An album-by-album analysis of Vangelis’ best work.
Earth was the first proper solo album from the original long-haired, synth-wielding New Age sensation from the Greek islands cool enough to go by only one name (though he’s credited by his full name here—Vangelis O. Papathanassiou). As one-fourth of the band Aphrodite’s Child, Vangelis had already had a hit with the harpsichord-backed ballad “Rain and Tears” and over a handful of albums had made what behind the scenes must have been an epic transition from pure pop to the sort of prog band that would attempt a double-album musical rendering of the Book of Revelation, which they did with the 1971 release of 666 shortly before splitting up. It’s those prog sensibilities—musically and conceptually—that are at play here on Earth. If your familiarity with Vangelis extends no further than the soundtracks to Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, then you’re likely to be surprised by the rocking, foot-stomping call to arms of the very first track, “Come On.” The rest of the record is comparatively atmospheric, but not nearly in the same way that Vangelis would become known for. Tracks like “Ritual” and “Sunny Earth” feature a very singular sort of minor-key, vaguely Middle Eastern mysticism that help to give the album its sense of being of the New Age. That sense is helped considerably by the apocalyptic thunderstorm monologue of “We Are All Uprooted”—“The Earth was stolen from beneath our feet/ We became a diaspora, an unnamed nation of bastards”—whereas the musical stamp of the New Age is quite nearly in full bloom on tracks like the ballad “My Face in the Rain,” in which overly decadent synth tones and on-the-nose lyrics make for something memorable, if not gauche. “He-O” and “Let It Happen” are less guilty pleasures, leaning toward the guitar-rock end of the spectrum established at the top of the record. Earth is an intriguing album, and one that you might just listen to more than once. But it’s ultimately more of an oddity than a staple.
Recorded in 1970 as the soundtrack to a French documentary series about the animal kingdom, this collection slots nicely next to better progressive rock music of the time. The celebratory opener “Apocalypse des animaux—Générique” calls to mind Yes’ “Leave It,” which arrived nearly a decade later, and carries a lighter tone than some of what would follow. “La Petite Fille de la mer” is a romantic exploration that one wishes could be given a fuller, more developed life. That’s not because it sounds incomplete but rather because it proves so moving and perfect that one doesn’t want it to end. “Le Singe bleu,” meanwhile, is contemplative jazz that occasionally threatens to disappear into the horizon. Its meditative strokes and unhurried pace mark some of the record’s greatest moments. This mood also informs “La Mort du loup,” another highlight on a collection that has many. Though he would continue to garner acclaim with later efforts and previous ones revealed great promise, L’Apocalypse des animaux could really be Vangelis first great work.
Vangelis relied on a series of Asian modes to evoke images and impressions of the titular nation on 1979’s China—quite a feat for someone who had never, at that point, visited the country. Yet rather than merely employing the standard pentatonic scales to denote an Asian sound and feel, Vangelis wrapped these stereotypical melodic constructs within a lush array of alternately smooth and percolating synthesizers to create an album of sounds as diversely complex as China itself.
Rather than simply layering synthetic textures on ancient melodic ideas, Vangelis creates a fine balance between old and new on tracks like the stately piano ballad “The Long March,” one of several to use acoustic piano in addition to electronics. Similarly, “The Plum Blossom” relies on a meditative, circular piano figure to underscore the more frenetic solo violin that soars above the piece in a sort of majestic ballet that devolves into a squelching synthesized symphony of lush, competing textures. On “The Dragon,” he enlists percussive flourishes to help accent the main staccato theme in order to provide a greater depth of performance.
The nearly 11-minute “Himalaya” offers the broadest range of synthesizer use with Vangelis’ full arsenal on hand to provide atmospheric sound effects, simmering drones and measured melodicism throughout. Something of a multi-part suite, “Himalaya” rarely rises above a whisper, but when it does, it’s a thrilling example of Vangelis’ wildly diverse electronic palette. Because of this, China stands as one of his crowning, pre-Chariots of Fire achievements.
If Chariots of Fire found a home in millions of record and CD players across America, its follow up, See You Later, emphatically did not. One of the greatest oddities in Vangelis’ discography, See You Later was never officially released in America and is, perhaps, more so known amongst fans for its rarity rather than its eccentric content.
Vangelis releasing his least successful album only a year before one of his most successful albums is a conundrum to say the least, but that isn’t to say See You Later is completely bereft of ideas. Its title track, for example, is an interesting piece of prog, forged from crying wah guitars and ELP-esque keyboard runs.
