Monday, 10 March 2014

Album Review - Mike Oldfield: Man on the Rocks

Let's get a couple of things straight before we start, shall we?

I've mentioned before how Mike Oldfield was my first musical love, and also how this awakening took place during the late 80's, when as well as symphonic masterpieces like 'Ommadawn' and 'Incantations' that I had the joy of being able to discover all at once, there were also new albums like 'Islands' and 'Earth Moving' to purchase, get confused by and then see for what they were –  shimmering, Atari ST-produced monuments to chart pop music which still managed to retain some of the sense of adventure from his previous work. (See 'Far Country' for a perfect example – guitar solo by Adrian Belew, prog fans!)

"I'm pretty sure I dropped my keys down there somewhere..."

Also, a cursory glance at my end of year lists since I started this blog will reveal that I'm not some hobbit-bothering pretentious anti-philistine who proclaims that anything resembling a proper song, or with any vaguely modern sounds is to be feared and backed into a corner and poked with a stick.

So - having said all that... this album's not very good, is it? Allow me to explain, as we go through the album chronologically from the good to the "meh" to the "I think I'm just going to put something else on now".

Opener 'Sailing' didn't do anything for me at first – probably something to do with the video, which just puts me in mind of someone who's brought their tragically hip rocker boyfriend home to meet their dad, who then insists on getting out his guitar and "jamming on a few numbers". But a week staying with my parents and the Radio 2 playlist gradually drummed it into me to the point where I woke up humming it one day, so it's probably quite a good song. In fact  I would say that the first 3 songs are all pretty good in a 'Moonlight Shadow' / 'Crime of Passion' kind of a way, and worth listening to – the title track in particular managing to summon up something approaching emotion.

It's with track 4, 'Castaway' where things start to drop off, and you first start to notice all the niggles which then annoy you for the rest of the album. Firstly, the lyrics aren't brilliant, and in fact consist largely of repeating the song title over and over again – perhaps it's in case you've forgotten what it's called and accidentally click on it to play it again. Also, some of the guitar solos don't sound like that long was spent on them, which used to be charming in the Tubular Bells days, but now just sounds a bit like someone who lives in the Bahamas and wants to get back outside to the veranda and stare at the sea.

'Minutes' is basically just 'Sailing' again with a different chorus - it's one thing doing 'Man in the Rain' 15 years after 'Moonlight Shadow' but maybe leave it a bit more than 20 minutes next time, eh? And 'Nuclear' is perhaps the worst lyrical offender:

Standing on the edge of the crater, like the prophets once said.
And the ashes are all cold now, No more bullets and the embers are dead.”

Gee thanks, Adrian Mole. Still, although Luke Spiller's vocals are kind of generic in a Max Bacon sort of a way, he's a good singer and does his best at trying to imbue some feeling into what he's given, like a man trying to wring some emotion out of the Argos catalogue.

'Chariots' starts promisingly, with some chugga-chugga sounds, a nice guitar riff, and a fat old groove from Leland Sklar on the bass, and in fact proves the last good song on the album, for my money.  “Chariots to carry us home'” is a bit of a naff rhyme, but it's better than “You are omnipotent when you're innocent” I suppose. 'Following the Angels', though, is where things start to really go off the rails (or, hit the rocks, eh? Hahaha!) There's a promising start with a nice melody and a couple of interesting chords, but it then turns into 7 minutes of the exact same chord progression, melody and, mostly, lyrics going round and round and round with the addition here and there of a half arsed guitar solo and some gospel choir vocals to try and make you think something new's happening. But it's not. And you know it.

'Irene' is one of the most generic, cookie cutter, two chord 'Blues Rock' songs I've ever heard, even with its plastic horns, and should be torched into oblivion. And then there's 'I Give Myself Away', which I have never made it all the way through until just now, due to the first minute making me lose the will to live, and should probably be retitled 'I Wish I Had Given This Album Away'.

So, I make that four good songs. And none of them are even half as passionate or interesting as 'To France', 'North Point', 'Holy', 'Heaven's Open' or even 'Man in the Rain'.

After my first disappointing listen, I went and looked at the reviews which Mike's PR lady asked people to post on Amazon, and surprisingly they were all 5-star, aside from a few which dared to offer the alternative opinion that perhaps this album wasn't the best thing ever. After each and every one of those, someone else had posted a comment insisting that they go and listen to the bonus disc of instrumentals, as if some 'Songs of Distant Earth'-esque instrumental masterpiece would emerge once the vocals had been taken off. So I'm listening to that right now on Spotify. It sounds like an album of backing tracks to not very interesting songs. (Although, dammit, I just got to 'Castaway' and it's infinitely better without the non-lyrics. Damn you, Mike for spoiling my pithy ending sentence.)

Rating: 2/5
Buy: Man on the Rocks / Chariots / Castaway (Instrumental)
Stream: Sailing / Moonshine
Destroy, with whatever comes to hand: Nuclear / Irene / I Give Myself Away


  1. Haven't listened to it yet but I felt as though I've been duped into buying it a little. It was recommended to me by Amazon in January with the Special Edition 'featuring a bonus disc of instrumental tracks'. I stupidly thought these would be stand alone tracks, not just instrumental versions of the vocal tracks. So I pre-orders the CD. Having heard Sailing all over Radio 2 I thought "That sounds suspiciously like Gerorgia Satellites' Battleship Chains but at least I've got the bonus disc to enjoy" Hmmm...
    And I know what you mean about the video to Sailing. Oh. Dear.

    1. Yes, it is rather an odd idea, having a bonus disc with instrumental versions of the exact same thing. It's almost as if... he knew.... the vocals and the lyrics were rubbish and people would hate them? No, surely not...