Essential albums: Mike Oldfield

In his 1970's heyday there was no one to touch Oldfield in the area of what might call symphonically-structured art rock. Forever passionate about musicianship, he was among the first musicians in the West to convincingly combine the sounds of rock, folk, ethnic and classical minimalist music, stretching and a times completely changing their context while remaining appealing to a fairly mainstream audience.

Mike Oldfield

country of origin:

Folk rock, art rock, ambient, contemporary instrumental, progressive rock, world music, Celtic, symphonic, new age

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Tubular Bells (1973, Virgin)
  • Hergest Ridge (1974, Virgin)
  • Ommadawn (1975, Virgin)
  • Incantations (1978, Virgin)
  • Amarok (1990, Virgin)
  • The Songs Of Distant Earth (1994, Warner)
  • Light & Shade (2005, Mercury)

Reviewed by Mike G

Fact: Mike Oldfield is a hugely successful and influential composer of eclectic instrumental music. Opinion: Mike Oldfield is a genius. The latter may be true, but rather than giving us a better appreciation of Oldfield’s muse the “genius” tag has done nothing but polarise Oldfield’s detractors (those in the rock media who defend cherished notions of street cred) and his most fawning, die-hard fans (who would give Oldfield’s guitar strap a ten minute standing ovation).

This retiring Englishman is, however, a distinctive and original talent and in his 1970's heyday there was no one to touch him in the area of what might call symphonically-structured art rock. Forever passionate about musicianship, Oldfield was among the first musicians in the West to convincingly combine the sounds of rock, folk, ethnic and classical minimalist music, stretching and a times completely changing their context while remaining appealing to a fairly mainstream audience. As a father to various strands of ethno-ambient and world fusion music, those genres would be all the poorer today were it not for his considerable talents.

Early years

His career started as one half of a folk duo with his sister Sally Oldfield, followed by a stint as guitarist with a band led by ex-Soft Machine bassist Kevin Ayres. But by 1972 Oldfield had set out on his own, brandishing a tape of a long, ambitious instrumental composition he had been working on in his home studio for some years. Alas, most of the record companies rejected it, but salvation eventually came in the form of flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson who chose Oldfield’s work to be the first release on his new label Virgin Records.

The resulting album was, of course, the legendary Tubular Bells (1973), an unprecedented symphonic-style fusion of rock, folk, minimalist and classical elements with Oldfield playing a mind-boggling array of acoustic and electric instruments. As much loathed as it is revered for being a watershed in progressive rock, the album remains one of the most surprising commercial success stories in contemporary music. True, rock audiences at the time were already hip to extended instrumental workouts thanks to groups like Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and The Grateful Dead. But Tubular Bells appeal reached beyond the rock milieu and no one, least Oldfield himself, expected a record by a complete unknown to reach make Top #5 on the album charts in both England and the USA.

By the end of the millennium the album had sold around 20 million copies worldwide, making it the highest-selling contemporary instrumental release ever. Oldfield has since made a number of Tubular Bells sequels and he completely re-recorded the album in 2003; unsurprisingly none of these releases equal the original for quality or freshness.

Following up Tubular Bells

For most of the 1970’s Oldfield retained the sophisticated, melodic but rarely heavy-handed style of his debut album: repetitive motifs developed through a series of different movements, occasionally returning to a central melodic theme. Although Tubular Bells has stood the test of time well, its runaway success has eclipsed the fact that the three albums which followed it are also very fine works. Hergest Ridge (1974), a more pastoral and folk-derived piece, was initially released to a cooler critical reception. But hindsight reveals the lush first half in particular to be a lyrical, powerful, profoundly beautiful piece of music. The occasional throwback to its predecessor is forgivable: Hergest Ridge succeeds brilliantly in capturing the Celtic heritage of Britain that so obviously inspired it.

