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Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells CD (album) cover

TUBULAR BELLS

Mike Oldfield

 

Crossover Prog

4.10 | 1121 ratings

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thief
4 stars It's one of the most inspiring stories I've ever heard.

Shy, nineteen year old English boy pitches his instrumental demos to EMI, CBS Records and other prime companies. He fails initially, but with persistence and some luck he finally gets the chance. Unexpectedly his music tops the charts, makes critics shake their heads in disbelief, and sets the bar for future albums unreasonably high. The success is so immense that it puts the fledgling record company instantly on the map, and the boy becomes so ridiculously rich he can buy an island for himself. And he's pleased with it, since peace of mind and safe shelter is all he wished for.

"Tubular Bells" always had its mysteries. How such a young person came up with music so unobvious yet lyrical. How did he manage to play all the instruments. How did he produce the "Piltdown Man" sound. What was going on in his head. Was he really nineteen then. And the album cover, what does it mean. Heck, what does the music mean. Does he even know. Is it just a joke, exercise in songwriting, or a Book of Secrets.

Why can't I stop looking at the artwork, what is so captivating about waves splashing at southern England shores? Is it linked to our dreams and memories? Or the instincts, and the archetypes? Is it burned down in my mind because I heard it as a child. Or rather the music evokes the themes we were all born with*?

Now I'm pushing it perhaps, but the point stands. Ideas behind "Tubular Bells" are powerful, and I doubt that Mike Oldfield tried hard to impress us. It's not highly technical, it's not reliant on cheap tricks, rehashed popular melodies or massive advertising. In fact, there was no advertising. The success came after few months and it only happened thanks to word of mouth, before William Friedkin incorporated the opening theme in his celebrated horror classic. I believe the intentions were honest.

Yes, there are imperfections. A botched note here and there, two or three dull bends, a buzzing string on higher frets. But aside from that? Well, I'm not able to list all the highs and lows, but there are some trends I noticed.

The composition relies heavily on buildups and amassing of instruments in key moments. Core melodies are played with muted electric guitars primarily - there is much focus and precision in Mike's crosspicking, especially for a teenager playing in 1973. The rhythm section is reduced to bass guitar, but meditative nature of "Tubular Bells" doesn't demand percussion or drums to work. The only part with drums is the "Piltdown Man" (or "Caveman") segment on B side, which starts at 11:40 and lasts for 5 minutes roughly. Understandably it's one of the rockier sections - the rest is mostly reflective and it already has that trademark, New Age vibe.

Musically speaking, one of the most attractive qualities of "Tubular Bells" is the proper use of overdubbing. Mike doesn't come up with earth shattering melodies, but for him the arrangements are paramount. That's how he pulls off the famous intro to Part 1 - the melody doesn't change much for five minutes, but other instruments are gradually entering and altering the scene, especially that tempered double guitar lick at 3:40 leaves its mark. We're all familiar with Part 1 finale, that section with Master of Ceremony announcing instruments playing the main theme time and time again. For some it's cheesy nowadays, everyone and their grandma knows that stuff, but remember it's a 40+ year old album we're talking about! Definitely a fresh addition at the time, and when it comes to me, I stay impressed to this day. There is something very comforting in that finale, maybe the melody works well so I don't mind it being repeated for 5-6 minutes, or maybe that certainty that in a moment or two we'll have 10+ instruments playing beautifully in unison, it's very fitting here. I especially cherish the glockenspiel, mandolin and - of course - the tubular bells themselves. I can see why Mike was trying to get the loudest sound possible, it's truly an epic and uplifting moment.

There is some noodling here and there, unfortunately. The Part 2 is especially guilty of this, just check out the acoustic guitar section between the "Plitdown Man" and coda. I'm a man of simple tastes apparently; I always wanted Tubular Bells to end in a grand fashion, a truly majestic crescendo wrapping up the best ideas. Unfortunately, Oldfield thought differently and went for a quiet, ambiguous ending (I'm not counting the 'Harvest Festival' section at 21:50). The bridge at 16:00 (Part 1), between the 'eerie sunset' motif and 'master of ceremony' section is also a bit shaky; for some listeners it might be too disjointed. Fortunately as soon as that radiant bass reappears at 17:15 it's natural to 'refocus' and follow the main theme development.

So we discussed the Exorcist, the MC and the Caveman a bit, but what about other, less touted parts?

I can't stress enough how much I enjoy that weird acoustic guitar bit at 7:40 (Part 1). It's doomy, gloomy and completely changes the peaceful landscape we've just heard. I'm thinking of sunsets in God forsaken lands, horrors of Edvard Munch or King Crimson creations. This is a prime example of good contrast, because at 4:20 we were treated with incredibly sweet, pastoral melody, quite similar to strongest moments of "Hergest Ridge" and "Ommadawn". I also have a soft spot for beginning of Part 2, I call it 'kite over Copenhagen, 1800s', it's so nostalgic and purely European, whatever that means. Further down Part 2, there is an adorable section starting at 5:30 roughly, I'd describe it as 'dungeon synth meets the hobbits in Bree', and another one at 8:50 or so, when lead guitar comes up and down, like a spell cast from sorcerer's tower on a windy day.

As you can see, Oldfield already succeeds in evoking mysterious auras and symbolic pictures, which makes his music tenfold more interesting on subsequent listens. He's not pushing his version of events: the soundscapes are ambiguous and each time a different narrative is born organically in our minds. His best moments remind me of early Renaissance, Flemish paintings, with all these strange yet symbolical details happening far in the background. One time you're paying attention to Icarus crashing down from the sky, the other - all you see are tiny drunken bastards and insane old man dancing with a bear. And the same is true for Mike Oldfield's debut, I think.

"Tubular Bells" is clearly not as refined as Mike's crowning achievements, but it doesn't lack the ambition, the melody, the feel or cerebral aspect of his prime albums. I wish it had just a bit more polish - it's rough around the edges and the some parts (10-20%, tops) could benefit from further development. Then it would live up to its legendary, unprecedented status and earn a perfect 10; now it's 9, or if your prefer - 4.5 stars, fully deserved.

It's a musical journey, and always a journey towards unknown.

* with water being the equivalent of Collective Unconscious according to C.G. Jung, "Tubular Bells" couldn't have a more fitting artwork.

thief | 4/5 |

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