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Mike Oldfield - Man On The Rocks CD (album) cover


Mike Oldfield


Crossover Prog

3.14 | 173 ratings

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4 stars I frankly will again acquire the fulminating rage from prog purists, those extremist fundamentalists who will always jump on the "easy way out bandwagon" to bash the progressive rock elite. While I do not like the poppier style espoused by some of the golden era stalwarts, the commercial Genesis and the lame recent Yes come to mind, it is always due to a lack of chops that drive me bananas. How a mega drum maestro like Alan White can become so sappy and tepid, is beyond my understanding and yields nothing but contempt.

Mike Oldfield needs no introduction, pretty much releasing material since his Tubular Bells debut, a career that spans over 41 years. Some early fans have not digested kindly his decision to delve into other forms, interjecting his TB sequels with some more accessible material, a trend that began with the tongue in cheek single "Punkadiddle", showing a gifted musician unafraid of change and whimsy. Willing to take risks and eat crow if necessary. Undeniably there have been early masterpieces and then some more along the way ( "Amarok", "Songs from Distant Earth"), a few misunderstood albums that I particularly enjoy for their freshness and melodies such as the evil "Earth Moving", the Celtic-tinged "Voyager" and the thrilling "Light & Shade", panned and even crucified by most prog fans as drivel-pap. Well, in such a long and storied career, there will be some duds, or at the very least, unsatisfying albums that just don't have any pull. They are in my humble opinion, "The Millenium Bell", "Tres Lunas", "Heaven's Open", "Islands" and the classical "Music of the Spheres".

So what does the deluxe 2 CD version of "Man on the Rocks" have to offer? A return to quality that becomes apparent when listening to the instrumental CD, the brisk freshness of the sound, with the organic bass from the mighty and legendary Leland Sklar (his bass lead on Billy Cobham's Stratus remains a mythical fixture) and the cannon-fire drumming of John Robinson giving Mike all the leverage needed to instill a massive and yet pristine sound that serves little interest in reformulating past glories but forging ahead in simpler horizons (the man already has a PhD in complexity, no?). To go from the vocal to the instrumental versions really gives the dynamics a serious address, a clever little concept , something Oldfield had done on Light + Shade with the U-Myx option open to fans to alter the sound of the tracks to their own preferences.

"Sailing" is one of those crafty songs that you flippantly dismiss as 'pop-pap' and then find yourself humming it without restraint for the next few weeks, hooked, lined and sinkered! It's a sunny, breezy, tropically-tinged and relaxing song expertly delivered by Luke Spiller, a muscular voice that has oomph, power and tons of drama, which is already eliciting comparisons to the great Queen Fredo of Mercury! But when you partake in the instrumental version, it almost feels like country song with serious progressive tendencies, guitars flipping around all over the place.

"Moonshine" is a continuation of sorts, as it the peppier tendencies become now a tad more proggy, though the Spiller lead vocal is straight forward, uniquely intertwined with the whopping melody, a bar room pub anthem if I ever heard one and appropriately titled. One can imagine pub patrons all singing the chorus in harmony, raising another pint of delicious tepid brew and swinging to the marching lilt. Oldfield does one of his patented bagpipe toned guitar licks to seal the deal. Totally memorable! Without the massive anthemic voice, the vocal-less version becomes even more phenomenal, as if belonging to some movie soundtrack, the slippery electric guitar now becoming the main focus.

The title track is a flat-out monster, "Man on the Rocks" being a clever play on marital situation (Mike is going through another divorce!) but the mood and spirit is phenomenal. Spiller emotes gently, yet confidently on the microphone, fueled by a glorious hymn and symphonic bombast. The double chorus is mesmerizing, as it elevates the swell of emotion and instills the sense of celestial eternity. The energy just keeps torqueing forward, revving at optimum speed and maximum acceleration, with a whopping guitar break to send this into the stratosphere. Spiller really gets heavy towards the end, hurling his desperate words, backing vocals in tow. Mike unscrews a twirling solo that sears and even perhaps roebucks (LOL). Definitely the most proggy piece here, proof lying squarely with the orchestral version on the instrumental second CD, where the arrangement seeks to take its time in delivering the necessary aplomb.