If his third album Ommadawn (1975) is better, it’s only because it sustains its musical invention for the full forty-five minutes. This time there’s thundering African drums, more upfront wordless vocals and some of Oldfield’s most passionate lead guitar playing. Also notable is the acoustic guitar/Uilleann pipes duet with Paddy Maloney of Irish folk group The Chieftains.

A three year break separates Ommadawn and the epic double-length Incantations (1978). Here Oldfield’s experiments with choral arrangements and exotic-sounding percussion come to full flower, enhanced by an orchestra and his typically fluid guitar lines. Incantations is a highly accomplished work and marks the end of a sequence of classic albums.

After the 70's

Oldfield’s move in the late 70’s from an eclectic orchestral approach to a more pedestrian rock style was puzzling. Whereas his earlier music had been hailed as original, visionary and distinctive, his 80’s albums often display none of these qualities.

On records like Five Miles Out (1981) and Islands (1987) Oldfield ropes in assorted guest vocalists - Maggie Riley the most prominent - to perform songs characterised by his usual instrumental precision but a decided lack of soul and purpose. Compounding the problem is the fact that sitting rather awkwardly right next to these songs are instrumentals which are often completely forgettable. In fairness, the hit single “Moonlight Shadow” from Crisis (1982) is a great pop song by any standards, but it’s very much an exception. Most of Oldfield’s efforts from this period show him hedging his bets: part eclectic instrumental records, part pop/rock records, unsatisfying as a whole.

Ironically, when at the turn of the decade he finally did come to his senses the results were almost overwhelming. Amarok (1990) marks a welcome return to roots, his first thematic instrumental album since Incantations and perhaps his most ambitious work ever. The 60-minute suite works through a bewildering range of sounds and moods, eventually climaxing in a joyous African stomp. Dense and complex, Oldfield perhaps overreaches himself here by packing in too much variety and detail; all but the most patient of listeners may be left gasping for air. But it's a striking listen nonetheless, and Oldfield’s wonderfully droll sense of humour comes to the fore at one point in a hilarious parody (or sample?) of ex British PM Margaret Thatcher.

Skipping 1992's much ballyhooed Tubular Bells II, the next album The Songs Of Distant Earth (1994) finds him inspired once again. Based on Arthur C. Clark’s science fiction novel of the same name, the album marks a kind of new age update of Oldfield’s sound and it remains his most cohesive, satisfying work since the 70's. The seamless 17-part suite is forged with multi-layered keyboard harmonies, ethereal vocals (Gregorian chants, a boy choir and pygmies to name a few), dramatic orchestral sweeps and sonorous guitar lines. Blessed with moments of rapturous beauty - notably “Let There Be Light” and “Supernova” - The Songs Of Distant Earth is the sound of Mike Oldfield at peace with the 90’s.

The new millennium

The remainder of his 90's releases and into the early 2000's are erratic at best, plain cheesy at worst. It took more than a decade after Distant Earth before once again Oldfield was consistently inspired enough to make another a great album. Despite skating perilously close to undistinguished new age music in a few places, the dynamic double album Light & Shade (2005) proved at last that he could create an album of short, unlinked tracks that were both instrumental in nature and high in quality. Technologically the approach is different: no more deep multi-layering of live instruments. It's all electronic save the piano and his distinctive electric guitar lines. His drum programming takes in the lessons learnt from modern dance: lazy chillout grooves ("Our Father"), complex ambient breakbeat ("First Steps") and four-on-the-floor club trance ("Quicksilver"). But still intact is his clever and beautiful sense of harmonic progression and his knack for building layers of sound, spiced here and there with sampled vocals and chants. And his guitar playing still sounds like nobody else.

His other albums from the 2000's onward are non-essential but not without interest for fans. If you've ever wondered what his guitar sounds like with a symphony orchestra then Music Of The Spheres (2008) is pleasant enough in a Hans Zimmer movie music kind of way. But his first four releases from the 70’s - Tubular Bells through Incantations - remain definitive and, in all likelihood, will remain forever so.

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