Mike Oldfield – Hergest Ridge (1974)
No, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Mike Oldfield’s discography. I am assured by polite company that it is enormous. Hergest Ridge, while not as commercially successful or as well known as the guy’s debut (Tubular Bells), still tells an interesting commercial story – it reached #1 on the British OCC album charts before being knocked off a mere three weeks later by … you guessed it, Tubular Bells. Progressive rock used to be big money; now, the music industry is shriveled and dying even as the quantity of available music increases at an ever growing rate. But let’s not dwell on such things for the moment.
Hergest Ridge is a compilation of two lengthy instrumental pieces that presumably are inspired by the scenery of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where it was conceived and recorded. You can imagine how such sparsely settled countryside (… by European standards; compare to the USA if you need a laugh) would make for generally soft and approachable music, although there are a few sections that break this rule, including the famous “thunderstorm” in the second part that was my formal introduction to this album. One of Mike Oldfield’s famous gimmicks is that he imitates some structural aspects of orchestral music by recording lots of instrumental parts and overdubbing them to make dense walls of sound; he also uses a lot of studio wizardry to make instruments sound like other instruments. The sheer amount of effort here means that any attempts to transfer Hergest Ridge to other arrangements would dramatically alter its sound, even if maybe not so much its structure.
Since I haven’t listened to the rest of Oldfield’s discography, I can’t say to what extent the upcoming songwriting tropes hold elsewhere, but one thing I’ve found particularly notable is that this album seems to strike a balance between the extended ‘narrative’ songwriting a lot of other progressive rock albums engage in and a more ambient approach. The number of discrete song sections on display (which are a good sign of the former) is easier to pick up on, at least initially. The order that Oldfield organizes each part of his songs, as well as the transitions between them, though, emphasize mood and texture over dynamics. If you’re not paying attention, Hergest Ridge seems to repeat itself a great deal, but there’s enough subtle microvariation here to keep that from literally being the case. I should also note that the second part, while not dramatically different and even sharing many of the same musical themes and motifs, is more active and formally structured than the second.
Most likely, Oldfield’s greatest strength on this album is the aforementioned ‘ambient’/’progressive’ fusion. It’s not entirely unheard of, and a lot of bands on one side of the fence stuck their toes through to the other just to feel out what it was like, but it’s still pulled off well here. It doesn’t always align with my tastes, but it does make for an interesting spin on the era’s formulas.
Highlights… aren’t exactly helpful on an album with only two tracks, but do pay close attention to the aforementioned “thunderstorm” after 8:30 in Part II.