Crises is Mike Oldfield’s eighth studio album.
On his previous album, Five Miles Out, Oldfield had experimented with playing with a band, but the same line-up is no longer involved in Crises. Instead, Oldfield returns in part to his familiar and safe one-man band style, but with the addition of other musicians and guest vocalists.
The most notable collaborator with the Crises was a new name in Oldfield’s line-up: 26-year-old drummer Simon Phillips had emerged as a session ace in recent years, having played with the likes of 801, Judas Priest, Jon Anderson, Mike Rutherford and Toyah. Oldfield’s tour manager introduced Phillips to him on the Five Miles Out tour. Oldfield and Phillips met at a restaurant in New York and hit it off. Shortly afterwards, Oldfield invited Phillips to play in his studio.
Phillips played drums on a few songs in sessions with bassist Phil Spalding and guitarists Anthony Glynne and Tim Renwick. When Phillips expressed an interest in producing, Oldfield suggested that they produce his next album together. Phillips was thrilled. Enthusiasm soon turned to horror when Oldfield fired his recording engineer* and suggested that Phillips also do the engineering with Oldfield.
*The story does not directly say who the fired engineer was. Perhaps Nigel Luby, credited on the album cover? He probably got the credit for the preliminary basic tracks Oldfield did with session musicians.
”Basically he threw me in at the deep end and I had to swim. I am eternally grateful for the chance he gave me – I learned a lot from him about making records. He is a great engineer himself and I guess I must have impressed enough for me to carry on and finish the album.”Simon Phillips
Crises was recorded at Mike Oldfield’s own new, superbly equipped studio called Tilehouse Studio (now run as a commercial venture by Mike’s son Luke Oldfield). Crises sounds very different from its predecessor Five Miles Out. The sound is bright, modern and starkly stripped down. The 80’s really enter Oldfield’s music with the Fairlight CMI and DMX drum machines. Fortunately, the clichés of the era are not overused. The soundscape and production of the album is well thought out, but never polished to the point of lifelessness.
Crises follows a pattern already familiar from a couple of previous Oldfield albums, Platinum and Five Miles Out: a long progressive piece on the a-side and a series of more pop-inspired short songs on the b-side.
Read also: Review: Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells (1973)
The album opens with the almost 21-minute long ”Crises” which kicks off properly after a soft ambient intro with a sharply played synthesizer reference to Tubular Bells (it was the album’s tenth anniversary and Virgin had started to clamour for a sequel…) which morphs into a magnificent weaving of numerous different synth lines.
The music of ”Crises” moves from mostly natural floating or melodic parts to surprisingly intense moments driven by Phillips’ effectively driven drums (which are really well recorded by the way!). None of Oldfield’s previous long tracks have featured as many synthesizers as ”Crises” and there are also some tastefully sequenced sections. The sequences are long and complex enough that they sit naturally with the rest of the music and don’t strike the ear as simplistically repetitive as programmed sections often do. Alongside the synthesizers, of course, Oldfield’s gorgeous guitar playing also gets plenty of space.
”Crises” is mainly instrumental, but includes a couple of short vocal parts that Oldfield handles himself. However, the vocals are never really brought to the forefront but are buried deep in the middle of the music, which was certainly a good solution as Oldfield’s voice is not exactly brilliant.
Oldfield has always been adept at building strong endings to his songs. ”Crises” contains one of these superb finales. The end features a wonderful roaring drum storm as Phillips’ acoustic drums combine with programmed rhythms and Oldfield’s electric drums. The effect is spectacular and the rhythm storm is once again successfully pushed to reproduce the main theme of the song with electric guitars and synthesizers. The recipe for the finale is basically the same as at the end of ”Ommadawn Part One”, but modernised to perfection.
The B-side starts with by far the most famous song on the album, ”Moonlight Shadow”. The song was the result of sessions with a group of studio musicians assembled by Oldfield, which resulted in a strong backing track that Oldfield wasn’t initially sure whether he would turn into an instrumental or a song. Eventually he settled on a song and the rest is history.
