Vangelis- Nocturne review

nocturneNow here’s a strange situation- marketed as a solo piano album, with mention of Vangelis recording on a grand piano, and even subtitled as ‘the piano album’ it actually turns out that, as suspected from the two tracks revealed prior to the album release, that this album is mostly synth piano augmented with synth pads and strings adding both ambient atmosphere and inevitable leanings toward the traditional Vangelis ‘sound’. There is, for all the marketing tease, nothing particularly groundbreaking here in execution, which might leave some fans a little disappointed (Vangelis will already be at odds here with fans who prefer his electronic extravaganzas and are likely frustrated with this more intimate work), but I for one am thrilled. This is a great album and certainly superior to his previous album, Rosetta, that harked back to his older glories whilst maintaining the ‘more of the same’ sonic palette that has increasingly dogged his work in the post-Nemo Studios era.

Perhaps it might be best for listeners to approach this album like they would Opera Sauvage, as its one of those quiet, moody albums as opposed to the more energetic offerings of Vangelis’ early years. This is clearly an album of some maturity and reflection, as should be expected from an artist some 75 years old.

So anyway, let’s take a tour of this album.

The album opens with Nocturnal Promenade, which was the first track revealed with the album announcement late last year. Its a strange opener, to be honest, and certainly in my mind not at all the strongest track on the album or the most ideal opener. Its a very light, meandering piece that is playful doodlings on synth piano with electronic strings cascading above. It feels almost a period piece-somehow I get the impression of Victorian walkers at night, chinese lanterns under the stars. I suppose it works mostly as a scene-setting piece, a frank indication of the aural experience to follow.

With the second track, To The Unknown Man, Vangelis returns to past glories of decades ago and one of his most timeless and beautiful pieces of music, and suddenly the genius of this album hits home, because this is just exquisitely beautiful – it’s worth the album price alone. For a fan of his for decades now, this track is a wonderful piece, rolling back the years and yet informing all the years between. While much of the new music is very fine and enjoyable, and an album of covers of past music seems like a commercial move at odds with Vangelis’ professed dislike for the music business and how it works, this track is some indication of what an album of such pieces might have been.

Track three continues the return of past music with Movement 9 from Mythodea, and strangely features a guest piano played by Irina Valentinova, which I presume indicates a duet of sorts unless Vangelis is not playing here at all. Synth augmentation is a little stronger here with harp and more pads and strings accompanying the keyboard. Movement 9 has always been one of the strongest tracks from the Mythodea album and it sounds lovely here.

The fourth track is a return of the new works, with Moonlight Reflections, another gentle piece that is light and, as the title suggests, reflective and thoughtful. Images of streets dotted with pools of rainwater reflecting the moonlight or the open ocean sparkling with the pale moon.

Through the Night Mist is a little darker and moodier, and feels like genuine Vangelis of old, reverb-infused keyboards that don’t necessarily sound like piano at all, cascading synth pads and harp. Its the kind of track that Vangelis used to place in his albums to break the tone and add a piece of romantic melancholy, rather like the music of Bitter Moon. Deceptively simple there’s more going on here than initially apparent, and it also reminds me a little of his El Greco album or the quieter moments of Voices. Its a strong track and one of the better originals on this album. Very nice.

Early Years follows the mood of the previous track, suffused again with melancholy and reflective as the title suggests of looking back. Is this perhaps Vangelis being autobiographical and personal? At this point it almost feels like Vangelis is using the Nocturne album to say goodbye, an album of closure, but then the track turns brighter and more hopeful and positive, as if making peace with the past and turning to optimism for the future.

Track seven is the one I was perhaps most curious about when I initially saw the album tracklist a few months ago- Love Theme, Blade Runner. Its another lovely return to an old favourite, and it largely works very well, albeit not as strongly as the earlier To the Unknown Man piece.  This is a more fragile interpretation than the original, sans saxophone etc, but having listened to it several times now I really like it. Vangelis seems to be informing the music of all the years between, the familiar theme fading away then returning with gossamer piano flourishes embellishing the old favourite.

Sweet Nostalgia follows, another original track that continues the subdued mood of the album. By this point you either love this album or you are feeling frustrated by it. I think it works wonderfully, clearly a romantic and passionate album that is full of Vangelis’ talent for melody and mood and while deceptively simple it is full of his particular genius.

