tremendous power chord, or a grandiose orchestral climax, or a glorious panorama of Sounds of Nature: just a funny little jig. So much for pretentions.

If only the album featured a couple "heartbreaking" passages or a couple places that would really "rock out", the album would be enough to upgrade Mike to a higher section of the site; but still, with my expecations a little lowered, this is as perfect a piece of 'proto-ambient' music making as it ever gets. No wonder it shot to #1 in the UK, although it also plagued Mike's further life - so much, in fact, that he even recorded two "sequels" to this album in the Nineties. Vastly inferior, of course, which is only natural.



Year Of Release: 1974

Following the same formula as Tubular Bells, but nowhere near as compelling. Still good, though. However, I must make a warning: nearly every review of the CD version of this album I've ever read warns the listener that the re-mastered CD employs a mix far different from the original LP mix and that this particular mix sucks big time. Since I have the album in MP3 format, I have not the least idea if the mix I have is the original one or not (it's encoded from CD quality, of course, but maybe there were early CD pressures of the album with the untampered mix?); and obviously, I have never heard the album in LP form. Therefore, the original mix might have been better, and maybe it was good enough to earn yet another half or even a full star. I doubt about these things, though - for the most part, complaints about "incorrect mixing" leave me cold, as I don't care much about nit-picking. It's just that this time around, there was way too much hollering about the problem than usual, so I guess it's worth mentioning after all.

Anyway, like I said, Hergest Ridge isn't as impressive as its predecessor. It follows a far more moderate and less ambitious formula, with less diverse instrumentation, fewer different parts, less moods, and somewhat more unbased self-indulgence. The standard fate of a sequel. There are fewer buildups and climaxes, as well, and in general, the atmosphere is closer to true "ambient" than before, because this time around Mike prefers to just repeat a single theme many times throughout rather than develop it. As a result, boredom if you make an effort to "penetrate" inside it, or the standard fate of your average ambient album if you simply treat it as background music.

That said, the second side of the record is notably better than the almost totally insipid first one. It has some vocals - strange incantations which I can't make out, but which have a strange and profound heavenly sound to them, and it also features the magnificent 'Sturm und Drang theme', when at exactly 9:30 into the song, after a relatively quiet, icy cold robotic sequence, a whole battle array of synths, later with some guitar overdubs, comes in and starts an ominous Dance of the Dead on your eardrums. It's so powerful I even disregard the fact that it goes on forever, and then everything fades away, back into the charming incantations.

Nothing, however, can redeem the first side - which is actually very pretty and atmospheric, but hardly takes you esoteric places like Tubular Bells did, apart from isolated moments like the beautiful guitar solo on the seventeenth minute (which you still gotta live long enough to get to). Mind you, I'm not knocking the record at all, and to tell you the truth, I would be hard pressed to come up with strict arguments about the reasons I consider it weaker than its predecessor; maybe it's some kind of gruesome 'anti-sequel bias' I happen to share. But in case my intuition means something for you, I'm just ready to tell that my intuition tells me Hergest Ridge doesn't feature the same 'boldness of spirit' as Tubular Bells. On that one, the young and audacious, not to mention talented, Oldfield took his chance to prove the world that HE was the greatest - and engaged in all those majestic passages alternating with ultra-raunchy moments and snubby overdubs with a lot of completely justified self-indulgence. In other words, he took a gamble and won: had he been just a little less talented, Tubular Bells would have been certainly written off as yet another stupid bombastic project by a pompous proggy asshole. But on Hergest Ridge, Oldfield doesn't take any more gambles - he smoothes the passages down, makes them humbler and quieter, and displays not more than a third of the gall he displayed last time. For some, this may be a good thing; but me likes boldness in music, and this is exactly what I don't find here.

Still a very pretty audio excursion in any case, and fans of Tubular Bells need only to lower their expectations a little before they make the inevitable trip to the nearest mall to procure themselves this (un)worthy sequel.



Year Of Release: 1975

Rounding out the trilogy of Oldfield's classics is this album, not quite as stunning as Tubular Bells but still, to my ears, somewhat of an improvement over the last record. Nobody knows exactly what the title is about; many suppose it to be a phonetic transcription of Gaelic amadan 'simpleton, fool' (and thereafter make the conclusion that is somewhat of an 'autobiographic' portrait), but Oldfield himself had stated several times that this is but a coincidence, and in reality Ommadawn doesn't mean anything. He may be foolin' us, though. What an amadan...

