Sound: My goodness... all the years that UG has been on the internet, and no-one's reviewed this album yet? One of the best selling albums of all time, it's importance in music history cannot be overstated. It both launched Richard Branson and the Virgin brand into the world, and proved that an instrumental based album could be both a critical and commercial smash, years before Surfing With The Alien. Released in 1973, the same year as Dark Side Of The Moon, this is one of [i]the[/i] definitive prog albums, if only for the fact that it proved that music could be progressive, avant-garde even, and still sell millions upon millions of records. Upon release, it stayed in the British charts for 279 weeks, and has sold over 15 million copies world-wide.
Considering the album's lasting legacy, it's perhaps ironic that Tubular Bells was written by Oldfield when he was only nineteen. It's also, despite being the album he is most associated with, far from his best work. On later albums (which I will hopefully get around to reviewing) he proved himself to be both an incredible composer, and a searing, and to this day criminally underrated, guitarist. But this review isn't about later albums, it's about Tubular Bells, and with the history lesson out of the way, let's take a look at the actual music itself:
The album is composed of two main parts: Part One, and Part Two. Like many prog artists of the period, Oldfield was more concerned with crafting truly epic, moving pieces of music, as opposed to the three minute pop/rock songs that had been the norm. Part One runs to just over 25 minutes, Part Two runs to 23. Within the two parts, Oldfield composed a myriad of intertwining musical sections that have more in common with classical symphonies than rock songs. It is not the purpose of this review to examine every section and every change, as to do so would take this already long-winded review to an absurd length. Instead, the focus shall be on the atmosphere of the album as a whole, with emphasis put on notable highlights (and even a few low ones!) to use as examples.
Describing the sound of Tubular Bells is difficult because it was, both at the time and still now, quite unlike anything else out on the radio. As soon as the haunting piano intro comes in (probably known to most as the theme from The Exorcist), alternating an A minor melody between 7/8 and 4/4, you realise that this album is something different. Oldfield was one of the true pioneers of multi-track recording, using seemingly dozens of instruments and hundreds of overdubs to create a musical atmosphere quite unlike anything else that was around during the early Seventies. The piano intro, for instance, is soon quietly joined by bass, stabbing synths, harmonized guitars, droning organs... all of which Oldfield played himself. Whilst keeping the distinctive intro melody going, he layers chord progressions, guitar runs and mellotron oohs-and-ahs over the top to create a rising tension. Before that tension overstays it's welcome however, and proving Oldfield's talents as a composer, this seamlessly moves into a folky acoustic passage, and from there begins a true musical journey that covers Crimson-esque hard rock, classic prog, ethereal ambient passages, and probably one of the most well-known musical climaxes in all of Western music.
One of the most distinctive things you notice about the album is the sheer range of instruments involved, and the way Oldfield gets them to harmonise with each other. The fact that he played pretty much everything himself, and that everything recorded on the album was a first take, is a testament to the man's sheer musical ability. Of particular interest to guitarists is Oldfield's guitar playing: over the course of the album he demonstrates beautiful chordal melodies, Townshend-esque brash rhythm playing, gentle acoustic melodies and screaming lead guitar breaks. His technique was, and still is, unusual: he plays electric in the same way many play acoustic, using the nails on his right hand (without using his thumb!) to pluck the notes, and using whatever fingers aren't plucking to mute the other strings. It's a technique with a very distinctive sound which, combined with Oldfield's fondness for P-90 equipped Gibson SGs and the use of compressors, creates a tone that sounds blistering, truly as if his guitar is wailing. In my opinion, it is on his later albums that his playing and tone really begin to shine, but his mastery of the guitar is apparant even here. Only someone with incredible musical ability could create some of the riffs on display here.
At it's heart, Tubular Bells is an album of contrasts: the eerie feel of the intro gives way to a lovely folk-ballad passage, the climax of Part One is juxtaposed with the beautiful, serene intro to Part Two, which is itself juxtaposed with the rough thuping quality of the Caveman section. This defines the sound, perhaps, more than anything. Just when you think you have a handle on where the music is going, it takes a left-turn somewhere completely different. The result of this is that, by the album's end, you do feel as if you've been on a musical journey, in the truest sense of the word. // 9
Lyrics: Being instrumental in almost its entirety, there is little need to review lyrics that aren't there. The only vocal section's are Vivian Stanshall as the Master of Ceremonies introducing each instument as they add themselves to the stunning climax of Part One ("Spanish guitar, and introducing Acoustic guitar!"), and the admittedly bizarre Caveman section in Part Two ("Hruff! Hruffgruff! Blaaargh!"). Later works would show both a keen understanding of how to arrange vocal parts, and a somewhat understated, yet witty, approach to lyric writing, but here Oldfield let's music do practically all of the talking. This album is one of the poster-boys for instrumental rock for a reason: at no point does it feel as if the album is missing vocals, or that any instrument is simply taking the place normally reserved for vocals (an issue I often have with players such as Satriani). This is music that is composed entirely with the purpose of being instrumental, and that is just as valuable a skill as being able to write snappy rhymes. // 9
Overall Impression: So, this album is a landmark in the history of rock, it's a beautifully crafted piece of enchanting prog... Is it perfect? Far from it.
For me, this album is as astonishing a debut as you could ever hope to find, but compared to the albums Oldfield would later go on to make, it has some rather noticeable dips in quality as well. Not all the sections flow together as smoothly as you would like (and in the case of the Caveman section, could probably have been cut from the album entirely to no great loss). While the recording was cutting edge for it's time, there are quite a few bits which could have done with a bit more work. Rocking passages that perhaps need more of a driving rhythm section behind them to truly work. The fact that everything recorded was first-take means, inevitably, there are some rough edges here and there. Sometimes it feels like it couls have done with just a little more polish. These aren't things that are hugely noticeable, but are more little niggles that become apparant when listening with an attuned ear.
These flaws are one reason for the lower score than, perhaps, my praise above would have indicated. Another is simply that, in my opinion, Oldfield went on to do far better things later on in his career, and to give Tubular Bells a perfect '10' simply for its historical status would be unfair to albums such as Ommadawn and Amarok, which don't have the same kind of prestige. Hopefully in the future I will be able to review those albums, and give them some much needed attention.
As for Tubular Bells: for all its little flaws and rough edges, it's still a stonkingly good album. Beautiful even. This is an album to show to friends when trying to convince them that music can be more than catchy hooks and hummable melodies; that music can reach inside your head and inspire almost any kind of emotional responce. It's an album to play to people who think prog is nothing more than playing a million notes a second in ridiculously complicated time signatures. It's an album to show people that instrumental music can be, and has been, as ridiculously succesful as almost any straight rock or pop album.
But most of all: It's one of the definitive albums to sit down, turn the lights off, and listen to all the way through. // 8