The Long and the Short of Mike Oldfield: “Five Miles Out” and “Crises” (deluxe editions; Mercury, 2013)

Album review by Neil Hobkirk

I remember my first proper sound system, purchased during high school in 1984: Harmon/Kardon HK330I receiver; JBL J216A speakers; and Dual turntable, model number unknown. And of course I remember the first pieces of vinyl I fed it. Among them: Mike Oldfield’s Discovery, released that year.

Local college radio spun the record in its entirety at least once, when it luckily caught my adolescent ear. Struck by the strangely proportioned contents, where pop rock songs cohabited space with a twelve-minute instrumental tone poem, I purchased Discovery and soon picked up its predecessors Five Miles Out (1982) and Crises (1983). Both records mark an even more extreme contrast between short tunes and long pieces, with the latter running as long as twenty-four minutes.

Discovery still awaits bells-and-whistles reissue treatment, but the two other titles are now nicely served with Deluxe Editions simultaneously released in 2013, Crises’ thirtieth anniversary year. In each case a first disc presents the remastered original album along with additional tracks, while a second CD selects album tracks recorded live in concert. Five Miles Out boasts a third disc, a DVD containing Oldfield’s own remix of the album in 5.1 surround sound, plus video content. I’ll limit my comments to the CDs, and not touch on the five-disc box set edition of Crises, which likewise includes Oldfield’s 5.1 album remix on DVD.

On his previous two LPs, Platinum (1979) and QE2 (1980), Mike Oldfield broke with the album-length compositional template that had governed his initial four. But Five Miles Out was his first to capitalize convincingly on tension between short pop tunes and long tone poems. The twenty-four minute opener “Taurus II” continues thematic material from QE2’s “Taurus I.” Like the album’s other tracks, “Taurus II” fuses acoustic and electric instruments with electronically sampled instruments and sounds courtesy of the nascent sampling technology of the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). After an opening theme resembling the resolute tread of a drunken giant, the piece develops unhurriedly, exploring one novel instrumental assortment after another.

Such eclecticism—M.O.’s m.o.—could seem willfully perverse, but Oldfield’s sheer delight in new sounds commands the ear’s fascination throughout. Besides sampled sounds, “Taurus II” showcases Mike’s multitracked guitars, Maggie Reilly’s mellifluous vocals, and a restless relationship between percussion, drum kit and drum machine. If this piece tells a story, it’s hard to say what it is, but there are at least recognizably stories within the story: in one episode, Reilly sings a lullaby (vocals on “Taurus II” are otherwise wordless); in another, guest Paddy Maloney of The Chieftains brings his uilleann pipes to what sounds like a Celtic kitchen rave-up, complete with background whoops. Eventually the tempo accelerates to fuel a worldbeat disco party, sustained by synth patterns and a vocoder-treated Reilly. The track closes to the same giant’s drunken plodding.

That monolithically deliberate theme recurs in the title track, the album’s finale, where it enacts the heavy weather jeopardizing an aircraft (the vocals in this tune make the story clear). Though a pop song in its proportions, “Five Miles Out” hits the ear as a mini-fantasia by dint of its confounding busyness and variety. Electronic percussion and further uilleann pipes populate space alongside a full string arrangement. Mike’s and Maggie’s vocals are variously treated and untreated, with Oldfield adopting different voices to dramatize multiple aspects of the engulfing tumult. Squalling guitars help stage the storm.

The other brief vocal tune is more recognizably pop. “Family Man” exerts the same strong melodic pull as “Five Miles Out” but applies it to a time-honoured topos: attempted seduction of the titular male, narrated sassily by Maggie Reilly. Exclamatory percussion outbursts and assertive synth chords animate a simple song structure. The most distinctive sound comes from Oldfield’s electric guitar, gleefully carving upper-register arabesques. The next year, “Family Man” would become his single biggest hit, albeit in the hands of Hall & Oates.

The thirteen-minute “Orabidoo” is a full-on fantasia, exploiting every ingredient in its eccentric recipe to achieve an improbably cohesive whole. The tone poem opens with a pastoral idyll painted delicately by tuned percussion. Someone seems plaintively nostalgic—but for what? Two minutes in, the music morphs into something like a concerto for robot voice and orchestra. Here again Oldfield makes a virtue of the vocoder, effectively contrasting his processed voice with Reilly’s as she intones variations on the word “orabidoo.” The voices intertwine at length over mechanical-sounding percussion, while faint spoken-word snatches surface intermittently. When the bizarre concerto abruptly ends, the same lumpy percussion continues and underpins a quick fugue executed by piano, keyboards and sampled voices. When spacey synths, tympani and Oldfield’s upwardly aspiring guitar enter, along with a less-faint spoken line from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent—“Don’t come in again like that. It isn’t funny, and I pay someone else to make the orchestrations!”—things turn rhythmically freer and this whole musical thingamajig begins to spin off into the beyond. But “Orabidoo” returns suddenly to terra firma, where the source of nostalgia stands revealed: “Oh how I’ll miss you so,” confides Reilly to the emerald isle, accompanied only by acoustic guitar and that painterly tuned percussion. The song is “Ireland’s Eye,” an Oldfield original that closes the piece. Maggie Reilly, it should be noted, is a Scotswoman.