Whatever be, this is a very quiet and relaxating album - softer and smoother than the previous two, which is also why by this time Oldfield started being panned by the critics accusing him of indifference and inflicting boredom. And it's true to a certain extent: Ommadawn is at least one step closer to 'ambient' than the preceding two albums, with very few themes that could be described as 'dynamic' and not a lot of tension throughout. Oh well, of course, the opening part of the suite is as bombastic as possible, with female chorales and string-imitating synthesizers building up to a series of classical-style musical climaxes; but even these are deeply grounded in the classical tradition, and therefore not as 'shocking' as the climactic stuff on TB. Probably the most 'rockin' section on here arrives in the second quarter of the composition, where Mike demonstrates his ever increasing skills as an electric guitar player with a series of speedy distorted solos that fall somewhere in between Clapton and Santana. But they're not that disturbing, either.

But wait, don't take this as a flaw or anything! Ommadawn is meant to be a quiet affair; this is Oldfield's 'mystical' album (in all possible senses, since nobody can really tell what it's all about), where he is actually not too concerned about showing off - note, also, that it was recorded with a whole slew of guest musicians this time. Instead, he is more concerned about... hmm... mixing traditional Celtic motives, I'd say, with values actual for classical and rock music, with the final aim of making the album in its entirety sound like one huge, puffed-up magical incantation. In other words, he is essentially doing the same job that Yes tried to do a year before with Tales From Topographic Oceans, but with a few significant differencies - bringing it closer to reality by incorporating all these cute little folksy motives, and sticking to concise, compact musical themes instead of running all over the place. Not to mention the lack of Jon Anderson lyrics. :)

Not that the album lacks really boring parts - for instance, sequences like the first five or six minutes of Side 2, i.e. all the part before he slips into the bagpipes section, do very little for me (repetitive bombastic synthesizer noodling that outstays its welcome pretty quickly), and I'm sure others will find flaws with the record as well. Another important difference is that this time around, Oldfield uses a more subtle approach to the interweaving of various musical themes - while in a few places they still transform into each other just by cutting out and cutting in, for the most part, the transformation is gradual, aided by a clever use of 'counterchords' and juxtaposed melodies. This certainly gives an air of continuity, but it also can make up for boredom - you don't always realise that a certan theme has already changed several times, and keep on thinking 'Okay, we need changes!' long after these changes have been effected.

The most controversial part, however, is at the end - when the bombast is lambasted away, Oldfield suddenly cuts through with a simple acoustic-driven folk ditty sporting the subtitle 'On Horseback', where he mumbles something about liking to be, well, gotcha, on horseback, and a silly chorus of schoolkids driving forward the refrain. It is something of a 'Her Majesty'-type coda to a grandiose listening experience, and can certainly turn off certain listeners - not me, though, as I fully understand that 'self-deflating' tendency, and I can relate. Besides, the melody is somewhat catchy and endearing, so who's to complain? Only an amadan would complain over that stuff.



Year Of Release: 1978

Ambitious as hell, but oh so beautiful. Taking a three year break, Oldfield now presents the public with a work that's even more pretentious and universalist than whatever he's penned before - Incantations are spread over four sides of two LPs this time, as usual, with no breaks within each of the four tracks. Analogies with Tales From Topographic Oceans spring to mind, of course, and just like Tales before it, this work wasn't all that welcome by the critics, not to mention that it all appeared smack dab in the middle of the whole punk/New Wave revolution, etc., etc.

Mike does have something to redeem him, though. Incantations is not progressive rock; within these three years, Mike has finally made the leap from dynamic, folk/rock/classical-based textures into the world of static tape loops and ambient landscapes. On the surface, this record sounds more or less like the ones before it, and yet it ain't so: Incantations is far less of a "panoramic tale" than it is a "nature morte", if you get my drift. The rhythms don't change much, and the main musical themes hardly alternate within each given track - true to the main requirement of ambient, you can turn on any of the four parts at any given spot and you'll hear more or less the same. Well, more or less: this ain't Brian Eno's Thursday Afternoon, of course. But you get me anyway, don't you?

So why a high rating? Because it's one of the best near-ambient soundtracks I've ever heard. The main musical backbone this time is drawn from North American music - apparently, Mr Oldfield got tired of incorporating the same old Irish themes into his fantasy world and decided to dig for inspiration overseas. In this respect, it's a really innovative piece of work - I don't hear American Indian motives in the everyday pop music of 1978. Of course, some might find the whole experience boring: who wants to sit down and listen to all those synthesizer loops and female chorale harmonies repeating the same, well, er, incantations for what seems like hours on end? Well, my only advice is: if you find this stuff boring, go wank off to your Tales From Topographic Oceans!

Whoah. That was harsh. I suppose I'd better apologize before I lose all my hard-earned image of a 'polite guy'.

