Written by 4:16 am Audiophile Music

Of Panpipes, Gliders and Fickle Americans : Exploring Mike Oldfield in 5.1 Surround

Mark Smotroff ‘fesses up’ to being a fickle American fan of the great Mike Oldfield while digging into some 2010 5.1 remixes…

Here in America we have a somewhat skewed version of the works of Mike Oldfield, an artist who in 1973 quite literally burst on the music scene with an album called Tubular Bells. That recording — and its spellbinding album cover — became almost immediately iconic. Something of a watershed or benchmark in the world of progressive rock music, when a section of Tubular Bells was used in the soundtrack to the hit horror film, The Exorcist (extracted as single played a lot on the radio) the album and image became even more ingrained in the American mindset.

AR-Hergest.jpgHowever, fame is fleeting and the American public has always been a kind of fickle holy grail for most artists to win over. Gaining our ongoing support is crucial or you are essentially toast on these shores. Post Tubular Bells, there was critical acclaim, but for the most part Oldfield became virtually invisible to the average American.

Meanwhile, in England and Europe, Oldfield was revered, playing stadium concerts and placing hit records in the charts (hit recordings that were most decidedly not the kind of thing America was consuming at the time, for the most part).  This is important detail to understand before I even dive into the reissue reviews of some of these later albums which, while available here in the states, weren’t exactly top of mind for many people.

As a long time fan of Oldfield’s music, I have long wanted to get my hands on the deluxe three-disc reissues he started putting out around 2009. These multi disc sets frequently included 5.1 surround sound mixes (alas, on a DVD, not a DVD Audio or Blu-ray Disc). Now, I’m not sure if there were distribution issues or problems that ensued with the mergers of major labels around time of their release in 2010… or problems with the world economy in general … but the reality is that it was often hard to find these multi-disc sets in the stores…And, when I did see in them, they were often quite high priced. They were pricey on-line as well, so I had some trouble justifying the purchases beyond the Tubular Bells reissue, which I did get early on and it is wonderful, by the way!

Perhaps stupidly, I decided to wait until I would see them on sale at some point. And thus I plead guilty as charged to be one of those fickle Americans I talked about above. My bad.

Anyhow, time being what it is, prices seem to have come down on these sets significantly and the economy is doing a bit better so I sprang for a few of them when I found them for less than $15 a piece.

Hergest Ridge was Oldfield’s first release after Tubular Bells and I can see how it may have confused some listeners at the time (especially fickle Americans!!). While it does feature Oldfield’s soon-to-be-trademarked multi-track overdubbed playing of most of the musical parts on it, and it does include lovely sweeping melodies that build to something more grand, Hergest Ridge is a much more mellow and introspective listening experience. It is almost proto-New Age in its flavor, presenting subtle variation and themes that almost pick up where Tubular Bells left off, but keeping to a pastoral ebb and flow. Hergest Ridge has more of a slow grandeur to it, which as it turns out (according to the charming liner notes in the very detailed booklet included) was a direct reaction — a retreat even — to the international acclaim foisted upon Oldfield upon his debut. Consider that the guy went from virtual unknown (he’d been guitarist in Kevin Ayers’ band back in the day) to an internationally acclaimed superstar overnight. Richard Branson began his Virgin empire on the back of Oldfield’s release (Tubular Bells was the label’s first ever release!).  So the guy, who was at that time somewhat introverted, had a right to pull back a bit and get his head together.

AR-HergestRidgeScreen.jpgHe did this at a place after which the album is named. According to the liner notes, Oldfield moved to the countryside and would fly radio controlled gliders up on a nearby hill called Hergest Ridge. Thus, when you view and listen to the 5.1 surround sound mix via your home theater system you will see blissful on-screen animated scenes placing you the viewer high above the English countryside as beautiful gliders soar around — and sometimes whizz right by — you.  Its really quite wonderful.

In the new surround mix Oldfield brings you into the heart of his world right from the start with a quite lovely immersion experience right from the get go. Bells appear in the front channels while haunting Fife-type sounds flow around you in the rear surrounds. Mandolin notes criss-cross the room from the rear left to front right.  Little melodies trickle like a babbling brook introducing new instruments and ideas from ripping-but-controlled Robert Fripp-like electric guitar distortion to plaintive oboes and muted horns.

Its all very very English and all very very nice and I mean this in the best possible way.

]]>Ommadawn was Oldfield’s return to the bigger sound of his debut, with another two-sided epic of near orchestral themes and variations. A critical success, it didn’t do all that well here in the US reaching only #146 on the charts (shockingly even lower than Hergest Ridge which made it to #87, according to the Wiki). Its a shame as there is some gorgeous stuff on this and, while not immediately as impactful as Tubular Bells, it is nonetheless a logical follow up and certainly sets the stage for his next release.

AR-ommadawn.jpgThe CDs offer a brighter so sounding new stereo mix as well as the original 1975 mix (which is a bit more analog-y feeling and slightly less sparkly). I never really loved the US pressings of this album on vinyl, which felt a bit compressed and were a tad noisy, so I don’t even have one to compare it to at present. So, yes, I anticipated eventually getting this set, so the LP was a victim of my collection downsizing a few years back. I didn’t want to lose those lovely hushed Panpipe details in the noise floor of a weak LP pressing (danggit!) 😉

On this disc we also get to hear Oldfield’s lost original demo of Ommadawn and numerous singles and B-sides. The DVD offers a nice immersive 5.1 mix that sounds remarkably good even though it is just plain Dolby Digital, replete with choral sounds and twinkling instrumentation coming up from the rear surrounds. On this disc we also get some fun promotional videos for the singles put out around this time — these, again, bear a very “Ye Olde English” flavor that would never have flown on MTV had it existed in 1975.

Fickle Americans!

AR-Incantations.jpg was Oldfield’s next album and it is a fabulously rich, progressive recording that probably took quite a bit of fortitude to release in 1978 at the height of the punk rock movement (consider that The Sex Pistols were his label mates on Virgin!). The new CD sounds great and much better than my LP (an Italian pressing, alas). This album has become a favorite of mine among Oldfield’s many works, with a really big sound that includes orchestral instruments as well as synthesizers and his trade mark soaring guitar work.

Oldfield had clearly made much progression in his compositions by the time of Incantations and this one was easily his strongest since Tubular Bells, feeling at times almost like Philip Glass’ music by way of Brian Eno. Here we also get a disc featuring 5.1 mixes of tracks recorded around the time of this album (singles and such). The video content makes this disc fairly essential as it includes the full concert performance of Incantations (in stereo only) as documented on the Spring 1979 tour (his first ever tour!). You also get the absolutely fun promotional video of Oldfield playing all the parts on “The William Tell Overture” (a B-side to his 1976 #3 UK hit “Portsmouth”).

The only sad thing about this release is that we do NOT get a surround mix of the studio version of Incantations — apparently the master multi-tracks were damaged over time so they could not create a new 5.1 mix from those sources. Tape degradation is a common problem among artists who recorded on certain brands of tape stock in the 70s and 80s, which used new formulations that did not age well. There are many master tapes from the 1950s that are in better shape than some tapes from the 70s!

AR-IncantationsHandClaps.jpgOh well, we beggars can’t be too choosy at this point. As one of the handful of fickle American fans of Mike Oldfield’s music I am happy to find that even these sets have been made available to us.

Perhaps someday we’ll get a new, higher resolution restoration reissue on Blu-ray. But for now — and especially for these very fair prices — you have nothing to lose by picking up these nice multi-disc sets by one of the great studio artists of our times.

So go get ’em and then perhaps lets all try to be a bit less fickle moving forward, okay?

Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.

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