For those of us who only associate Greek composer Vangelis with his soundtrack music, most notably the Oscar winning ‘Chariots Of Fire’ (included here) and ‘Blade Runner’ then ‘Delectus’ is a bit of an eye opener. This thirteen CD box set brings together his recorded output for the Polydor and Vertigo labels over a twelve year period 1973-1985 and really does a great job of highlighting the range and diversity of the prolific composer.
Vangelis was born Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou and by the time this box gets under way with opening album ‘Earth’ the composer has already released two solo albums on small labels and performed in various bands most notably as a member of progressive rock act Aphrodite’s Child. Demis Roussos, the singer in Aphrodite’s Child, would achieve massive fame in the UK when his single ‘Forever and Ever’ topped the charts making him the housewife’s favourite kaftan wearing bearded bloke. ‘Earth’ is an interesting and diverse album (In the interests of full disclosure my knowledge of Vangelis is limited to his later soundtrack releases so this review is from a casual observer rather than a hard-core fan). I really enjoyed ‘Earth’ the opening ‘Come On’ is guitar driven 70’s prog rock with vocals from Robert Fitoussi (better known as F. R. David who enjoyed a hit single with ‘Words’ in 1982). The album mixes things up with four vocal tracks, ambient interludes with spoken word narration and songs that utilize ethnic / African rhythms. It’s a credit to the composer that somehow this all hangs together pretty well and makes for an enjoyable listen with the likes of ‘Let It Happen’ especially effective rhythmically. I’m led to believe that ‘Earth’ was only ever issued on CD in Greece so this is a welcome start to proceedings as it makes the album, more readily, available (I can’t comment on the quality of the remastering for these early albums as I’ve nothing to compare to but Vangelis aficionados are welcome to add comments to this post).
‘L’Apocalypse Des Animaux’ was also originally issued in 1973 (the same year as ‘Earth’) but was actually recorded two or three years earlier for a French natural history documentary series directed by Frederic Rossif, who will continue to crop up in this set. ‘Animaux’ is a completely different animal (cough) from ‘Earth’ no vocals here just beautifully composed, and above all, melodic pieces that draw the listener in. The ‘Generique’ version of the title track is a little busy but then things calm down and the rest is sumptuous with ‘La Petite Fille De La Mer’ a definite highlight. Listening back now it seems a shame that an opportunity has been missed to extend the album with further music from the original TV series if such a thing exists.
‘China’ from 1979 (when Vangelis signed a recording contract with Polydor) is without doubt one of the most instantly recognisable works in the extensive Vangelis catalogue. The opening track(s) ‘Chung Kuo’ / ‘The Long March’ should be familiar to the casual listener and the piano part is especially fine. I’m probably in the minority but I find the fragmentary nature of ‘Yin & Yang’ to be too disjointed (and yes I do get the reasoning for the track, the yin & yang, but that’s just me). Music from this album, most notably ‘Himalaya’ was heavily featured in Carl Sagan’s ground-breaking TV series ‘Cosmos’ in 1980. The synth washes on ‘Himalaya’ seem like a precursor to Vangelis’ later work on ‘Blade Runner’ and coupled with the closing ‘Summit’ end the album on a high…..
1980 finds Vangelis in full on experimental mode ‘See You Later’ is tough to find on CD and was never officially released in the USA. The reason for this might be the marked change in musical direction. As a newbie to much of the material in ‘Delectus’ I briefly thought I’d mistakenly picked up a CD by a completely different artist. Luckily after I’d tuned in and got past the electronic / vocoder drenched opening track things started to come together with ‘Memories Of Green’ winning me over despite / because of the oddly tuned piano before ‘Not A Bit – All Of It’ lost me completely. I can only imagine how the release of this album must have divided the opinion of fans on release as they shuffled off to learn French and Italian while clutching their copy of ‘China’. ‘See You Later’ is notable as it features Yes vocalist Jon Anderson more of whom later (Vangelis was briefly expected to be the replacement for Rick Wakeman in Yes before Patrick Moraz took up the role). Fans of the album will be pleased to see three bonus tracks added to the original release. The album was originally planned to have a different running order (an eight track test pressing of the album exists) but oddly this still leaves one track, I think, missing-in-action entitled ‘Fertilization’. The strangeness doesn’t end with the track listing as amongst the bonus tracks we find ‘My Love’ which sounds weirdly like ‘Mr Roboto’ by US pomp / AOR giants Styx.
