"Oldfield the composer" is finally back again.
After the 'Light and Shade' debacle and the hit and miss quality of his previous 3 albums, 'Music of the Spheres' shows a return to what Mike does best, creating real music, for real instruments played by real people.
Collaborating, for this release, with the highly respected Karl Jenkins, Oldfield has returned to his ubiquitous Tubular Bells and used a theme from it AS the theme for his first attempt at a truly 'classical' album.
With a guest appearances by the divine Hayley Westenra on the vocal piece 'On My Heart' and acclaimed pianist Lang Lang who appears throughout, Oldfield has drawn upon the best the Classical world has to offer for this premier outing. This is not akin to Oldfield's more classical-type recordings such as 'Incantations', but a full on, full orchestral piece. Written specifically for an orchestra as opposed to being adapted for one, (As Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge have been).
Although listed as sequential tracks, 'Music of the Spheres', like all the best classical music, is best listened to in one sitting, unhampered and uninterrupted. One track segueing neatly into the next as the all encompassing 'Harbinger' theme knits them together.
Nods to other themes from Oldfield's previous works can be heard hidden away in 'Music of the Spheres', and thus the overall album has a sound that is immediately familiar without being obvious. Influences appear to have come from other sources too, such as Enigma and Adiemus (I challenge anyone to listen to track 4 - 'Shabda', without thinking of their self titled debut release), but the encompassing feel and sound is trademark Oldfield.
And then he plays his guitar.
If there is one thing the hard-core Oldfield fan will find missing from this album it will be Mike's, always sublime electric guitar work, but that missing element is counteracted by some wonderful acoustic playing that continually makes appearances throughout the album... But not nearly as much as you would expect.
Since his collaborations with Trevor Horn on Tubular Bells II, Mike has softened his stance somewhat on allowing other artists to play large sections of his albums, but with 'Music of the Spheres he may well have released the best Oldfield album, with the least Oldfield 'hands on' work, in his entire career.
But IS it a classical album?
It hangs together well enough, it certainly follows a theme from one end to another, but in places it can feel a little like some ideas have been stuck together by any means necessary. There are few, if any, other classical albums I could point to that have a sudden solo vocal appear in the way that 'On My Heart' does. But this does not detract from the album being an incredible piece of work.
Why only 4 stars then? Only because I am judging it against other Oldfield releases. If I could have given it four and a half, I would have!
As Oldfield himself says, "Is this classic music? It's my idea of classic music anyway"... And as the Tubular Bells hammer into the climactic 'Musica Universalis' you'll understand why!
Where Oldfield goes from here is hard to tell, but, after losing a lot of faith amongst his aficionados so late in his career with his forays into Disco and Techno, 'Music of the Spheres' is a welcome return to form by a highly gifted musician.
Oldfield the Classicist is a much better bet than Oldfield the Disco King and, classical music or not, it is certainly Classical Oldfield.
And that alone is reason enough to buy it!