There. Does that make you feel better? Well, what I was actually trying to say was that Incantations, unlike TFTO, is not music you're supposed to concentrate on and attentively listen to. Perhaps as a live experience it might have worked in that way; but as a 'homeheld' experience, it doesn't. Like all the best creations of ambient and New Age, it's simply high quality background music - the kind of background music which is supposed to be actively influencing your conscience and penetrating your spirit, but not making your brains work or causing any deep dynamic emotional responses within your soul that cause you to drop everything and run naked in the streets screaming 'MIKE IS DA KING' and then proceeding to hack this site for not having given the album the highest rating possible. (In case you didn't get it, that was a concealed hint). What I like is just have this stuff play in the background and concentrate on it maybe, like, for ten-fifteen seconds now and then - like a good sipping of quality red wine, after which you just enjoy the taste in your mouth for ten minutes.

As a result, the length of the album doesn't bother me at all - it doesn't take my time, so I don't care if it's eighty minutes or eight hundred. Complaints have been voiced against the, er, uhm, second part of the second part, where Maddy Prior (yeah, of Steeleye Span fame) chants a huge extract from 'Song Of Hiawatha' which seems to drag on for ages, but what do I care? I just accept her singing - and she does have a beautiful voice - as part of that general ambient charm. It totally fits in with the general perspective.

I see that I haven't actually said a lot of things about the music itself, but that's mainly because there's little to be said. Ambient music, a little more dynamic than your vintage ambient. Lots of Philip Glass influences on here. Part III is probably the most 'symphonic', with some upbeat passages and some rockin' guitar solos. Part IV is probably the one with the largest 'boredom potential', but I'm just lulled by all the nice percussion work, so I don't have the strength to complain... yaaawn... Okay, so I did lie a little - I do find eighty minutes of this stuff a bit hard to take in one sitting, even if it's all just playing in the background and I'm playing Quest for Glory or anything. (Particularly since you can't play Quest for Glory for eighty minutes. It's a good game, but you have to train your skills so long that by the time your hero is completely vitalized, you are already the opposite. Anyway, I'm digressing). So I dock it one point for (a) being a bit overlong and (b) not possessing any kind of cathartic, purifying qualities. Then again, who says you have to take it all at once? You might start by putting on one track per day.

In any case, the fact remains that Oldfield never repeated this kind of bombastic approach again - from now on, his compositions would become far shorter and more concise. Either he was afraid of losing favour among the critical gents of the day, or he just thought that Incantations pushed this formula to its very limits and there would be nowhere to go but in a self-parodic direction. Either way, he was probably right.


PLATINUM ****1/2

Year Of Release: 1979

One thing I like about Oldfield's "classic" period is that, despite the usual impression of Mike as "father of ambient" and stuff, no two albums of his actually sound the same. Even the original 1973-75 trilogy of albums each had a distinct sound, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but always taking us in a different direction; then, on Incantations, we got to admire Mike's Celtic spirit in full form. And now Platinum, an album that breaks up with the 'formula' in an even more radical way, and frankly speaking, leaves a lot of Oldfield fans kinda befuddled at that.

The two sides of the album are very distinct - the first one is all occupied by the instrumental title track, subdivided in four parts but quite monolithic in its own way nevertheless; the second side is more disjoint and controversial. 'Platinum' takes us the usual minimalist route, but perhaps even more minimalist than before - no sweeping-swooping arrangements or unwarranted (or warranted, for that matter) pomposity. Instead, Oldfield experiments with rhythms: the first two parts here are essentially inflammatory prog-rock/basic rock songs, the third part dabbles in disco, the fourth part can almost be qualified as mild proto-techno. (Indeed!). And they all rule. You make your own little treacherous scheme that'd put all the four together as parts of a systematic canvas; I couldn't do that, even if I do get the impression that there IS a certain unificating theme running throughout.

The first part on here is the most "progressive-sounding", with tricky rhythms and weird instrumentation throughout (not to mention that when I first put it on I got a shock - those 'breaking' jagged synth notes sounded as if there was something wrong with my recording). But my favourite is definitely the arena-rock arrangement on the second part, where Oldfield really shines on guitar, playing a bunch of simplistic, but deeply moving riffs; the main theme of 'Part Two' I'd have to probably qualify as my favourite bit of Oldfield music ever written - so sharp, so deep, so involving. But definitely not taking itself too seriously, as Oldfield actually duplicates that part with some 'scat singing' at the end of the section. Then the third section comes in and engulfs you with disco bass, female vocals, strange whispers and occasional stupid brass excourses. That's atmospheric, I guess. Finally, the "proto-techno" fourth part, essentially said to be an intricate rearrangement of Philip Glass' 'North Star', has a bunch of truly gorgeous moments, again mostly due to Oldfield's phenomenal guitar talents. Ah, if only all techno music sounded like this... How disgraceful - you push forward all those stupid musical boundaries only to end up ripped-off by worthless talentless hacks mass-producing your achievements. That's the way life goes.