The ninth track, Intermezzo, serves as pretty much both the midpoint of the album and a nice break in approach. The synth piano is gone, and this piece is simply the cascading synth pads and strings floating a gentle melody in the air. While it maintains the gentle reflective tone of the album it feels like a typical Vangelis playful improvisation- not the only time this album will remind me of previous curios like Jazzy Box. I’d love to hear an album of Vangelis just performing these playful musical doodlings- I suspect he does so much of this stuff for his own pleasure and it just sits in his vault with us never intended to hear it. Thankfully we get another glimpse of all that material with this track.

So with track ten we are into the second half of the album, and To a Friend, another pleasant piece and one that reminds me of parts of the Blade Runner Love Theme, strangely enough, as if this were its musical cousin. This is very much a traditional Vangelis track, so indicative of his style, and thankfully one of the longer original tracks (running at just over five minutes) allowing it more time to breath and work its particular magic. I much prefer Vangelis to allow his music to just stretch and breath and this is a nice reminder of his longer pieces of old.

Track eleven, La Petite Fille de la Mer, gently takes us back almost to the beginning, and one of his first albums. La Petite Fille de la Mer is a perennial favourite that has featured in many of Vangelis’ (many) compilations so perhaps its inclusion here was inevitable. While I would have possibly preferred him to have taken another piece less well-travelled, so to speak, this reinterpretation works very well. Its as gentle and emotional as the original and lovingly played. It must seem strange, I suppose, for Vangelis, returning to music so many decades old.

Now then. Track twelve, Longing. This is just magnificent, the first original piece on this album that I immediately fell in love with. This is Vangelis at his finest and has echoes of old glories indeed- it’s up there with all his best work. The synth keyboard has broken free of its mostly piano-oriented settings and has become something else, and would grace any Vangelis album, teasing the electronic soundscapes that most fans might expect from him. It reminds me a little of his 1492 score and some Jon & Vangelis music, rich and deep and emotional. It feels a little short, running under four minutes, and I would have just loved to hear it just run and run but it’s a little jewel.

If La Petite Fille de la Mer was inevitable, then a return of his Chariots of Fire theme was only more so, and it follows next on track thirteen. Again, there is a sense of the artist informing old music with the years between, a sweet melancholy infecting the playing. Its poetic and perfect, an old friend returning for a drink and a chat. Vangelis throws in some playful additions to the familiar melody. Its very nice, but again like La Petite Fille de la Mer I almost feel guilty for thinking I would have preferred a cover of a less familiar old favourite. The inclusion of this track is I suppose a nod to commercial appeal and maybe a necessary concession to the label. I would have loved instead a return of Himalaya. 

Track fourteen, Unfulfilled Desire is, as the title suggests, a moodier, sadder piece. Again, it is Vangelis in his most romantic mode, and continues this half of the album’s subtle move towards a traditional Vangelis soundscape and further away from the purported solo piano indications of the marketing. The synth pads and strings are stronger and more at the front.

Lonesome continues this trend to a darker and more unsettled mood. I am reminded of the old saying, it is never darker than before the dawn, and maybe that’s what Vangelis is getting at here. This track almost has a forlorn feeling of inevitable isolation. It is also one of the longer originals at nearly six minutes, and benefits from this. Moments actually remind of some of the more oddly romantic elements of Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien theme- its not discordant at all but has that dark weight to it. There is a sense of reconciliation or acceptance at the end, of peace. Another strong, romantic piece.

With track sixteen we are nearing the close of the album and reach another possible concession to the label, with 1492: Conquest of Paradise, but this reading of the original is rather dark as befits the mood of this second half of this album. Breaks of light break through the main theme suggesting, perhaps, the dawn, and this certainly rewards the inclusion of this track.  Rather passionate and emotional, this is a fine interpretation of the original track- I think I actually prefer this version.

Nocturne finally closes with Pour Melia, likely a personal piece and the second example of a Jazzy Box-kind of idle curio improv. It has the feel of a sweet lullaby, delicate and light, the kind of thing that Vangelis just makes seem so easy and effortless. Its a nice close to the album and is nothing at all like a piano piece.

So that is Nocturne then. I think it’s a very strong album, particularly if you can accept what it it is. Its one for gentle listening and reflective mood and I’m sure a welcome addition to Vangelis’ lengthy discography. It certainly highlights his talent for mood and sensitivity and melody, and is stronger for losing the overly-familiar electronic soundscapes of his work post-Nemo studios. I appreciate that might alienate some fans but I was rather disappointed by Rosetta. Some parts of that album were strong but the issue I have with Vangelis’ current soundscapes just came to the fore with that album, so much of it sounding like Alexander etc- the melodies different but the palette just more of the same. Clearly Vangelis is not a young man anymore and the fire and energy of his earlier work is long gone now (the way he used to hammer the drums and percussion with wild abandon!)  and I actually think Nocturne probably serves him better, where he is now.

