The man behind the haunting piano lick that became the soundtrack to one of the most notorious films ever has come a long, long way over the course of his epic career. It was an fed up and reclusive teenager who somehow managed to convince a young entrepreneur named Richard Branson to hire him �150 pounds worth of instruments on the strength of an 18 minute demo tape. That demo contained the initial concepts for a totally instrumental album that would go on to sell 17 million copies worldwide and subsequently make Mike Oldfield the biggest selling artist of the 1970s.
Granted, many of his other 22 releases may be regular inhabitants of the dusty sale stacks at stores across the land and yes, the last thing we heard from him was a 30th anniversary note for note re-recording of Tubular Bells, but those of you who are holding out in the hope of something refreshing from the Oldfield camp will not be disappointed in the slightest by Light And Shade. It’s an album which proves to be a modern, and spectacularly structured, work of ambient moods.
Created almost completely digitally, the effects and vocoders occasionally stray into the land of electric geekiness, but for the most part even the robotically vocal laden numbers such as The Gate are palatable, if a little jarred in their construction. Blackbird proves that simple is often best, and as well as standing out as one of the few acoustic instruments on the entire album, the haunting piano licks make for perfect midnight listening – although I can’t help but hear a little of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman in the dulcet tones.
First Steps is screaming out to be used as in the soundtrack to a war epic and equally matches the musicality of self inflated egoists like Hans Zimmer, once again using space and simplicity to sculpt a riveting soundscape that demands to be heard. Our Father is the first real ‘beat’ driven number which reeks of a Delirium or Enigma style chill out vibe. Written in honour of Pope John Paul II, the instrumentation is faultless but some amateur whispered vocals certainly detract somewhat from the overall positive impression.
Despite a severe lack of minor keys, Shade is perhaps a more driven, forceful collection of songs, with ambient dance (or whatever relentless snare hits atop dodgy synths is called) being the main order of the day. Think X-Files theme and you’ve got Slipstream covered, while Quicksilver could be the backing for many a Ministry Of Sound dance floor banger. Take some Celtic melodies played through a distorted guitar and stick them on top of the synths from Bruce Springsteen‘s Streets Of Philadelphia and you will have a carbon copy of Tears Of An Angel.
However, whatever you do, be sure not to miss the finale track Nightshade. Featuring the album’s only guest, one Christopher von Deylen on guitar, the 6 minute epic is much akin to Wish you were here era Pink Floyd without vocals, which had they been present could easily have send this ballad firing up the charts.
Altogether Mr Oldfield has produced a respectable and authentic collection of songs for Light And Shade, even if his new found love of modern technology does cause him to crank up the computerised effects to 11 on a fairly regular basis. However, the arrangement and construction of his work continues to effortlessly provide a unique and enlightening mix of music, some 30 years after the release of his gargantuan debut.