The Twisted Bell

Lost in Static 18: A Tribute to Mike Oldfield

[First published on the Lost in Static 18 site, 1997.]

Mike Oldfield once said that he doesn't listen to his old albums—that he's saving them up for when he's feeling nostalgic in his old age. In which case it's intriguing to wonder what his reaction will be when he listens to Lost in Static 18, the tribute album recorded by members of Amarok, the Mike Oldfield Internet Mailing List. Apart from a constant sense of dejavu, I'd imagine he'll be feeling a mixture of awe, admiration, and even unworthiness—for it's rare indeed for any musician to be the subject of such an accomplished act of devotion as this.

The cover versions on most commercial tribute albums tend to fall into two camps: those that closely follow the originals, and those that recast them in a different musical style. Examples of both approaches can be found on Lost in Static 18, along with a third: take the essence of Mike's music, and play it in a way that captures the essence of his musical style, making music that's fresh and different while still recognisably Oldfieldian. The result is not only genuinely enjoyable, it's an essential addition to any Oldfield fan's collection.

The album is opened in fine form by John Anthony James. What better way to start than with a cover of 'Tubular Bells'? Why, with JAJ's 'Tubular Variations', of course—a distinctive piece in its own right, with three major segments that would sit happily on 'Tubular Bells 3'. Like several other contributors, JAJ is obviously a master of the keyboard. There's a nod to the dancefloor in his arrangement, but the tunes take precedence—remixers of Mike's singles should take note.

Next up is 'Conflict' by Rene de Vreng. One of the more faithful cover versions, this is given a life of its own by a driving rhythm and an assured ending that captures the original's feeling of controlled chaos so well that I expected to hear it followed by the opening bars of 'Arrival'.

Yoav Nevo takes perhaps the bravest step—the only cover of an Oldfield 'pop song' on the album. And it works. Yoav strips away the layers of guitars and stadium vocals from 'Holy' to expose its floating spirit, leaving an impression of light and space entirely in keeping with its lyrics.

AnnMarie Scott's 'Punkantations' is one of my favourites. It's also one of the tracks with the most distinctive voice of its own: 'Punkadiddle' will never sound quite the same again after you've heard it done as part-techno, part-Tomita. The result could be a big hit on the dance-floors of Ibiza—and it's further evidence that a truly sympathetic ear can turn Mike's work into dance music that any Oldfield fan would enjoy.

After this highlight comes another: Pete Swanson's 'Mount Teide'. Pete transforms the song into a dark, brooding evocation of the jungle, with raucous guitar and synth sounds layered over a chugging, swirling, polyrhythmic bottom end. Imagine the original played in the style of 'Evacuation' and 'Music From the Balcony' and you're getting there. But the beauty of Pete's piece is that while it reminds you of various parts of Mike's work, the whole is so much more.

It's a hard act to follow, but two faithful covers do it well. Keyboardist Gug Lacorata tantalises us with the short and sweet 'Pipe Tune'—a thoughtful gesture for those who may not have heard the original B-side. Then guitarists Maurice Lafleur and Hubert Razack distil the extremes of 'Hergest Ridge' to a cohesive four and a half minutes, moving from a gentle 'Tubular Bells'-like opening to the heavy metal 'Martian Bit' and then back to a more pastoral ending.

Which brings us to the one I hope the others won't mind me calling the star of the show: Jörn Brackhagen, the driving force behind the Tribute project and the talented multi-instrumentalist behind the dazzling 'Taurus IV - The Mike Oldfield Medley', all 21 minutes of it (including a dash of 'Orabidoo' played by Don Tano). Jörn's playing is, indeed, so accomplished that at times I was wondering whether his medley was an (excellent) editing job on a string of Oldfield samples—until I would realise that Mike didn't play that particular Oldfield guitar sound on that particular Oldfield track.

Jörn's ability to mimic Mike's technique will make any struggling guitarist who's ever aspired to do the same insanely jealous—and should, if there's any justice in this world, land him a spot on Mike's next tour. But it's not all mimicry—the 'Medley' is also an ear-opener for the way it weaves musical segments from completely different albums and eras into one almost seamless whole, revealing the essential unity of Mike's work and style in a way that no commercial greatest-hits compilation has done. Jörn won't just be up for a support guitar spot on the next tour, he'll be a contender for co-producer of the next album as well.

There are so many pieces woven together in the 'Medley' that you can spend all day playing 'spot the source' and still miss a few. There are even references to some of Jörn's other loves, such as the Beatles and Pink Floyd—the latter providing the material for the album's best joke. And, as in all of Mike's own work, there's always something going on in every corner of the stereo soundscape.

A medley of this kind is something Mike will never do himself, and that alone is reason enough to own this album—as if the eight other tracks weren't already reason enough. Jörn closes his meisterwerk with the only appropriate ending, which doubles as a friendly wink to the other members of the Amarok mailing list. Happy? I sure was.

But it's not over yet. Chris Kimber proves that even the final chords of 'Amarok' can be followed by an encore, when that encore is in the form of an immaculate cover of the finale to 'Incantations'. It's the perfect end to a damn near perfect tribute album.

Too many commercial tribute albums smack of opportunism, with bands of the moment attempting to turn the original music into advertisements for themselves. It's a long time since Mike Oldfield was considered 'commercial', despite two and a half decades of fine music, so it's appropriate that this is the tribute he receives: a non-commercial album that smacks of excellence, with unknown but talented musicians turning his original music into an advertisement for its own inherent quality. Lost in Static 18 is a labour of love, and if you're an Oldfield fan you'll love it.

The Twisted Bell

©2001 Rory Ewins