However, most of the album is plagued by thin sounding production and mixing. At times, it is reminiscent of minimalist, krautrock explorers Cluster or a Kraftwerk-lite, though never as inventive or compelling. Prog-like vocal melodies, one of which is ably handled by former Yes vocalist Jon Anderson (more on him in a second) sometimes join the mix, but never enough to forge a solid impression.
Frequently, See You Later veers too closely to self-indulgence, while presenting some meagerly interesting ideas. “Not A Bit – All Of It” is perhaps guilty of this the most—in a fit of self-sabotage, Vangelis drapes spoken word nonsense by former actress and Bowie publicist Cherry Vanilla over schmaltzy, pseudo-operatic singing and a cheap drum machine. What could have been a grand statement really feels a bit stretched thin. “Not A Bit – All Of It” is a perfect example of its parent album’s biggest shortcoming: a handful of good ideas haphazardly strewn in a sea of half-baked ideas. Perhaps its rarity is a blessing in disguise.
Antarctica, the soundtrack to Koreyoshi Kurahara’s film about a pair of Japanese scientists and their sled dogs on expedition to our planet’s coldest and southernmost continent, finds Vangelis in familiar musical territory. The very first moments of the album’s opening track, “Theme from ‘Antarctica,’” chug along in a way quite similar to the signature theme of the far more famous soundtrack to Chariots of Fire. But the music here is more restrained. The sounds are certainly dated—it’s hard to say if it’s the synths or the drum machines that are more reminiscent of 1983—but the music itself is quite enjoyable. There are, however, two weaknesses to Antarctica (though one of them is not so much a weakness as it is an incongruity.) First, the four-note melody (with subsequent transpositions) that forms the basis of the soundtrack’s main theme also forms the basis of practically every other piece on the album. While that has its practical advantages, helping the music to cohere thematically in a way that is no doubt useful when a sound’s primary purpose is to accompany film, it also means that a listener may tire of the album before getting all the way through. To be fair, when the melody gets completely repurposed, as it is for “Kinematic” and “Memory of Antarctica,” it can be gratifying, even exciting. But it may also leave a listener wanting more. The second thing, the incongruity, is that all of the album’s sounds and textures—luxuriant saw- and sine-waves, bell tones, synthetic percussion—as well as its melodic and harmonic contours, don’t evoke the Antarctic as much as they do some locale vaguely Asian. Divorced from the film, that’s not much of a problem per se, and yet it doesn’t sound quite right. Regardless, the album is an enjoyable visit to a very specific time and place and one that, to some listeners at least, may rival Vangelis’ more well-known work.
Technology was not always Vangelis’ friend, though he may have perceived it so. Mask, unleashed in the anno synthesizer 1985, will undoubtedly strike some as dated. If one can listen beyond the frigid tendencies of the latest keyboard gadgetry and get to the notes, however, there is plenty to love. It’s dramatic, mysterious and structured as a symphony. What sounds like Latin is little more than phrases that enhance the emotional qualities of the instrumental passages and what often sounds like percussion is another of the artist’s synths. Numerous passages beg to be played on the instruments the keyboards intended to emulate. One imagines that some ambitious Vangelis devotee or another will undertake such a project soon. Impeccably imaginative, Vangelis simultaneously incorporated tradition with the (then) present and the future. Just listen to the flourishes of indigenous (world) music that find their way in.
Created as a score for a French documentary of the same title, 1979’s Opéra Sauvage offers a lushly constructed series of electronically rendered orchestral pieces in miniature. As was typical of this particularly prolific period in his recording career, Vangelis, while relying primarily on synthesizers, augmented many of his compositions with more nuanced electro-acoustic instrumentation and phrasing. Here, in particular, “Reve” uses a Fender Rhodes to build the basic melodic idea as a sustained synth swell gradually crescendos beneath. Placed together as they are, it often plays with a sort of proto-Angelo Badalamenti/Twin Peaks feel: at once hypnotically soothing and mildly unsettling.
“L’Enfant” pairs an incessantly repetitive, rhythmic synthesizer figure with more melodic, warmer tones that offer a playful counterpoint (as the title would suggest) to the straightforward underpinnings. It’s one of multiple instances here in which Vangelis again relies on an electro-acoustic framework to build his oddly futuristic worlds. Similarly, “Mouettes” again employs the Rhodes, this time in conjunction with a Theremin-esque synth line that, at times, borders on an operatic vocal quality in its warm use of vibrato.
