The Twisted Bell

The Songs of Distant Earth

Date: Wed Dec 07 13:12:31 1994
Subject: Review of SODE

Yes, here it is, my promised review of Songs of Distant Earth. It hasn't been released in Australia yet, but I've managed to hear a copy through the list (many thanks to Gareth!). Who says the Internet is a waste of time?


Knowing in advance the mixed opinions of many others on the list made this a rather atypical Oldfield-first-listening experience for me. When I heard the first notes of Amarok I had no idea what was coming, and with TBII all I knew was that it would be roughly an update of TBI. But with SODE I had plenty of advance warning that Mike had produced a somewhat disappointing New Agey kind of album.

Paradoxically, that warning has probably increased my enjoyment of SODE. Expecting the worst, I found something better than I expected. Certainly, there is no way that SODE ranks among the highest Oldfield peaks for me, but I can see that I will be listening to it quite a bit over the next while, and I can guess that it will probably end up slotted in somewhere around 'Incantations' in my mental Mike file. That, for me, puts it way down the list of Mike's output, but there is really very little of Mike's that I find unlistenable - indeed, I listened to and enjoyed Incantations just the other day.

This really is an album the dedicated Mike fan should approach keeping Mike's intentions firmly in mind. He has produced, in effect, a soundtrack for a non-existent film - hence its episodic feel, punctuated with moments intended to evoke actual events in the story (the siren at the end of 'Let There Be Light'; the tracks 'Supernova', 'First Landing', and 'The Chamber'). The album lacks a true 'Oldfield climax' to match Ommadawn, Amarok, or 'The Bell', although in certain tracks there are hints of it: particularly 'Supernova', which I thought evoked its subject very well.

Mike has avoided his usual armoury of folk and world-music instruments for a specific reason: he has wanted to make an album of 'space music', one which feels like the music of the future, with computer effects and much sampling (even of his own past efforts - 'Incantations' crops up in the background once or twice). Again, with that in mind, I think he has done well. That doesn't stop me from preferring his folk-rock-oriented work, but taking SODE on its own terms, I like it; and I think it is at least as successful as much of his synth-drenched work of the 1980s.

Unlike some, I don't find it devoid (or even relatively devoid) of those musical moments to catch the imagination. The first three tracks in particular flow together very nicely ('Let There be Light' being an obvious standout), and even the fourth, 'Magellan', is good - though a bit too reminiscent of other synth-meisters out there. (SODE is often reminiscent of Vangelis, Enigma, and Jarre; but again, much of this is down to the instruments Mike more or less forced upon himself. And those who would make Enigma comparisons would do well to keep in mind that it's a two-way street: Michael Cretu, driving force behind Enigma, worked with Mike on the Islands album, and it shows to an extent in his work too.)

'Oceania' and 'Only Time Will Tell' make another good coupling, and the album continues to throw up interesting moments thereafter: 'Prayer for the Earth', 'Lament for Atlantis', 'Hibernaculum'. After 'Hibernaculum' (perhaps a pedestrian choice for first single, but not an unrepresentative one) come, again, some more good solid pieces. I even liked 'Crystal Clear', with its spoken-word samples (which have irritated some). 'Ascension' closes Mike's music on the album - a pleasant but unremarkable endpiece - and is followed by one of my favourite moments, the Pacific islands singing of 'A New Beginning' - a fine 'earthly' contrast to the otherworldly tunes of the preceding hour.

My main objection would be the lack of a feeling of development towards a climax which marks Mike's best instrumental work. SODE is by no means alone in this respect - the second sides of TB I & II are similarly lacking - but it does mean that it has no hope of matching any one of his best instrumentals (Ommadawn, Amarok, 'Platinum', 'The Lake', 'Taurus II', and many more) where I'm concerned. The effect is rather like that of an unfinished symphony.

SODE, therefore, falls clearly into Mike's 'music as texture' category, providing an overall feel rather than a complete self-contained musical experience. I wouldn't call it New Age - nor would I call Vangelis, Jarre or Enigma New Age - and those who would may not, I suspect, have been subjected to enough true New Age whale-song noodlings by hippy friends. And I wouldn't call it cold, hostile, or any similar disparaging adjective; but then, as an old SF fan from way back, the depths of space don't seem cold and hostile to me - not when one imagines them populated by people, which is after all what SODE is about.

A final comment? Interesting. Definitely. Not a masterpiece; but not an inappropriate follow-up to TBII, and not a waste of time. Certainly it's much less disappointing than EM or HO were to me. I don't fear for Mike's future output; now that he's explored this musical byway, he may well feel happy going back to more familiar ground. And anyway, what is Mike's 'familiar ground'? I thought almost everything he produced in the mid to late 1980s was getting 'off-track' - at least the track I wanted him to explore. I can't really argue that Ommadawn and Amarok, two albums out of umpteen, are 'typical' Mike any more or less than EM or HO. Mike will go where he wants to go; fortunately for us, he's shown himself to be eclectic enough that he doesn't stay in any one place for too long. I'm certainly not about to give up on him; certainly not on the strength of this good, solid, mid-range work. I've heard a lot worse.


We now return you to your normal programming.

The Twisted Bell

©2001 Rory Ewins