Return to Ommadawn

Mike Oldfield

Most everyone knows Tubular Bells, not least because of the fruity intonations of the late, great Ginger Geezer himself, Vivian Stanshall. Less well known is the other early treasure from the Oldfield oeuvre, Ommadawn. So it came as something of a surprise when, at the end of last year, Mike Oldfield revelaed he was going to release a sequel to his 1975 work.

Ommadawn is a very different album to Tubular Bells, and a much stronger one than its immediate antecedent, Hergest Ridge. The key difference is that it is steeped in the tradition of folk music, unlike the orchestral and more classical leanings of The Bells. It’s an album packed with folk instruments: piccolos, penny whistles, the bodhran and even a mandolin, and a bouzouki. The first part espscially is pounding and urgent to its climax and remains one of Oldfield’s best pieces of work. It turns up on many of his “best of” compilations, and with good reason. Part 2 cotains the whimiscal On Horseback, which kind of gives lie to the idea that prog is necessarily po-faced. It has a playful, mischievous, and rather innocent feel.

All of this is relevant, becasue the sequel, unlike say Jean-Michel Jarre’s third part of the Oxygène Trilogy, isn’t an update, or a re-imagining. No, Return to Ommadawn is pretty much seamless: you can play the new album straight after the old one (and I have), and barely sense the join. The mood is evoked perfectly. The principal leitmotif for part 1 is established very early, and everything is built around that fairly simple phrase. It is picked out with delicate acosutic guitar (something Oldfield is very good at indeed). Paired with this is the very distinctive sound of his electric guitar. That tone is a thing to savour, just ever so slightly fuzzed, but at the same time, sharp, clean and coruscating. Those mandolins sit underneath, with bass and bodhran loping along. In recent interviews, Oldfield mentioned seeing and enjoying a facebook Q&A with Jarre last year. JMJ was asked if he’d like to work with Oldfield and explained that while he loved his music, he thought the Oldfield was a much more acoustic proposition than would fit with his own style. Oldfield said that, when he heard this, he considered that perhaps making the most of that acoustic sensibility was the best way to go. So for that reason, there’s little evidence of anything synth-bassed here. Like its precursor, these are “real” instruments.

Like the first album, the feel is slightly otherworldly, almost mystical, perhaps becasue those folk stylings have a very Celtic ambience. This is only reinforced by the reintroduction of those whistles, which complements their counterparts, and Uileann Pipes in the original rather nicely.

Part 2 even amkes a cheeky callback to On Horseback, and retains the children’s choir, and their joyous refrain of, “Hey! And away we go!” as things come to their conclusion. It’s all really rather lovely. I suppose to some people it might seem a bit redundant, as we already have the original, but it does do something good: it adds to an already beautiful piece of music, and does so without jarring or feeling unwelcome. What a lovely, unexpected treat it is.