Although Oldfield and Simon Phillips produced and mixed the album together, ”Moonlight Shadow” is an exception that was left to Oldfield alone to polish. This is because Phillips, in his own words, did not like pop music and therefore preferred to stay in the background. It’s interesting because the same man also became the drummer for Toto and produced Oldfield’s next album, Discovery, which is full of pop songs…
When it was decided to make ”Moonlight Shadow” into a song, a singer was of course needed. Oldfield first tried out new wave singer Hazel O’Connor, who also wrote her own version of the lyrics. The song was still called ”Moment of Passion” at that time. Connor’s version was not satisfactory and Oldfield eventually wrote his own lyrics inspired by the old Tony Curtis-starring film Houdini (1953). Contrary to what is often speculated, the lyrics were not about the murder of John Lennon, although Oldfield has admitted that subconsciously that tragedy may have influenced the song. Oldfield happened to be in New York on the same December night that The Beatles legend was shot by Mark Chapman.
After failing with O’Connor, Oldfield booked old friend Maggie Reilly to take her turn. Reilly had sung mostly wordless vocals on Oldfield’s albums and tours since the early 80s, but by Five Miles Out she had also been given real lyrics to sing. Most memorably on ”Family Man” which even became a minor hit.
Reilly’s vocals were recorded with extreme care. The process was heavy and the vocals were recorded almost word by word. The mixing of the vocals alone took several days, according to Oldfield, and in total he says he worked on the song for almost three months. Reilly initially sang the song in a booming rock style, but Oldfield directed him to sing softly, almost lullaby-like. The upbeat song successfully combines a folky, ringing acoustic guitar, Reilly’s lilting vocals and a strong, simple melody. To top it all off, Oldfield’s very nicely constructed guitar solo manages to be both elegant and biting enough to give the otherwise rather soft song some much-needed edge.
”Moonlight Shadow” is an excellent pop song and deservedly became a huge hit. According to some sources, it was even the best-selling single of the year in Europe. Along with Tubular Bells, it became the song Oldfield is usually recognised for. If you recognise it at all. After all, some people think the song is Maggie Reilly’s…
There is always a downside to success. The song has since been much imitated (both Kaija Koo and Maggie Reilly launched their own solo careers with songs like ”Moonlight Shadow”) and Oldfield himself has been guilty of visiting the same ground a few too many times in an attempt to repeat the success of his hit. Partly, of course, under pressure from his record company; Oldfield has recalled how, after ’Moonlight Shadow’, Virgin’s Richard Branson urged him to forget instrumental music and make more hit songs.
From ”Moonlight Shadow” we move on to ”In High Places” which Oldfield co-wrote with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. Oldfield composed the music and the lyrics about the hot air balloon ride were co-written with Anderson, who sings them beautifully.
Anderson’s voice has rarely been used as effectively as in this song, which sounds downright magical. Anderson’s voice has never sounded so strange as when he sings the angular melody of the song, treated with an echo effect. And in keeping with the theme of the song, Anderson’s voice really does seem to soar higher and higher. In the background, an exciting round-and-round string synthesizer chord pattern, Phillips’ rolling drumming and Pierre Moerlen’s smooth vibraphones provide the impetus. ’In High Places’ is a stunning and rather idiosyncratic piece in Oldfield’s repertoire.
Oldfield and Anderson did another song together in 1986, but ”Shine”, released as a single, was a bit of a flop apart from the excellent guitar solo.
Rapper Kanye West sampled ”In High Places” in 2010 for the song ”Dark Fantasy” where a snippet of Anderson’s vocals play a very prominent role.
The album’s fourth track ”Foreign Affair” again features Maggie Reilly, but the result is not as successful as on ”Moonlight Shadow” or the previous album’s ”Family Man”. ”Foreign Affair” is at its best a hypnotic float, but its simple melody and minimalist repetition fail to carry the song and the end result is a bit dull. In ”Foreign Affair’s” favour, though, it has to be said that at least it’s not a stereotypical pop song. It’s a bit unclear what it really is, though.
From a song carried by Reilly’s vocals, the song moves entirely to instrumental music. Oldfield’s ”Taurus Trilogy” was originally launched on the QE2 album with the 10 minute instrumental ”Taurus 1”. Five Miles Out’s ”Taurus 2” was a 20+ minute spectacle that drew on the musical DNA of the original ”Taurus”. The final part of the trilogy ”Taurus 3” is just a couple of minutes of completely acoustic instrumental, where I don’t see any musical connections to the previous two parts. But that’s okay, because the song does better than well on its own and is one of Oldfield’s best short instrumentals.
