Mike Oldfield – ‘Tubular Bells 2003’  A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Mike Oldfield – ‘Tubular Bells 2003’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

October 13, in DVD Audio, Titles

Tubular Bells 2003’, the updated version of Mike Oldfield’s seminal instrumental album will be released by Warner Music Group as a DVD-Audio disc, complete with a newly-created multi-channel mix, and as a DVD-Audio/Video anniversary box set, sometime in early 2004.

Tubular Bells 2003’ is a re-recording of the original 1973 composition and not to be confused with a new work based on the theme, as was the case with ‘Tubular Bells II’, ‘Tubular Bells III’ and to a lesser extent ‘The Millennium Bell’. Oldfield’s reasons for re-visiting his most famous recording were to correct what he considers “mistakes” in the original and to take advantage of today’s latest studio technologies. The thirtieth anniversary of the original presented the opportunity to do so, as did the lapse of a twenty-five year contract that prevented him from re-recording the album. Undoubtedly this is also Mike Oldfield’s most celebrated work, it put him, Richard Branson and the Virgin empire on the map, but Oldfield’s musical style can run the whole gamut from dance music to classical and there are times when one feels his lesser-known releases are equally deserving of such attention, from the challenging, spot-the-hidden-message ‘Amarok’ (not recommended for cloth-eared nincompoops) to the new age acoustics of ‘Voyager’ and experimentation of ‘Guitars’.

As for ‘Tubular Bells’, there is little point in me describing the music in any great detail, everyone will at least be familiar with the opening theme (reused in countless movies and commercials), but if you are one of the sixteen million or so who have a copy of the original, rest assured that ‘Tubular Bells 2003’ is not a poor imitation as is so often the case when classic music is revisited, instead it represents a natural progression from the rough-edged, primarily acoustic and electric guitar-based historical version to a more polished, 21st century electronic-based sound. That’s not to say that the energy present in the piece has diminished, if anything the louder passages such as ‘Fast Guitars’, ‘Thrash’ and ‘Caveman’ have even more impact today. Conversely, those who have expressed a sense of foreboding by the presence of John Cleese as master of ceremonies will be delighted by, what is for him especially, a restrained performance, one that might even be considered an attempt to imitate his late comedic friend Viv Stanshall, who died in a house fire in March 1995.

Engineer Ben Darlow created the multi-channel mix for ‘Tubular Bells 2003’ at Abbey Road Studios, presented in its entirety on this DVD-Audio disc. It’s not the first time that Mike has released discs in surround, and high-resolution listeners will be familiar with the SACD re-release of the 1975 quadraphonic version. It is worthwhile comparing the two, but given that for many listeners this DVD-Audio disc will represent their first experience of multi-channel ‘Tubular Bells’ and because it is the mainstay of this release, I think it important that to begin with, it is judged in isolation and upon its own merits.

What Darlow presents us with at times is an expressive mix, one that immerses the listener and where all five main channels are put to good use; neither the centre nor surrounds are shrinking violets in this case. Individual instruments are clearly discernable, spread at various positions around the room, but at no point do they become detached or overpowering.

However, the multi-channel mix has one huge, inescapable failing that in many instances all but destroys what otherwise could so easily have been a work of greatness. For some unexplained reason, Darlow insists on panning lead instruments around the room, it’s as if someone gave him a multi-channel pan-pot for Christmas and he just can’t stop himself playing with it. Rather than allowing the music to be presented for what it is, a superb work from a master composer and musician, this gilding of the lily is both highly distracting, fatiguing and, at times, downright annoying. Instead of being able to appreciate the notes of an acoustic or electric guitar for what they are, one has to mentally chase those instruments from ‘speaker to ‘speaker, not only across the front of one’s room but also front to rear and diagonally from corner to corner. When so much of this mix could be considered as outstanding, the nuances, soundstage depth and envelopment included, to then burden it with such outdated and totally unnecessary gimmickry is almost beyond comprehension.

Examples are not hard to find, in fact there are too many to mention them all, but particularly obvious instances are the acoustic guitar that suddenly wanders from centre to the extreme left and back again (twice) during ‘Latin’, the guitar lead of ‘A Minor Tune’ that also ends up hard left and the electric guitar of ‘Blues’ that moves from far right to far left. The acoustic guitar of ‘Jazz’ is anchored to the mid left for most of the passage, but snaps violently to the right and then back left towards its conclusion while the opening bass guitar of ‘Finalй’ circles the room, note by note. None of these pans occur in the stereo version.