Anyway, 'Platinum' has very quickly become my favourite one-side Oldfield composition. It's just as inspiring and emotional as anything else, but it has a whole spectrum of moods, from the stately-majestic to the angry-rockin' to the silly-dancin' to the pretty-beautiful, and it never sounds disjointed or "not belonging" or whatever else. The problem lies with the second side, then. Somehow it seems to me that ninety percent of all the care went into the first side and the second side was just quickly cobbled together to constitute a whole LP. It's not like the songs/compositions there are bad - they're just 'slight' in a bad way, not just 'minimalistic' but rather 'conceived with less emotion', one might say. Nowhere near as overwhelming. 'Woodhenge' is a four-minute proto-ambient instrumental... hey, what's that with me saying "proto-ambient" all the time? Ambient was already in full force, with Music For Airports and all. A scholastic question, then: can "proto-ambient" co-exist with "ambient" at the same time?

Anyway, 'Woodhenge' is nice and moody but no more than that, and coming right off the heels of 'Platinum', it's a disappointment. 'Into Wonderland' is a nice, but also slight ballad (early pressings of the album came with Mike's ode to his sister, 'Sally', but on later releases the song for unknown reasons was withdrawn and replaced with this stuff. Maybe Mike had a falling out with his sis?). 'Punkadiddle' is particularly strange - you'd expect it to be Mike's sneering 'punk-influenced' composition, instead it's just a slightly sped-up dumb-sounding variation on a jig replete with unrelated crowd noises. And the album closes with the cover of Gershwin's 'I Got Rhythm'. Some gal named Wendy Roberts sings on all that stuff. It's all nice, but not the kind of thing you'd expect from King Michael. Definitely underwhelming.

Oh, wait, stop right here. Underwhelming or not, the songs are still good, all of them. That should be no high obstacle to the high rating, right? Instead of blaming Oldfield for diluting his 'serious' music with lightweight piffles, I suppose that we could as well praise Oldfield for masterfully combining the serious with the lightweight. Turn night into day. Make black become white. Just another successful day in the life of the Great Proto-Ambient Wizard.


Q.E.2 ***

Year Of Release: 1980

Mike Oldfield starts repeating himself. This is an ominous sign, and considering that this was his first Eighties album, and also his worst album to date, the sign becomes even more ominous. It's not like I wanna bash this album for having no progression; in a certain way, Oldfield hasn't been progressing much since the release of Tubular Bells, an album of such gigantic stature that it seemed to incorporate everything into itself. No, the problem is that the melodies themselves don't bring out anything new. It's not just the same instruments and the same tonalities, it's also exactly the same atmospheres and exactly the same kind of playing, production and special effects that we have already been witnessing patiently over the course of five albums.

Like, for instance, the opening ten-minute sequence 'Taurus 1' isn't unlistenable by any means - but would you really want to listen to it by default when you have Incantations and Platinum lying by your side? It's very very pretty music, I guarantee it, but it's so light and frivolous and unassuming it almost feels like an obvious throwaway. I mean, let's face it, after what he'd done previously Mike could have easily done these loops and guitar solos in his sleep. And I have nothing against a "lightweight" approach, but here I mean the word in a bad sense. In a good sense, Oldfield's work has always been "lightweight" - building for the most part around traditional folk and classical motives, it was almost always easily accessible. But it also had depth to it at the same time. 'Taurus 1' has no depth whatsoever - just a set of loops and minimalistic melodies interchanging with each other. No natural developments, no thrill, no progression, no crescendos. Even the guitar parts are kinda rudimentary, a disappointment after all the guitar styles Mike had exploited on his previous albums. Oldfield aficionados will probably want to point out some subtle details that managed to escape me, but I seriously doubt anybody will want to take this track as 'quintessential' Mike.

Of course, you could expect any review of this album to incorporate the inevitable phrase 'you know there's something wrong with the album when one of its best tracks is an ABBA cover!', but seeing as how I'm more than tolerant towards ABBA, I have no problem with that. That cover? 'Arrival', of course, one of ABBA's most "pretentious" instrumentals, and it actually improves on the original by bringing its folksy roots to the foreground. It was even released as a single, with a cover parodying ABBA's Arrival album sleeve, but the version itself is anything but parodic. More guitars and more different synth tones and artificial woodwinds than on the original, less boring, more successful. There's also a cover of the old instrumental 'Wonderful Land' here, mostly known in the Shadows' arrangement, with very nice guitar passages - but also pretty amateurish by Oldfield's usual standards.