12 thoughts on “Vangelis- Nocturne review

  1. Nispon

    I don’t know… I just feel as though the Vangelis of Old is gone and all that we’re left with is Old Vangelis. Is it nostalgia that blinds me? Maybe. I’ve listened to a few of the tracks for this album on YouTube and they’re… OK. Alright. Not bad. I felt the same way about Rosetta: “OK,” “Alright,” “Acceptable.” It’s not damning with faint praise but just an acceptance that my first reaction to these last two albums hasn’t been, “OMG! Where has this piece of music been my entire life?!!”

    Maybe we just have to acknowledge that he’s downshifted into semi-retirement. I don’t know; I think the difference between this album and his earlier albums is that he’d have a bunch of higher-tempo pieces in an earlier album and then use one of these pieces as the “breather” piece to break up the pacing.

    Don’t get me wrong; I have an appreciation for slower Vangelis pieces. “Oceanic” is probably my favorite “slow album” from Vangelis (there’s probably some nostalgia affecting that assessment, I’ll be completely honest) but if someone were to tell me that “Oceanic” is downright upbeat compared to some of his later albums (such as Rosetta & this one, Nocturne)… Yeah. That would’ve gotten a reaction from me and not in a good way.

    This album reminds me of what you’d put on in the background where you’re having a late summer, early evening barbeque with people from work: Non-offensive, gets the job done, sets a mellow mood while people are sipping wine coolers and talking about how difficult it’s been to find the time to repaint the basement walls in their house or if they should move to another town so that Timmy could be in a better high school because, you know, “He’s really into track and field now.”

    To be perfectly clear, I don’t hate this album… It’s just not… “there” for me. Why can’t someone leak some of those albums that he never released? I’d love to hear what “Inner Data” might have been or even “Arab.”

    Anyway, thanks for the review. It’s great to read other people’s thoughts on it.

    1. Hi Nispon, thank you for your comment. You make some very good points and I agree with many of them. I think most fans would. I recall getting the Delectus boxset a few years back, and in particular the book that accompanied it with all those photographs of Vangelis, many of them giving a glimpse behind the scenes of him during that Nemo period that the albums were from. I remember seeing those photographs and listening again to those so-familiar albums from those good old days.

      The problem is, those days are gone. Long gone now. And the Delectus boxset didn’t even include all the bonus tracks that we know exist that it might have done, nevermind material that must exist from back then that we are never likely to hear or know about. I always feel a love/hate relationship with Vangelis, the man is a genius and has given such pleasure and joy to us with his music. He professes a dislike for the music industry and has issues with fame and favours privacy, which is his wont, of course. But yes, he is a very rich man and he could just release so many hitherto unreleased projects and albums with proceeds to charities but he chooses not to.

      Which is doubly frustrating because we fans know his best material is in the past. Well, thats a sweeping generalisation. He has written and performed some of his best music post-Nemo and may yet have his best work ahead of him, I would never discount his ability to inspire and amaze us with something next year or the year after. But even Vangelis must know he is in his twilight years and the fire and energy of his younger days is behind him. I suppose I should suggest that maturity might balance things out in favour of new works. Our problem as fans is that we associate his past music with private moments of our own, and the nostalgia has a powerful effect, particularly when he has provided the soundtrack of our lives, and we can use his music to return to those moments we treasure.

      I dearly hope that one day, Vangelis may curate an anthology of his previously unreleased work, or employ one of his associates/team to do so on his behalf. Physical media is on the wane and the time available for such a project is likely limited, which is a terrible shame. I expect each new release he has agreed to; Mythodea, Rosetta and all, over the past few decades has had lesser returns sales-wise. The industry he has had his own love/hate relationship with over the years is far different from the one he enjoyed success with, say, in the 1970s.

      And if he chooses to simply continue this semi-retirement, or retire entirely, that is, clearly, up to him. Nemo is long ago, and I do wonder what it must be like for Vangelis, today, looking back. What an extraordinary life, what an extraordinary body of work. I would so love to sit down with him for just one afternoon and talk with him, about his music, his career, those old days and what he expects from today. To listen to him talk about and performing Himalaya! Imagine that. Vangelis will always be an enigma to us and his music remain our only real glimpse of what makes him ‘tick’. But how I would so love one afternoon in his company.