On “Chromatique,” it’s title indicative of the chromatic descending melody delivered on synthesizer, Vangelis uses an acoustic guitar to serve as the main rhythmic force behind a piece that includes sitar drones and long, drawn-out synthesizer squelches to create an air of mystery. It’s one of the more subtly aggressive pieces on an album of otherwise soothingly meditative synthesizer explorations. Opéra Sauvage offers an easy entry point into Vangelis’ most creatively prolific and stylistically diverse periods.
While Vangelis has been dismissive of Chariots of Fire in the past, it’s hard not to see it as his magnum opus. Cast aside an impressive 97 weeks in the Billboard 200, selling over three million copies and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Score in the process, and Chariots of Fire still stands as one of Vangelis’ most enduring pieces of music. Swinging between the majestic pull of “Five Circles” and “Titles” and the more thoughtful, sometimes insular, “Abraham’s Theme” and “100 Metres,” Chariots of Fire manages to convey a wide-range of emotional landscapes in very little time. The soundtrack itself is only 42 minutes long, with its titular track taking up a whopping twenty minutes.
Speaking of which, that famous title track is nearly a soundtrack onto itself—its most recognizable theme pops up four minutes into the track, a lightly played piano providing a sharp contrast to the analog synths that define the majority of the soundtrack. While it’s not before long that the synths rejoin, they act as more of a harmonic accompaniment instead of a melodic lead or ambient wash—they drop in and out of the song, with a piano doing most of the heavy melodic lifting.
Reliant on gliding, triumphant synths that cosmically mingle with each other over grandiose percussion, Chariots of Fire is a more than appropriate soundtrack for its film counterpart that recounts the struggle of two Olympians running for religious and social acceptance.
Despite all the experimentation and genre-bending over the last half-century or so, the lines between “popular” and “classical” music are still clearly drawn. Albums like Soil Festivities, in which Vangelis (mostly) ambles toward the orchestral, attempted to blur those lines but were ultimately about as successful as symphonic “pops” concerts that halfheartedly transplant an electric bass and drum kit into the percussion section of a symphony orchestra.
Really, the most overtly orchestral thing on this album is “Movement 3,” that is, aside from the transparently self-conscious gesture of naming the tracks on the album “movements” in the first place. Movements 1, 2 and 4 are propelled by a very simple convention that also has its roots in Western classical music, ostinato, in which a simple repetitive figure serves as a background against which other musical ideas are juxtaposed. In Movements 1 and 2, those figures are exceedingly simple—a single chord in “Movement 1,” two alternating chords (at times transposed) in “Movement 2,” that repeat at a steady, even rhythm from start to finish—and in Movement 4 the figure is not that much more complex. In this case it is, in fact, more akin to a traditional ostinato, consisting of four bass notes that repeat over and over, again at a steady even, rhythm. (One chord, two chords, four notes… Notice a pattern?) These three tracks are the most successful, and the most accessible, on the album, in part because the way they try to approximate “serious” music can be easily ignored, allowing the other ideas to stand on their own merits. In that regard, Movement 1 stands out for the satisfying way in which it moves from one idea to the next, with real fluidity and grace, at times stretching beyond easy harmonies or predictable melodies but never over-reaching. And then there’s “Movement 3.” The ostinato idea is abandoned, and in its place is an attempt at synthetic symphonizing that is dour and overwrought, especially in contrast to what surrounds it.
“Movement 5” is another departure. In this case in the general direction of jazz and other forms of improvised music, featuring electric piano vamping that can be pleasant enough, in spite of its being accompanied by more simulated orchestral incoherence. Like the works of Wendy Carlos, Tomita and other musicians who employed synthesizers in the attempt to erase any distinction between so-called serious and popular music, Soil Festivities fails almost as often as it succeeds.
Released the same year as Mask, Invisible Connections remains remarkably experimental even 30 years after its release. The record’s three tracks find the composer covering a small but impressive radius. Eastern influences creep their way in amid the clattering, slow-build of the nearly 20-minute titular piece. Much of what follows seems informed more by aliens and ghosts than anything else. It can be hard to draw the dots between this and both its predecessors and successors but Vangelis’ attention to detail and ability to sharpen measures and melodic contours to fine points remains intact. Fans of The Orb and Wendy Carlos will undoubtedly glimpse similarities between those scribes and the Greek-born master.
The second side gets even weirder. “Atom Blaster” is often more about the silences than the sounds; the 13-minute “Thermo Vision” offers more of the same, though the impact is far more chilling than you might expect. It is very much worth the time, though, and worth every scintilla of the reputation the album has among lovers of the peculiar.
