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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Mike Oldfield

Hergest Ridge

Review by John Pierpoint

Ah! The difficult second album! When your first album becomes an unexpected hit and makes you an international star, how do you follow it up? In Mike Oldfield's case, after the success of Tubular Bells, he went straight back and recorded a very similar piece of work – but this time taking things at a more relaxed pace, in keeping with the pastoral nature of the subject (a location on the England / Wales border, to where the artist had retired to try to escape the intrusions of the press). As with its predecessor, Oldfield uses multi-tracking to play most of the instruments, and treats each side of the original vinyl version as a single track.

Despite the gentle pace of the music, this later work manages to sound wilder and more feral than its predecessor, largely due to the choice of sonic textures, which evoke a harsh, windswept landscape. Yet there is a real affection in this portrayal. While it has fewer noticeable sections -- and fewer hooks -- than the first album, this masks a greater underlying complexity. The piece shows the development in Oldfield's craft, and can be considered as the second in an aural tryptych (with the following album Ommadawn as the third chapter).

Note that another mix of this album was created for the Mike Oldfield Boxed quadraphonic boxed set. Apparently, the CD reissues that came after used this version of the music -- and this is what I am reviewing here. I have memories of hearing the original vinyl version, which most notably featured some eerie female backing vocals on the heavy section on side two. It would be nice if that version got a CD reissue some day.

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
Hergest Ridge Part 1
The music cuts in straight away (no fade-in) to a sustained chord of synths or organs. Doubled-up whistles or recorders play the main theme over this (occasionally stumbling). Other background instruments are introduced in support, until there is a chord change. Now damped electric guitars pick out the chord sequence, while piping keyboards continue the main theme. The guitars build in intensity and volume, eventually becoming undamped. A clean lead guitar assumes the theme, and then starts to improvise on it, with a few jazzy double-stops thrown in. A trumpet takes over the melody for a while. After peaking, the tune breaks down and slows to a passage of jangly guitars, featuring a sinuous, sensual oboe melody. The baton is passed to the returning trumpet, and then to a sustained electric guitar, which improvises. Then we’re taken back to the oboe melody, now doubled by the guitar. The tune sounds vaguely oriental at this stage. Tubular bells come in as the soundscape widens. A guitar scream introduces a distorted bass riff, with menacing organ backing. After a few dozen bars there is a key change. The mood lightens with new chords and some calming sleigh bells. The organs now assume the melody while the bass chortles along happily underneath. Later, there is a restrained, sustained guitar over the top, which ramps up to a full-on exuberant solo, ratcheting up the intensity with each repetition of the sequence. The tempo slows to bring in a new section of multi-tracked guitars over a sparse piano. A rich choir (attributed to the London Sinfonietta Voices) joins in near the end. There is noticeable clipping of the vocal track, but this doesn't detract too much from the peaceful atmosphere. The piano becomes more prominent, and then the tubular bells return. The music returns to the original haunting theme of synths and whistles.
Hergest Ridge Part 2
Acoustic guitars form a soft bed for reed organ and electric guitars, in one of the delightful cocktails of musical texture that Oldfield excels at on this album. The oriental-sounding theme from "Hergest Ridge Part 1" returns, played on glockenspiel. An intricate and delicate guitar flutters over the top. Suddenly a new theme is introduced, with nylon guitar, prominent bass and wailing guitar on high. Female vocals sing the new (main) melody. The lyrics are unclear, and may be just nonsense words, chosen for their sounds, but the effect is to establish a relaxing mood, which persists until a distorted guitar blasts in to take it to a new level. This doesn't last long though, as it drops back to some shimmering mandolins, and then down further to a lone bass, with a distant organ taking the melancholy melody. More keyboards come in, almost imperceptibly at first. Then the sustained guitar re-appears to handle the high notes (sounding very similar to what was later done on Incantations). The tension builds up as the wailing guitars go higher and higher. Then everything stops.  A hesitant, pulsating organ beat (reminiscent of Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air) bustles about, before two huge guitar chords serve to introduce the next section. This is a heavy treatment of guitar and organs, with spiky octave shifts accentuating the rhythm which evokes a rain-soaked storm (on the original vinyl release, wailing female vocals reinforced this imagery). A lone guitar glides high on the winds. A chunky new theme that could evoke Native American music takes over, forming a solid foundation for a guitar solo. It drops back to the main riff again for quite some time with seemingly no development (maybe something else was originally meant to go in here), and then the lone guitar rides out again. A wild pitch-bend effect is now apparent on some of the instruments, as more supporting instruments join in the clamour. This cuts to a calm, acoustic guitar tune with keyboard melody, a short-lived section which gives way to a string section, accompanying a reprise of the main melody -- this time played first on acoustic, and then on electric guitar. The female vocals return briefly. There is a final Spanish-sounding flourish on acoustic guitar, adding a mysterious touch with an unexpected chord twist.
 
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