Saturday, 28 January 2017

Return to Ommadawn

I have loved Mike Oldfield’s music for almost as long as I can remember – one of my earliest musical memories was my father playing Tubular Bells in the early 1980s. That music transported my young imagination to somewhere else entirely. However, I didn’t properly delve into Oldfield's musical world until the release of Tubular Bells II in late 1992.

I spent the following decade gradually discovering his back catalogue, which would ultimately inspire my own instrumental music. Discovering his 1994 album The Songs of Distant Earth was a particular turning point for me, clearly linking this fantastical music with my love of science fiction and reading Arthur C. Clarke.

However, it wasn't until the summer of 2007 that I discovered a whole new meaning and significance to Oldfield's work, whilst I was lazing in the Andalusian mountains, reading his autobiography Changeling and listening to his music. Not only did I gain a new understanding of Mike’s work through reading about his personal journey, but playing my favourite Oldfield albums in such a wonderful environment (which I've previously blogged about) made me appreciate just how in-tune with nature and emotions his music is.

I've always associated Mike Oldfield's music with the natural world; forestry, clouds and the evolving landscape of changing seasons. Ommadawn was one such album that always reminds me of a journey through changing landscapes, and that often mystical quality you only find whilst roaming through the countryside at certain times of year.

So last year, when Oldfield announced Return to Ommadawn – and a return to his 1970s way of working – I knew this new album wouldn't disappoint… and it hasn't.

Return to Ommadawn is more than just a return to the musical landscape of his original 1975 album, but a return to a certain mind frame and 20-minute long tracks, which were among the things that made Oldfield's early albums so different.

But on my first listen, I returned to more than just Ommadawn – this new composition has plenty in common with Hergest Ridge, Amarok, QE2, Voyager and of course, Tubular Bells (right down to the Helvetica font in orange on the cover!). In fact, if you were to add a few vinyl crackles and scratches, Return to Ommadawn could easily sound as if it were an unreleased album from that iconic early part of Oldfield's career.

Return to Ommadawn is one of those albums that requires a few attentive listens to appreciate. There's so much to explore that it takes a little time before the different sections really start to emerge. Over the course of the last week, I soon found myself waking up with different parts going round my head – an early but clear indication that this would be an album I’ll be ranking alongside my favourites.

I have often had seasonal associations with certain albums, and from that point of view, Return to Ommadawn perfectly matches the chilly wintry month in which it was released – but I look forward to listening to how it sounds as we reach the Spring and colours and foliage begin to return.

By coincidence at the same point in time, I have found myself returning to the rural town where I grew up. Walking around this old familiar place with Return to Ommadawn playing on my iPod gelled perfectly – walking down paths I hadn’t taken in over 20 years, wading through the church yard, or past the library where I first rented The Songs of Distant Earth on cassette (remember those?!), it all seemed to come together perfectly. This is a reminder of the personal and individual relationships we all have with music – and this is what a great album can be all about. 

In returning to a style of music that he hasn’t visited in some time, Oldfield has proven his decade-spanning relevance, influence and individuality. For many people, these long two-track albums are quintessential Oldfield, and Return to Ommadawn certainly delivers all of this and more.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 4 – hooked to the silver screen

While there still remains a countless number of classic science fiction novels just waiting to be turned into breathtaking films, in recent years, science fiction in cinema has undergone a long overdue healthy revival – and has finally started to regain some credibility. Granted, while ever we have big, gushing Hollywood endings, us literary SF fans will always be left groaning and preferring to stick to our books – but there’s no denying the fact that we are also seeing more contemporary adaptations and original ideas hitting the big screen, such as The Martian, Arrival and Passengers along with all the creativity and work that goes into making these visual feasts.

With the welcome return of the Star Wars franchise and successful rebooting of Star Trek in recent years as well as films like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, space travel on the silver screen has never looked more epic and exciting. Taking the crowning glory, was Christopher Nolan’s masterful Interstellar, which perhaps remains the most impressive and believable SF film in a long, long time.

The spacecraft designs on Interstellar were superb and credible, both to the mind and the eye – Nolan abandoned the commonplace CGI onslaught, favouring scale models and impressive sets – and the whole thing was utterly believable. But for me, what made Interstellar such an emotional watch, was Hans Zimmer’s wonderful soundtrack.

Hans Zimmer knows how to pull off a perfect soundtrack and his work on Interstellar was no exception, proving that sometimes, simplicity is the most effective. Zimmer’s score was also very different to the typical orchestral or electro-symphonic soundtracks associated with modern SF films. I never imagined just a few simple church organ notes would have such a profound effect.