During the main body of ‘Finalй’, instruments are announced by John Cleese from the front right channel – the exact opposite to the position taken by Viv Stanshall in the quad mix – and as each enters, it drifts from front right to front left and then back towards the centre (the bass guitar ends up over one’s right shoulder). This isn’t quite as annoying as it sounds but does represent a missed opportunity to use the multi-channel pallet with more originality, had the mix built instrument by instrument with each statically positioned around the room I feel the presentation would surely have benefited. At the end of the sequence, the haunting sounds of the dying acoustic guitar – with added electronic reverb not present on the stereo version – also drift unnecessarily, from hard left to centre.

Part two opens with far fewer panned elements, therefore during these passages, especially ‘Harmonics’, ‘Peace’ – where the acoustic and ‘Venetian’ guitars stay fairly still throughout – and most of ‘Bagpipe Guitars’, one can settle back, relax and appreciate the music without distraction. These sequences also illustrate just how good the multi-channel presentation could have been, the first eight-and-a-half minutes of the second part really are outstanding, as is the ‘Ambient Guitars’ movement, a factor that makes the remainder even more incomprehensible.

All the gimmicks return for ‘Caveman’ – the electric guitars move haphazardly as do the vocal parts – but the real kicker is saved for last. During ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’ Mike’s guitars haphazardly dart from channel to channel, left to right, front to rear, in and out of the centre… argh! If this sequence is supposed to compete with comedic wander around the manor that ends the quad version it fails dismally and will undoubtedly be held up by sceptics as an example of surround music at its worst.

In comparison to the 2003 multi-channel mix, the old 1970’s quad version could be considered minimalist, almost to a fault, largely because there just aren’t enough instruments present during many passages to convincingly fill a three-dimensional soundstage. However, what the 1975 version lacks in fullness is made up for by the precise, static placement of each element and the absence of any unnecessary frills that detract from the performance. The quad mix is gloriously simplistic and it never stands in the way of the music, unlike elements of the 5.1 presentation upon this disc.

Mike Oldfield has been reported as saying that he prefers the 2003 multi-channel version to that created eighteen years ago by Phil Newell, but I will dare to disagree. The 2003 performance is superior, it’s a fuller, more rounded recording, but there are countless times when today’s surround presentation tries to be a bigger star than the music it is intended to convey, and that, to my mind at least, should never be the case.

Both the multi-channel and two-channel mixes on the high-resolution disc layer are presented at 48kHz 24-bit, so although they fall significantly short of the potential offered by DVD-Audio, do afford some fidelity advantages over the 44.1kHz Compact Disc release, theoretically at least. Direct comparisons are complicated by the fact that the CD is considerably louder than the DVD-Audio disc, but with careful level matching one can discern subtle differences between the two, with the nod just going to the higher resolution format. Those differences however, are not night and day as would have been the case if the source material were 96 or 192kHz. One expects less dynamic range compression on the DVD-Audio release, but it sounds as stifled as the CD, the loud and soft passages being too similar in terms of average volume. A good example of this is the ‘Caveman’ sequence and the kettle drum sounds that lead into it; rather than the drums being forceful and dynamic they’re disappointingly lacklustre, as is the whole passage to a certain extent.

Given the lack of obvious dynamic range extremes and the volume differences between the CD and DVD-Audio discs, I would assume only the lower 16 or 18-bits are being used for the latter, both factors being confirmed after analysing a couple of tracks from each disc. Via the analogue outputs of a DVD-Audio player, the CD is some 5.25dB louder than the two-channel tracks of the DVD-Audio version, so with that factored into the equation I looked at the average and maximum levels of ‘Peace’ and ‘Caveman’, tracks that should represent both ends of the volume spectrum. It turned out that ‘Caveman’ is identical in terms of loudness and dynamic range across both formats and that ‘Peace’ has a fraction more dynamic range on the latter, but by only 0.5dB, a figure that almost falls into the margin of error bracket but does tend to indicate a small, nay, miniscule advantage for the DVD-Audio release. Realistically and in subjective terms however, without the aid of waveform analysis the two really are all but indistinguishable in terms of dynamic range and that’s something of a disappointment.

Looking on the bright side, the DVD-Audio release’s 48kHz PCM is not blighted by the copy protection issues affecting the Compact Disc release (Canadian version aside), which not only prevents the disc from being played on old tin boxes, no matter what they are fitted with, but a good many CD players too! The bad news is that owners of DVD-Video players are only able to access the two-channel mix as lossy Dolby Digital, albeit at 448kb/s, rather than as loss-less PCM.

