Six years after the classical Music of the Spheres, Mike Oldfield returns to his version of rock. Man on the Rocks is a slick production that recalls the AOR sounds of the late '70s and early '80s. He plays many instruments here but concentrates mainly on guitar. Among his collaborators are bassist Leland Sklar, keyboardist Matt Rollings, drummer John Robinson, guitarist Michael Thompson, and the Struts' vocalist Luke Spiller. Though these songs are housed in tightly written, hooky pop/rock melodies with conscious source checks from Queen and Toto to the Rolling Stones and the Steve Miller Band, they are among -- if not the -- most deeply personal entries in his catalog. Opener "Sailing" contains pained, troubled lyrics, yet its Celtic-flavored singalong chorus and ringing slide guitar solo add contrast and elevation. "Moonshine" is a poignant Irish immigrant's song. The opening guitar vamp deliberately evokes U2 (though one can convincingly argue that the Edge got it from Oldfield). A sweet backing chorus carries the refrain as martial snares, fiddles, accordion, pipes, and whistles increase the drama until an epic guitar break carries it out. The title track is one of the set's finest moments. Enormous drums, a chorale, sweeping strings, washes of organ, synth, and blazing guitars frame Spiller's anthemic vocal. On "Castaway," the pulsing keyboards and guitars recall Queen and Oldfield's guitar blisters, spitting angular riffs, and spiraling prog changes. "Dreaming in the Wind" begins as an acoustic rocker illustrated by strings, guitars, organs, and a fine lead vocal. Oldfield's guitar transforms it, melding arena rock, folk, and prog to its core. "Nuclear" again suggests Queen, but its thudding tom-toms, guitar layers, and orchestra are classic Oldfield. "Chariots" uses big zig-zagging synths and fat phased guitars working a Bo Diddley beat; it's where Toto meets Jim Steinman, but the deliberate excess works. This set does run out of steam near the end. The long ballad "Following the Angels" is repetitive and dreary. "Irene," where Oldfield takes on the Stones, is clever but feels out of place here. The closer, a read of William McDowell's hymn "I Give Myself Away" strays far too close to CCM. It's easy to dismiss Man on the Rocks as simply "dad rock," but it's more complex than that. These songs, all framed inside classic pop/rock, are beautifully written and played. Their fine lyrics contain complex emotions of crisis, struggle, resolve, and redemption. Oldfield is one of the few remaining musicians with the songwriting, production, and playing chops who could helm a big league session like this, let alone pull it off. Imperfections aside, this is a strange, oddly compelling addition to his catalog.
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