Monday, March 08, 2010

Review: Mike Oldfield's Amarok (1990)

Tubular Bells is overrated. I'm not saying it isn't any good. It's pretty amazing actually, considering the age of young Mr. Oldfield when he recorded the album, not to mention how commercially successful it was. However, scarcely in my own observations has the commercial acceptance of an album had any relationship to the actual quality of music it contains. Since he recorded Tubular Bells, Mike Oldfield has been unable to shake his reputation being tied solely to that work. Well, you should be thanking me Mike, I'm going to set the record straight. While Tubular Bells is alright, it isn't even close to being the best Oldfield album. Not by a long shot. In fact, the real highlight of Mike's long and bloated career has to be Amarok.

What? Amarok? What's an Amarok? Well that depends on who you ask. If you ask the Inuit, Amarok is a wolf. If you would ask a German car company, it's a type of pickup truck. If you ask a computer geek they'd probably say it's an open source alternative to iTunes. Us Prog Rock fans, (aka you and me) should know it as one of the greatest instrumental albums of all time. (Also the name of a Spanish Folk Prog band, but we'll save them for another day) Apparently, Mike named his album Amarok simply because he liked the sound of the word.

When Mike Oldfield released Amarok, the world seemed to be entirely devoid of a musical soul. In 1990 we were still reeling from the musical abomination that was the 1980s and the best answer mainstream music had was the shallow and simplistic world of grunge rock. In the midst of all this, Mike Oldfield was in the middle of a bitter battle with his record label. In case you didn't know, Tubular Bells was once the first pride and joys of Richard Branson's Virgin Records label. While I'm sure things were all happy in Virgin land in the early 70s, but as time went on things turned sour. As Richard Branson's empire grew, the demands placed on Oldfield to continue to release commercially popular albums grew. As we all know, Mike's heart and soul was in the long instrumental works he did in the 1970s. Virgin's continual pressure on Mike to deliver 'hit singles' did yield some successes (remember Moonlight Shadow?), but you can't help but feel Mike was manipulated.

As his contract with Virgin began to come to an end, poor old Mike Oldfield had enough. He couldn't wait to get out of there. Unfortunately, he still had to release a few more albums to fulfill his contratual obligations. With Amarok, he decided it was time to get payback. The album was constructed by Mike to be Richard Branson's worst nightmare. His basic goal was to piss Branson off as much as possible. How did he go about doing this? Well, for starters, he decided to make the album one long 60 minute track. An hour long instrumental track on its own would probably be bad news for any record label, but Mike took it a step further. Due to the dynamic and constant shifting nature of the album, it would be impossible to cut out any given section and isolate it as radio-friendly single. Now you can just imagine how frustrating all this was for Richard Branson and Virgin records, but Oldfield didn't stop there.

- Hidden within the album is a secret morse code message. If you're able to decode the message you'll find it translates to "Fuck Off RB" (guess what RB stands for).

- This was also one of Mike's first albums that was designed to be released on CD. One of the many advantages of the format was the ability to have a wider dynamic range. This meant you could have a huge difference in volume in between the quietest moments and the loudest. There are moments on the album, specifically near the beginning, where the music seems to be really quiet. Apparently Oldfield pictured Richard Branson driving down the highway in his convertible listening to the album and turning it up loud to hear this quiet section. Then, just as he was comfortable, Mike hits a loud synth "BLAM" at full volume. This, I imagine, would blow Richard Branson's ears out. (Side note, modern CDs that are victims of the "loudness war" don't have any dynamic range)

- The album packaging came with a "Health Warning" on the back which read as following: "HEALTH WARNING - This record could be hazardous to the health of cloth-eared nincompoops. If you suffer from this condition, consult your Doctor immediately "

- While Virgin wanted Mike to release the next "Tubular Bells" and Mike does play them on Amarok, they are listed in the liner notes as "long thin metallic hanging tubes". Good luck marketing that!

While all these little trivia points are interesting, I don't want to undermine how good this album is in its own rights. You can forget that this album was made by "Mike Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame" and just enjoy it for what it is. In my own opinion it stands the test of time as one of the best instrumental albums ever recorded, Prog Rock or otherwise. Throughout it's entire run time you never feel as though Mike is stretching things out. Its constantly shifting and always melodic. There are so many interesting ideas presented here and the structure is so dynamic and innovative that I find it imposible to stop this album once it starts. Oldfield's abilities as a musician also seem greatly improved since the days of Tubular Bells as his command of the guitar and piano are at an all time high.

I can't recommend this album enough. The musical ideas, the instrumental skill and the production values represent the real peak of Mike Oldfield as an artist. Despite all the politics that went on behind the scenes of this album's creation, nothing takes away from just how amazing this album is to listen to. It's pure ear candy. If you don't own this album, then your Prog Rock collection has a giant hole in it that needs to be filled immediately.

1 comment:

Ben Sommer said...

...and it also has a cooler album cover than Tubular Bells... ;)