1978 was a particularly productive year for Vangelis at the height of his creative powers, recording Opera Sauvage and China, and also Odes, a collaboration with Greek singer/actress Irene Papas that featured contemporary interpretations of Byzantine and traditional Greek folk songs using electronics and modern instrumentation (well, modern in 1978 anyway). Opera Sauvage is a particularly fine album, a soundtrack for a French documentary series, in style it is very similar to his later Blade Runner score (and is a good entry point into the Vangelis back catalogue for people who enjoy the Blade Runner film and music).
But China is the jewel in the crown- its a little under-rated even amongst Vangelis fans (released in 1979 and his first on the Polydor label, commercially it was not a success, apparently) but it’s my absolute favourite Vangelis album. If I had a time machine, I’d love to be able to go back and sit in Vangelis’ Nemo studio and witness him making this album- it’d be absolutely fascinating to see him creating this tour de force. There is something richly magical about the entire thing. The idea that it wasn’t a great success makes it just that little bit more special- a bit like a cult movie, or a book that you love that no-one else has apparently even heard of. Vangelis would of course have huge success with Chariots Of Fire a few years later, but really, the Chariots music isn’t in the same league as China. If I ever got the chance to sit down with Vangelis, the album I’d love to talk with him about would be China.
It’s an album, as the title suggests, with a richly oriental ‘mood’ and feel; a virtuoso combination of percussion and electronics… each track is a tonal painting akin to the classical works of Debussy, and the album is utterly timeless, as fresh-sounding today as when I first heard it. Vangelis evokes the passion and atmosphere of a mysterious Eastern land with delicate percussion, ethnic instrumentation and increasingly sophisticated electronics. Chung Kuo is a powerfully impressive scene-setting opener, and The Long March which follows is a wonderfully melodic piece that would often be heard on televison programmes concerning the Orient (curiously I think all CD pressings have the running-times for these two tracks -one segues into the other- completely wrong, another piece of Vangelis quality control going awry as with the Heaven & Hell tracks fiasco I mentioned in yesterdays post). The Little Fete is a wonderful piece, an 8th Century Chinese poem read to a relaxing and evocative piece of music; kind of thing you’d sometimes hear on prog albums that no-one would really try nowadays.
Again, this album has a link with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary series; the end titles of each episode would sometimes feature a different music track, and one night it had a wonderful piece that I instantly adored. I had the show recorded on audio cassette to listen to and replayed the music track over and over, utterly ignorant of what it was. Fast foward several months and imagine my joy when the music played during the second side of the China album! The track is Himalaya and is my favourite piece of Vangelis music, a long (near eleven-minute) sedate musical journey, not quite ambient, it floats on the air. I never tire of this track- I guess it just ‘clicked’ with me. Its the album highlight and I have read that its one of Vangelis’ personal favourite pieces. I don’t know how true that is, but I like to think it means Vangelis and I have something in common!