John Scott throws a log on the fire, pours himself a wee dram and puts on his copy of Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn as part of his Classic Albums series of reviews.  

Some albums seem to be wedded to a particular time of year – for me, The Incredible String Band’s Wee Tam is a summer album and as much as I love it, it doesn’t get many plays between September and June.  Similarly, Ommadawn has always been a winter album for me and is best enjoyed when it is cold and dark outside, in front of a log fire, or at least with the central heating is cranked up, and a glass of something warming.Ommadawn

I first encountered Ommadawn back in 1976 when it was released as part of “Boxed”, a boxed set of Mike Oldfield’s first three albums along with an extra disc of odds and ends and collaborations.  Boxed was one of my gateway albums to “grown up” music as opposed to the chart pop that I had weaned myself on.  Marathon listening sessions ensued in which I immersed myself in Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn.  While I grew to love them all, Ommadawn became a favourite and remains so to this day.

Tubular Bells had, of course, launched Virgin Records and become an instant classic; a must-have record for any serious collection.  The album had thrust painfully shy Oldfield into a spotlight that he had no desire to be illuminated by.  Retreating into the country and under pressure to produce a follow up, Oldfield released Hergest Ridge within a year of his debut album.  In hindsight, Hergest Ridge is a bold, adventurous album but it couldn’t like up to the expectations of its predecessor and was viewed as something of a damp squib at the time.  Ommadawn followed a year later but this time Oldfield, who was prone to bouts of depression, had clearly tried to excoriate some of the demons brought on by his sudden fame and had poured his heart into his latest composition.mike-oldfield-ommadawn-inside

If Tubular Bells is an exercise in thematic variations and Hergest Ridge an impressionistic tone poem depicting the landscape of the Hereford countryside around Oldfield’s home, influenced by modern minimalist composers such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass, Ommadawn is a much more organic piece, pulling on Celtic influences and African rhythms.  Oldfield had garnered a reputation as a one man band multi-instrumentalist although in truth both Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge had featured other musicians.  Oldfield continues to play the bulk of the instruments on Ommadawn but the album features contributions on vocals, percussion, uilleann pipes, panpipes and trumpet from other musicians.  The Hereford City Brass Band makes a fleeting, though effective, appearance as well.

Ommadawn is a piece in two parts, as had been Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge, necessitated no doubt by the format of the vinyl LP.  A gentle, tinkling introduction featuring acoustic guitars, wordless vocals and a growling electric bass sets the tone for what is to come.  This is a much warmer, more grounded album than either of its predecessors.   This opening theme is briefly developed and returns again at the end of part one. Developing into a mini-climax featuring the Hereford City Band, this opening theme moves to a jig-like movement and then a musical box interlude.  The musical box theme morphs into another featuring nonsense lyrics chanted by vocalists Clodagh Simonds, Bridget St John and Oldfield’s sister Sally.  Oldfield had asked Simonds to come up with some meaningless phrases.  Simonds wrote down some words and then asked a fried to translate these into Irish Gaelic.  One of the words, idiot, translated as amadán which was then re-anglicised as ommadawn, giving the piece its title. This section builds slowly and relentlessly on a bed of African drums leading to one of the most intense guitar solos ever committed to tape.  Oldfield wrings every drop of emotion out of his guitar, ending on a screaming note, leaving the drums to end part one like a fading heartbeat.

Part two opens with a swarming mass of overdubbed guitars playing a tumbling, descending melody until an acoustic guitar solo lifts the mood upwards again.  At the age of 15 Oldfield had formed a folk duo with his sister Sally.  The pair released an album, Children Of The Sun in 1968.   A Sad Song For Rosie, an unreleased track from the album, forms the basis of the next section of Ommadawn, played on uilleann pipes by The Chieftain’s’ Paddy Maloney. A transitional section takes us to another epic guitar solo that brings Ommadawn to a close; joyous this time rather than the emotionally searing solo that ended part one.

That’s not quite the end though On Horseback is a short simple song, complete with children’s’ choir, about the joys of horse riding in the countryside. While not adding anything to what has gone before, it is charming in its naïvety.

A deluxe version of Ommadawn was released in 2011 with a new mix by Oldfield accompanying the original mix, a “lost” demo version and a clutch of contemporary pieces including hit single In Dulce Jubilo and First Excursion which was one of several contributions that Oldfield had made to compositions by English composer David Bedford.  The remix brings out some details that had previously lurked in the background and adds a little sonic sparkle but also removes the contribution by the Hereford City Band, which I personally think is a poor decision.  Still, I have the option of the original mix as well.

For me, Ommadawn is the perfect distillation of Oldfield’s talents.  If you have never explored beyond Tubular Bells, it is well worth your time.

VITAL INFORMATION 

Released – 21st October 1975

Recorded – The Beacon, January–September 1975

Genre – Prog Rock/World/Folk

Length – 36’ 41”

Label – Virgin

Producer – Mike Oldfield

TRACK LISTING

  1. Ommadawn {Part One}
  2. Ommadawn {Part Two}

John Scott

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