Album Review: “Tubular Bells — 50th Anniversary Celebration”

It has been fifty years since Mike Oldfield’s mostly-instrumental album Tubular Bells surprised music industry types and became an international top ten hit. Marking that milestone, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) has re-recorded Tubular Bells, as well as a few other Oldfield compositions, for an album called Tubular Bells — 50th Anniversary Celebration. It’s not a title that rolls trippingly off the tongue, but that’s not the important thing here. It’s the expansion of Oldfield’s soundscape, as beautiful and mysterious as it was 50 years ago, into the orchestral realm that makes Tubular Bells — 50th Anniversary Celebration worth owning.

Tubular Bells received a quick boost in sales after it landed on the soundtrack of the horror classic, The Exorcist. If that is where your familiarity with the song begins and ends, then you may be surprised to find out how much more Tubular Bells there is to discover. That creepy piano motif with the occasional stinger is only the beginning of a track that is more than 25 minutes long. It took up the entire first side of Oldfield’s LP.

The track moves almost effortlessly from style to style, weaving different genres of music together into a seamless whole. At the end of the song, actor Brian Blessed (he who famously said, “Gordon’s alive?” in Mike Hodges’ 1980 Technicolor version of Flash Gordon) bombastically introduces all of the instruments heard during the song. It’s a jarring touch, but one that doesn’t stray too far from the original.

“Tubular Bells Part 2” sees the return of Blessed as a character called The Caveman. His role consists of grunting and yelling over the music like someone awakened and confused during a nighttime thunderstorm. It’s a strange dichotomy between the yelling and the music, but it helps to underscore the beauty of Oldfield’s composition. There is, sometimes, surprise and dread when discovering a pretty thing, almost as if one weren’t meant to receive such a gift.

The electric guitar takes the spotlight multiple times during the Tubular Bells tracks. It’s not something one expects to hear from an orchestra, but it makes sense within the context of the music. Oldfield always considered himself a guitarist, so the Tubular Bells pieces are guitar-heavy. However, the orchestra is right there to bolster the music, creating a rich and luxurious interpretation of the music.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has never been afraid to work outside the realm of classical music. In the past, the RPO has covered the works of popular artists like Madonna, R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac, and in a somewhat audacious move, Rush.

Justice is more than done to Oldfield’s more recent compositions, particularly “Ommadawn Part 1.” Bordering on twee, the orchestra fleshes out the song and gives it depth and grandeur. The same can be said for “Excerpt From Hergest Ridge Part 1,” which feels like gentle green hills and faintly smells like old horses. That’s not a bad thing.

Album closer “Moonlight Shadow” is as close to pop music as the record gets. Bleak lyrics backed up by orchestral music and a Knopfler-like guitar solo in the middle make this a majestic tune with which to shut things down.

In between the Tubular Bells cover and the rest of the music is a version of “The Sailor’s Hornpipe.” Many may know this better as the song played at the beginning of old Popeye the Sailor cartoons. The track sequencing forces the song to serve as a bridge between Oldfield’s classic works and his lesser-known more pastoral material. Instead, its jollity serves as a mood-breaking block. Any musically-induced trance the listener found themselves in instantly dissipates when that song begins.

Tubular Bells — 50th Anniversary Celebration is faithful to the source material with the orchestral arrangements broadening the base of Oldfield’s music without overwhelming the beauty and complexity of the work. A fine addition to the music collection of any Oldfield fan, this album may also draw new listeners. Whether you’re drawn to the spooky or the pastoral, Tubular Bells — 50th Anniversary Celebration is worth its the two hour plus running time.

Tubular Bells — 50th Anniversary Celebration is slated for release by Cleopatra Records on October 28, 2022.

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