Last year I noticed that a new Mike Oldfield album was in the making. During my
review of the heavily Oldfield attributed "Sanctuary II" by Rob Reed, I got hold of a quote from the man himself on his Facebook page. He suggested working on the sequel to "Ommadawn" and reported that the scheduled date of release would be August (2016).
I believe I stated somewhat jokingly that I hoped that the master was talking about that very same year. It turned out that I was closer to the truth than I bargained for. But in January 2017 at last, the long awaited new album, "Return to Ommadawn", was released.
With the iconic trio albums "Tubular Bells", "Hergest Ridge" and "Ommadawn" released within a period of three years, between 1973 and 1975, Mike Oldfield has created an enduring trinity of
classic albums that overlap rock and classical music including, before those terms were even invented, new age and world music. These albums will forever remain Oldfield’s musical statement, they are closest to his true self. Since then he has revisited
"Tubular Bells" a number of times: twice as a sequel and once in the form of a complete re-recording. However, the last album from the trio, "Ommadawn" has always been my favourite, and I'm not alone in that adoration, as we will find out later on.
The story of Oldfield is fairly known so I will limit myself to a brief summary. From very young virtuoso folk guitarist in the bands of his sister and later Kevin Ayers, to the first and
most successful release of the newly founded Virgin label of young entrepreneur Richard Branson. Eventually to sell a staggering 17 million copies as a result. In the end "Tubular Bells" had become one of the most iconic albums of our time. But there were
also the depressions and the development from musical hermit to world famous rock star and back again. Many, many albums later, good ("Discovery" from 1984 and "Man on the Rocks" from 2014) but also less good ("Earthmoving" from 1989), there was the ultimate
tribute to his music in the form of an invitation to perform during the opening of the Olympic games in 2012 in London. Oldfield eventually played parts of "Tubular Bells" Far Above the Clouds and In Dulci Jubilo. The successful performance
would lead to heightened interest in his extensive oeuvre.
But despite the fact that one would assume that this would be his ultimate pinnacle in fact it meant just the opposite
for him. Again resulting in depressions, further fuelled by heavy personal losses in the form of the death of his 33-year-old son (a natural death) and his father. Until, of all things, his penchant for modern media would haul himself out of the crisis. For
some time he had been kicking the idea around of recording and releasing a new, more acoustically tinged album, with music closer to himself than most of his recent work. When he floated this idea to his followers on Facebook, a wave of incredible positive
reactions broke loose. In his own words, it was a remark by Jean Michel Jarre, of all people, on his own Facebook page that made him finally decide to actually implement the idea.
original "Ommadawn" album, dating from 1975, should be the basis for the idea, for the first time in nearly forty years after "Incantations" from 1978, a conceptual instrumental album consisting of two parts was born once again. With a predominantly acoustic
and folky 'feel', close to the heart of the musician. No sooner said than done. That meant quite a search for the instruments that were used on the original album, from bodhrán and African drums to various guitars, keyboards, flutes and, last but not
least, an authentic glockenspiel. Oldfield had decided that everything, and I mean absolutely everything, had to be played by himself, so no guest appearances this time. However, he makes use of a tiny piece of the choir section, used at the time of the original
recordings, but it does actually function more as a bridge to the new album. The keyboards, including a Mellotron and Solina, proved to be a bigger obstacle, but thank God for the ingenious invention of so called plug-ins, problem solved.
While playing and messing with sounds and tapes, gradually a musical theme took shape. Oldfield claims to have really enjoyed both composing, playing and recording. Especially the acoustic guitars,
always his preference, were embraced with love and played as if it were the first time. And you can hear the passion and freshness, the music literally bursts with enthusiasm.
always been a Mike Oldfield fan, already from the very first moment, with the emphasis on the first three legendary albums, but certainly also have my favourites among his later work. Have also seen him perform during the first concert ever in the Netherlands.
With a full choir and orchestra and a band consisting of ten musicians with a.o. percussionist Pierre Moerlen (Gong), Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span) and guitarist Nico Ramsden (Rick Wakeman, Sad Café) in the ranks and led by conductor/keyboardist David
Bedford, he gave a great live performance of his music at the Hague Congresgebouw in April 1979 at the time of the release of his instrumental masterpiece "Incantations". I was seated in one of the front rows and was blessed to be present at this majestic
live performance by the musical genius and his band/orchestra. Fully dressed in a khaki outfit, like the approximately forty other musicians on stage, he made a lasting impression on the young prog fan at ringside. However, chances that we'll ever see him
perform his latest album alive are small: responding to a question for this purpose he said recently that he only has a successful live performance in mind if there is a chance of him being cloned fifteen times. This is unlikely to happen, there are no plug-ins
for this yet, unfortunately. For now we have to make do with an extremely attractive, excellent and successful return to Ommadawn.
Part I starts typically with
flute, floating synth and acoustic guitar. The same guitar quickly became the main theme after the heavy but melodic bass and fuzzy guitar are added. The lovely bright tones of the acoustic guitar, he goes by himself in a duet at different pitches, call soon
associations with his best work, the simplicity is contagious. If the various instruments come together, as in a crescendo, I cannot resist putting the volume of the stereo to a distinctive higher level.
Especially the prominent role of the acoustic guitars is remarkable, the pleasure that Oldfield had experienced when composing and playing, is quite obvious. The multi-instrumentalist still prefers working with his fingers, nails and strings,
that much is clear. Almost cinematic, it is not difficult to evoke images of Scottish Highlands, the pristine landscape of Wales, and the rugged coastline of Ireland. Celtic references, typically British. While actually the album was fully produced and engineered
in his private studio in the Bahamas, his domicile since 2009.
Understated, the minimalist and repetitive style of teacher Terry Riley remembered, the return to Ommadawn continues.
And yes, here they are, halfway Part I, the famous hypnotic African drums against Oldfieldian chants, very recognizable without ever being a caricature or copy. One of his iconic solos on electric guitar is the introduction to an atmospheric acoustic closure
of part I. Time to flip the record, for vinyl enthusiasts. Because yes, I almost forgot to say, composing and playing was done with an old-fashioned LP format in mind. So side 1 and 2 of a long-playing record, with about 20 minutes of playing time, just as
we were accustomed once. Maybe somewhat short by today's standards but perfect for its purpose.
Side two, sorry Part II starts again subdued with a mandolin, flute and synth, quickly
melded into an acoustic guitar in the best tradition of this musical centipede. After that follows a duet between acoustic and electric guitar(s), with his distinctive pivotal style of play, just brilliant. Goosebumps moments are abound, especially in duet
with himself on guitar like the middle of part I and three-quarter through Part II. The folky tinted On Horseback at the end of Part II is a logical continuation of the end of the original album, including previously mentioned children's choir snippet
and Gibson SG solo. The connection between old and new is made, the musical canvas is finished.
And the impact is immediately noticeable; I have played the album several times already
and simply cannot get enough of it. With "Return to Ommadawn" Oldfield has delivered an excellent piece of work, that can stand the test of time, even compared to its legendary predecessor. Hopefully Oldfield can draw strength from the positive response from
both the press and public, and will not let us wait as long next time for the successor to "Incantations". If it should ever come to that. Additional kudos for the wonderful atmospheric album cover art, the LP version comes in a beautiful gatefold sleeve.
This album will certainly be eligible for the title "Album of the Year", no doubt about it.
Review © 2017 Alex Driessen