The fifth disc in the collection is ‘Antarctica’ which is actually an album I know quite well and always enjoy. Vangelis fans will have noticed that the record company don’t seem to be following a chronological release schedule here as ‘Antarctica’ is from 1983 although it didn’t get released outside Japan until years later. ‘Antarctica’ is the soundtrack to the film by Koreyoshi Kurahara and is based on a true story and finds Vangelis doing what he does best. Vangelis beautifully captures the isolation of the vast expanse of the snowy wasteland while emphasizing the bravery of the marooned sled dogs as they battle their way back to civilization. The album is very much a product of the early 80’s (the percussive sounds of the opening theme scream 80’s) but this in no way detracts and the music displays a shimmering beauty that is among the composers best work to these ears.
Things take another sharp left turn with ‘Mask’ another album that doesn’t seem to have been readily available for a considerable time. Released in 1985 ‘Mask’ consists of six movements and mixes repetitive synthesizer / sequencer lines with orchestral flourishes and Gregorian chanting. The result sounds like it should have been used as a horror film score, The Omen XXV maybe. ‘Mask’ does have some impressive moments; especially when the composer dials back on the electronics, with the central part of the opening movement a highlight. While the beginning of the third movement features moments of dark menace enhanced by crashing Timpani but loses me when the massed voices turn up. ‘Mask’ in the end I find a little overblown for my personal taste but those good moments are particularly impressive. I'd definitely advise the newbie to get to the end of the album as the conclusion of the final movement seems to encompass everything Vangelis was looking to achieve.
Confusingly for the ‘Delectus’ listener the next album ‘Opera Sauvage’ was first released in 1979 and in common with ‘L’Apocalypse Des Animaux’ is the soundtrack to another documentary series by Frederic Rossif. The difference in approach and sound to ‘Mask’ is jarring but in a positive way. The album includes the classic, again instantly recognisable, ‘L’Enfant’ and has proved very popular through the years especially in the USA. The album has an easy natural flow and the use of acoustic instruments, most notably Vangelis’ acoustic guitar work on ‘Chromatique’ and electric piano on the superb ‘Reve’ elevate the material. The album builds to a crescendo on the final track ‘Flamants roses’ with Jon Anderson again involved but this time his contribution on harp, rather than vocals, is integral to the track.
If you asked the man in the street about Vangelis it’s a safe bet that ‘Chariots of Fire’ would be the piece of music that they would associate with the composer. This is hardly surprising as ‘Chariots of Fire’ would push Vangelis to new heights of popularity that must have taken the man himself by surprise. The album topped the charts all over the world, won an Academy Award for best score and sold millions of records especially in the USA (three million in the first year).In some ways the marriage of Vangelis, with his racks of modern day synthesizers and machines, with a period film seems odd but the result was a revelation and has been much imitated since. Listening back now the famous opening track ‘Titles’ sounds overly busy to me and a little cluttered. I’m unsure if this is due to the remastering on the CD; maybe it always sounded like that, but as I last heard it years ago on vinyl my memory might be the problem. The highlight of the first side is without doubt ‘Abraham’s Theme’ which really captures the heart of the film and seems to take us into the very soul of the athlete. Side two (if this was vinyl) is the title track a twenty minute suite of music that beautifully weaves themes from the film into a cohesive whole. This is an approach that works so much better that most soundtrack albums that feature small snippets of music that usually fail to flow. It does mean that ‘Chariots of Fire’ isn’t really, in the strictest sense, a soundtrack album but more a re-recorded interpretation of music from the film and it’s much the better for this approach.
Rolling thunder and rainfall herald the arrival of 1984’s ‘Soil Festivities’ a conceptual work split into five movements. I take the rainfall to be bringing life to the soil and nature does the rest with the growth of plants and animals, effectively the beginning of life. In contrast to ‘Mask’ released a year later ‘Soil Festivities’ is a much more accessible work with a seemingly more positive outlook. The opening movement finds storm effects and driving rain forming a perfect backdrop to light keyboard pulses and drones as the world wakes up. This opening eighteen minute piece is amongst the finest moments in the ‘Delectus’ box and sets the scene for an album you can easily get lost in with the hypnotic vibe that he maintains in the fourth movement particularly effective. The sound is quite beautiful, occasionally dark textures come to the fore, but the light seems to overpower the darker tones. Over the course of the five movements things are born, evolve, deal with life’s daily battles (the darkly fragmented third movement all crashing drums, cascading keys and funereal tones) and return back to the earth from which they came. If you are new to Vangelis or only know ‘Chariots’ then ‘Soil Festivities’ is an excellent place to commence further investigation.
