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Mike Oldfield - Music of the Spheres CD (album) cover

MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

Mike Oldfield

 

Crossover Prog

3.03 | 187 ratings

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EvilNight
3 stars WELCOME BACK MIKE!! We've missed you. :)

For any fans of Mike Oldfield specifically, you can stop reading right there without any spoilers and with the knowledge that Mike's long drought is over. I can't tell on a handful of listens if this record is truly as good as Incantations, Tubular Bells II or III, but I can tell you that it's definitely a contender, though probably not for the throne unless you really love classical music. There will definitely be some people for whom this is THE Oldfield album, though. It's at least good enough for some hardcore fans. This album contains Mike's most thematically complex work in a decade. Yes, it is classical music, but if anything the classical has submitted to Mike, not changed him. It's certainly prog-influenced, with many of the tracks showing classical arrangements that are very unusual for classical, average for prog, and typical of the old Mike himself. I'm sure Mike will be at least as annoyed as Vangelis to hear his sound described as "typical" anything, and I for one wish he would realize that his "typical" sound is as unique and precious a sound as one man can possibly have.

Karl Jenkins has also been subsumed by Mike. The vocals on this album show influences similar to Adiemus many times, though Mike's put more of a classical polish on them than Karl would usually pass along to the new-age crowd. What's more interesting is that Mike seems to have tapped into Alan Silvestri and David Arkenstone in spirit in a few places. I devour classical film soundtracks ravenously and I admit this album threw me for a bit of a loop hearing some of these instruments used in a distinctly non-Hollywood fashion from time to time. It was refreshing.

There is a subtle, one-too-many-times-through-the-sound-processor pall hanging over this album that put me off a bit on my first listen. It's nothing as bad as the digital timbre of "Songs of Distant Earth" which is by the way my favorite Mike Oldfield album (just beating Amarok). Thankfully that disappears very fast when the themes themselves command your attention. I was going to give it a 3.5, however while writing this review I realized it's definitely better than that so I'm going with a 4. I reserve the right to change my rating upwards later. ;) More than anything else I'm positively giddy to have several Mike Oldfield themes stuck in my head again for the next couple of days. It's been too damn long.

I'll go into more detail on each of the tracks below. If you are a Mike Oldfield fan I know of your taste for discovering his works on your own and I'm warning you not to read these spoilers - you'll have a lot more fun if you go into this without knowing what to expect.

Spoilers

First Movement

Harbinger brings us a new cousin of the Tubular Bells theme, and lets us know that this album is undoubtedly Tubular Bells IV, in spirit at least. It's rather nice to hear this theme come full circle back into the medium that inspired it originally. Mike develops this from piano, incorporating trumpets, big bass drums, resonating and impatient strings, before yielding to classical guitar offset with excellent harp work. Through the middle of the track a definite Hollywood influence creeps into the music whenever the trumpets and cellos kick in. The end of the piece finishes up in a calm, quiet place like something out of an Alan Silvestri movie (think Forrest Gump). We get two or three solid variations on the new Tubular Bells theme before the end. This is easily on par with Tubular Bells II and III.

Animus is a much more somber affair at first, painting a beautiful landscape of strings over which dances a deep cello, a classical guitar, and a series of haunting vocals. A sudden surge strikes in the middle, with thunderous piano and those Hollywood influences out in force again, restating several of the variations from Harbinger and developing them further. It winds down into a gentle bridge into Silhouette, which picks up one of the more subtle themes and gives it a well developed, slow, sure run on classical guitar, strings, harp, wind and piano. Much of this reminds me of the finale of Voyager (Mont St. Michael) in structure and execution. The final statement of Silhouette is a beautiful, almost march-like theme played on clarinet. Mark that clarinet theme as the first one I wish had been continued and developed more than it was! (Now I know it's a Mike Oldfield album).

Strong strings carry us on an earlier theme from Harbinger into Shabda, Achingly beautiful flute and guitar continue more earlier variations on the Tubular Bells IV theme (too many for me to keep track of with so few listens). The first of Karl Jenkin's influence appears towards the end of this track, bringing the sound of Adiemus into the works for Mike's true first crescendo. It's over far too quickly, a tease at best.

Hurried, disorganized, and chaotic sounds appear now, rudely cutting the prior voices short. At last, Mike is shaking up what's on the table to see what falls out. The strings are busier than they've been in ages. Some brilliant classical guitar works its way into the mix. The Hollywood sounds appear for a moment and are instantly subsumed by the urgency around them, disappearing into Mike's style with a touch of humor. A triumphant new theme emerges on the trumpets, epic enough to be in any film or play at the Olympic games, but it cannot quiet the chaos, so it settles for drowning it out (and shaking your speakers). Tempest abruptly falls back into another Alan Silvestri moment, which is clearly the eye of Mike's storm at this point.

A reprise of Harbinger restates the original theme, almost daring us to guess where it will go next. Darker, this time, much more sinister in notes and instruments, with some vocals. The trumpets take over again and we are treated to a theme not far off from some of Danny Elfman's better, darker works.

A stately finish leads into On My Heart, the first vocal number. This must be Hayley Westenra, and she has a very lovely voice, singing in an opera-tinged style reminiscent of a Hollywood musical. I daresay this comes about where "Moonlight Shadow" fits in Mike's compositions, and it's a vast, vast improvement over his other efforts at vocal interludes. It fits perfectly as a bridge between the two movements.

Second Movement

Aurora opens with the kind of energy that tells you Mike's got an idea that excites him. Urgent, bright strings set the background for the opening, and the finest masterpiece of music on this album. This particular arrangement is every bit as good as anything in Mike's catalog, but reminds me most of Amarok's last movement. Karl handles the curve balls Mike throws his way here admirably. A flute joins, followed by strong classical guitar, trumpets, and more vocals, strings, and horns. Layer upon layer of music builds precisely in Mike's finest style. Another Alan Silvestri moment breaks through to give you a moment to breathe, and the vocals a moment for a fantastic but subtle reprise of themes from Harbinger and Animus. Mike Oldfield fans would be justified picking up the album just for this second movement because it finishes just as strongly. This theme WILL get stuck in your head (and put a sh*t-eating-grin on your face for days if you're an Oldfield fan).

The segue into Prophecy is somewhat sinister, like the tragic second movement of a musical. Trumpets give way to mournful strings and vocals, which serve as the backdrop for some interesting and complex piano work towards the end. Strings and trumpets take over in full force, developing the main trumpet themes further before dropping down into low strings for the reprise of On My Heart. Hayley's vocals carry the piece well with the barest accompaniment of strings.

Harmonia Mundi picks up the bright tone again, repeating what at this point has almost become the Hero's Theme variation. Flutes again restate the darker themes, but with a brighter hopeful tone, leading into more of the Adiemus-inspired vocal work. The classical guitar makes another appearance here. I'm reminded somewhat of Midsummer Night's Dream by Steve Hackett. High pitched piano then takes us into The Other Side, where Mike briefly channels David Arkenstone's better medieval tendencies. Empyrean breaks into full Olympic style, setting the stage for the finale. David Arkenstone's sound really shines through here, rolling drums and all.

Musica Universalis again brings back the urgent strings as Mike introduces a new theme for the finale. The Tubular Bells finally make their inevitable appearance, The buildup is fantastic, culminating in the Hero's Theme and a climax worthy of any classical soundtrack I've heard in years. Another calm Silvestri moment tinged with pianos seals the deal and wraps up Mike's best album in over a decade.

Another good sign. It's too damn short. Why can't I get a double-cd packed to the brim with music this good? /sigh

EvilNight | 3/5 |

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