      That of course is the stuff of idle dreams. Meanwhile I am glad of new opportunities to ‘know’ him a little more through albums like Nocturne. I do think its his best and most interesting work for some time. Thanks again for your comments. I hope if I write some more posts/reviews of his older work you might read them too and share your thoughts. Perhaps, after all, it is time to go back and visit all his discography again – one never needs to much of an excuse, indeed!

  2. MTR

    Hi. Thanks for your thoughtful review. I’ve only had one run-through listening, and should add that I’m a Vangelis fanatic/completest since “China” back in the day, so this is all first impression, but I was utterly charmed and almost in awe of the depth of emotion, melody and maturity. And agreed this one has much more going for it than “Rosetta”. How nice to hear these rich melodies. And besides the Nocturnal Promenade track, the pieces are not as rambling and spontaneous-sounding as I had feared. The only setback for me was the Chariots of Fire reworking. It feels totally unnecessary and you may be right that this was a concession to the record label. I gave this one an A+ right off the bat, and it has been a long time since a Vangelis release has struck me as such. Or… I’m not getting much younger and perhaps this music is hitting the soft spots that I didn’t know I, and Vangelis for that matter, had.

    1. Hi MTR, thanks for your comment, I’m very pleased to hear from someone as similarly impressed by Nocturne as I. Curiously enough, I too can chart my interest in Vangelis back to ‘China’ and its one of my very favourite Vangelis albums. I think Nocturne is a breath of fresh air and it does feel more intimate and, well, personal than some of Vangelis’ output- he has always championed spontaneity in his work and I think these new pieces really reflect that. I would like to think that this album might lead to further (and more frequent, well we can only hope!) projects from Vangelis that further explore this intimacy and maturity evident in Nocturne. Mind, Vangelis always moves on and often in directions that are unexpected, so a big and loud ‘Direct 2’ might follow on, you just never know….

      Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to write a comment, and am glad you too are enjoying Nocturne.

  3. Thanks for your review. I agree with the nuances of your impression and glad to note this reference to his ‘post-Nemo sound-set’. So if I may meander here on some thoughts around that…
    The tentative conclusion I’m drawing – that this is a modest return towards what I’ve always liked about Vangelis – is because the piano concept is really a mechanism for achieving an expansive, real-time, solo performance.
    The problem with his latter, elaborate music-making gizmo was that it a) stuck him in a mid-nineties rompler palette and b) because of its orchestral and quasi orchestral sounds, stuck him in a – dare I say it – pretentiousness of expression relative to a classically scored and orchestrally performed, late nineteenth century model.
    In this album, the sound expression seems more honest to the means of its creation – solo improvisation – and so works so much better as a ‘me to you’ which is, in turn, so much deeper than a ‘me to many’ as the quasi-orchestral bombast of his latter albums imply.
    Then again, you hit upon this crucial point of formative experiences and of how this hugely colours our judgement. For me – my first album was Soil Festivities – Vangelis has always been my introduction to the then-exciting idea that – via the synthesizer – one person can, on their own, make the sort of sophisticated long-form expression that truly expands and takes forward the classical canon and all the aspects of that which go beyond the emotional vocabulary of song. That general idea probably explains his moving onto the aforementioned orchestral sound-set, once the technology became available. However, for me, that was to miss the point; that was electronic music descending back into the commercial ‘cheap version of some other original’; a second best.
    After all, by the late nineteenth century, the orchestra was becoming realised as a vast synthesizer, exploring the timbral possibilities to reveal new aspects of human experience. Orchestration was maturing as an artform in its own right. But one can’t achieve this all in one shot; it’s a painstakingly layered endeavour, as is it remains when via electronic means (as, for example, Isao Tomita demonstrated).
    Having, myself, been obsessed with synthesizers ever since, I’ve come to realise the primary importance of timbre. For me, that has to be as evocative and searching as Vangelis’ harmonic and melodic inventions occasionally remain.
    Mind you, when I’m noodling with little more than a monosynth sine wave with lots of reverb, I guess I, too, am trying to recapture the revelatory moment of deciding to improvise on my violin to the echo of a cathedral interior back in the mid-eighties. So whilst I could imagine I’m remaining purist to the concept of playing the synthesizer I, too, am emulating something else.
    From what I’ve learned of Vangelis, the piano was his childhood equivalent. So I think I get it. For all these latest pieces may appeal to popular taste and may be inferred to, somewhat cynically, be engineered as such, I believe he’s being utterly sincere. And deep. So thanks, Mr.Papathanassiou.

