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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Mike Oldfield

Incantations

Review by Steve Alspach

"Incantations," released in 1978, may have been Mike Oldfield's most ambitious work to date. Oldfield draws from a number of sources here, including orchestral strings, Philip Glass-like arpeggios, African drumming, and choral work to make this a grand effort. The instrumentalists on this album are Mike Oldfield; Mike Laird, trumpet; Pierre Moerlin, drums and vibraphone; Maddy Prior, Sally Oldfield, the Queens College Girls Choir, voices; Sebastian Bell and Terry Oldfield on flutes, and Jabula on African drums. David Bedford conducted the strings and choir.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: The Early Years Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Part 1
A vocal arpeggio opening (similar to that on "Tarkus") goes into an 11/8 section with the flute playing lead. This segment also includes strings playing double-time in the background. This first movement then goes into a march-like setting with the trumpet playing lead (and echoing on itself) with the strings keeping time. This is followed by a rather long section where the Queens College Girls Choir sings Ben Jonson's "Hymn to Diana" over an eighteen-bar pattern. Given that the excerpt from "Hymn to Diana" is only three lines, the words are repeated over the pattern. The first part ends with the 11/8 opening section.
Part 2
This part opens with a keyboard melody over the Glass-like arpeggios, then shifts abruptly into two short passages with tremolo strings. This provides a bridge into a slower version of the "Hymn to Diana" melody. The last nine minutes of this movement are something only Mike Oldfield could pull off (or have the nerve to). Take an African drum group, fade in a synthesizer (holding one chord throughout), use a marimba counter-melody, and have Maddy Prior sing an excerpt from Longfellow's "Hiawatha." It may look weird on paper, but it works quite well. The music may be minimalistic, but it forces the listener to follow the story, and Prior's melody and the marimba counter-melody accompany each other perfectly.
Part 3
The first two parts were extensions of several themes, but this goes into a different direction. Oldfield's guitar takes center stage in place of the string and choral arrangements. The first 10 minutes sound like vintage Oldfield, his double-speed guitar solos melodic and fluid. The second half is the hardest thing on the album, though nothing like his "Piltdown Man" bit from "Tubular Bells." The melodies in this section are quite simple. A brief return to the opening theme for Part 3, and then into a new section where the guitar seems to eke out a melody while the rhythm instruments hammer away. The prolonged ending seems to indicate that Oldfield may have been trying to get seventeen minutes out of this piece come hell or high water.
Part 4
A harp opens up this movement with a piano playing a dreamy, Satie-like melody. The 11/8 theme reappears, this time with a crystalline vibraphone taking the lead. Oldfield then takes a solo over the 11/8 pattern. The piece goes back to the vibraphone lead for a hypnotically long time. A harder variation of the "Hiawatha" theme appears, and then back to the 11/8 (like a musical tug-of-war) before ending with the melody used in the "Hiawatha" excerpt, this time with a different marimba counter-melody, and Maddy Prior reappears to sing the coda.
 
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