SCIENCE FICTION MUSIC REVIEW #3: "Songs of Distant Earth" by Mike Oldfield (1994)

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I love Mike Oldfield. I always have. I like musicians who don‘t - or can‘t - confine themselves to the limitations of a 5-minute radio friendly pop song, and though he‘s had his share of singles over the years, Oldfield is first and foremost an instrumental composer. Taking his cues from the emerging Prog Rock scene of the late 60s/early 70s, he was never quite exactly a prog himself, though he was something close to it. Where Prog was in large part about pretension and playing badly knocked off versions of classical music on a Moog, Oldfield was more about original compositions independent of the style of the times. Now, it‘s been obvious forever that Oldfield likes Science Fiction, and in fact since I first listened to “Islands“ in 1987 I became fairly convinced that he‘s probably a person with some fairly traditional religious views, and not of the annoyingly new agey Jon Anderson school. I don’t know why, but that makes me like him even more.

“The Songs of Distant Earth” is a 1958 short story by noted pedophile Arthur C. Clarke. In the mid-1980s, the story was expanded in to a novel. Both are essentially about a planet in another solar system being remotely colonized from earth by a probe full of sperm and ovum and some handy-dandy synthetic wombs because our sun is about to go nova. In the novel, FTL drive is discovered very shortly before the sun goes boom, and some of the last generation of earth are united with their long-lost colony around another star.

In 1993, Oldfield decided to do an instrumental album based around this story, with tracks that are based on or otherwise inspired by it. Unfortunately it’s really hard to review an album of pure music because there’s no lyrics to use as benchmarks. If you and I are listening in a room together, and I say “I like the bit that goes ‘rum-tum-te-tum-bum’” you know what I’m talking about because we just heard it. If I‘m talking about a song, I can say “I really like the part that goes rum-tum-te-tum-bum‘ right after the singer says ‘baby baby baby please baby baby please‘” because you know where to listen for the part I‘m talking about. It’s much harder to convey this without lyrical landmarks, though, so please bear with me if this ends up being a rather technical review. I just couldn’t figure another way to do it.

The album starts off with a very short musical introduction called “In the Beginning” which includes samples of the Apollo 8 crew reading from the book of Genesis. It sets the mood for the album as a whole. We get to the end of the phrase “In the Beginning…” and then it segues in to the more elaborate second track, “Let there be light” which expands on the intro in much more complex ways. We get an E A D E D C B C G# progression that goes through several variations (Including I think D G B C B A# A) while the Apollo 8 crew continues to read the biblical account of creation on Christmas night, 1968. (I was nine months old at the time.)

These two tracks were sandwiched together and released as a single, with a music video and everything!

From “Let There Be Light” we segue in to “Supernova” where we get a simple repeating G D G D phrase which is then elaborated by a G# A# G# phrase that gradually works its way higher and then swells in to a vocal doing the same phrase while a synth string section provides rhythm. Eventually G# A# G# theme is doubled an octave higher, and the whole thing repeats through a crescendo, which drops us in to “Magellan.”

This one introduces a significant theme that we’ll see turn up elsewhere: D G A B G# F# F G / D G A B G# A A# C#. After a few permutations, the Magellan theme is varied again to have a third phrase A C G A# A G F G. Around the time this shows up, we hear it on bagpipes, or really the kind of bagpipe-guitar sound that “Big Country” used to use. This gradually fades in to the same piece played in a fairly signature Mike Oldfield guitar sound - high and twangy/whiney, and this quickly transitions to the same phrase on Piano. Meanwhile A G F# D# / G# F# F D# turns up as a sort of counterpoint.

Once again the previous track segues in to the next, which is called “First Landing,” a very very short track that introduces a very simple F# G# F# synth melody, and then quickly segues in to “Oceania,” a much more elaborate track that keeps the “First Landing” running as it’s bassline (or the equivalent thereof, it’s not actually a bass piece, and it’s played on keys, but you know what I mean). After a few measures of this, the “Let There Be Light” theme returns, with variations. Meanwhile, Oldfield’s signature guitar sound plays F G# B G# C# A# A G F. Eventually a slightly lower overdubbed guitar starts playing G# A# F# G# A# G# G as an answering phrase to the other one. Meanwhile, the drums come in noodling around with a simple E G E rhythm.

From there we go to “Only Time Will Tell.” This one is built around just an electronic sounding “E” repeated over and over, like a beacon or something. Dick Tuefield's sampled voice turns up from some episode of “Lost in Space” saying “Only time will tell.” and “Only Time” over and over again. A F A# B A# tune starts to appear, and gradually grows more prominent as it progresses. Meanwhile, some wailing not-quite Middle Eastern voices are going faintly in the background, deliberately slightly out of time with the music, so as to give the impression that we’re listening to this track while there’s another completely unrelated one playing in the background that we can maybe faintly hear through the walls or car windows. Whatever. It mostly works. The track ends with a very synthetic-sounding computery woman’s voice saying “It’s Time.”

