Casual music fans must have heard the output of English musician Mike Oldfield somewhere. The opening to his 1973 LP Tubular Bells is the creepy theme music to ‘The Exorcist’ (one of the scariest movies of all time). A decade later, he released the glorious Moonlight Shadow, an exhilarating tribute to Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’ with Maggie Reilly’s heavenly vocals.
Working with Stephen Lipson on Man on the Rocks, Oldfield shows that his music has some bite after four decades in the industry. The sing-along of the opener Sailing (which curiously reminds listeners of Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon) is a clear single and is the most British-sounding track.
American influences also appear on the album. Moonshine refers to ‘wings of liberty’ and ‘stars and stripes’, yet its guitar riffs recall a bit of U2. The title track is a hard-hitting, gospel-tinged power ballad that sweeps listeners away with its bright acoustic guitars, lush strings, a massive key change, Oldfield’s passionate throat shredding and a rousing choir. I Give Myself Away (a cover of a track by gospel artist William McDowell) is an ideal closer, as Oldfield is laid bare by a stripped down vocal, guitar and synth arrangement.
The middle of the album (Minutes, Dreaming of the Wild) is, however, rather ordinary. Nuclear attempts to be compelling but sounds like a bombastic drag, despite its quality guitar work. By contrast, Following The Angels is a gentle yet soulful ballad with a lovely ‘they came faaaaaling down’ hook that doesn’t need to go over the top. Things also improve on the visceral Chariots, a great track to play during a dirty, desert drive that gallops like Seal’s Crazy.
Oldfield is also more successful on the rockier tracks that show off his guitar talents like Castaway and Irene. The latter, apparently named after Hurricane Irene, is a filthy headbanger. Oldfield sounds eerily like Mick Jagger on Rolling Stones tracks like Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The track is topped off with some killer guitar and swinging brass parts make listeners want to strut along.
Mike Oldfield may never again reach the creative heights of Tubular Bells nor create another timeless, radio-friendly single like Moonlight Shadow. Despite this, Man on the Rocks reveals a still talented artist not tied to his former glories and not afraid to try something new. If only the whole album were more adventurous during that middle section.