The deliberate and measured "Castaway" takes it sweet time to get off the pier, the sails still waking up and stretching from a long siesta but ultimately Spiller and the insistent organ riff start building up a head of steam, heading into the warm winds, where Robinson's hefty drums steer the good ship Oldfield on its merry voyage. But the explosive second part gets nicely aggressive with Spiller's mighty scream and Mike's liquid and blitzing guitar rampaging with both water and fire. The hushing finale is utterly sweet and brilliant.

Sorry, do not care much for the short "Minutes" , a bit too square and plodding for this listener to appreciate, though it is far from being unpleasant, it just does not resonate at all, even in pop song terms. The instrumental version does have a bit more palate, what with another delightful axe solo.

The sultry "Dreaming in the Wind" is perhaps my preferred tune, screw-driving guitar getting the mood set up, tick-tack drumming and a bass undertow keeping pace. It's just a pretty melody, deep in melancholia, very mystifying and invigorating though I must admit the vocal version is frantically gorgeous, Spiller is a true gem and a perfect foil for the older and wiser composer. There is almost a classic the Fixx feel, especially in the drums that sound like Adam Woods and the Cy Curnin-like vocal. Mike performs a sizzling guitar solo, all sting and guitar pick, insistent and directionally inquisitive. The repetitive chorus line has a definite Bob Seger wink.

The doom-laden "Nuclear" is incredibly dark, searching out definite contrasts to the jumpier previous pieces as Spiller does his best Greg Lake imitation, I mean it's downright uncanny (think the classic "Epitaph")! Brooding, exhausting and very British, the sense of gruesome devastation and useless disconsolation are expertly accomplished, easily the most progressive piece on the disc. The vocal-less option is not as explosive, showing how important a distraught vocal can be for a songs dynamics.

"Chariots" is Mike Oldfield at his rockiest, chugging guitar boldly plowing forward, boom- boom tchak drums and a rock chorus. I guess after the soporific classicism of "Music of the Spheres", Oldfield wanted to shake some cobwebs and get perspiration heavy. Spiked by another biting and snarling axe solo, he is not cheap and minimalist in his playing, something that was woefully lacking on his previous disc.

Still wondering if the goods are all delivered? Well "Following the Angels" is another consecration of Oldfield's newfound inspiration, a majestic 7 minute + with a rather fragile and effortless initial vocal setting the mood quite eloquently, jangling and clanging guitar twangs, that country picking that I normally despise but fall in love with every time his fingers slap the fret board. I know why too, Oldfiled's guitar playing is never linear, always geometric in its audacity and vivacious in its expression. This is a sweet love song, swooning backing vocals giving this a soulful sheen that just overtakes one's possible indifference. Simply terrific piece of music.

Wanna smile there, boy? "Irene" is another rocker, raspy guitars and all, as if an outtake by ZZ Top (yeah, a Billy Gibbons raucous style to say the least), Spiller doing a remarkable job on the microphone with a testosterone/masculine delivery, showing off both tonal versatility and lung prowess. The clincher is the overt brass treatment that is straight out of Muscle Shoals , Alabama, a deliriously juicy rocker, what do you expect when the word "rollin'" is repeated infinitely. One word= Fun!

"I Give Myself Away" closes this delicious musical monument, a thoroughly enjoyable exercise giving the fan the option to go back and forth between the vocal and non-vocal selections and thus truly understand that this icon still has lots of magic in him. Spiller spills (sic) his feelings all over this dreamy track, hoarse and yet defiant, a voice of hope and resolve. Yes, it's a love song and tell me, what is wrong with that? Romantic proggers beware, this will pull at your heartstrings, perhaps even ponder your life as you look into the mirror, look back at it all and wonder how much better it could have been if love was there from the very first day.

Way more enjoyable than I hope for, but Oldfield has smartly chosen to surround himself with intensely brilliant talents, a tight rhythm section of the very highest pedigree and a lead singer that just might be rock and prog's next revelation.

4.5 Male Ice cubes

tszirmay | 4/5 |


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