Saturday, 11 March 2017

Return to purity

The superlative multi-instrumentalist, who defined a whole era with his first album Tubular Bells, has returned.

Now this may sound bizarre, as Mike Oldfield has been quite active and very much "around" in recent years.

Disregard the cover design. Disregard the direct reference to Ommadawn, his third album more than four decades ago.

The new album is actually a return to an instrumental purity of utterly delicate nature, rather than just a revisiting of some older material. It is not a remix, it is not a re-take on the themes and motifs of that mid-seventies concept album.

After (too) many years of bizarrely ultra-commercial and self-conscious dance electronica (true, infused with immediately recognisable Oldfield magic, but still...), the prog rock legend has put aside the multitudes of software plugins and drum machines and hyper-digital shake-your-booty sequenced nightclub material.

What we have on the two long instrumental tracks (as another kind of return, one of form and structure, from decades and decades ago) is the eminently guitar-oriented, ethnically inspired, never just showing off virtuoso Oldfield.

It really is a return to the sound world of his first albums, with a subtlety and instrumental dexterity that is remarkable for the artist who is no longer in his early twenties, to say the least.

What makes this album stand out in the over-digitised, over-produced, ultra-self-conscious and in-your-face musical world of the second decade of this very different century is how organic it is.

Yes, it is impeccably produced, it is a product of state-of-the-art studio technology - but this remains, as this should be, just a background element in what we are listening to.

This is Mike Oldfield we have not heard since the 1970s, but in the best possible sense.

The intricate guitar motifs, the folk influences, the catchy melodic snippets that combine and develop beyond what one may expect even with full knowledge of his musical output, the superlative care for details (while still keeping it sounding utterly natural and improvised even)... this is the most astonishing Oldfield we can imagine. If we are fans of his organic, spontaneous-sounding instrumental output, that is...

Return to Ommadawn surprises with its purity, a purity of sound, but also a purity of inspiration.

The simplicity, which is the most difficult thing in music, and the intimacy of the two tracks is something that many instrumentalists should really, truly, take as lessons of musicianship.

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