With the likes of the new Star Wars and Star Trek films, there was also that warm sense of nostalgia – in some ways looking back in order to look forward. But certainly for my generation, these films do a great job of reaching in to your inner child and reprising that sense of wonder and amazement that we all felt when we saw them at the cinema or home video the first time round.

I continually applaud director J.J.Abrams’ faithfulness to original designs and ideas – with The Force Awakens and Star Trek, today’s filmmaking technology has realised brilliant new visions, but Abrams deliberately chose to remain true to all those crucial elements and design aesthetics that made the original counterparts so successful. In short, these films, and the starships with which we’re all so familiar have transported us beyond the stars from the comfort of the cinema seating in the most impressive ways seen to date.

In the 1990s, the only space-based SF film that caught my attention was Event Horizon, and even looking back to the 1980s, the only strong contender after the Star Wars films was perhaps Disney’s The Black Hole. We’ve finally reached an era when once again science fiction film has taken its rightful place, providing fantastic adventure, escapism and inspiration.

Of course the music always plays such a huge role in the cinematic experience of these films, and this is of course, another inspiration to my own work, especially when composing an album that is designed to evoke images of space and space travel.

When composing Infinity of Space, the imagery of many of these films (and more) was often in my mind – or in many cases, sitting on my bookshelf in lovely books of concept art. But what a rich source of inspiration! When I’m watching a film, there’s nearly always a part of my brain that’s listening to the music and assessing it, while another part of me is trying to imagine what kind of music I would make for a certain scene. So while the fantasy of scoring your own cinematic soundtrack may appear rather grandiose, when working on an album with a specific theme, it really is an ideal influence.

Infinity of Space will be my fifth release in support of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies, and another interpretation of the Initiative’s ethos and mission as well incorporating the decades of space travel and science fiction influence that still drive its members’ passion today.

Below is an excerpt from Construct, one of the album’s darker and more dramatic tracks. The title comes from the idea of a huge spaceship under construction out in space – huge and dark, just hanging in the air, thunderously being assembled by man and machine, like a floating hive of industry.

Infinity of Space is out now via Bandcamp:

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 3: music for the depths of space

The “concept album” is generally associated with the beardy progressive rock era of the 1970s, with it's absurd costumes and Spinal Tap-style stage props. But this was also the era when instrumental rock music first emerged, which the way for instrumental electronic music – new genres that were perfect for exploring new musical themes and ideas.

Previously reserved for film soundtracks, instrumental music really broke new ground in the 1970s with albums including Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (to name two personal favourites) that have since spanned decades and still influence artists today.

While artists such as Jarre, Oldfield, Vangelis, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream continued to create that kind of thought-provoking instrumental work throughout the 1980s and beyond, I've always felt that instrumental albums have in more recent times, generally been neglected or often looked upon as being naff or mis-labeled under the cringeworthy category of “New Age” music.

But with the advent of music platforms like Bandcamp or Soundcloud and all the means now available to independent artists to publish their work, I have found myself in the company of many likeminded artists or bands, drawing inspiration from that era and once again creating this kind of concept-driven music. 

The fact that there are countless musicians out there creating fascinating instrumental works and even more people streaming or purchasing their music, is a clear indication that there is still an interest and an appetite for the kind of music that one requires that deeper degree of thought and perhaps patience. This is also kind of music that is perfectly suited to accompany our thoughts and aspirations when we look up at the stars in the night sky.

As honorary musician for the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), this music is an ideal means through which to explore and reflect the Initiative’s mission statement and objectives.

With Infinity of Space – my forthcoming album in association with i4is – more than ever before, I wanted to create moods and atmospheres that are suggestive of the overall theme of space travel, but which may also take each listener on their own aural voyage beyond the stars, while remaining strong musically. And although Infinity of Space is a clear concept album, I didn't want it to be too confined – the result is an album that works more like a snapshot of a much longer journey into deep space.

Below is a brief preview of the track Destiny.

Infinity of Space is out now via Bandcamp:

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 2 – Levels of inspiration

Growing up as part of the Commodore Amiga gaming generation of the 1990s, the electronic in-game soundtracks were just as exciting and important as the games themselves as were of course, the graphics. And there was some fantastic game music, as I have previously blogged about – this is perhaps one of the more unlikely influences of my own work. Or is it?

The Amiga heralded a new dawn for computer arts and music, and over twenty-five years later, those game soundtracks still inspire my music, just as the Amiga’s pixel art and the designs of the games themselves have influenced my artwork.

I always loved how each level of arcade games had it's own soundtrack to suit the surroundings, whether you're controlling a warrior clambering through a rocky alien terrain or a fast spacecraft hurtling through strange worlds. The music would be a great match for the different worlds, and I would often find myself looking forward to particular levels just to hear the music!