The second side is dominated by the lengthy title track suite, celebrating the British monarchy (not really... but then again, what does it celebrate?), and again it is mostly "easy listening". The tune rolls along nicely, with guitars and bagpipes and whatnot and true Elizabethan war marches mixed in and everything, but it's nothing we didn't know about before. And again, like in 'Taurus 1', it feels like a not very coherent mix of isolated segments rather than something actually developing. Loops after loops after loops, unconnected but still predictable. As for all the shorter tunes on there, I don't even know what to say. 'Sheba' has the same feel as 'Arrival', borrowing certain chord sequences from that track - except that it actually has vocals; 'Celt' feels like an inferior Incantations outtake, also with vocals but they don't improve the track much. And so on.

On the positive side, this is wonderful background listening. You almost feel your digestion system calm down in the most benevolent manner. After a few listens, when your indignation settles down, you start to take it for what it is, an obvious throwaway if there ever was one, kinda like Bob Dylan's Selfportrait, and if you're a good-willing kind of gentleman, it will fall into the "inessential but pleasant" Oldfield category. Just a relaxed, ordinary album rehashing older motives (oh, and did I mention that 'Mirage' almost ends up borrowing the guitar riffs from the first side of Platinum?). If you ask me, it's a wonder Mike really let himself loose only after an intense seven-year period of "masterwork creation". However, I must also say that if by any chance Q.E.2 happens to be your first Oldfield acquisition, don't stone me with your contempt - it's only within the context of Tubular Bells and Platinum that the album loses the battle. It will most certainly overturn your very conscience just as easily as those if you listen to it first.



Year Of Release: 1981

Five miles out of creative ideas, this is Mike Oldfield totally cruising on autopilot - rather surprising, considering the album itself was partially referring to his actual experiences as an airplane pilot after he got his license in 1979. Granted, Mike Oldfield on autopilot is still way better than, uh, Kansas on complete self-regulation, but anyway, this is the second album in a row which sounds merely like a rehashing of older ideas.

My main concerns are, of course, with 'Taurus II', the twenty-four minute monster that occupies the entire first side and is essentially a continuation of 'Taurus I', right down to the chord structure. It's almost as if Mike was unhappy about the way his first opus turned out, and he decided to rearrange it and add several new parts - a theory that would be well-grounded if not for the fact that the tune on Q.E.2 was called 'Taurus I', thus already hinting at the imminent arrival of 'Taurus II'. And no, I don't like the tune at all. I've seen positive reviews of this album from fans whose first Oldfield buy was Five Miles Out, but coming in retrospect after everything else, 'Taurus II' is just bland and uncreative. It rehashes exactly the same chords of 'Taurus I', and I guess the only thing that kinda makes it stand out is the extensive use of drum machines - there are whole sections dedicated to powerful percussion crashing. Okay, whatever. The guitar solos add nothing new - once inventive with that instrument, Mike hasn't now bothered to actually change his guitar tone for several albums. And excuse me if I sound impenetrable on this issue, but the female choruses at the end of the track remind me of generic pioneer organization songs chanted in Soviet schools and totally embarrass the hell out of me. Is that some sort of Celtic influence, too? I doubt it.

Fortunately, the second side is much better. The "Oldfield sellout" steadily goes on, as the first song on here is 'Family Man', a Maggie Reilly-sung piece of disco simplicity later turned into a hit by Hall & Oates, no less, but heck it's a decent song, and quite well sung. Perhaps the chorus is a little bit repetitive, but at least the arrangement, with all those weird water bleeps and thrashing drum machines, compensates for it. And a funny thing, that patented Oldfield guitar tone, with all of its treble, fits into the song just like your typical Eighties hair-metal guitar solo would fit into your typical Eighties hair-metal song. Do you think Poison and Motley Crue were inspired by 'Family Man'? Hah hah.

Then there's the thirteen-minute 'Orabidoo', which is in part a compensation for the unoriginality of 'Taurus II'. Not that it sounds stylistically different, it just doesn't prompt me into saying 'cool sound, but those melodies were all taken from Tubular Bells'. There's a very pretty chimes-and-chimes introduction which gradually leads into the main 'body' of the tune that has a cute "cosmic" flair; as far as I know, Oldfield never really got into the "sci-fi sound" before, but this track, apparently written as a musical recollection of the incident when Mike flew into a thunderstorm on his plane, gets as close to "space muzak" as possible. That main part of the composition, with the ethereal slithering guitar bits and distant angelic chanting, is very majestic and surreal indeed, and then when the 'storm' comes in at 7:00, it's really not "terrifying" or anything - Mike provides the contrast by merely changing the atmosphere as roughly as possible - one minute it's the angels chanting and the cute guitars sliding and then the next minute you get yourself a gloomy piano line, rough funky riffs and drum machines going mad. Then, hoopla, it's over and the calmness comes on again. And no pioneer songs either, just Maggie Reilly to sing you a few sentimental verses for the dessert.

There are also two shorter songs to close out the album. 'Mount Teidi' shamefully steals its most glorious guitar line from Jethro Tull's 'Elegy' - just listen to the two back to back and you'll see how at least half of the chords of the main melody are the same. But gosh, I'm not gonna accuse Mike of stealing, really, let's just pretend he "borrowed" the melody on a purely subconscious level and enjoy the song with our conscience clear. And the title track again reverts us to the storm incident, with Maggie sharing vocals with somebody of the male sex and a Vocoder. (BTW, lots of vocals on this album are encoded - so much, in fact, it isn't funny. I look at the lyrics sheet and I blink - why the heck have I missed all these words?). It's a decent enough tune until you realize Mike is again using the same melody here he already used in 'Taurus II' and 'Taurus I' (and a few times before, I think). It's stuff like this that really makes me doubt the true compositional genius of Mr Oldfield. Or at least confirms the suspicions of Mr Oldfield being severely limited. Then again, hey, I guess a limited composer couldn't ever have recorded a true chef-d'oeuvre like 'Family Man'.



Year Of Release: 1983

Setting apart his pilot ambitions for some time, Oldfield pulls himself together and delivers something different. I suppose the title relates to the preceding two albums, right? Imagine yourself stuck in a creative rut for several years and then coming out with a brilliant innovative record called I Suck. So maybe I just don't understand something, but I guess this would have been a pretty strange turn of events.

It's not like Oldfield is breaking the structural formula: again, one side is a huge multi-part suite (title track), the other side is a sequence of short pop songs. And even the multi-part suite isn't structurally different: as usual, it follows the 'we're soft and moody and now we're hard and rocking and now we're soft and moody and now we're hard and rocking' pattern. What is different is the music. 'Crises' relies somewhat more on synthesizers than before, including hi-tech contemporary ones, but there's still enough "living" instruments to compensate for the bad side effects of this. There are new guitar tones, new tempos and time signatures, even new riffs and new solos. It only sounds like a remake of 'Tubular Bells' maybe a tenth time of the overall running, and that's enough for me to grab that rating and start running as fast as I can up the High Hill of Oldfield Achievements. I still can't reach the top, though, but at least I'm seeing it.

Describing the actual music of 'Crises' is a pretty grim affair; the differences between it and Oldfield's early work are many but they're all subtle. In general, I'd say that the track is seriously less folk-oriented than usual; many more sections have a steady rock/pop beat to them. Mike is also experimenting a lot with tape loops, and several parts come dangerously close to contemporary ambient, although most of the slow rhythmless parts extensively feature Oldfield's minimalistic lead guitar playing. There's also a couple vocal sections, of which the main one (where Mike gives this ugly nasal processed delivery of 'crises, crises, you can't get away') is often getting panned by fans, but in my opinion, it only adds to the album. Emotionally, 'Crises' seems to trigger all the same old nerves, with its alternating pictures of beauty and horror, but the way in which it does that is new and exciting.

And then, of course, there's the second side, which is easily the best side of pop-oriented material Mike ever did. Maggie Reilly is carried over from the last record to add lead vocals to two of the tracks. And of these, 'Moonlight Shadow' is pure beauty, a steady acoustic-based folk-rocker with a great pair of bluesy solos from Mike himself - it's not as if you get the chance to hear a good old bluesy solo from Mr Oldfield every day of your life. But, of course, the vocals are the major charm of the album; you gotta commend Mike for keeping Maggie close. Such a great voice - soft and sweet, yet without the oversickening sappiness you meet so often. It's certainly the "Sandy Denny school", even if Maggie never really sang on folk ballads for Oldfield. Oh. Mike never actually did any traditional folk ballads. Never mind. The second Reilly-sung track is 'Foreign Affair', which is more like a typical contemporary synth-pop number that would have done the Eurythmics justice. And again Maggie comes along with that delivery and saves the song. (All except the stupid "a lagoon by la mer" line - geez, sometimes merging two languages for the sake of putting together two rhyming lines isn't really such a good idea).

Another guest on the album is - YES! - what? oh, yes, Mr Yes himself, Mr Jon "Just Say Yes" Anderson, always ready to add heavenly angelic vocals on heavenly angelic tracks. I mean, if you can work with Vangelis, Mike Oldfield is an obvious choice as well. And actually, 'In High Places' works really well with Jon on vocals - in fact, I gotta say I usually have far more problems with Jon in his usual incarnation than with Jon as a guest star on others' albums. I can't quite decode the actual song, unless I may call it "prog-reggae" or something, but it sure is heavenly, if not particularly cathartic.

