Mike Oldfield - The Songs Of Distant EarthAfter an extremely acrimonious split with Virgin Records in the early 1990s, multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield was already venturing out of Tubular Bells territory throughout the 1980s, dabbling in pop songs (a cover of one of his tunes, “Family Man”, became a hit for Hall & Oates) and mixing music of wildly differing styles and ethnic origins. Virgin mogul Richard Branson was reportedly demanding a Tubular Bells II from Oldfield, who refused to do any such thing, and then released precisely that after switching to Warner Bros. just to give Branson the finger, but a funny thing happened while Oldfield and Branson were battling it out. Other acts started to claim for themselves the instrumental ground which Oldfield had pioneered: Enigma, to name just one example, came to prominence in the early ’90s, and by the time Oldfield got around to releasing this album – which is indeed based on the novel of the same name by the late Arthur C. Clarke – he was having to push his way through a now-crowded musical field.

Inspired by Clarke’s mention of a musical celebration at the end of “The Songs Of Distant Earth”, Oldfield added “spacey” synths and production textures to his usual structure. Despite boasting a track list which divides things up into shorter, discrete tracks, The Songs Of Distant Earth is classic Oldfield, with lengthy development of a central theme introduced early on, and the introduction and development of secondary themes coming later in the album. It may not sound like Hergest Ridge or Ommadawn, but in fact, Songs shares a very similar structure. Like those albums/pieces (in Oldfield’s case, he composes long pieces with minimal breaks, so these terms are almost interchangeable), there’s almost no interruption from one portion of the music to the next, and Oldfield’s soaring guitar work is an obvious sonic trademark. Now, as someone who climbed onto the Oldfield train by way of his early ’70s work, I’m a little disappointed to hear that his guitar takes a back seat, at times, to synths, various kinds of percussion, ethnic vocals and so on, but one can’t stick to the same formula forever. By that same token, there are spoken word samples of everything from a man counting down, to chants, to the crew of Apollo 8 reading from the book of Genesis, woven into the music; interestingly, depending on what mood I’m in, I’ve found these soundbytes either interesting and relaxing or irritating.

3 out of 4Songs Of Distant Earth is an interesting experiment in linking music to literature, sort of a soundtrack that bypasses the hurdle of a movie deciding what everything should look/sound like, and it signals a major reinvention on Oldfield’s part. There’s a part of me that loves his older, guitar-heavy work, and finds Songs lacking, but to a more mainstream audience this isn’t a bad place to get your first Oldfield exposure.

Order this CD

  1. In The Beginning (1:24)
  2. Let There Be Light (4:57)
  3. Supernova (3:23)
  4. Magellan (4:40)
  5. First Landing (1:16)
  6. Oceania (3:19)
  7. Only Time Will Tell (4:26)
  8. Prayer For The Earth (2:09)
  9. Lament For Atlantis (2:43)
  10. The Chamber (1:48)
  11. Hibernaculum (3:32)
  12. Tubular World (3:22)
  13. The Shining Ones (2:59)
  14. Crystal Clear (5:42)
  15. The Sunken Forest (2:37)
  16. Ascension (5:49)
  17. A New Beginning (1:37)

Released by: Reprise
Release date: 1994
Total running time: 55:43