Mike Oldfield

Virgin, 1990

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


By 1990, Virgin Records was tired of their boy wunderkind Mike Oldfield. They had been waiting nearly 20 years for him to experience the same level of success he had found with his debut release Tubular Bells, and were pressuring him to write and release a sequel to it.

Oldfield, too, was tired of Virgin Records. Bogged down by the business side of the music industry (and the shady areas it had), Oldfield wanted to simply write music that he liked. So, as the musical “fuck you” to Virgin, he released Amarok, a 60-minute non-stop piece of music that had zero commercial potential, but still showcased his talents as a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

It is a challenging listen, to be sure – so challenging, in fact, that sometimes I wonder whether Oldfield, intentionally or not, was likewise giving the finger to his fans. I understand that Oldfield had made a career of album-long songs, but at least in the days of vinyl, these were broken up by a record flip, so that the listener had the chance to decompress and decipher what they had experienced. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Amarok offers no such break, constantly hitting the listener over the head repeatedly with musical and stylistic changes. Even the scorecard on Wikipedia that breaks the album up into sections doesn't prove to be much of a help.

There is no question that Oldfield's skills – as a songwriter, as an instrumentalist and as a producer – are top-notch. How he can craft numerous styles of music into one piece and have it sound fairly natural is something he has been doing for decades. Amarok does not cause one to question those areas.

However, Amarok fails in two specific areas. First, it doesn't necessarily hit upon a specific theme that interlocks the various suites of music into a cohesive whole. Okay, other discs in Oldfield's discography are guilty of this, too; it's just that this time, it's a bit more glaring. Second – and more damning – is that Oldfield forgets to make this disc approachable for the fans. Now, it's not that he didn't have a section that could be culled from the disc and turned into a radio hit – let's be honest, radio had essentially ignored him since Tubular Bells. No, it's more that there is no hook on this one that grabs the listener and makes them want to sit still for an hour, taking in every note. I've listened to Tubular Bells hundreds of times in the course of my lifetime, and each time, it's like I'm listening to it for the first time. Amarok, in comparison, makes me feel like I'm about to run a marathon each time I cue it up to play – and I don't like exercising.

This technically wasn't Oldfield's final album for Virgin; Heaven's Open would mark the break of a nearly 20-year partnership between the artist and the label. But Amarok suggested that not only was the break coming, but it was going to be messy. The music alone leaves no doubt; if only it were more approachable by the listener.

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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