“Prayer for the Earth” starts immediately thereafter, which is built entirely around an American Indian singing an unintelligible prayer that follows a D# A D# E C# F# D# B F# D# C structure. More instruments show up and fill in the background, but it’s basically him singing. It would be interesting to know what he’s singing and what language it’s in. It sounds like a plains Indian to me, but I base that on a lifetime of cowboy movies and nothing really more concrete than that.

“Lament for Atlantis” has an extremely minimalist one-note bassline that put me in mind of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” and was probably a deliberate choice to contrast the Indian from the previous track, since his voice is just dripping with character. The Magellan theme turns up again - C F# G# A# G# F# F F# - varied a bit, but still there. A new contrapuntal melody plays over the top of these - C# F# A# C# B A G - and there are random snatches of non-English conversation going on here and there. We get more of the Signature Oldfield guitar, and then this ramps up in to a more traditional distortiony guitar sound, which shifts in to vox humana and fades out.

“The Chamber” introduces a F# D G# F# F F# melody in rather somber tones, and does very little else. This segues quickly in to “The Hibernaculum” which keeps this melody going, but substitutes Gregorian chants for instruments. There’s random barely-discernable Apollo 8 chatter in the background here. After a half dozen times through the melody, Oldfield’s guitar kicks in answering the chant with the phrase G A A# G C A# A A#. A simple chorded bassline is played on a grand piano. Midway through the song, the Gregorian chant is replaced by the same phrase in a more modern “Oooooh-ooooh-aaaaah” backing vocal style. As if all this wasn’t enough, another contrast starts to develop - C G C# A D# C B C# - played minuet-style on keys. Meanwhile there’s little snatches of African singing in the background. It sounds a bit like Enigma, actually. It’s very pretty, if perhaps a bit ‘90s. This one inexplicably resulted in a music video, believe it or not:

This ends very abruptly with the computery woman’s voice saying “Enter” and a new track - “Tubular World” begins.

This is essentially a variation on Oldfield’s most famous composition, “Tubular Bells,” The A B# A not-quite-melody from earlier returns, with G# A G# D# B A G# D# F played over and over on keys. There’s some almost-vocals that are seemingly random, but on key. This is similar to music concrete, but obviously it’s not really the same thing. A man sings a simple A E A E phrases. The vocals develop in to a funk G G E E which quickly becomes a modern soul vocal.

“The Shining Ones” comes next, with a jaunty G# A G# F# G# F# G# A G#, which eventually is contrasted with a lower D C# F A C# A F D and some Indian-From-India styled drums (Sorry, I don’t know what they’re called. The really fast bongo-sounding things.)

Shining Ones very clumsily segues in to “Crystal Clear” where we’re introduced to a very deliberately oriental sounding G B A G E G A B C B A G E melody which is rather pretty, if a bit self-conscious (Note the lack of any sharps!) More western-style instrumentation plays A B C# B G# F# A A# C B accompanied by a trance beat and random words in French. It shouldn’t, but it always makes me giggle when musicians pull this one out of their bag of tricks, since it puts me in mind of the late Syd Barrett’s more minimalist songs with more or less random barnyard words as lyrics. I have no idea what the French dude in this track is saying, but I keep thinking of Syd going “Chickens…….Mice….Ocelot…..Doors” and, well, let’s just say I’m lowbrow, ok? In any event, we’re back in “Enigma” country for this one. As the groove grooves on, we get the same French guy counting down from ten to one, deliberately out of time, with each number taking twice as long as the one before it. This is supposed to evoke both a rocket launch and a person being hypnotized. Clever, actually.

“The Sunken Forest” picks up - rather predictably - when the coundown reaches zero. We’re given a hunting C# D# A# C C C# tune to play with, with hints of chants in the background. The bassline from “Crystal Clear” continues on through this track. There’s also some random electronic noises - circuits connecting, electric motors buzzing, industrial noises.

“Ascension” is the climax of the album. We get the return of the F G C D C A# G# A F# theme from earlier, as well as more random Apollo 8 space chatter and a laid back R&B beat. A twangy guitar blends with the E G E not-quite melody that’s been going on, and essentially we get the grand re-unification of the “Let There Be Light” theme and the “Magellan” theme, where they’re playing across each other. To this is added a new F G D F melody on keys, which is then taken up by a shreddy rock-and-roll sounding guitar. The music swells and gets more inspirational as it reaches a crescendo, it climaxes…and doesn’t end, it just relaxes and becomes less complex. The E G E theme keeps playing, and we hear random snatches of world beat vocals in the background, along with the computerized womans’ voice alternately saying “Enter” and “Stars.” We start to get new variations of the previous themes played atop each other again, but in different way, and again the music swells toward a second crescendo in which the music - now going for thunderous - blends with rocket launch noises (A Saturn V) and actual real thunder in the distance, and then fades away.

“A New Beginning” is just an African tribal chant - presumably on a new world - but it’s very pretty. And then we’re done.

In the end, this is not Oldfield’s best work, not a major part of his cannon, but it is pretty good, if a bit mellower than we’re used to from him. It is an interesting experiment, and worth a listen, but probably you should see if you can get it used.