Vangelis quickly followed ‘Soil Festivities’ with not one but two albums in 1985 one of which was ‘Mask’ while the other was ‘Invisible Connections’ and now we really are venturing into areas where the casual fan / newbie might want to approach with caution and tread very carefully indeed. ‘Invisible Connections’ was released on Deutsche Grammophon, the German classical label and contains three tracks but runs for approximately forty minutes. The title ‘Invisible Connections’ seems to be apt as I’m unable to make any connection between the tunes (a very loose definition) included and anything I consider to be music. The opening track features strange ambient bleeps and almost as much silence as actual musical notes and the result is a little unsettling. You’ve no idea where the piece is going, but then I’m not really sure if it’s meant to go anywhere….By the time we reach the closing track ‘Thermo Vision’ things do settle down and small passages appear that would be ideal for a Sci-Fi movie but overall ‘Invisible Connections’ is difficult at best. One for die-hard fans looking to complete collections I’m afraid.
Once again it’s time to step into the record company DeLorean as ‘Delectus’ concludes with three albums Vangelis released with Jon Anderson under the Jon & Vangelis moniker the first of which, from 1980, is ‘Short Stories’ and you can’t help but wonder how Yes might have evolved with the addition of Vangelis’ inherent skill with a melody. The album was recorded very quickly with a desire to be spontaneous but maybe this, in the end, is the problem. The best tracks on the album seem to be the singles ‘One More Time’ and the excellent ‘I Hear You Now’ but the rest seems, on occasion, disjointed and a little half-baked which isn’t helped by some distinctly strange lyrical moments “Match of the Day” anyone. Overall ‘Short Stories’ is a bit of a struggle for this listener but I’m warming to it slowly with the exception of ‘Thunder’…..but luckily closing track ‘Play Within A Play’ redeems things somewhat.
The first impression of ‘The Friends of Mister Cairo’ released just a year later is that it’s noticeably louder (but not unpleasantly so) than ‘Short Stories’ which might be due to the new remaster or the fact that the opening track is a pop song ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ and recorded / produced as such. It might also seem strange that an album that mixes up the genres with as much apparent relish as ‘The Friends of Mister Cairo’ can still feel coherent but somehow the duo managed it here. The aforementioned ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ was a big hit as a single and subsequently added to CD pressings of the album (so buy with care original vinyl fans) while ‘State Of Independence’ would be a huge European hit when recorded by disco queen Donna Summer in 1982. Sometimes eclectic works which is something we at Red Guitar Music fully support. The title track to the album is a really strange beast, oddball but brilliant, as Jon Anderson deploys his trademark sweet, high clear vocal over snippets of dialogue from old gangster movies (including Peter Lorre no less with “An offer you can’t refuse”) while Vangelis does the groundwork as his synths alternately pulse and wash over the soundstage with a highlighted melody that is equal parts 80’s pop and 40’s Harry Lime. The following synth boogie of ‘Back to School’ is bizarre and still works really well if you can picture Status Quo strapping on keyboards rather than guitars. The second time at bat for the duo corrects the issues I had with the first album and results in a really enjoyable and far more accessible release.
The final CD in this ‘Delectus’ set is the third Jon & Vangelis opus ‘Private Collection’ which finds Vangelis at his most melodic and romantic and the result is a really fine record full of beautiful melodies. The album is very much a game of two halves with the shorter pieces on side one (more vinyl speak) of which the opener ‘Italian Song’ and especially ‘And When the Night Comes’ are terrific with Dick Morrissey returning (he featured heavily on the ‘Cairo’ album) with a lovely, subtle sax break on the later, while the lush orchestrations of ‘Deborah’ are another fine moment. The centre piece of the album is ‘Horizon’ a stunning twenty three minute suite that never feels forced, hurried or overstays its welcome. All the elements here work well together as haunting melodic lines; pulsing synths, bells and whistles, rhythmic clicks, and the vocal delivery of Jon Anderson all merge perfectly. Then, at around the nine minute mark, things pull back and Vangelis performs a restrained piano piece that perfectly fits the mood before Anderson re-joins and the piece briefly takes a darker more sinister turn before that gorgeous piano returns. The album would usually end here but a bonus track has been added ‘Song is’ which featured on single releases back in the day. If I had compiled this release I’d have been tempted to add the track to the running order before ‘Horizon’ somewhere on side one to allow ‘Horizon’ to conclude the disc as originally intended but this might alienate fans of the original release. I’d like to add ‘Song Is’ is easily as good as the rest of the record and deserves to be included here.
I must admit ‘Delectus’ has been a journey of discovery for this listener. I really had no idea of the breadth and variety of Vangelis' work and taking the time to compile this review has been one of my most enjoyable experiences yet with Red Guitar Music. I’d have been lost without the background material I was able to glean about the composer and his works from the various sites devoted to him on the internet. I’d like to make a special mention of two sites that are an amazing source for all things Vangelis and proved invaluable as I researched this review. So if you’d like to delve deeper into the man and his music then the following are an excellent source for further exploration.