Monday, 17 September 2007

Top 100 Albums - #65: Tubular Bells II (1992)

Mike Oldfield's only chart appearance comes in the form of Tubular Bells II, the updated and revised version of his most famous work, Tubular Bells (1973).
After Tubular Bells became a sensation upon its release in 1973, Oldfield retreated from the public eye, shunning calls for him to tour the project and collaborate with other artists. He spent the remainder of the 1970s creating a series of soundscape albums in a similar format - two long instrumentals, one for each side of the vinyl record. All these efforts, from Hergest Ridge (1974) to Platinum (1979), failed to replicate the critical and commercial success of his breakthrough, although Hergest Ridge briefly went to No. 1 in the UK. In the 1980s Oldfield charged for the mainstream with a series of poppier albums. Some of his efforts - like Crises (1983) - were more than reasonable; others - like 'Shine', his collaboration with Jon Anderson - were vile. After the release of Heaven's Open (1991), Oldfield left Virgin and returned to his New Age roots.

This new version of his masterpiece is divided into 14 parts instead of 2 halves - 'songs' doesn't really do the piece justice as a means of description. 'Sentinel' begins with some sweet, deceptive pinao; but before long this gives way to the familiar sequence which provided the theme for The Exorcist. Gradually this unfolds, bringing in Oldfield's familiar, mournful guitars, played with his perfected picking method of using his nails. From then on the piece rises and rises, from the spooky female vocals to the brooding bass lines. This is an absolute classic in every sense, a masterpiece of atmosphere and a brilliant way to open the album.

'Dark Star' may fall short in direct comparison, taken on its own terms this is still a great piece. At 2:16, it's a lot shorter, but it has a different feel. While 'Sentinel' was mournful, melancholy and breathtakingly sombre, this is rocking, aggressive and jagged at the edges. After some great guitar-duelling - between acoustic and electric - the melody gives way to some monumental keyboards, which are played so low that they are close to being terrifying. This is even better when they are juxtaposed by Oldfield's trebled, tender guitar.

'Clear Light' changes the tone once more, changing the emphasis to classical guitar and piano. When counterpointed by heavy bass, we achieve something very strange but alluring. As the piece develops, the female vocals return and the whole thing becomes a little more angelic. The biggest addition here, though, is the bright horn section, wich rears its head just before the piece deliberately collapses (in a good way) into a beautiful guitar solo backed with synthesised pan-pipes. And, as if this wasn't enough, we get the first glimpse of the title instrument as well.

With 'Blue Saloon', we are subjected (or treated, as the case may be) to a much darker, more startling sound. Mike Oldfield created Tubular Bells as a kind of fantasy world into which he could escape. As such it is entirely possible that the music will reflect his psyche, laced as it is with depression, panic attacks and feelings of loneliness. This is a piece void of the angelic guitars or female choirs of previous movements. This is edgy, complete with a pounding heartbeat bass line and a keyboard sequence which will send chills down your spine. Sure, the guitars are here, but they're muted and suppressed by the dark, cold background of the piece.

Thankfully, before long the cold steel walls are stripped away with the bright piano and jaunty guitars of 'Sunjammer'. This really is a record to enjoy in stereo; only then can you get the pleasure of the guitars dancing off each other with the keyboard murmuring in the background. This is an unlikely candidate for an air guitar competition, but there are enough hooks here to make any mute roll around and improvise at will.

Having showered the record thus far with all this praise and adoration, we hit a pebble in the sand with 'Red Dawn'. In contrast to the precise, meticulous nature of the last five moments, this is rather aimless and subdued. The female vocals on this occassion are just plain off-putting, and the guitar part at the end sounds like it is being played by a three-year-old with only one finger.

But all is not lost, for now we come to 'The Bell'. This piece closes the first half of the record, and consists of different instruments being brought in one by one, playing the same little phrase in their idiosyncratic tones. This time around, the narrator is the guttural ctor Alan Rickman as opposed to Vivian Stanshall, founder member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (incidentally, this could be described as a more serious version of 'The Intro And The Outro' from Gorilla (1967)). Some of the instruments are a little obscure (what is 'The Venetian Effect'?) and the vocal chords sound fake, but despite these this is a piece of unmistakeable grandeur, which, considering its inate simplicity, is both ironic and a compliment to Oldfield's skill as a composer.

'Weightless' is another let-down, a repetitive and rather formulaic composition which relies too much on electronic noise to qualify as a good movement. It's certainly not the best way to kick off the second half of the record. The panpipes on this are good, but overall it's way too mellow to drag you kicking and screaming back into the album in the way that 'Sentinel' got your attention. 'The Great Plain' is a lot better. With its folk guitars, country-ish banjos and shrill, siren-like pipes, it's a more focussed and in-depth piece. It has some wonderful sequences which flash out of the mix - for instance, the 8-bar repeating phrase from 3:11 to 3:27 has a certain magic about it which makes it a delightful listen.

'Sunset Door' is heavily reliant on pipes. While on paper this may seem like an acquired taste, in reality it's a relatively pleasant little interlude. At only 2:23 long, that is all it could serve as and all that it is designed to be. The reason being is that it must soon give way to the mighty 'Tattoo'. Even I, as a non-bagpipe fan, found this intriguing. It's a looping march, but unlike a lot of loops - which appear to not go anywhere - this has a clear sense of direction. The combination of bagpipes and Oldfield's guitar is compelling - perhaps he is using an e-bow, creating the 'bagpipe guitar' sound as mastered by Big Country(?!). Regardless of this, this is the third of the great 'tracks' on this album.

It's a real shame, then, that the album becomes so fickle hereon in. 'Altered State' is rubbish, simple as. It fells clunky, the vocals are extremely off-putting and it appears to have little overall place and purpose on the record. The only thing preventing this from being a complete disaster are the interludes which appear to have lifted straight out of a world music record. But that is not enough to save this travesty of a track.

'Maya Gold' is a good recovery from this, shrinking the album back down to its sad-tinged beginnings. It's more minimalism, relaxed and downcast, all of which works to it advantage. For the trained ear, there is some lovely soft organ parts hidden underneath the guitars. For the untrained ear, there is more than enough to enjoy though. But the same cannot be said for the closer. 'Moonshine' is lifted straight out of country and western music: as such it grates the nerves, is void of any real substance and - worst of all - it's really hard not to get up and dance, however abominable that may be. It's a hillbilly track, which brings the album to a terrible grinding halt.

At the time of its release, Tubular Bells II was attacked by critics as a sign that Oldfield was running out of steam, retreading old ground and become a slave to his own obssessions. This is certainly true for his subsequent... 'revisions', like Tubular Bells III (1998) and Tubular Bells 2003 (2003). But Tubular Bells II, for all its faults, has one big advantage over the original. That is its division into shorter tracks. Whereas subsequent editions trivialised the music by playing around with the timings of the tracks, on this occassion it makes it easier for new fans to discover his music and his genius. Younger listeners who associate 25-minute pieces with the more pretentious side of prog rock (ELP-style) may warm to this a lot more than the original, at least at first. The greatest asset of Tubular Bells II is not the respect it pays to the original, but the way in which it is put together and presented as a more accessible way into one of music's great enigmas.

3.79 out of 5

1 comment:

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