There's also 'Taurus 3' on here, but I guess the name is a joke - it has nothing to do with either the first or second editions of the track, it's just a short two-minute showcase of Oldfield's acoustic skills. Nice, soothing, toe-tapping, and clever, and those thundering percussion rolls that bookmark the middle and end of the track are unexpected, shocking and powerful. And then the final track, the dangerous rocker 'Shadows On The Wall', with a totally unmistakable vocal - I mean, I knew who it was from the very first word being sung, and that's no surprise because the guest singer is Roger Chapman of Family fame. I guess an overwhelming majority of Oldfield fans hates this guy for coming up and spoiling the angelic nature of the album, but that's the fun of being eclectic: having gone through a serious Family obsession in the past, I have absolutely no problems with Chappo, and his singing is terrific on that track. Nervous, paranoid, jerky, aggressive, and that concerns both Chappo's singing and the actual music. An unpredictable, but great ending to Oldfield's creative reincarnation. Of course, by that time Mike was already being written off as a repetitive obsolete sold-out guy, but hey, give the music a chance. If it says Crises, it doesn't necessarily mean that. As our old friends from the revolutionary nerd-prog band Supertramp used to say, 'Crisis? What crisis?'

Of course, those Supertramp guys looked like they were having crises twenty four hours a day, but hey, that's what nerd-prog is all about.



Year Of Release: 1984

I guess by this time Oldfield had become completely "irrelevant", as they say - stuck to his neck in formula, losing favour with the critics and the buying public, and few people have actually listened to those mid-Eighties albums, much less liked them. Too bad; Discovery is actually quite good. Apart from the closing twelve minute suite, it symbolizes Mike's near-complete transformation into a pop writer, which offended many - what the "many" in question never bothered to notice was that Mike actually transformed into a good pop writer, and nowhere is this more noticeable than on Discovery, where the combination of his solid melodies and Maggie Reilly's wonderful interpretations of his music works as never before.

Yes, the first seven songs are all short pop songs, but dammit if three of them at least aren't pop masterpieces. The lush symph-pop of 'To France', for instance, has probably never been topped by Mike himself; and note, I said symph-pop, not synth-pop - only too bad that in the midst of all the professional, but essentially lifeless Duran Duran stuff clogging up the charts at the time 'To France' never found much success. It's all traditionally instrumentated as far as Mike's musicality goes - acoustic guitars, bassoons, oboes, Mike's patented electric guitar tone, background orchestration (okay, probably synthesized, but it's never too obvious) - but that doesn't prevent it from forming a magic brew when joined with Maggie's charming vocal melody. Lyrically, it's a song dedicated to Mary Queen of Scots' desperate attempt to flee to France after her defeat, but that's not as important as the one isolated vocal line - 'never going to get to France, never going to get to France...' That stern, romantic, and highly sentimental chant is absolutely beautiful.

The other two Maggie-led songs that I particularly like are more "modernistic", even dancey in their essence; for some reason, 'Crystal Gazing' reminds me of Pete Townshend's 'Face Dances (Part Two)', with its steady synth-driven mid-tempo "mystical" rhythm and similar vocal stylings, but of course, the melody itself is different. And if you think the verse part is a bit too disco-ish in its essence, just wait until you get to the chorus - it'll be hard for you to beat the emotionality and the catchiness of the 'crystal gazing, crystal gazing' hook. Finally, 'Tricks Of The Light' is built upon a great patented "Oldfieldriff" and features yet another unbeatable chorus - okay, call me limp and sissy, I just can't resist the subtle magic of Maggie's vocals when she goes 'some are tricks of the light, you'll never know...'. Really, there aren't many "Annie Haslam"-style singers in this world, who can combine this extreme frailness and feminine beauty with an obvious sense of determination and strength; too bad Maggie Reilly isn't really known any more than Annie is. For some reason, this type of white singing just isn't respected enough in today's musical society - nah, if you wanna make it big, you just have to try and imitate Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin, even if you're physically unable to do it.

Ah well, anyway, the problem of 'Tricks Of The Light' is that it's actually a duet with Barry Palmer, and he also takes up lead vocals on several other tracks. To tell you the truth, I would much rather have Jon Anderson come in again - at least, his "aethereal" vocalizing suits this kind of aethereal music much better than Palmer's hoarse yelling. Maybe Palmer would fit better if Oldfield were trying to make an R'n'B record, I dunno. Not that the songs are bad - 'Poison Arrows' and the title track, in particular, both have massive hooks, and only the bombastic power ballad 'Saved By A Bell' gets my thumbs down. Don't make me get my lighter out, Mike, please, for God's sake don't make me do that!

