The Twisted Bell


Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1996 09:01:38 +1000
Subject: Voyager

Those wanting to skip another Voyager review, feel free. I got my copy last Tuesday (thanks to a friend in the UK - and delayed thanks to customs in Vancouver). Now it looks like I only saved a week on the Oz release date...

To cut a long story short (it's all been said, after all, and you can form your own opinions soon enough if you haven't already), put me down as another in the Gareth-Joern-Anil camp. My opinions of the album have softened since the dismay I felt on Tuesday, but overall this has to be another fine example of Mike at his water-treading-est. An album of B-sides, definitely, though I'd take 'Afghan' over Voyager any day. It definitely came a poor third to my other albums-of-the-week, Tom Petty's 'She's the One' and Aimee Mann's 'I'm With Stupid' (both brilliant, if anyone's interested).

I was also rather nonplussed to see no fewer than six photos of Mike spread across the booklet and cover. (Needing a bit of an ego-boost, mate? Go on, you know we love you - you can put your shirt back on now, there's a good chap.)

On my first listen I can't say that even a much-lauded track like 'Flowers of the Forest' thrilled me much, because by then the other tracks had left me so cynical that I couldn't go with the flow of its swelling climax - even that felt contrived. (It was a sad insight into what much of Mike's genuinely excellent music must sound like to unattuned ears.) Oddly enough, the first moment when I felt that initial warm charge of recognition was in 'Women of Ireland', when the grumbling electric guitars come in; but then, that came only seconds after a moment of true horror, since the opening of WOI is as blatant an Enya-rip-off as I've heard. 'The Voyager' annoyed me a lot, too, with its pointless repetition and its cheesy synth-bagpipes (Mike keeps raiding his 1980s closet of Fairlight sounds, doesn't he?). The rest just left me pretty flat.

Until, that is, 'Mont St Michel'. The opening bars were genuinely exciting - a truly involving orchestral opening. It got a bit more 'comfortable' after that, though still with some genuinely interesting moments (and flashes, for me, of HR). Soundtracky? Maybe; but to me it sits well alongside a range of other ten-minutes-ish classical pieces: tone poems and overtures by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, Rachmaninov. This, I suspect, really is a piece that needs to be heard in a better context for its true colours to develop.

But the rest? Bleah. I even preferred TSODE. Nevertheless, I did find a few of the tunes sticking in my head and playing on permanent loop (which is what some of them sound like anyway). But then the last time that happened, it was for the latest McDonalds jingle ('it's Mac-time around the world'), and it damn-near drove me insane. (I've been down on McDonalds ever since one of their managers ticked me off for going through their drive-through on my bicycle, even though there were no cars waiting when I got there - this in the middle of an advertising campaign that showed smiling McDonalds employees plonking a burger onto a toy truck driven up to the drive-through window by a kid with a remote control.)

I have warmed to a few of the tracks since then - everything after 'The Voyager', pretty much (and WOI, if I can get past the Enya-influence and the pedestrian pace, is not too hideous). I've also thought some more about the defence of Voyager by some here as being quietly beautiful, mellow, blissful (and no doubt holistic, natural and fortified with chlorophyll, too). The idea seems to be that if we don't like Voyager, we're some kind of barbarian horde that can only get our kicks out of high-octane thrash-metal noise.

Well, Not Guilty, your honour. I can appreciate quietly beautiful music - there's a passage in Brahms's 2nd piano concerto that just about has me climbing out of my skin with joy every time I hear it, and it's where the orchestra goes completely quiet and leaves the piano playing a handful of solitary, drawn out notes. Similarly, I like the uillean pipes on Ommadawn Pt 2, which stand out dramatically against the preceding wall of guitars. And that's the point: they stand out. The highs and lows play off against each other. In his best longer instrumental pieces, Mike's music swells and ebbs like the tide, always changing. In some of his one-note shorter instrumentals (i.e.,in much of Voyager) it's more like a stagnant pond.

That's not the only problem, though. A whole album of quiet music can successfully draw the listener in, if they're in the right frame of mind. The trick is to get them into the right frame of mind from the outset. Voyager doesn't do so for me, because the musical messages Mike sends in the first few tracks are so blatant: 'Here's my mellow easy-listening Celtic album, done with soothing 1990s synth-sounds.' That style of music is now so familiar that it brings with it a whole range of cliched mental pictures, mostly drawn from TV and movies set in Ireland and Scotland (both of which I have visited and love, so that's not the problem for me). The resulting feeling is that there's nothing new and interesting on offer here, even when (as towards the end of the album) there is. That's a pretty big hurdle to set up from the word go.

Of course, now that I am more familiar with Voyager, I find that I can click into Mike's intended 'mellow space' more easily on more of the tracks. But I'm also able to do that because I know his entire repertoire so well, and am prepared to cut him a lot of slack - something others might not be prepared (or bothered) to do.

One thing I'm not prepared to do, though, is blindly follow Mike down any muzaky path he cares to explore just because he's got his life together and is feeling all spiritual and cosy right now. That's a cop-out: mellow just ain't the same as uplifting, and I know that Mike is capable of making the most uplifting music of all - witness 'Amarok', which is blissfully happy music.

If you need an analogy, imagine sitting quietly with a friend with a cosy smile on your face. If they're in the right mood, they might smile back; or they might ignore you and go back to reading their paper. If you really want to get a reaction out of them, tell them a good joke, or a scary story, or something - don't just sit there and fade into the background like a Cheshire cat.


Date: Wed, 2 Oct 1996 11:30:02 +1000
Subject: Amarok: Het laatste nieuws interview

I was fallen asleep with it, and it has to be said: the sleep-enhancement factor of this music is maximal.

Mike Oldfield: "When I had finished TSODE I could only ramble on in computer language."

20 PRINT "Z"
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The Twisted Bell

©2001 Rory Ewins