The instrumental “Mount Teidi” follows “Orabidoo” directly. A perfect tiny tone poem conveying the immensity of a vast active volcano in the Canary Islands, the piece evolves along celebratory lines, becoming a veritable overture. At first Oldfield’s piercing guitar inscribes the melody carefully over a shimmering synth pattern. A decidedly carefree approach takes over with the entry of multi-part percussion, led by E.L.P.’s Carl Palmer. For me this joyful racket, clinching an exuberant finale, always brings to mind William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture (1956), where multiple percussionists drive an equally exhilarating climax. Anyway, this four-minute track is my favourite from the album.

On Crises, Oldfield charted a more commercially successful coexistence of the long and the short. The short tunes of Five Miles Out shared the long pieces’ complexity and heterogeneity, even when focused on pop vocalizing. Crises’ short numbers are comparatively simple and cohesive; multivalent musical values are left for the twenty-minute title track.

The North American release I remember featured six brief pieces followed by “Crises”; in my experience, the long-form piece is climactic. But evidently the stiff-upper-lip listener was judged receptive to an initial prolonged blast of prog rock on an otherwise pop record: in the U.K., “Crises” came first, followed by five musical shorts. The Deluxe Edition features this running order, plus seven additional tracks including the non-album U.K. singles “Mistake” and “Crime of Passion.” The former’s B-side, the inconsequential instrumental “Waldberg (The Peak)”, turns up as an extra on the Five Miles Out rerelease, while the latter’s appears here: “Jungle Gardenia,” seemingly a soundtrack to slow-motion twilit skinny dipping.

“Mistake,” a weightless confection, disappears in less than three minutes. There and on the languidly repetitive “Foreign Affair,” a commanding Maggie Reilly handles the vocals. “In High Places” pleasures the ear with the ethereal tones of (Yes vocalist) Jon Anderson. Pierre Moerlen’s plucky vibraphone abets the ascent into thin air. “Shadow on the Wall” enlists (Family vocalist) Roger Chapman’s tremulously indignant vocals in a familiar account of being hard done by. Simon Phillips’ hard rock drumming hits the point home, along with Oldfield’s nastily twangy six-string.

The other three short tunes likewise highlight Mike’s formidable guitar chops. One of western music’s most conspicuous multi-instrumentalists, Oldfield handles most parts on both albums, with the exception of drums and percussion and strategic assists from other musicians. Like “Shadow on the Wall,” “Crime of Passion” and “Moonlight Shadow” showcase the man’s guitar parts, including robust rhythmic accompaniment, tasty chicken pickin’, and searing liquid lead. “Crime of Passion” features Barry Palmer, who would divide vocal duties with Maggie Reilly on the excellent Discovery. “Moonlight Shadow” was of course a huge international hit. Oldfield has employed other singers to voice the tune, notably Pepsi Demacque, but Maggie Reilly really owns it. Not recognizably related to the other Taurus pieces, the tiny “Taurus 3” flaunts Mike’s flamenco picking before exploding in massive slashing chords and multi-percussive bustle.

The twenty-minute “Crises” opens in misterioso moonlight mood, with disembodied bell sounds alluding to Oldfield’s calling card, the LP-length composition Tubular Bells (1973). An insistently minimalist synthesizer theme enters, then exclamatory electronic percussion. Soon those same sampled bell sounds decay into a landscape haunted by eldritch violin wails and strangulated guitar cries. This nocturnal world proves likewise hospitable to other (sampled) sounds such as breaking glass and police sirens. Stabbling 80s synth chords and percussive piano escalate the sense of urgency to the point where real rock drumming takes over. The sticks are in the hands of remarkable all-styles drummer Simon Phillips, these days the anchor of pianist Hiromi Uehara’s jazz power trio. Phillips would also appear on Discovery as co-producer and the only instrumentalist besides Oldfield.

Phillips’ intrepid timekeeping holds the state of emergency at a moderate level while Oldfield himself cries, “Crises, Crises, you can’t get away!” Mike’s lyrics mercifully don’t go much beyond this, except to herald a tranquil stretch ten minutes in: “The watcher in the tower, waiting hour by hour.” Oldfield’s vocals shortly yield to desolate synthesizers and plangent guitars, which join with harp and hints of pipes to summon the Celtic timbres familiar from much of his work up to this point and beyond.

Eight minutes from the end, “Crises” becomes a runway for Simon Phillips as he pilots his kit through tom-tom and kick-drum patterns of mounting complexity and urgency. When he finally takes off accompanied by Oldfield’s soaring lead lines, the piece returns, like “Orabidoo,” to solid earth, in this case that opening scene of moonlit tranquility. On disc two, you can hear Phillips excitingly recreate this feat live in concert.

Both second discs of live material are mixed bags. On stage the longer pieces—including works from Mike’s earlier LPs—are recreated with impressive precision and added urgency, though audience noise compromises their integrity. Such hubbub is more appropriate to pop-oriented material, but here the songs are let down by lack of delicacy and some alarmingly ragged vocals, even from Maggie Reilly. Sound quality on the live recordings is nothing special, whereas the remastered original albums come across resplendently. For Oldfield, obviously, the studio’s the thing.

 


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