Comparisons between the loss-less DVD-Audio layer, Dolby Digital and DTS, the disc’s two DVD-Video compatible formats, are also likely to be drawn and it’s interesting to note that both lossy systems struggle equally with some parts of the album. Particularly troublesome are the passages in which the five full-range channels reproduce synthesised high frequencies simultaneously, good examples being the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Jazz’ movements. Both fair reasonably well if one is limited to DVD-Video playback, but they do demonstrate a tendency to muddle the most complex passages, especially when Darlow’s aggressive panning results in continuous re-allocation of the available bitpool. The five main channels of both formats are at similar volume levels, but there are some differences between the LFE presentations. DTS’ LFE is, on average, almost 3dB quieter than that of Dolby Digital, but this is due to its restricted frequency range (down 80dB at 220Hz) which deviates considerably from the loss-less MLP track, unlike the Dolby Digital alternative that closely mirrors MLP’s frequency response – both MLP and Dolby Digital being down 80dB at 880Hz measured using Blackmann-Harris analysis.

Leaving format differences apart, the fidelity of this recording is excellent and free from any technical hiccups such as the small chirp of digital noise that can be heard at the end of ‘Tubular Bells III’. Instruments, be they electronic or acoustic, are authoritatively conveyed and have a great deal of presence, so those who like to follow individual elements of an Oldfield recording will be thrilled with what’s presented here, by the multi-channel mix especially. High frequencies are free from any hard edges and do not show any signs of compromise from the ‘meagre’ 48kHz sample rate, although an even higher resolution would surely have been welcomed. Bass is also cleanly delivered, although I have heard much lower frequencies on previous Mike Oldfield recordings that could benefit from the assistance of a dedicated LFE channel – the thunderous ending of ‘Ascension’ from ‘Songs of Distant Earth’ being a prime example. Ironically given its age, there is deeper bass in the SACD release of the quad version and it lacks a separate LFE channel!

The undoubted highlight of the disc’s supplementary content is a selection of ‘Tubular Bells’ demo tracks that date back to 1971. The first of these, entitled ‘Tubular Bells Long’, runs for a shade under twenty-three minutes and encompasses the entire first part of the piece. It represents a fascinating insight into the album and its development; listeners will probably be surprised by a work that is considerably more abstract in parts – bordering on progressive rock in fact – than the ‘original’ 1973 general release version. The structure of the composition is of course instantly recognisable, but it’s more edgy and raucous than the aforementioned and there’s no master of ceremonies during the finale. Those expecting to hear a young Oldfield introducing each of the parts might feel let down, but be sure to listen out for the abrupt and rather comical ending all the same.

The second demo track is the prelude to part two’s vocal section entitled ‘Caveman Lead-in’, this is the movement we now call ‘Bagpipe Guitars’. The sequence runs for two and a quarter minutes and closely resembles the movement as we know it from both the original release and 2003 recordings. ‘Caveman’ itself comes next, although the two do not run together. This version is bass-guitar led with the screeching electric guitar counter, but there are no vocals, perhaps the language given to Piltdown Man hadn’t yet been invented.

Two versions of ‘Piece’ follow, seven and four minutes respectively. It’s odd and somewhat disconcerting to someone intimately familiar with the original album that they’re presented out of order (the sequence should precede both ‘Caveman’ passages), but one solution is to program them back into the ‘right’ order via your remote control – or an order that is more familiar, should I say.

As one would expect given that an archaeological expedition had to be mounted to recover these tapes, there are occasional glitches; a moment or two of silence here and there, the right channel drops out more than once and there is even the odd pitch error. Certain louder passages are also seriously distorted (the later pieces are superior to the early ones), but the stereo presentation, delivered by 2/0.0 Dolby Digital at 448kb/s is a pleasant surprise.

The entire demo tape section runs for a hair over forty-two minutes and therefore can legitimately be described as an entire work unto itself. Its historical value cannot be understated, the section unearths the beginnings of the biggest-selling instrumental album of all time and its presence on this disc is invaluable, it is perhaps, of greater importance than the main programme itself.