Of course, in order to prove he hasn't sold out completely, Oldfield just has to include something long and instrumental; this time, it's 'The Lake', a suite executed fully and exclusively in the man's own tradition and sounding maybe a bit more inspired than 'Taurus II' but maybe a bit less inspired than 'Crises'. At any rate, it doesn't feature any major new ideas (and I must say that I am starting to get really tired of the "patented Oldfield guitar tone" by now - come on Mike, if you invented that guitar sound, that doesn't mean you have to use it until the day you die, in fact, I'm pretty sure you could invent a different one!), so I'm not particularly inspired. It's not bad, though, just way too much of an indication that Oldfield was still trying to pander to his 'old' audiences; it's pretty clear that by the time of Discovery, he was all intent on perfecting and honing his pop-songwriter's skills rather than penning the seven hundredth lengthy instrumental symphony. And I would have fully understood that, if only he hadn't made the mistake of inviting that Barry Palmer guy to sing on the album.



Year Of Release: 1984

A soundtrack. A SOUNDTRACK! MIKE OLDFIELD RECORDS A SOUNDTRACK! Say - do you wanna hear a great soundtrack? Do you wanna know how a really great soundtrack can actually be treasured more than the movie it was originally destined for? How there can be great, timeless music made and you won't even realize it was merely a soundtrack unless you're actually told it? Hear excellent, tight, imaginative musical pieces that show composing greatness despite the fact that many of those pieces are made "on order", and probably in a hurried manner at that?

Well, if you wanna read about such a soundtrack, go here. On the opposite, Mike Oldfield's soundtrack to Roland Joffe's Killing Fields does not deserve any additional praise - it is one of those pieces of music that don't have any particular value unless judged together with the movie. And in this case, the movie has apparently overshadowed the composer, as it was somewhat of a critical success and a minor classic (I've never seen it, I confess, but I suppose that a movie the main point of which is to amply demonstrate the inhumane barbarity of the regime of the Khmer Rouge can't be "bad" by definition).

I guess an Oldfield completist will need to get the soundtrack anyway, because it shows our hero's emploi as a classical composer - many of the short pieces on the album can't be classified under any other genre, which is interesting considering that Oldfield had never done any pure classical music so far. Just as often, though, you can hear snippets of his usual "folk-Mike" style, or more straightforward New Age style sonic pictures. There's quite a bit of atmospheric diversity on the album, even if the major themes are usually the same - fear, depression, terror, and whatever else you would expect from a Pol Pot-governed country.

But it's just not interesting. For starters, there's way too many different tracks - seventeen, with only three of them going over four minutes. How are you supposed to seriously judge the merits of a musical composition if it's just one minute long? Obviously, these snippets will be precious to those who have developed an actual affection for the movie; how they can be precious to your average Mike Oldfield fan is beyond me. Besides, way too many of them are just generic. I mean, it's nice and soothing to have 'The Boy's Burial' play as background music for you, but you might as well get a much better classical music album.

As for the more "finished" songs on here, the most significant of these is 'Etude', which finishes the album and was even released as a single. It's really a nice one, in the classic Oldfield style, based on the man's exploration of ethnic rhythms and a main melody played on something which sounds like a cross between a synth, a theremin, a musical saw and those funny South American pipes, with Oldfield's patented guitar tone coming in to support the melody halfway through the song. It certainly deserves some of your attention.

The other two "lengthy" tracks, odd enough, are named very similarly ('Evacuation' and 'Execution') and should be properly enjoyed only in conjunction with the movie, I guess. As such, 'Evacuation' takes us on a five-minute journey through synth loops and atmospheric textures worthy of a decent (but not outstanding) Tangerine Dream record; 'Execution' is a bit more dynamic, starting off as a sonic nightmare of percussion and wailing apocalyptic synths, then slowing down to a creepy, ominous martial rhythm, and then slowing down into a pure ambient section. Which is actually not quite all right by me, because if you read some of my Tangerine Dream reviews, you probably know that I'm not in favour of "mood pieces" which ambitiously shift moods all the time. Either give me a true mood piece, or a truly dynamic record, not something in between.

Speaking of emotionality, I guess the most accomplished piece on here is 'Requiem For A City' (Pnom Penh, that is - obviously dedicated to the forced evacuation and destruction of the city by the Khmer Rouge), which really works like a short requiem piece, showcasing Oldfield's classical skills. But really, that's not saying much - it's just two minutes long, as most other classically influenced compositions on here. All in all, I'm simply not sure why you would need this stuff in your collection (although maybe some hardcore Oldfield fans would prefer this one to Discovery, I dunno.)


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