There were so many great games – hundreds – with titles such as the Turrican series, The Chaos Engine, The Settlers, Disposable Hero, Apidya, R-Type, Menace, Blood Money, the Eye of the Beholder series and the Shadow of the Beast series being among my long list of personal favourites. Every game offered the chance to escape in a different time or universe, with each looking and sounding unique.

When I wasn't playing the games, I would put a cassette recorder in front of the speaker and record all the various game music that I loved. Who needed the radio, when you had an Amiga? So much skill and creativity went into every aspect those games, and I still find it incredible that they managed to fit so much on to just one or two floppy disks!

While I loved many different games, I always had a soft spot for sideways scrolling shoot-em-up games, which usually took you on a fantastic voyage through space and alien worlds. With so many interstellar themed games, you could fly off into space without even leaving your bedroom!

So that whole era had a huge impact on my teenage self and ultimately shaped my career path. It has also been a real nostalgic thrill over the past few years, as many magazines and books celebrating the Amiga and the games scene of the time have been published – and many of the games themselves have been emulated for iOS and Mac, so I've been able to re-live the enjoyment without the hassle of digging out my A1200 from the loft and trying to find all the other bits to make it work.

It really is no surprise that today, in making what you might call computer music, that influence has come full circle. Game music is actually an area I would love to work in.

When I'm working on an album – especially one about space travel – this rich influence is something I always keep in mind. Each track is a different adventure, and it is easy to imagine each being a different level in a game, carrying you through different places.

So, when putting an album together, imagining it as the soundtrack to a computer game or even a movie, helps me to determine the structure and atmosphere, scene by scene. I loved the sense of travel and adventure in so many of those games. One moment you might be exploring a city, and the next deep in a jungle, so I'll often think about what kind of landscape would suit the music I'm making, even if it has no bearing on either the end result or the listener – for my creative process it helps with that feeling of journey, especially on a concept album.

With Infinity of Space being about space travel, some of the ideas going through my mind included super fast flight, cautious, slow travel and encounters – which could be other starships or undiscovered planets. Just trying to imagine what kind of sights would await you on such a mission really is a feast for the imagination, and I really wanted to get some of this into the music, and make each track represent different stages in the ongoing journey, and pose different questions.

Below is a brief preview of the track Cruise Velocity.

Infinity of Space is out now via Bandcamp:

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Infinity of Space blog 1 - the sight and sound of space

Instrumental music has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the concept of space travel, as far back as Holst’s The Planets in 1914, Bebe Barron’s alien-sounding score to Forbidden Planet in the 1956 or even Joe Meek’s Telstar in 1962 and of course, the vast spectrum of progressive rock, space rock and instrumental electronic music that emerged in the 1970s.

In recent decades, despite there being no new space programme, mankind’s future in space – and how to get there – has remained an endless source of inspiration for artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians, myself included. But in this time, what many have turned to is a retro-futurism, recalling the excitement and ambition of the golden age of space travel during the 1960s and 70s.

Sometimes in order to look forward, you first need to look back. When I look at my own influences – both artistic and musical – they all emerged from that same, prolific and fruitful era.

In addition to this, I have always been fascinated with the notion of letting music create images in the mind and allowing my imagination to explore new environments through music – and I think we all need that escape. With no lyrics to distract or send the listener down a specific path, instrumental music works as a blank canvas for the imagination.

The images that we see in our mind’s eye are altogether different to when we are watching a concert or music video. While there's no denying the thrill and spectacle of a live show, our eyes and ears fight for attention, and sight usually wins. If you're watching something, then you're not always completely listening to it.

It is no coincidence that many of us like to close our eyes in order to fully enjoy and concentrate on music. Shut off the world outside and drift away. I have found that listening either in the dark or with eyes closed, an album or piece of music can take on a completely different mood to playing it in daylight or in the background.

When composing music with which to promote the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4is), a specific sound and atmosphere must be sought. What I want to achieve is music that encapsulates the concept of Space travel – from the construction of starships and their maiden voyage to the discovery of new worlds and galaxies – but that also reflects the ethos of i4is yet also leaving room for additional interpretation by the listener. Quite a challenge!

Composed and recorded throughout 2016, Infinity of Space is the title of my latest album project in association with i4is.

While there are no rules as to how such music should sound, I wanted to partly pay homage to the space rock of the 1970s through working with a guitarist on some tracks, for that classic instrumental rock sound, while others are more heavily electronic, exploring other-worldly atmospheres and textures.

Below is a first taste of the album, with a brief preview of the track, Absence (featuring Peter Rophone on guitar).

Infinity of Space is out now via Bandcamp: