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A masterpiece, flaws and all,
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This review is from: Amarok [HDCD] (Audio CD)
Amarok is a remarkable curio within the Oldfield canon. To outsiders, the album will probably seem too challenging and `off the wall' to be worth a second listen - a fragmented collage of ideas, some old, some new and some indulgently incongruous. However, to those with a taste for the Oldfield way of working, and some familiarity with the story leading up to this particular album, there is much here to enjoy.
To say that it has its flaws rather misses the point - to some extent the piece is flawed by design. Amarok is a tapestry of many musical colours, not all of them intended to be enjoyable or `easy listening'. If there are passages that seem uncomfortable or disconcerting, this is far from accidental. For one thing, the album is a flamboyantly defiant gesture in the face of typical record company obsession with `hits'. Oldfield was resolutely determined to produce 60 minutes of instrumental music from which no-one, not even the most rapacious of record label bosses, could extract a `hit single' or anything even remotely `radio friendly'.
It is also an album that serves as a kind of chapter ending for the ever-evolving Oldfield, a clear point of transition on his journey of musical evolution. There are many references to earlier works, especially Tubular Bells and Ommadawn, some of them quite blatant and others more subtle, hidden deep within the often dense mix of sounds and textures. In musical terms, Oldfield is sharing with his fans a flick through his back catalogue, saying `Hey, remember when we had fun with this idea?'. This process isn't as shallow as it might sound. There are no direct excerpts from earlier work or plain, easy `quotations'. Rather, there are echoes and recollections of many of the themes, styles, timbres, voicings, arrangements and compositional approaches that had been Oldfield's `signatures' up to this point in his career.
As well as fond `callbacks' to earlier works, there is innovation and subversion as well. Many passages of otherwise very attractive and lyrical music, in `traditional' Oldfield style, feature what appear to be extraneous and incongruous overdubs, such as sound effects and disjointed vocal `stabs'. These might be felt to `spoil' the music, the musical equivalent of self-inflicted graffiti. However, they can also be seen as playful, mischievous, indulgent grace notes that challenge us to wake up, and not to get complacent about what we expect from our multi-talented maestro. He is reminding us that his only job is to make the music that he wants to make. It's not his role to try and guess what we'd like to hear and then slave for months to create it. He can slash the canvas if he wants to, if he thinks that this makes more a statement than the pretty painting on its own.
Amarok is also a riotous, glorious, dazzling celebration of Oldfield's mastery of composition, playing, arrangment and recording technology. With boundless enthusiasm and seemingly limitless energy, he conjures up an astonishing variety of styles and textures, summarising all that he had learnt since his first, fumbling steps into what became side one of Tubular Bells. To some extent, sure, it's a show-off piece. This whirlwind tour through the many different landscapes that he can conjure up at will necessarily means the piece as a whole lacks coherence. So be it, says Oldfield, and carries right on having fun with his own rich virtuosity. If we want a tight focus on just two or three tunes, he says, we can go back to Ommadawn or visit the post-Incantations albums of shorter tracks. That's not what Amarok is all about, and it was never meant to be.
The album's gems may be harder to reach than with some of Oldfield's more accessible work, but they are there to be found. There are more than a few shimmering examples of Oldfield's trademark guitar brilliance (acoustic and electric). There are passages that rank with anything else in the Oldfield canon for their beauty, brilliance and densely layered craft. There are emotional high points that we can only find with Oldfield as our guide. There are playful, technically impressive displays from Oldfield the master producer, dervish of every toy in the recording studio. There is virtuosity, vision, complexity, confidence, humour and defiance. Some of the ideas don't work? Fine, says Mike with a playful shrug: here are ten more. The creative juices are flowing, the ideas pile up on themselves, the musical twists and turns just keep on coming.
Amarok is Oldfield both remembering his musical journey and departing from it, checking in with his fans while also reminding them that his only obligation is to his own muse, and his own demons. Very few will enjoy it on first listening. Even fewer will find that repeat listenings don't eventually open the door to a garden of many delights.