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Mike Oldfield: wasn't the first Tubular Bells enough?

In 1973 the 49 minute progressive-rock classic Tubular Bells not only seeded the Virgin empire by selling 16 million copies but also set a benchmark of acclaim which its then 20-year-old creator has yet to achieve again. Now on a new record label, Mike Oldfield seeks to reverse the long-term decline of his music's profile by attempting a project at once all too obvious and, for that very reason, breathtakingly perilous.
His challenge is not only to match the quality of the original - and listeners will be comparing every last crochet and quaver - but to beat the charge of mere repetition by displaying some conspicuous new tricks. For Oldfield, there's a lot on the line. To paraphrase the movie poster: TBII - this time it's personal.

What surprises is what a very tame first impression TBII makes. Like its predecessor , Tubular Bells II consists of a string of motifs without sustained thematic or dramatic development. Oldfield has clearly decided to re-create the mood of TBI: elegiacally pastoral, yet animated by contrasting currents of sunburst awe and Goonish jocularity -just one pretty tune after another, with a little larking around by way of light relief. Unlike the original record, however, the mood-setting opening motif is not a particularly strong tune. Called The Sentinel, this pale clone of the mysterious Tubular Bells theme is unlikely to soundtrack a horror blockbuster (The Exorcist, remember?) or ingrain itself into the fabric of '70s scholastic life as indelibly as that poster of the tennis player scratching her bare bottom.

But where the original album faded in the second half, TBII spreads its charms evenly. Updates of original themes (and these updates are often no more than anagrams of original tunes slightly rearranged and retextured) draw you into the record rather than make you yearn at times to go back to the beginning. And amidst the familiar interplay of mostly electrified folk, Celtic and hornpipe tunes with reflugent washes of romantic harmony, there is the novelty of an offbeat vocal pop song, Altered State, which in its punchline-free whimsy, has all the curious charm but limited shelf-life of someone else's home video. As for the great Viv Stanshall's original recitation of the various instruments played (now including something called "the Venetian effect" ), TBII reprises this halfway point in the album with an uncredited voice of familiar intonation both grand and slightly sinister: stand up the Sheriff of Nottingham, one hazards a guess, Alan Rickman.

A more consistent but less tune-happy musical sequence than TBI, the new album has one distinct advantage: whatever goes into producer Trevor Horn's fairy dust, it makes your record player at home sound like a million dollars. This time, audiophiles will not be able to beef about a 100 hertz mains hum spoiling this pristine recording. That's progress - just about the only "progress" you will find two decades on from that original zenith of progressive rock. Even progress, it seems, is something to get nostalgic about.

Mat Snow

Q Magazine 1992