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Mike Oldfield - Earth Moving CD (album) cover


Mike Oldfield


Crossover Prog

2.11 | 204 ratings

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4 stars I am pretty sure I will incur the wrath of many prog fans about my review of Earth Moving, the multitude of purists have expressed their rather thorough disgust for this 1989 release by the prolific Michael Oldfield. My intention is to clarify more than anything the method by which we, as a prog community have a tendency to judge, at times unfairly in my opinion, albums that almost always represent a diversion from otherwise massive discographies (We can include albums such as Tangerine Dream's "The Dream Mixes I" or the despised "Under Wraps' by Jethro Tull, among a few others). That does not mean that there cannot be stinkers like ELP's "Love Beach" which clearly showed a lack of interest or corporate oppression. Hey, artists are creative souls that can occasionally falter in terms of inspiration or dedication to excellence. But I take exception to the unjust criticism of "Earth Moving", as I am taken aback by pundits seemingly wishing for another "Tubular Bells" (really? you need more?) or "Amarok" (which was more a project than anything) or an "Ommadawn" revisited. I say that is patently ridiculous for an artist with such exceptional talents as Mr Oldfield and owner of an extended career, not to explore different avenues of expression. The man did not sell out, he simply felt the need to visit the perennial black sheep of the prog sub-genres which I like to call Prog-pop but that the community prefers to refer to, for aesthetic purposes, as "Eclectic Prog". Let us not forget that Mike has composed albums that were essentially classical music, soundtrack, New Age, Celtic, symphonic and orchestral. He also was fascinated by odd little unpretentious ditties like "Punkadiddle", which was nothing more than a rebuke to media criticism for being too 'stodgy" and clinical. So he had a pop phase, which include some staggeringly beautiful songs, if you choose to listen to them for what they are worth and not for what the fans expect from their star. In purely song writing terms, pieces like "To France", "Moonlight Shadow", "Arrival", "Family Man" and the haunting "Foreign Affair" are nuggets of musical brilliance and exceptional performance.

So after 17 years and a dozen albums released, Oldfield decided to record "Earth Moving", a stellar set of finely chiseled songs with no epics, no one-man show of editing sophistication or extended instrumental breaks. The pieces are rich in melody, tight in delivery but mostly provide platforms for some of the finest vocals ever put to record, both lead and backing that are quite startling to witness, should one delve into the matter with a finer microscope. I will agree that it's not a progressive rock masterpiece but it's a pop album but a damn good one, with immense doses of "progression", especially vocally.

"Holy" features the miraculous voice of Adrian Belew (before he joined Fripp & co), a cleverly crafted slice of impassioned presence that is sanctified by some details of genius such as Mike's volatile hard-guitar rant, slashing rhythm axes afire and little squeals of zeal. The shrieking choir vocals by the irresistible Carol Kenyon are seconds of sheer thrill. "Hostage of the Heart" has trumpet-synths, swirly yet harsh guitars and metronomic drum machines that punch hard and fast, but the duet vocal work by the underappreciated Max Bacon (yeah, the poor GTR guy) and the scintillating and soulful Nikki Bentley is simply exemplary. The melody is rich and expressive, a fabulous piece of highway driving music that certainly has a strong late 80's feel, synthetic yet soulful, a rare winning combination. Oldfield has a fiery lead guitar, up front and center, where it should be. Thrown in some amazing clavinet and you can appreciate the jewelry. One of my all-time favorite hymns, "Far Country" is simply a stunning tune, unknown vocalist Mark Williamson delivers a trembling aria, full of airy passion and forlorn despair, with weaving orchestrations (a lot of synth-bass and backdrop strings). Adrian Belew shows off his tense, effect-laden guitar skills (can you imagine, he has played with Fripp, Zappa and Oldfield, what a lucky man!).

Now, "Innocent" is eerily close to then Madonna/William Orbit style, female vocals by Anita Hegerland zoom about amid a rather simple funky 80's style euro-pop canvas. Hummable, unpretentious, perhaps even slightly puerile but really not very guilty of any sin. "Runaway Son" is a horn-fest, loaded with so much brass, it's almost like a military onslaught. The other immediate pleasure is the voice of the talented Chris Thompson of Manfred Mann's Earth Band fame. Otherwise, it's not my cup of tea as the song is a little too rushed for my liking and I am not a fan of "Ooo-oo-oo" backing refrains.

"See the Light" is heavy and sweaty, with Thompson again grasping the microphone and doing a good variation on the "Blinded by the Night" theme, full of dense bravado and conviction when he sings "I can see the light, I can feel the light". Slash guitars and superb backing vocals really compliment the deal but the harmonica detail is just priceless. Very obvious hints of classic Foreigner, as there is a strong bluesy feel a la Lou Gramm. Nice! The title track has been one of my favorite easy listening piece ever, mainly because the voice of Nikki Bentley stuns me now as strongly as it has for the past 24 years. Vocalists have a lovely term called 'belting out" a vocal, well this is my finest example! Her screeching delivery on the chorus ('reaching out for you') supplies goose bumps like no other, the catty guitar and the masterful sax blowout courtesy of Raf Ravenscroft (remember Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street"?) , just convince me every time I hear "this sweet love song". Talk about intense, my goodness!

The superb voice of perennial Oldfield collaborator Maggie Reilly is featured on the rambling "Blue Light" and is typical of her previous work with the guitar madman, who BTW uncorks a sizzling acoustic guitar solo. This is standard Oldfield/Reilly fare and will only contribute to their legend with another glorious melody. Carol Kenyon opens up the voice fest on the epic 8 minute plus suite "Nothing But/Bridge to Paradise" with a spirited delivery full of lung and lust as she deliciously wails 'Nothing but love when you open your eyes'. The segue into the livelier second part is seamless with Bacon coming to the fore with a strong exertion of his chest cavity, ably assisted by a slew of backing vocalists both male and female, all 'building a bridge to paradise'.

Okay, not a lot of detestable notes here, so in context, not quite what you would consider before "Hergest Ridge" and say even the spectral "Songs From the Distant Earth" but still a good reference point as an introduction to prog for the massive "pop goes the world" universe. I mean you need tools to convert music fans to our cause and this album does a great favour to us all, as a stepping stone to more profound sounds and intricate thrills. For this album to be shamed by a 1.91 star rating is truly sad and much undeserved. I know and own a few less compelling Oldfield albums that are yet firmly in the prog realm but are totally uninspired, a totally justified result from a nearly 40 year career that still continues 'til today.

4 Bull?..Dozers

tszirmay | 4/5 |


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