Album Reviews

Mike Oldfield – Return To Ommadawn

(Virgin EMI) UK release date: 20 January 2017

Mike Oldfield - Return To Ommadawn Traditional rock music and social media have not always been an easy match. Mike Oldfield, though, has used it in the way it was intended, drawing inspiration from his fans for a new album. A quick survey of opinion found what they would like to see most was a return to his acoustic roots, the eyes clearly misting over at the prospect of more music in the style of the 1970s.

The clincher for Oldfield was a comment from Jean-Michel Jarre, who referred to him as an ‘acoustic’ musician, in the process reminding him of those roots. Jarre was absolutely right, for even though Tubular Bells is electronic in sound it is deeply acoustic in concept.

Oldfield, then, travelled back in time, arriving at the Ommadawn record of 1975. Here he was unwittingly mirroring the work of Brian Eno, whose Reflection, released earlier this same month, drew on its makers Discreet Music, also of 1975. As you might expect though, the two resultant instrumental records are chalk and cheese, Oldfield’s inspiration being an album notable for its frenetic activity.

The original Ommadawn was an extended love letter to the influence of Celtic instruments and melodies on English music, and it integrated those instruments seamlessly into an album of progressive folk-rock that united UK musical styles. Northumbrian pipes, guitars and drums mixed seamlessly.

Fast forward 42 years and here we are again with Return To Ommadawn, Oldfield perhaps unintentionally reuniting the music of the countries in their current, more divisive political position. Once again he takes the ‘two sided’ approach, doffing a cap to the continuing popularity of vinyl, and once again Celtic musical language and instruments form the basis of the ‘new’ material.

Oldfield plays all the instruments himself, keeping a fiercely protective arm around his music, meaning we will almost certainly never experience it live. This is a shame, for it forms the soundtrack to an invisible film, uplifting music given with its creator’s passionate input.

Perhaps the most striking moment comes three-quarters of the way into Part 1, where the music takes a brief opportunity for reflection before moving on to a powerful drum track and distant vocal, the only instance where voices are heard.

It is these moments of punctuation that make the listener sit up. Ten minutes earlier in Part 1 there is a really nice episode where the texture is pulled back a bit, the drums soften and the melody makes itself known in more plaintive form – a more obvious reference to traditional folk music. This is however spoiled a little by a very keen guitar solo, an instance of where less could have been more.

The cheery flute that starts the second part heads for the same emotional plateau of the first, celebrating the outdoors. Both parts are more or less the same length, giving pleasing symmetry – and once again half way through Part 2 there is a gear change. More percussion are added to the lower end of the texture, before a shrill pipe comes out with another bright and breezy melody, taken up by the rock guitar. This is crowned by a big unison statement of another traditional theme, the emotional strong point of the album.

Oldfield’s style is quite twee at times, and it does ramble on occasion, but the rambles are never anything less than pleasant. There are however some points where it feels like too much music is going on, an overabundance of melodies that are usually crowned by a heroic electric guitar solo.

Yet in the wake of some very difficult times for Oldfield, capped by the tragic sudden loss of his son in 2015, Ommadawn seems to have put him in a happy place. Towards its close it is easy to imagine being in the wide open, ultra-green expanses of Ireland with a strong wind blowing on your face. It is an image contrary to that of the glowering cover as the album pulls to a jubilant, slightly mischievous close.

As its title implies, Return To Ommadawn is nothing new of course, but it is a happy reunion that will please Oldfield’s fans greatly. It may not necessarily introduce him to a new audience, but it leads those in the know to a familiar place they know well.

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