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Beguiling & Beautiful
on 1 July 2010
The release of a re-mixed `Hergest Ridge' (HR/2010) follows the 2009 release of a remixed `Tubular Bells' (TB/2009), made possible by Oldfield's acquisition from Virgin Records (VR) of the rights to his entire VR back catalogue. This is not, of course, the first time that `Hergest Ridge' has been re-worked, as a substantially different version was released in 1976 as part of the `Mike Oldfield Boxed' (HR/MOB) set, intended as a QUAD mix. At the time Oldfield stated that his intention was to "...cut down on what I thought had been unnecessary trimmings...I thought people might think it was too repetitive". This pared down, textually revised version would be used in all subsequent releases of the album (mixed back to stereo), including the first cd and later HDCD issues.
For the 2010 release, Oldfield has returned and reconsidered the approach taken in the `boxed' and original stereo mix, producing a further hybrid, whilst also sanctioning the first ever issue on cd of the original 1974 stereo mix, something which fans have sought for many years. To further whet the appetite, a complete demo version is also available (allowing fans to compare and contrast the development of the music from initial stages to completed work) alongside a new 5.1 Surround Sound Mix (which I do not include in this review).
This represents a considerable amount of material of review meaningfully, so in order to save space (and perhaps your patience!) I will concentrate on the new 2010 stereo mix with reference to HR/MOB and HR/1974.
The initial impression of HR/2010 is positive, with an immediately clearer and cleaner sound when compared directly against the earlier boxed and single cd editions, although this impression of greater clarity may owe much to the significantly increased loudness across the audio range, an effect also used with TB/2009. Part One, opening with sustained ethereal notes, emerges as if discovered by the listener. This quality is broken only through the introduction of single sustained bass notes, rooting the music to the present.
Oldfield appears to have continued the process of removing elements originally considered superfluous, and pushing forward within the mix particularly strident sounding instruments (such as the trumpet and mandolin) that originally provided a counter to the main melody - now removed. The effect might be harmonically disconcerting, particulary for fans familiar with the earlier issues. A particularly fine example of this can be heard in the transition in to the bass lead section, where a percussive mandolin is placed forward in the mix ( 12.14 - 14.08) - jarring and completely ill judged. In the final moments of Part One, the beautiful concluding section is graced by an added guitar lead (and possibly synth underpinning ), which sounds like a new interposition - the playing style may not be contemporary to HR/1974 or HR/MOB. A similar effect was heard in the conclusion of TB/2009, where the previously rousing entrance of the `Tubular Bells' sounded quite distinct and apart from the underlying mix.
Part Two continues this trend, with most of the changes being concerned with the placement of the vocal sections (barely discernible in HR/1974 but `restored' in HR/MOB). The final section of Part Two, in which a rising bass drives forward unrelentingly accompanied by counter melodic material is magnificent, but has been much simplified in contrast to HR/1974 - opening up the distinctly reggae influenced lilt that can be heard underpinning this section. The final coda, simple and beautiful, restores the reflective mood, but the mix is notably different to that of HR/1976 and HR/MOB, with changes to the vocals and the lead melodic instrumentation.
So. Do you buy?
In recent years Oldfield has been content to concentrate on offering differing versions of `Tubular Bells' and other material of wildly varying quality, in what might have seemed (to even the most loyal of fans) a cynical exercise in marketing and maximising financial reward. Those familiar with his earlier work, including `Ommadawn' and `Incantations', might well have had their patience stretched to the extreme - particularly given the fact that no new music has been released by Oldfield to accompany the re-release of his older material. This release might go some way to restoring their goodwill, representing good material value for money in product and presentational terms (particularly with the inclusion of the `demo' version).
Moreover, for people unfamiliar with `Hergest Ridge', there has probably never been a better time to explore a far more cohesive and musically unified work than `Tubular Bells'. Where the latter is essentially an impressive shifting rock tableux, `Hergest Ridge' is reflective and complex, a satisfying tone poem of greater depth but less immediacy.
Whilst the 2010 mix does not offer a great improvement on previously issued mixes the undoubted star of the stereo package has to be the restored original 1974 `Hergest Ridge', here heard in all its magnificently complex and imperfect glory. The strength of Oldfield's original vision is enough to warrant purchase, even after 36 years.