”Taurus 3” is a short flamenco-inspired instrumental rally that features some really punchy virtuosic acoustic guitar work from Oldfield. It alternates between a beautifully played upbeat melodic guitar strumming and a violently percussive flamenco beat consisting of a massive amount of acoustic guitars recorded on top of each other. Phillips’ gracefully rolling drum fills and percussion perfectly support Oldfield’s guitar playing. ”Taurus 3” is a great song that, at a couple of minutes, I would have liked to hear for longer.
The final track ”Shadow On The Wall” is perhaps the most conventional rock song of Oldfield’s career to date. Oldfield hired Roger Chapman, the vocalist of the art rock band Family, who enjoyed reasonable fame in the 70s, to sing on vocals.
Oldfield and Chapman had crossed paths quickly back in 1969 when the 16-year-old Oldfield applied for the bass position in the Family. The job eventually went to John Weider (and a little later to John Wetton), but Oldfield held no grudge.
”Shadow On The Wall” is a good rock song, but it sounds a bit too much like generic early 80s hard rock, although Chapman’s eccentrically grinding vibrato and generally passionate vocal performance and Oldfield’s extremely recognizable electric guitar playing clearly lift it above the average. And in the midst of it all, banjo is not the most obvious solution for this kind of leather-clad music.
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Crises, led by ”Moonlight Shadow”, became Oldfield’s most successful album in a long time, selling over 500 000 copies in Germany alone. Oldfield briefly became a pop star and his visibility increased dramatically. The downside of this success was that as the 80s progressed, Oldfield, inspired by ”Moonlight Shadow”, increasingly turned to pop music, which was by no means his strongest suit. Sure, Oldfield made some great songs in this vein in the years to come, but too often the songs were plagued by a lack of imagination and a trite side-flavour of calculation.
In 2013, Crises was released in a box set containing a hardcover booklet, 3 CDs and 2 DVDs. In addition to the remastered version of the original album, there is a bunch of pretty great bonus tracks (including an acoustic banjo version of ”Shadow On The Wall”…), excellent live footage with and without video footage and four music videos. Also included is Oldfield’s new 5.1 channel surround mix of the original album. The box set is a highly recommended purchase for fans of the Crises and Oldfield. Unfortunately, it seems that it is currently only available on the aftermarket at a very unaffordable price.
Crises doesn’t rank among Oldfield’s brightest gems in my books, but it does position itself somewhere in the upper mid-range of the man’s discography. Crises is a very varied whole and it is a wonder that the album works well as a whole. At least with it, it is impossible to get bored as the album constantly offers something new and surprising!
Best songs: ”Crises”, ”Moonlight Shadow”, ”In High Places”, ”Taurus 3”
Read also: Review: Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation (2022)
Author: JANNE YLIRUUSI
- ”Crises” (Mike Oldfield) 20:40
- ”Moonlight Shadow” 3:34
- ”In High Places” 3:33
- ”Foreign Affair” 3:53
- ”Taurus 3” 2:25
- ”Shadow on the Wall” 3:09
Mike Oldfield: guitars (Ovation Adamus electro-acoustic, Ramirez Spanish guitar, Manson acoustic guitar, electric guitar, acoustic bass guitar), keyboards (Fairlight CMI, Roland string synthesizer, Oberheim OB-Xa synthesizer, Farfisa organ, piano, Prophet 5 synthesizer), harp, mandolin, banjo, bells, tambourine, rattle, Simmons electric drums, Oberheim DMX drum machine, Oberheim DSX sequencer, vocals (”Crises”) Maggie Reilly: vocals (”Moonlight Shadow”, ”Foreign Affair”) Jon Anderson: vocals (”In High Places”) Roger Chapman: vocals (”Shadow on the Wall”) Simon Phillips: acoustic drums, special effects, shaker (”Foreign Affair”, ”Taurus 3”), finger snaps, bells, tambourine and boots (”Taurus 3”) Ant Glynne: guitars (”Crises”, ”Shadow on the Wall”) Rick Fenn: guitars (”Crises”) Phil Spalding: bass guitar (”Crises”, ”Moonlight Shadow”) Pierre Moerlen: vibraphone (”In High Places”)