I am a huge Mike Oldfield fan, and have been for over 20 years. My first exposure to Mike’s work was in 1992, when Tubular Bells II was released, and the copy of the live premiere in Edinburgh taped from the telly was an oft rewatched video. So discovering my Dad had Mike Oldfield boxed on vinyl, with the quadraphonic remixes of Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge (which is probably my favourite album by Mike) and Ommadawn, complete with a bonus 4th record of unreleased or rare material, was a revelation for me, and since then I have collected all of Mike’s releases as they have come out. In fact Mike Oldfield is the only artist whose complete back catalogue (both studio and live) I own. I can’t abide silence, wherever I am there has to be music on for me, it helps me think, keeps me motivated and there’s so much of it out there that you never have enough time to listen to all of it. Mike is a very English composer, his pastoral pieces like Hergest Ridge, Tubular Bells and the later albums like Music from the Spheres or Voyager, follow a line from Elgar or Vaughan Williams. When studying and trying to concentrate for exams, Mike’s beautiful pieces like Hergest Ridge, Incantations, and Amarok were perfect to lose yourself in. Through working backwards I have come to appreciate the work of Vaughan Williams, his Lark Ascending comes from the same idea in England that the mighty Hergest Ridge came from. When I discovered Mike he was embarking on creative resurgence and a mighty purple patch in the late ‘90’s that spawned some fantastic albums like Guitars, Tubular Bells III, The Millennium Bell, as if, freed from his shackles at Virgin he was happy to be creating again. Through his more atmospheric ambient pieces at the start of the century like Tres Lunas, and Light and Shade, Mike has never disappointed, constantly moving on and expressing himself musically. There are very few artists of Mike’s calibre and longevity who can consistently produce great albums. However it’s been a very long wait for this new album Man on the Rocks, his first complete collection of songs since 1989’s Earth Moving, and his first rock album since 2005’s Light and Shade. He’s not been quiet though, in the meantime Mike has released Music of the Spheres, a classical album, performed live at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony and has overseen the impressive remastering and reissuing of his back catalogue (currently up to 1983’s Crises, which in its 5 disc set is a beauty) with his first real vocal album Discovery (1984) due soon, which I am really looking forward to.
I mention Discovery because on first glance, Man on the Rocks has a lot in common with its illustrious predecessor, which is my favourite of all Mike’s ‘vocal’ albums.
It has a consistent set of musicians, the same vocalists, and instead of being the man behind all the instruments, we’re getting Mike the band member, rather than Mike the ringmaster. This time however there are no instrumental tracks (unless you buy the deluxe 2 disc set, which features the whole album sans vocals, and is an interesting alternative to the original-guess which set I bought?) and instead of two vocalists alternating leads, or duetting, we have one vocalist, the singularly superb Luke Spiller, frontman with The Struts whose vocal performances are an ideal foil to Mikes music.This album has been out a while (nearly three months to be honest) but as I have been a Man in the rocks myself, instead of writing based on first impressions, this is more of a road test than a review (apt seeing as though the album has spent a lot of the time in the car with me, as I travelled between Kent and Bristol in the midst of a house and job move) and as such the album is a real grower. It also marks a return to the Virgin label for Mike, for the first time since 1991’s Heavens Open (due to his current label, Universal buying Virgin EMI & merging it with Mercury!)
Comparisons will inevitably be made between the opener, Sailing, to Mikes big hit Moonlight Shadow, mainly due to the presence of an acoustic guitar and catchy tune, with lyrics about taking the day off and going sailing, it’s a superb opener, and is reminiscent of the sentiment expressed in On Horseback from Ommadawn nearly 40 years ago, the need for freedom is still the same, the mode of transport is different.
Moonshine, (the second track in his career that’s been called Moonshine) with Davy Spillanes superb whistles, and Paul Dooleys violin, is an emotive track similar in vein to Fairport Conventions My Love is in America, all about the Irish émigrés to American looking for a new life and a taste of freedom, and again Luke’s vocals shine. We then come to the first true classic on the album, the title track, with it’s heartfelt lyrics, Lukes stunning vocals wrench every inch of emotion out of the track, whilst freed from multitracking and long compositions, Mikes guitar absolutely sings, well known for talking through his music, Man on the Rocks is one hell of a personal statement, and the power unleashed through his soloing is probably Mikes best guitar work since his Guitars album back in 1999. With little notes in the booklet about what has inspired the songwriting, I would suggest that the work Mikes been doing on his back catalogue has also given him inspiration, as I haven’t heard his music this fresh, this inspired, this involved and this contemporary since Tres Lunas from 2002.
The band Mike has assembled are also on fire, with John Robinson on drums and Lee Sklar on bass giving the music the solid base on which Mike, who only performs on guitar, keyboards and bass on this album, can build, with the help of Matt Rollings on piano and acoustic guitars from Michael Thompson and co-producer Stephen Lipson, whose deft touch works really well with Mikes music, and means the sound is uncluttered and clear. Working within a band environment is clearly beneficial for Mike’s music, as the strong musical interplay on tracks like Castaway and Dreaming in the Wind showcase the best of all involved. Nuclear, again looking at the darker side of emotions, with Lukes vocals again raging with the lyrics, and Mikes guitar cutting through the track like a scythe is superb. The rocking Chariots, with a great chorus and Lukes great vocals is a gem, and Following the Angels is a beautiful musical tribute to the spirit of the 2012 Olympics. Irene is inspired by the power of Hurricane Irene that passed over Mikes base in Nassau in the Bahamas, and has Luke giving his best Robert Plant throughout. The final track, the beautifully performed and excellently interpreted is a cover of William McDowell’s gospel track I give myself Away, which rounds off a superb collection of tracks. This will be compared to Mike’s previous musical outings, and if you are expecting some of his longer instrumental pieces then you will be disappointed, this isn’t the essence of this album. These 11 tracks are a statement that Mike wanted to make, and with one vocalist, the brilliant Luke Spiller, who is a real find, it hangs together as an album far better than it’s only comparison point in Mikes catalogue Earth Moving, which was a touch disjointed due to the different vocalists on each track. In fact you would have to go back to Discovery to find the last set of Mikes ‘vocal’ works that were this consistent, and this bloody good. This doesn’t sound like the work of a Man on the Rocks, it sounds like the work of a musician at ease with his legacy (which Mike hasn’t always been) and who has his creative juices fired up and ready to show the world what he’s capable of. Lets face it, if you can create Tubular Bells when you are 19, you can pretty much do anything you want to set your mind to doing! In conclusion then, Man on the Rocks is the best Mike Oldfield album since Guitars in 1999, and when taken in context with his entire back catalogue, will rang alongside Discovery, Hergest Ridge, Platinum,Tubular Bells and Amarok as one of the greats.