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Mike Oldfield

Ommadawn

Review by John Pierpoint

Completing the trilogy of early albums that began with Tubular Bells and continued with Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn manages to trump both earlier efforts with its sheer power and innovation. For many fans, this album is the highest point in Oldfield's first career phase.

For this outing, Oldfield drafts in a host of guest musicians, including his brother Terry on panpipes, Leslie Penning on recorders, Clodagh Simonds and sister Sally on vocals, Paddy Moloney on uilleann pipes, the Hereford City Brass Band, and African drumming group Jabula  - along with an ad hoc choir made up of the local children. Legend says that Oldfield was in a dark, desperate place when he made this record, yet somehow he produced an album that largely speaks of unbridled joyfulness and peace. There are some anguished moments -- notably the pained cries from his guitar at the end of Part 1 -- but even this has a magnificent, triumphant feel to it.

I have fond memories of listening to this both alone and with groups of friends (and sometimes even in a blacked-out room, so there would be no distraction from the music). Even nearly 40 years on, the music has lost none of its lustre. If you only buy one Mike Oldfield album -- well, I suppose it would probably be Tubular Bells! But for my money, this is his best work, and it deserves to be in the collection of any lover of well-crafted, emotional music.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Ommadawn Part 1

Immediately as the music starts we are transported to a warm, comfortable place…maybe a cosy hearth, maybe a gentle stroll down an English country lane at dusk. Harps and guitars combine, while female vocals and keyboards provide a seamless soft carpet. An emotive nylon guitar theme takes centre stage, while the vocals become more distinct. Synths take over, and then an electric guitar sails in from the distance. The music reaches a peak with multi-tracked guitar scales ricocheting around, until the central theme emerges on a mélange of pipes, organs and mandolins. The brass band joins in beautiful warm tones. The lead guitar flourishes to bring the music to a whimsical tune on recorder and mandolin. This theme always makes me think of a Regency period coach and horse team, possibly because the music was used on a local TV news article on that subject at the time of release, and that image has stuck.  A bass percussion and other instruments come in, to build up the volume. It slows as it builds.  The music drops back to tinkling harps with whistles. A cello or viola comes in, and then Oldfield's trademark jubilant electric guitar. This noodles about as the backing drops to barely more than percussion. More instruments re-join, as the guitar doubles up and reaches new peaks. The African drums now come in, along with vocal chorus, while the guitar plays the main theme. The music pauses momentarily as it enters the next section. This -- possibly the most famous -- section features Simonds' faux-celtic lyrics, sounding vague, distant, lush and dreamlike, gliding effortlessly on a carpet of subtle musical textures. To begin, only the drums are there, but more instruments join gradually. Electric guitars doubled with keyboards play loops of rapid scales. A nylon guitar comes in, sounding dramatic. A busy bass line underpins a sequence of chords, with the brass band adding extra tension. Then Oldfield cranks up the electric guitar in what must be his finest ever moment on record: an extended crescendo of shrill, piercing electric guitar, that tugs and teases - builds, drops back, then builds again to a mesmerizing backdrop of Jabula's drums and the brass band. After a final pained and orgasmic shriek from the guitar, we are left with the slowly fading, gentle rocking motion of the African drums. (On the original vinyl, this fade was much longer and made for a more satisfying ending). The listener is left feeling somewhat crestfallen, with a strong addict's urge to put the track on again immediately, to return to that blessed state and satiate the craving for more.

Ommadawn Part 2
This opens with a languid yet dramatic melange of pipes, guitars and keyboards, evoking a misty pre-dawn landscape. It resolves to a cycling sequence of scales. Tubular bells chime in. Rippling keyboards and guitar tapping blend together, then fade to a gentle yet lively acoustic guitar sequence, with a harp ticking away behind. This sets the stage for a stately, measured duet between Oldfield's acoustic guitar and Paddy Moloney's pipes. The next section meanders a calm mellow tune, then "zips" (you can hear it!) to another lively "horsey" theme. Oldfield's exuberant electric guitar solos to this, while backing singers add a folk air. The guitar cycles through rapid scales before squealing to a halt.
On Horseback
In much the same way Tubular Bells was topped off by the stand-alone “Sailor's Hornpipe,” this album closes with a whimsical piece, which is completely disarming in its freshness and honesty. Gentle acoustic guitar picking frames spoken lyrics (very muddily recorded, as though the microphone was wrapped in a Fairisle sweater!) from Oldfield, extolling the virtues of getting away from it all by riding a horse along Hergest Ridge. A bell-tree and double-speed slide guitar add a sprinkle of magic dust to the choruses. As usual, more instruments are added with each successive chorus. The children's choir joins in on the last one. Some may find it too saccharine, but I must admit that I find it very uplifting and emotional.

 

 
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