Album review: Mike Oldfield (4) – Incantations (1978)

The moment I fell in love with Mike Oldfield’s music is bookmarked very clearly. It was a late November afternoon and I was coming back from college. As usual after I got off the bus I passed through the market at the corner of our street. There was a guy selling cassettes there and I always stopped to check his merchandise and exchange a few words. This time though I stopped before I even got to his table. The music he was playing this time was different and it left me breathless. The music didn’t fit with the worldly I was hearing it in. The guy smiled at me satisfied with the effect of his choice and before I even had a chance to ask (it would have been hard, since those final 5 minutes of “Incantations” had left me speechless) he took the CD from under the counter and gave it to me. He didn’t even ask me to pay for it. I remember the orange cover of “Essential XXV” and the green plastic bag in which the guy gave it to me. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Incantations” is the last of the magic four albums streak with which Mike Oldfield opened his career. I know I am subjective but for me the way these albums came one after the other in a span of 6 years is out of this Earth. My mind can barely comprehend the state of grace Mike was in during those year because even one of these compositions would have been enough to make him a legend. Instead he made four.  And after warming up with “Tubular Bells”, “Hergest Ridge” and “Ommadawn” he went all in for “Incantations” which is twice as long as any of the previous three albums. Almost 80 minutes of bliss, created in the period when Mike attended the assertiveness training course “Exegesis” which opens his autobiography and helped him go on tour and face the public.

“Part one” starts the hypnosis process with a constant rhythm that’s based on African drums being beat in the background without rest. It’s a peaceful beat that quiets down the beats of my heart as it goes on. I love to watch the live recording from “Exposed” and see how the magic happens. The music is so powerful that even if I am no longer a kid and I see someone putting on the Santa costume and beard, I still believe he exists. I look at the recording, I see the many members of the live group take their places, adjusts their instruments or microphones or devices and start bringing these fairy tale like sounds to life and I still can’t grasp the way they can come together like that and, even more so, how Mike himself could substitute all of them and play all the instruments himself. “Part one” is minimalistic and charms me with the sublime choral moments and the flute that gets to me every time I hear it.

“Part two” starts with the flute and I can’t help but have visions of wide plains I can walk on and rest on without a care in the world. Time expands as I listen to this second part until it bursts like an overinflated balloon and suddenly I am out of time. Once I am firmly settled in there the mood changes and the music quiets down even more and there’s a heartbeat to be heard very feebly in the background as those drums are being caressed. That’s my heartbeat settled into the most relaxed zone. The music now takes the shape of butterflies surrounding me. Mike Oldfield uses only a handful of instruments for this part to support the angelic choral part that begins at about the seven minute mark. I feel bliss when I listen to that choral section and I rarely can hear this with open eyes. I want to focus my conscience on the music without outside interventions. The second half of this part contains the Native American like incantations with lyrics taken from an epic poem written in 1855.

“Part three” is the loudest and most joyous one. It’s a day of celebration, a holiday in the imaginary world this album creates. It’s wonderful how Mike Oldfield keeps the same sound and mood as in the first two parts but just adds a bit more color to it. You could easily isolate a short motif from “Incantations” but the genius is how Mike makes a colorful mosaic out of this one motif. “Part 3” is the spring season of this album.

“Part four” is a feast of bells. A river of light still flows 38 years later and the music is about as enchanting as I’ve ever heard. I feel as if I’m on an endless terrace where the wind chimes have come alive and are communicating among themselves. Or maybe I’m on a normal terrace overlooking a mountain valley where each house has wind chimes and Christmas bells and I am controlling the wind that makes them come alive…

For me “Incantations” is the most minimalistic and hypnotic album Mike has composed. Each part has a distinctive melodic line, be it a constant African drum beat in the background, the magic of the flute or the vocal incantations themselves. This is an album to take you into the most relaxing state of deep sleep in the safest and most comfortable place you can think of. It’s music that tells me that everything is going to be alright. It’s a lullaby made of love. I always listen to it when I fly, without exception. It fits with the sensation of being out of time and out of the normal realm I get when I’m on a plane. There I am disconnected from everything and that’s when “Incantations” fits the most.

Track rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 79 / 79

Album excellence: 100%

Highlights:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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