Mike Oldfield: Discovery/The Killing Fields

Two more sides of the mutable maestro.

You can trust Louder Our experienced team has worked for some of the biggest brands in music. From testing headphones to reviewing albums, our experts aim to create reviews you can trust. Find out more about how we review.

It’s 1984 and Mike Oldfield, encouraged by Virgin, is making upbeat pop music.

After the success during the two previous years of singles Family Man and Moonlight Shadow, he’s realised he’s pretty good at it. Maggie Reilly can carry a tune brightly and Oldfield can always remind listeners it’s his record by throwing in an insanely over-qualified guitar solo or two. So Discovery isn’t so much a brave new frontier as a consolidation of his new, less tormented style and persona.

Now given the full bells-and-whistles reissue packaging (with a period compilation disc, The 1984 Suite), Discovery – co-produced with drummer Simon Phillips – stands up well three decades on, its production crisp and clear and its songs buoyant and brisk. Surprisingly, the Reilly-sung lead single To France – curiously based on incidents in the life of Mary Queen of Scots (always a hot topic for the hit parade) – flopped, perhaps because the novelty of Oldfield as a pop star was wearing off. He found an addictive guitar hook therein nonetheless. (Its cod-reggae B-side is included here, and it’s not his finest moment). Similarly concise, compact pearls are delivered on Poison Arrows and_ Crystal Gazing_. Reilly shares vocals with the more generic Barry Palmer; quite literally on Tricks Of The Light. On side two, Mike’s exhausted with being so chirpy and relaxes the grin for 12 minutes to give us The Lake, a gorgeous, flowing, never-dull instrumental, reassuring everyone that nobody does such things better. And whether he’s doing pop or prog, the sheer sonic delight he ekes from those guitars is astounding.

Two contrasting slices of Oldfield’s still underrated genius.

Oldfield was then living in the Swiss Alps as a tax exile and recorded Discovery there while simultaneously composing the soundtrack to The Killing Fields. Still his only full-length film score (no, he didn’t score The Exorcist, and The Space Movie was drawn from other pieces), his music for the Roland Joffe triple Oscar-winner was orchestrated by recurring ally David Bedford. Oldfield’s original offerings, after six months’ work, weren’t deemed sufficient (in quantity) and he was required to do more – so he asked for an extra choir and orchestra.

The results remain seriously impressive. If many big 80s soundtracks now sound flippantly ‘shiny’ and ‘of their time’, this moves magnificently through the symphonic and the percussive, exerting an enigmatic pull. Nothing is spelt out, but emotions are seduced. (The remaster confirms this). What in lesser hands might have lapsed into overstatement stays intriguing, layered and graceful.

Two contrasting slices of evidence, then, that this versatile musician has always been so much more than ‘the Tubular Bells guy’. He is, still, an underrated genius.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.