TRACKS: 1—Sentinel; 2—Dark Star; 3—Clear Light; 4—Blue Saloon; 5—Sunjammer; 6—Red Dawn; 7—The Bell; 8—Weightless; 9—The Great Plain; 10—Sunset Door; 11—Tattoo; 12—Altered State; 13—Maya Gold; 14—Moonshine.
TAGS: Instrumental, Follow-up Album
RELEASE DATE: August 31, 1992
When this album first came out in 1992, I desperately wanted to like it. For one thing, the original Tubular Bells was pretty good. For another, the brain-dead trend-heads at Entertainment Weekly magazine panned the album, calling its sound “too new age”. Knowing as I do that EW is almost never right about anything, and that they rarely praise anything without being paid for it in one way or another, I was prepared to really enjoy this disc. I can still safely say that they’re dead wrong about one thing: The term “new age” has nothing whatsoever to do with this music. For the rest, however, I’m forced to admit that it really does stink.
Back in the early 1970s, when Tubular Bells first exploded on the music scene, everyone — with only the rarest exception, everyone — knew those opening strains of minor key melody. The relentless attack of the piano, repeating its haunting melody even as other instruments entered to take over the work, was the signature musical phrase of William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. Every time those notes were heard, all of us cringed in fear of some child turning its head backward and spitting up pea soup. Even William Peter Blatty, when he filmed his own sequel novel as Exorcist III, used the theme in the opening credits. Ya just don’t futz with success.
Sadly, Oldfield futzed.
In this version of the classic work, the music begins with something nearly unrecognizable — a sweet melody played on a well-tuned grand piano. When I first heard it, I checked the CD case, just to make sure it was the right one. By that time (about 20 seconds in), the old familiar melody comes back, but mutated into a barely recognizable form. Had Satan returned to make the music play backward, like Father Damian Karras’ tape recorder?
It goes from bad to worse. What EW termed as sounding “new age” might better be described by creating a new verb: The “wimping” of the original music and instrumentation from an angry and powerful compositional statement into something more like “Midnight at the Oasis”. (How many furries out there changed the lyric to “take your camel to bed”?) Although far from being “grunge metal,” the original Tubular Bells was comparatively edgy for its day, particularly after its Exorcist association. In a review that I wrote at the time, I observed that experiencing this new variation is “like expecting to find Madonna in a g-string and pasties, instead finding a plump Marie Osmond in a modest bikini.”
Some desperately bored soul created a “word score” for the original work, describing five movements (taking up the first side of the album) and, as I recall, 16 specific themes, all appearing and reappearing throughout. It’s hell to follow, even with this road map, but at least it’s familiar territory. As you can see above, the entire album has been broken up and re-titled. What we knew as “Tubular Bells” is now made up of the first half of the 14 tracks listed. At this point, the original road map is as useless as GPS that thinks you’re in Columbus, Indiana, rather than Columbus, Ohio — name’s the same, and the rest is like it never was. It feels rather like that moment when you try to return to a childhood home, full of grass, trees, and open space, only to find that the entire area has been bulldozed and turned into a half-dozen bungalow houses on the same lot that you so loved.
Portions of this work sound like an attempt to return to disco; others, especially those which EW mislabeled as “new age,” involve synthesized Andean flute sounds puffed against wind chimes and muted electronic guitars. Once in a while, a tiny bit of familiar melody tries to peek through, like ghosts in the machinery of re-post-production. Segments that were once sad because the melody was sad are now despondent because they are no longer what they once were. The wailing is truly pathetic, in the original sense of the word.
“Did he save the Grand Finale?” I hear you cry. Alas, you shall cry further, because the honest answer is… not really. The original theme, pulled against its will into a Mobius tesseract crossed with a cross-dimensional shift of frightening proportions, is barely recognizable. The Master of Ceremonies, sounding like a vaguely dyspeptic version of his original self, introduces “Grand piano; reed and pipe organ; glockenspiel; base guitar (so far, so good); vocal cords (which I suspect are synthesized); two slightly sampled electric guitars; the Venetian effect (a fake version of the mandolin that was originally in this space); digital sound processor (a bad sequencer with a hangover from too many do-loops); and tubular bells.” As if this weren’t crime enough, the whole grizzly, gory, saccharine slop ends up with something terrifyingly akin to a reggae beat.
Let’s not bother with other seven tracks.
Oldfield’s earliest albums — Hergest Ridge, Ommadawn, Tubular Bells, and QE2 — always offered something interesting for the ear and mind. Perhaps you didn’t like a cut or two, perhaps because he went off in a direction that didn’t appeal, but it was at least interesting. Along about Five Miles Out, the album where he mistakenly attempted vocal works, he started slipping off into his own peculiar version of the Twilight Zone. It felt as if he used the clichéd excuse of “artistic growth” to cover up that he was scraping the bottom of his creative barrel. When I first heard that he was going to return to Tubular Bells for inspiration, I thought perhaps the emperor would get his groove back; instead, he ruined his old clothes in an attempt to prove that he was wearing new clothes, thence was exposed as not merely naked but no longer particularly well-endowed.
If the original Tubular Bells had never been released, and this attempt had taken its place into the market in which it appeared (the early 1990s), it might have been considered an adequate, mildly inoffensive attempt at something marginally new. As it stands, however, there are perhaps five good minutes out of the entire 58, and perhaps another 20 that might withstand scrutiny on its own merits. However, with the haunting memory of being (pardon the pun) possessed by the power of the original, this disc just don’t got it goin’ on.
Tell us true, Mikey: Did the Devil make you do it?