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Mike Oldfield
Hergest Ridge / Ommadawn reissues Rob Haynes , June 24th, 2010 10:50

Having lit the financial fuse for Richard Branson's career and sat firmly on the wrong side of the late 70s punk rock wars, there remains a lingering sense of suspicion towards Mike Oldfield. However, let it be put on record that this resentment has obscured what a remarkable trilogy of achievement he scored at the outset of his career. Tubular Bells of course remains his touchstone - entirely composed and performed by the industrious, insular Oldfield, it established him as a pioneer in the field of solo composition but consequently the two albums which followed, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, have never received anything like the same attention. These deluxe edition reissues offer the now-mandatory options of original and newly remastered versions together with original demos and extra tracks, and provide an opportunity to reassess a remarkable burst of creativity.

Detach, if possible, the Exorcist soundtrack connection – Oldfield's early work embodies a peculiar strain of ancient Briton oddness that could find it just as easily soundtracking The Wicker Man or the work of Oliver Postgate. 1974's Hergest Ridge was a symphonic, uplifting and occasionally fraught evocation of English landscape (the deluxe release comes with a new cover which adapts the original's fish-eye lens shot to a more expansive aerial view of the titular landscape feature). By Oldfield's own admission the album couldn't live up to the immense expectation set by its predecessor. Taken on its own merits, though, it has its moments – and given that the album is based around a mere handful of musical ideas, some of those moments are very long and rewarding indeed. A crisp new stereo mix is included, although in a nice twist to all the updatings and tweakings, the cherished original 1974 vinyl mix is included (since 1976 only a much maligned remix - admittedly by Oldfield himself - has been available).

The opening and closing passages are elegant and inspired, but much of the remainder is based on repetition which, rather than Philip Glass-style homage, often ends up sounding more a case of demented space-filling. Still, it proved that Tubular Bells was no once-in-a-lifetime fluke.

After another year's gap Ommadawn was a far more considered package, and to anyone with a long-term interest in the artist it could in many ways be seen as his best album, flowing naturally where Tubular Bells seemed a scattershot assemblage, and contained some of his loveliest passages of bucolic melancholy. The updated mix tinkers vaguely with an original that had little wrong with it in the first place, although it does foreground the African drums which were so pointlessly underplayed in the 1975 release.

The unreleased portions of each album – demos, essentially – come with the routine disclaimer 'for fans only' but are nevertheless fascinating, if only for presenting Oldfield's vision as mostly intact from the start. It's a little more shrill and cheaper sounding, but the most notable addition is a spoken-word segment in which a joke is repeatedly fluffed, which sprawls awkwardly across the African drumming section that closes Ommadawn's side one. Where Vivian Stanshall's MCing of the Tubular Bells finale was quirky, this just seems at best self-indulgent adolescent humour, at worse a grim crystalisation of Oldfield's mental troubles at the time.

Elsewhere the extra tracks include the gloriously exuberant 'In Dulce Jubilo' and its b-side 'On Horseback', a beautifully childlike rustic ballad to equestrianism with babyish lyrics delivered with such earnestness (“some are short, others tall, some hit their heads against the wall”) that it somehow achieves huge charm rather than embarrassment.

The deluxe-edition format once again straddles the fine line between value and exploitation. Where, for example, recent Black Sabbath 'deluxes' merely offered instrumentals and slight alternate takes, there's enough added here to extend interest beyond the fanatic follower. Besides, these are great pieces of work which deserve every opportunity for re-evaluation.

Ommadawn completed Oldfield's unofficial opening trilogy. Just around the corner lay his dramatic mental breakdown / rebirth and a subsequent relative mental stability that would, in the Faustian way of these things, mean that he would never be as musically interesting again.

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