Two video excerpts are also included from the premiere performances of ‘Tubular Bells II’ and ‘Tubular Bells III’, Edinburgh castle (broadcast live on BBC radio, I remember it well) and Horseguard’s Parade respectively. There’s a choice of audio options, either 48kHz PCM stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital for each, just as there was when the complete concerts were first released on a double-sided DVD-Video disc back in 1999. Neither multi-channel mix is particularly impressive and I’ve always preferred to listen to the two-channel version via Lexicon’s Logic 7 matrix or Dolby Pro Logic II’s music mode.

The selected passages are ‘Sentinel’, the opening of ‘Tubular Bells II’ and a shortened version of ‘Far Above the Clouds’, which closes ‘Tubular Bells III’. Warner Music Group will release a box set of both concerts along with this DVD-Audio disc and ‘The Millennium Bell’ concert from Berlin sometime in early 2004, so although this isn’t a DVD-Video review, it’s worth quickly mentioning the merits of the DVD-Video concerts for those thinking of purchasing the box set.

Of the three, ‘Tubular Bells II’ is the king, the music is beautifully performed and the footage directed in a measured and engrossing way – watch out for the comic contribution of John Gordon Sinclair (of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, ‘Local Hero’ and ‘Fraggle Rock’ fame) during the ‘Altered State’ sequence, the 1992 incarnation of ‘Caveman’. A jump of six years takes us to the ‘Tubular Bells III’ concert and, arguably, an even finer group of session players who join Mike in the rain of London’s Horseguard’s Parade. It’s another first-class performance from the musicians but the vocal performances are weak in comparison to those you’ll hear on the album. The picture editing is somewhat messy and there are far too many distant panning shots across the audience for my liking – the director even manages to completely miss many of the instrumentalist’s highlights such as Carrie Melbourne’s fast bass guitar riff that underpins the drum sequence during the closing moments of ‘Far Above the Clouds’.

The video that captures ‘The Millennium Bell’ concert, played to an audience of half a million people in Berlin on the eve of the millennium is my least favourite, although it’s still an engrossing experience. The main problem is that the DVD fails to include all the music from the album (unlike the other two concerts, there are four tracks missing, some of the most beautiful) and is further compromised by one of the most distracting multi-channel mixes I’ve yet to encounter – loud firework whizzes and pops are conveyed by the rear channels during some of the most exquisite musical passages. Many of the musicians from the ‘Tubular Bells III’ concert re-appear so once again the disc represents a musical treat, especially during the opening excerpt from ‘Tubular Bells’ and Miriam Stockley’s performance of ‘Moonlight Shadow’. Conversely, Pepsi Demacque murders ‘Shadow On The Wall’ and I cringe every time I see that particular part – learning the melody and singing in tune would be advisable next time Pepsi! ‘Art In Heaven’ is the post-midnight segment of the concert – watched live on TV around the world by an estimated eight-hundred million viewers – a rousing Oldfield composition (later to surface with a vocal part on ‘Tr3s Luna’ as ‘Thou Art in Heaven’) that concludes with a section of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. A word of warning here, the lighting, including innumerable neon ‘Space Canons’ and video effects is guaranteed to induce epileptic fits in those who are even remotely susceptible.

While the box set is likely to be of interest to those who have yet to discover the previously released DVDs, and in that case is highly recommended, it will not be to the liking of hardened fans, most of whom would rather see new footage, such as the 1980 Knebworth concert, Blue Peter feature or documentary interviews, rather than re-packaged versions of titles they already own.

In case you hadn’t already noticed, it should be pointed out before I conclude this review, which is rapidly approaching the length of a short story, that I’m something of an Oldfield fan, in fact I listen to his albums in one form or another more than any others. It’s therefore been difficult to criticise any aspects of this DVD-Audio disc, to the extent that it has taken me over a week to complete this text. Whatever my thoughts about the multi-channel mix and the technical merits of the disc might be, there is no escaping the fact that ‘Tubular Bells’, be it in 1972/3 or 2003 form, is a work of genius by one of the finest musicians of our time and nothing I write here will change that.

So, on to the summary… Musically, ‘Tubular Bells 2003’ is outstanding, superior even to the original; therefore as the two-channel track upon this DVD-Audio disc affords marginally higher fidelity (without crippling copy protection) than the CD alternative, it should be recommended for that element alone. Whether the multi-channel mix adds any value will depend on one’s own tolerance of its failings, but at some point in the future I hope a version without all the gratuitous panning will be released. What makes the disc a ‘must-have’ are the supplementary extras, particularly the 1971 demo tapes, an addition fans and all those who appreciate musical greatness will undoubtedly want in their collection.

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