For many people the name Evanghelos Odysseas Papathanasiou doesn't ring a bell, but if you ask them if they know the Greek musician and composer Vangelis many of them will nod. However, I think that less people know that he was the keyboardist with Aphrodite's Child during the late sixties and the early seventies. He also formed a duo with singer Jon Anderson (ex-Yes) as Jon & Vangelis. In general you could say that he's mostly known for his film score of Chariots Of Fire (1981) for which he won an Academy Award. Furthermore he wrote music for famous movies like 1492: Conquest Of Paradise (1992) and Blade Runner (1994). Others will remember him as the musician who was responsible for the music of the documentary TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan.
Vangelis's musical career has lasted over fifty years during which he recorded almost forty albums. It's impossible to mention them all, but I will review five albums that were recently remastered and reissued by Esoteric Recordings: Heaven And Hell (1975), Albedo 0.39 (1976), Spiral (1977), Beaubourg (1978) and Direct (1988). Esoteric released sonically enhanced editions of the albums recorded for RCA and Arista. These reissues appear in deluxe digipack designs with new masters personally supervised by the master himself. They also feature a booklet that restores the original album artwork.
Heaven And Hell is Vangelis's seventh solo album. It got worldwide recognition through the use of Movement 3 as the theme for the aforementioned documentary series. It was the first album Vangelis composed and recorded in his new Nemo Studios in London, which he used between 1975 and 1987. The album has more classical overtones in contrast with the prog rock music on both the previous album Earth (1973) and the next one Albedo 0.39. Ten years later Vangelis would return to this classical style on Mask (1985). Vangelis dabbles with choral sections joined with his now typical electronic washes of sound, a concept he would later on return to with 1492: Conquest Of Paradise (1992) and Mythodea (2001).
By now, Vangelis has left behind his electronic and prog rock forays. In fact, Heaven And Hell constitutes the first album where Vangelis establishes himself as one of the main figures in the growing musical genre of electronic instrumental and new age, thus creating a web of sound linking several simultaneous beats and melodic lines of different timbres on his synthesizers. This album also marked the first collaboration between Vangelis and Jon Anderson on So Long Ago, So Clear, which would continue more fully a few years later.
Albedo 0.39 is a concept album about space and space physics; it was the successor of Heaven And Hell and the second album produced in his Nemo Studios. It contrasts with his classically inspired and choral previous album, while Albedo 0.39 is more dominated by blues and jazz overtones. The tracks on this release are just great and a must-have for lovers of prog rock. Pulstar is one of the popular tracks on this album, which is building on a synthesizer sequence, a main line and various other synthesizer brass lines. It ends with a speaking clock. Another well-known piece is Freefall containing a gamelan sequence and a synthesizer melody line. Mare Tranquillitatis is a tranquil synthesizer piece featuring recordings of several Apollo moon landings. Also great is Main Sequence, which is propelled by a pulsed synthesizer sequence along which a drum-based jazz track. It beautifully calms down seguing into the next song Sword Of Orion, which is built on an arpeggio chord, melody, and percussion.
On Alpha, Vangelis uses a composing technique he would use extensively on later albums such as Direct. A simple theme of a few bars is developed through increasingly complex instrumentation. Instruments include a slow synthesizer arpeggio, a synthesizer melody line, xylophone, percussion and acoustic drums. It's a rather up-tempo piece. The Nucleogenesis suite is a collage that conveys a somewhat darker mood, using a church organ, an organ synthesizer pulse, various lines of Vangelis's patent synthesizer brass, acoustic drums and basses. Although hard to classify, this piece is a blend of classical music, fusion and progressive rock. The title track is an atmospheric track building on waxing and waning synthesizer chords and arpeggios, while a voice, reputedly the album's engineer Keith Spencer-Allen, narrates various physical properties of planet Earth such as its mass, length of the year in various measurements and finally its albedo, which is the refelecting power of light of a planet.
The sleeve design of Spiral was done by Vangelis himself. Apart from his processed vocals on Ballad, this album is entirely instrumental. It's one of the few occasions where his voice can be heard. Spiral again is a strong prog rock album on which Vangelis plays synthesizers, sequencers, electric piano, drums and percussion. On this record he used for the first time the Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer, an instrument he relied heavily on in his subsequent work. You may call Spiral a futuristic album on which Vangelis makes extensive use of the synthesizer technology at that time. I think Spiral is the most sequencer-based album of his recording career. Each piece has a very distinctive style; the title track for instance builds on an arpeggio chord in stereo to provide the listener a 'spiralling' sensation. It continues along a sequenced synthesizer pulse and develops to a slightly dark, somewhat bluesy piece that builds on synthesizer brass.
Ballad is a serene piece building on an electric organ, harmonica, while Vangelis's voice runs through filters and a reverberator. It climaxes on brass and timpani, then losing steam and returning to the tranquility of the harmonica. According to the sleeve notes Dervish D is 'inspired by the Dervish dancer who by his whirling realizes the spiralling of the universe'. Musically, there's little that reminds me of medieval Byzantine music: a sequencer arpeggio base, percussion and a synthesizer melody. The use of blue notes provides this piece a strong blues feel. To The Unknown Man is the most famous piece on Spiral; it's divided into three parts. It starts minimalistic with a slow sequence pulse and a simple guitar-like melody. When the strings appear it progresses to the march-like second part; in the third part the melody disappears and is replaced by a rock beat and organ chords. The B-side of the single of this tune has been added as a bonus track to this release.
Beaubourg is entirely synthesizer-based and highly experimental. Together with Hypothesis − recorded in 1971 and unofficially released in 1978 - Beaubourg is often considered to be one of his least accessible works. The album is meant to reflect life in the Beaubourg district of Paris, where Vangelis lived in the early seventies. It's a musical representation of Centre Pompidou in Paris. The music was primarily improvised on one or more Yamaha CS-80 synthesizers. Especially the ring modulator was used extensively, which makes the album for most people rather boring and difficult to digest. The sleeve design of Beaubourg was again done by Vangelis.
Direct marks a new development in the music of Vangelis using a somewhat more popular format. After Mask (1985) and Invisible Connections (1985) there was a brief pause of album work during which Vangelis moved his creative base from London to Greece, where he was involved in theatre work. The album sleeve mentions that Vangelis called the album Direct to reflect his way of composing, in which the process of composition and recording occurs simultaneously with few overdubs. This process was largely facilitated by the use of a custom midi performance system designed for Vangelis.
The album is almost completely instrumental, employing mainly synthesizers and drum machines. The operatic vocals on Glorianna are performed by the Greek mezzo-soprano Markella Hatziano. The narration on Intergalactic Radio Station is done by technician Casey Young. I think Direct belongs to the most interesting albums Vangelis recorded containing a style that could be called orchestral prog rock. Especially the synthesizer solos are a treat to the ears.
I guess it was a good choice to re-release these five remastered albums described in this review. The sound has certainly improved and is much better than on previous releases. The accompanying booklets have been well-cared for, and provide you a lot of inside information. For devotees of our beloved genre all albums, except for Beaubourg, are very enjoyable. Especially Albedo 0.39, Spiral and Direct should be in the collection of all prog heads!
Heaven And Hell ***
Albedo 0.39 ****
Henri Strik (edited by Peter Willemsen)
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