Short Stories served as the opening salvo of the prog-tastic pairing of Vangelis and Yes’ Jon Anderson on vocals. Billed rather dully as “Jon and Vangelis,” Short Stories finds Vangelis moving, not surprisingly given his history with prog outfit Aphrodite’s Child, back into more art rock-oriented material. For Jon Anderson, Short Stories marked his first recorded effort following his departure from Yes, a group for whom Vangelis had auditioned in the mid-‘70s in hopes of replacing fellow keyboard wizard and all-around eccentric Rick Wakeman. Given their shared history both musically and personally (Anderson having contributed vocals on Heaven and Hell), the two would seem a rather suitable stylistic match. Yet from the outset, it’s clear that Short Stories is going to be neither a full-on Vangelis or Yes-derived album.
To be sure, there are all of the requisite Vangelis touches throughout: warm synth textures offset by acoustic piano; measured tempos and rhythmic pacing just this side of pretentiously contemplative; vaguely classic melodicism warped ever so slightly within an electronic framework. Yet with Anderson’s adenoidal whine thrown into the mix, Vangelis’ airier tendencies tend to cause the whole of the album to play out and come off as extremely underwhelming. For a brief moment on “Bird Songs” as the drums crash through the mix and the song feels as though it might actually take off, there is a flash of what the collaboration might have offered under different circumstances. As it is, Short Stories is a decidedly low point in the recording careers of both parties involved.
More times than not it sounds as though Anderson simply happened to be in the studio while Vangelis was fucking around with some rough ideas and decided to lay down a few vocal takes that had nothing to do whatsoever with the original compositions (see in particular the wholly non-sensical “Far Away in Baagad”). Because of this, Short Stories is not so much a gloriously awkward, cringe-worthy failure as it is a boring exercise in prog-derived excess. Lead single “I Hear You Now” serves as something of a false flag, neither indicative of what the rest of the album would sound like nor what the pair ultimately sought to accomplish on this, their first joint outing. For completists only.
Let it never be said that Vangelis was not supremely productive—this album was released in the same year as Chariots of Fire and, reliance on synths and drum machines aside, The Friends of Mr. Cairo is a very different release. Jon Anderson, fresh from a decade long stint fronting Yes at the height of their powers, gives these songs a rock and pop edge as his vocals stretch and flow over the synthetic accompaniment. While this material isn’t miles away from Anderson’s comfort zone, his willingness to indulge in Vangelis’ sometimes touching, sometimes cheesy production is his biggest strength.
Anderson’s confident vocals are absolutely commanding and they give these songs the emotional delivery they deserve. Take, for instance, a bit halfway through the title track: ticking drum machines and bouncing synths are drawn back, revealing soft ambient washes and lightly, twinkling piano. Anderson’s emotive vocals are fragile and touching, a stark contrast to his swaggering intro earlier. “Outside of This (Inside of That)” continues that trend, with Anderson’s sincere vocals carrying a curiously minimal ballad. Not everything works (“Back to School” is an interesting albeit flawed take on electro-blues), but for the most part, Anderson and Vangelis are a stellar match.
This is the third of four albums that saw Vangelis collaborate with Jon Anderson, lead singer of the legendary prog-rock band Yes. Anderson has one of the most distinctive voices in the history of rock, a relatively high-pitched and androgynous sound with a texture—both soft and penetrating—that blends well with the lush, sweeping sounds that Vangelis employs here. This is an album from a time when such things still (primarily) came in formats that had two sides, which is worth mentioning only because it means that the first five tracks on this re-release—“Italian Song” through “He Is Sailing”—then filled up the entirety of one side, with all twenty-two-some minutes of the track “Horizon” taking up the other. (This re-release also includes the added final track, “Song Is,” which was previously only available as a B-Side to the single for “And When the Night Comes.” Luckily its presence here doesn’t upset the balance, serving as an appropriately blissed out, mostly instrumental coda to the rest.) “Horizon” is easily the album’s high-point, being a seamless suite of musical moods that are at times adventurous yet never stray too far from accessibility. The lyrics, both searching and (ultimately) resolute are, like Jon’s voice, well-suited to Vangelis’ lush and soaring soundscapes. Apart from this epic, the nearly seven-minute long “He is Sailing” hits another highlight on this collection. It’s dense (but not opaque), propulsive (but not frenetic), and it manages to do something that can be extremely hard to do: the pieces that sound dated are assets, not liabilities.