    1. I think you’re absolutely right about the technology spoiling Vangelis’ work in later years, certainly post-Direct. He’s making every sound through keyboards now and while it might be more spontaneous it also leaves it all sounding the same. The beauty of his Nemo days, ironically, is that so much of what we heard wasn’t actually electronic- he had so much percussion equipment in his studio, bells, drums etc that his music consequently felt very authentic, very organic and ‘real’, no matter its electronic core. I would imagine that the restrictions set upon him actually made him more creative, too, as he raged against loops of magnetic tape and editing and patching stuff together. His Direct device clearly made things easier for him, but I don’t think it made the music necessarily any better. Its no mistake that I keep on playing his Nemo-era albums far more often than his later material.

      Mind, maybe the simple fact is that synths just aren’t as good as they used to be. There does seem to be a move back to more retro-sounding synths now in electronic music- Jean Michel Jarre keeps on going back to his old albums all the time, and I can never work out if its a creative brick wall that requires him to roll out Oxygene 2, 3 etc or the fact that he simply prefers using those synths of old.

      I think it’s a little like film composers- John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner all had varied success over the years changing orchestrators enabling a ‘fresher’ sound using the orchestra, and maybe Vangelis would have been better served if he had ditched his Direct device occasionally or used different samples etc to freshen his own sound.

  4. Hello Ghost, I am writing to you from Spain. My english is not good but I have a question about Longing and its relation with OST of Blade Runner.
    I can’t find this piece of music on the soundtrack or even in the movie. As a Vangelis fan since 80s, I am frustrated looking for this músic, can you help me?

    Great review of Nocturne, thank you 😉.

    Rafa

    1. Hello Rafa. ‘Longing’ was an out-take included on the Blade Runner Trilogy edition (the 3-disc set) of the soundtrack. It was apparently written for the film but not used, and Vangelis found it amongst his tapes when compiling the 3-disc set and liking it, thought he’d include it. It is a very nice piece of music and clearly written for the score, but like ‘Rachel’s Song’ (included on the 1994 version of the soundtrack album and disc 1 of the 3-disc set) wasn’t ultimately deemed fit for use in the film.

      Ironically, the track ‘Longing’ that is on the Nocturne album is a totally different piece of music, which is why you can’t find it on the soundtrack or in the film, but you’re not alone. The fact that it shares the same title as the Blade Runner out-take confused people and made them expect it to be a piano version of that old track. Even on digital copies the title wrongly states ‘Longing from Blade Runner’ so it has even confused the music company behind the release. I don’t know if its a bit of mischief on Vangelis’ part to amuse himself confusing fans or a genuine mistake from his use of the same title for a new piece of music- it does seem strange that his team didn’t make things clear.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my review and hope this answers your query.

  5. Thank you for the lovely review, and I wholeheartedly agree. I’d like to share the review that I wrote (in Dutch) on Bol, the largest Dutch online store. Here’s the English version:

    Vangelis once said of himself that he functions as a channel through which music emerges from the chaos of noise, and that certainly appears to be the case on this album. It’s almost as if the near-76-year old maestro winks at society and says: “Why all this agitation? This need not be. Be still a moment and come Home.” Well, “Timeless homecoming” may be an apt summary of this little gem. The music isn’t really gloomy; rather, it’s nostalgic and consoling, as if you are reminded of a Home that you forgot, while deep inside you realize it still waits to be recognized again. This music is timeless. It would have sounded fine 200 years ago, and will still sound great 200 years from now.
    Of the 11 new tracks, “Through the night mist” and “Lonesome” particularly struck me, but I actually think all the new tracks are wonderful. Of the well-known tunes, I particularly liked the renditions of Mythodea 9 and Conquest of paradise. The only minor minus may be the accompanying synthesizer pad, which a little too often just follows the main melody, and nothing else. And, listening to this album, I get the rather ominous feeling that this might just be his farewell album. Let’s hope we’ll get to enjoy many more years of such timeless music coming through the remarkable channel called Vangelis.

    Jan-Willem van Aalst, The Netherlands,

  6. Pingback: The 2019 list – the ghost of 82

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