Sound: A couple of months ago, I reviewed Tubular Bells on this site. While I made clear my love for the album, I also said that compared to Mike Oldfield's later works, it left a little to be desired. Well, time has passed, and now I'm going to take a look at one of the true high-points of Oldfield's musical career: the awesome Ommadawn.
Ommadawn was Oldfield's third album, after Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge. It was released in 1975 and, like the previous albums, was a smash hit on, landing at No. 4 in the UK charts. With this album, Oldfield perfected his unique approach to music that had begun with Tubular Bells: a mixture of instrumental prog, world and classical music, defined not by lyrics or riffs, but by an emphasis on intricate melodies and thru-composition. Like the previous two albums, Ommadawn is devoid of individual tracks or songs. Instead, the album is divided into two halves, Part 1 and Part 2, and the music is presented as a journey that the listener embarks on, not as a collection of easily digestible hooks and choruses. And make no mistake, if you approach this album with open ears, it will take you on one hell of a journey.
Where Tubular Bells opened with an instantly recognisable piano riff, and Hergest Ridge slowly unfurled with dreamy synths, Part 1 of Ommadawn announces itself with an instantly bewitching guitar melody, played over a minimalist bass line and an ethereal vocal/synth mix. Part of what makes the intro stand out so much is just how much darker it sounds compared to Oldfield's previous work. While Tubular Bells has something of a scary reputation due to it's fame as the theme from The Exorcist, the actual music was far more melancholic than it was out-and-out dark. The opening to Ommadawn, by contrast, is a brooding piece that, while beautiful, shows off a darker heart beating in its chest. While the music soon progresses, in typical Oldfield fashion, to explore different musical ideas flung far and wide across the genre-spectrum, it keeps returning to the same menacing feel of the intro, creating an atmosphere that is both achingly beautiful and quite unsettling. As with other albums, contrast is the key thing here: after setting up Part 1 with it's eerie intro, Oldfield goes off on a tangent of lovely folky ideas played on harp, banjo, bouzouki and all other manner of instruments. Having led the listener through an up-beat, eclectic collection of musical ideas, Oldfield then returns to the more sombre feel of the introduction, but imbues it with a greater sense of gravity, thanks to some truly wonderful lead playing on his guitar. Make no mistake, Oldfield was and is a master guitar player, fitting all sorts of fiendish runs and licks into this section, obviously designed to allow him to show off his chops. To his credit, while the guitar playing is certainly flashy, it is always in service to the music, and never draws attention from the feel of the overall piece.
The climax of Part 1 takes the previous section, and takes it to new levels of tension. African drums combine with throbbing bass, haunting vocals and screaming guitar to create a sense of relentless momentum. Oldfield milks every last possible drop out of this section, before suddenly cutting everything out, leaving the African drums to slowly fade and finish Part 1.
Part 2, if anything, starts out on a darker note than the music that preceded it. Oldfield combines a slow, somewhat mournful melody, with the sound of dozens of overdubbed guitars all trilling away. This is the most avant-garde part of the album, and easily the part most inaccesible to the unconvinced ear. There is enjoyment to be had, however, in listening to how intricately Oldfield crafts together the sounds of so many instruments into a noise both cacophonous and yet melodic. And once this section concludes, the album puts the brooding atmosphere to rest, and begins a musical ascent that builds on musical ideas more upbeat than what has previously occured on the record. We are led, firstly, through a lovingly played piece played on solo acoustic guitar. Oldfield once again dazzles with his guitar skills, yet never allows them to overshadow the piece as a whole. Here he demonstrates a mastery of acoustic finger-picking that would, in a better world, have put him along side the likes of Bert Jansch in the minds of guitarists. Then we move onto a melodic folk piece complete with bagpipes. Here the upbeat atmosphere is kept and expanded on, before moving on to the climax of Part 2, and the album as a whole. Starting off decidedly low-key, with a recorder-led melody, it gradually builds until exploding into a truly beautiful, epic refrain. From here, Oldfield then moves seamlessly into a storming final coda which contains, without a doubt, one of my all-time favourite guitar solos. The musical atmosphere in this final section is bold, striding and climactic, and Oldfield's guitar darts around it in a truly bright, joyous fashion. Every trick in the book is thrown in to create a truly unique solo, and the entire album finishes to an epic scream on the guitar's upper register.
..Except it doesn't quite. Following on from the frankly exhausting (yet only in a good way) climax, Oldfield sneakily throws in a little acoustic ditty about the joys of riding his horse. If anyone else had tried this, it would have served only to marr the effect of the previous 40 minutes of music, but the ditty is so well composed, the lyrics so naively innocent, and the guitar playing so delicate that this final section, instead of irreversibly exhausting the listener, serves as a final enjoyable few minutes to an album truly epic in scope. By the time the album truly finishes, the listener has been taken on a visionary musical journey, and when listened to in the correct frame of mind, the effect is nothing less than mind-blowing. In musical terms, this album far exceeds its predecessors both in scope, and how cohesively everything fits together, and in how one piece flows into the next. // 10
Lyrics: As with many of his albums, Oldfield makes scant use of vocals, and even scanter use of decipherable lyrics. While there are more vocal parts on this album than on previous works, the large majority is either abstract 'oohs' and 'ahs' used to provide ambience, or sung in Gaellic to add to the album's splicing of world and folk music. None of this takes away from the effectiveness of the music, and indeed goes to show how much of an effect vocals can have even when nothing decipherable is being said.
The only comprehensible lyrics come at the end, with the ditty 'On Horseback'. Here Oldfield sings about his love of riding horses, combined with abstract musings and observations. His lyrics mix just the right amount of naievety and wit to come up with a charming little song. As with the rest of the album, Oldfield's strengths as a composer mean the absence of prominent vocal parts actually benefits the music, rather than takes away from it. The album has just the right amount of vocals for what it needs, and not a word or a syllable more. And that is just as great a skill as writing any number of witty mataphors and similes. // 10
Overall Impression: Ommadawn is a truly unique album. At first listening, it may seem somewhat hard to get into, and some sections (the hundred guitars section in particular) may seem outright baffling. And yet it is a textbook example of an album that truly rewards repeated listening. Not, as with many albums, because doing so will slowly club your brain into submission, but because familiarity with the general piece allows the ear to then pick out new unheard nuances and melodies with each listen. Once you know where the album is going, you can start to appreciate just how intricately composed every part is, and even the more difficult sections reward repeated listens.
As I've mentioned in previous reviews, Mike Oldfield is a criminally underrated guitarist, and any guitar player with a love for melodic, progressive music is highly advised to pick this album up. The solo towards the end of Part 1 is excellent, and the solo at the finale of Part 2 is nothing less than sublime. But throughout the album there are other guitar flourishes that will captivate anyone with a sharp set of ears. This album stands as a high point for what the guitar is capable of, not just as a show-off tool for rockers, but as a compositional instrument comparable to piano or violin.
Mike Oldfield's career spans dozens of albums now, with many high points (and even a few low ones) throughout. Ommadawn stands at the very top of the peak, as one of the best pieces of music he has ever composed, and indeed as one of the greatest pieces of progressive music of the 20th Century. I highly recommend this album to anyone with a love for prog, folk, or indeed anyone with a love for music that challenges you, but that also inspires a deep emotional reaction. I personally would place it above Dark Side, above Led Zeppelin IV, and above Selling England By The Pound in terms of how much I love it. It's that good. // 10