(All Album Reviews by maribor)
All titles written by Mike Oldfield
All instruments played by Mike Oldfield, except:
Trumpet by Mike Laird
Drums and Vibraphones on part four Pierre Moerlin
Vocals – Maddy Pryor, Sally Oldfield and The Queens College Girls Choir
Strings and Choir conducted by David Bedford
Flutes – Sebastian Bell and Terry Oldfield
African Drums by Jabula
After a three-year period of silence, spent in writing new material, taking self-assertiveness seminars and getting some rest after a very turbulent period in his life, which saw Mike Oldfield being propelled to one of the biggest stars on the planet, he returned to the scene with a double LP, reissued on one CD. Who knows what prompted Oldfield to start attending Exegesis self-assertiveness seminars. Perhaps it was the fact that after creating a monumental release such as Ommadawn, there was really nowhere else to go. He was at the top and whatever was to follow would be a letdown. Other theories claim that he took those seminars in order to get over his shyness and stage fright. That seems a more reasonable explanation if we consider that Mike hadn’t toured to promote any of his previous albums, not even the massive success that was Tubular Bells. This course in his life obviously helped him get through some issues that needed to be resolved and resolved they were for Incantations brings yet another exquisite offering.
Already the first moments of the album give us a clue that Oldfield has not lost any of his old charm. Part I begins with a vocal chant, perhaps slightly reminiscent of the opening of ELP’s Tarkus. Later, the strings and flute combine to create a beautiful melody, giving the impression that you are listening to a soundtrack for a frightening fairy tale. When the keyboards join in, there is an additional dimension added to the melody, making it even more mystical and mythical than before and when Mike’s trademark guitar lends its voice, you feel it couldn’t get more perfect. Oldfield, however, doesn’t like to rest on his laurels and so he takes us on a different tour – a tour of the Native American tribal dances. The drums create a great rhythm, while the keyboards give the melody a more modern sound. Then, the horns join in and together with the strings lead the way back into dark fairy tale territory. The keyboards, guitar and bass never intrude on the strings and horns, all the instruments gel so wonderfully and almost create a new-age ghost story (Poe meets King). Soon another passage begins with drums and synthesizer. The choir, guitar and bass soon follow to give a fuller sound and combine tradition with progress. The end of part I sees the return to one of the earlier melodies, with further dreamy passages with strings and flutes playing in the background.
Part two begins with a lengthy, spacey introduction on keyboards, which is almost new age in style. When the orchestra joins in, we are again faced with a blend of the old and the new. The guitar then makes a rare appearance but not for long. It simply introduces melancholy “incantations” first on the synthesizer, then the strings, the flute and finally with the vocals. The other instruments soon join the vocals in the lament in what is yet another splendid moment. The guitar takes over for a while and introduces an explosion of sound, a release of tension with a sudden burst of joy in a sea of sadness. After that, African drums, the synthesizer and the vibraphone announce the beginning of “Hiawatha”, the lyrics for which were written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Native American atmosphere created by the drums, synthesizer and the vibraphone continues throughout the vocal section, which stretches on for perhaps a bit too long (7 minutes) until the conclusion of this part. There is very little variation in the melody of this segment, occasionally an acoustic guitar echoes the vocals. Maybe the vocal section is a bit too long but that might just be the point. This passage is indeed an “incantation” with its mesmerizing, monotone rhythm and lovely vocals by Maddy Prior.
There is a sudden shock when the next part begins. It opens very energetically, as if the music belonged to a mediaeval feast; it’s a jubilation, a celebration of life. Soon, another Native American tribal dance replaces this passage with its steady melody created by the drums, synthesizer and the vibraphone. After that, Oldfield displays how effortlessly he is capable of switching from one style to another with another “European” melody. Before you have a chance to familiarise yourself with this melody, a new passage begins, this time very modern and actually “groovy” (not a word often used to describe the music of Mike Oldfield). This segment simply continues the song’s unrelenting pace of exchanging various styles, starting new themes and playing in many different tempos. An interplay between the guitar, vibraphone and the keyboards moves the song along, allowing us to catch our breath after the wild ride so far. Not for long though because another powerful segment resumes the fast pace and concludes this part. I didn’t think it was possible but this part is even better than the first two and the best of the lot with its constant tempo changes, many styles and interesting rhythms. It is probably one of the most diverse pieces of music you’re ever bound to find. Another positive feature is that no instrument dominates the proceedings, not even the trademark guitar.
At the beginning of the final movement, we are reminded of Ommadawn with a beautiful passage where the harp and keyboards resound joyously. Then, a lengthy vibraphone segment (almost a soundscape) played by Pierre Moerlin gives yet another insight into Oldfield’s new-age tendencies. Luckily, the strings, guitar and bass join the vibraphone to give this passage a bit more diversity. The song seems to be at a standstill when Mike’s guitar explodes into a “Wild West” theme (something you might expect from Ennio Morricone) that gallops along with quick strides. For a brief moment, something resembling a mellotron sounds its voice, as does the choir later on, only to remind us that this is not the prairie in the 19th century but Europe of the late 20th. The vibraphone shows that its song is not sung yet as it resumes where it left off as it introduces “Ode To Cynthia”, a poem written by Ben Johnson (not the Canadian athlete) and sung by Sally Oldfield. The part when the synth plays the vocal melody just before the Sally starts singing is absolutely breathtaking. Sally’s voice is also impeccable, in fact it’s never sounded better. The album ends rather unceremoniously, not with a bang but a whimper but Oldfield has never been one to show off, he’s a master of the subtle and one could argue that the ending is indeed such.
With Incantations, Mike Oldfield created yet another masterpiece, which almost reaches Ommadawn in terms of grandeur and sheer beauty. Ommadawn is perhaps a bit more tight and compact, however you must take into account that this is a double album, twice as long as Ommadawn and there was bound to be some filler. Still, when you compare it to some other double albums which had a lot of filler this gains yet more respect, not that it needs any help. No, it’s not Ommadawn but it’s very close in terms of quality. It is an immense album that merges various styles, joins the East and the West, combines elements that are seemingly too far apart to be combined. Oldfield merges all these elements effortlessly into a single piece of art that is totally unique.
This was the first album that took Mike Oldfield on the road despite it not achieving the commercial success of the previous albums. Still, the tour was a triumph and an excellent double live album (Exposed) resulted from it. But that’s a different story.
9 out of 10.