Saturday, November 18, 2006

MUSIC: Vangelis as Progressive Rocker - Draft Essay

Vangelis prog? Hard to argue against it. Whyever should he not be? I sometimes think that cognoscenti place him outside the pale - without denigrating his talents - because he and Yes didn't hit it off. Whether that's true or not is superfluous, because the case is an open-and-shut one, surely. Vangelis is prog - albeit, at worst, at one remove.

A tougher nut to crack would be those - Mr Papathanassiou at their head - who would define Vangelis as a virtual one-man genre, defying all classification. He has refined his hybridising of influences and working methods to such a degree that he almost resembles the Borg - part humanoid, part machine, relentlessly absorbing and processing forever in its own multifaceted, kaleidoscopic image. Jazz, symphonic, folk of all kinds, pop, electronic - it all ends up sounding like Vangelis. As Alan White perceptively put it many, many years ago; 'he was an entity, a sound, and that... was called Vangelis'.

And let's be honest - is there anyone who has a sound, a sonic footprint, remotely like his? Since that ill-fated Yes encounter, he has made only one serious musical collaboration with another artist, the Spanish electronic merchants Neuronium, in 1981.Believe me, I've been looking for another Vangelis over 20 years and haven't found anyone yet. I remember that many moons past Kitaro was billed as 'the new Vangelis' when Polydor and Kuckuck were first marketing his LPs in the West. Very, very borderline case; only a faint spicing of ethno-exotica, too many synths and some catchy tunes linked the two men. Kitaro never ventured within a country mile of Vangelis's sterner stuff, the likes of the impressive Beaubourg, the lengthy extemporisations of Soil Festivities and China, not to mention entirely missing the Greek's uncanny talent for atmospheres on Blade Runner and Kavafy. One possible comparison might be Russia's Eduard Artemiev, whose film scores, particularly Solaris and Stalker are vaguely Vangeloid in nature.

Perhaps the best and closest analogue is, tellingly, Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow, which mysteriously credits Vangelis, although most intelligence suggests the Greek never played on the album. Listening to this quite unique artefact, not to mention the pair's four-album collaboration, it's hard to credit that Vangelis didn't do a bit more than suggest what hardware to buy and fit a few pick-ups. Sunhillow is - I am sure nobody would disagree - quite unlike anything else not only in prog, but in popular music per se. Apart from perhaps - you've guessed it - Vangelis. And is Sunhillow prog? I rather think it is.

Vangelis's Heaven and Hell appeared in January 1976 - with Anderson guesting on one track - and the album's modus operandi appears to be similar to that of Olias - which, thanks to a host of technical problems, would have come out considerably earlier than its eventual June 1976 release. That m.o. is simply to utilise available technology (and analogue synthesisers were undergoing what was eventually to become the polyphonic and then digital revolution) and combine it with an array of traditional acoustic instruments of all kinds to enable a true synthesis of styles at all levels, both in terms of compositional and improvisational conception of tone and textural colour, but also of practice. Put simply, it meant the conception of Yes music circa 1974 taken to its technical and harmonic extremes. It sounds high-flown and a bit silly - and of course it doesn't always work. There are some quite hair-raisingly overblown pieces of nonsense on Heaven and Hell. Side one in particular starts with one of the most vulgar pieces of wannabe-rock-oratorio ever committed to vinyl (the choral writing throughout is laughably naive, almost as crude as the diabolically kitsch cover art), but the album gradually emerges; side two is excellent from start to finish, preferring to concentrate on atmosphere than flatulent, empty gestures. Albedo 0.39, from later in '76, contains the incongruously insane jazz-prog workout Nucleogenesis, eight minutes of shrieking moogs and Animal drumming (the album as a whole has as much to do with mid-70s Pink Floyd as Yes, and the inclusion of found sound and human voices throughout his work harks back to this LP). This, it must be conceded, is an exception to the Vangelis rule (I know - I own 35 of his albums. I'm sorry, but there you are). Part of the problem for prog purists - and it's not an invalid objection - is that any music driven not by audibly human input - i.e. electronics - must in some way be beyond a given conception of rock popularised in the late 1960s. It doesn't feel right, man, is the motto. Some of those commercially cheesy, coffee-table tunes - step forward, Chariots of Fire - haven't helped either. What's more, Da Big V doesn't play live (much. But when he has done the shows have been so extravagant they make ELP look like a pub band).

Furthermore, there's little doubt from there on Vangelis preferred to concentrate on a symphonic conception of sound based on 19th-century orchestral practice, as opposed to anything to do with rock. Up to and including Spiral (1977), there are attempts to mimic electric guitars and basses; henceforward, scarcely ever, except on the stupendously weird dog's dinner of an album See You Later (1980). The tunes, and ABA song structures still crop up, but the overall thinking behind the music gradually became more and more diffuse, more and more referential to itself first and its manifold influences second.

Yeah, yeah. But the fact remains - none of Vangelis' music could have happened without prog. In terms of the technical kit required for its creation - not to mention a climate of transgression of the boundaries of musical conception and thought, prog was and is central to Vangelis. He is a satellite of the genre, true, but remains firmly within its gravitational field. He's out there - any proghead worth his salt should embrace him into their orbits, too.

Vangelis starter pack:
Heaven and Hell
Albedo 0.39
See You Later (side 2)

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