Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

junocvrIn his music through all the past decades, one thing regards Vangelis’ music has been clear- for all its futuristic feel, thanks to it being primarily (albeit not exclusively) electronic in nature, the composer has always had one eye firmly on the past. His music has always had a classical, ancient bent, an inherent ethnicity that adds a flavour and colour all its own. The heart and soul of his Blade Runner score, for all its futuristic electronica, is in its sense of ethnicity, of a melting-pot of cultures and language: you can hear in the soundtrack all the visually diverse cultures seen onscreen, and the 1940s fashions and art deco stylings scattered amidst all the technological grandeur of the films production design; its all there in his score. Its the one thing that has, for me at least, kept Vangelis’ music standing quite apart from other electronica, and musicians like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tomita, Brian Eno or Wendy Carlos. The curious thing is that this perpetual nod towards the past –Mask, Mythodea, El Greco being the most obvious examples, but I think you can hear it in all of his work- has allowed a sense of timelessness to so much of his music.  I can go back to his 1970s and 1980s albums and they feel as fresh and ‘new’ as they ever did, and very often they just seem to improve with age, as if they were just waiting for their time, or for the rest of us to catch up with them. I listen to his 1975 album Heaven and Hell all the time, its like nothing else sounds remotely quite like it, and I also find myself returning to his 1990 album The City very often… both albums are hugely different from one another, but they share the same feeling, of being some artefact of both future and past.

So finally after the most curious release odyssey I can quite remember -certainly within the Vangelis catalogue, although I suppose the eventual (and repeated) release of the Blade Runner soundtrack possibly trumps it- we have actual physical copies of Vangelis’ latest project, Juno to Jupiter, in our hands. Some of us of course have been listening to this album since August last year, when an online store sold digital copies of the album on what had been the albums original planned release date. The album was quickly withdrawn from sale over that odd, confusing weekend when so many Vangelis fans were wondering what in the world was going on, but it left Vangelis followers in a curious position. Some of us were listening to and enjoying the new album, while others were left in the dark, frustrated.

While I suppose the album found its way onto torrents and spread wide on swashbuckling sites, I think some credit is due to those fans who respected Vangelis’ desire to hold back the album release, because I’m not aware of the album ever dropping onto YouTube for instance, and those of us who would ordinarily be posting detailed reviews etc refrained from doing so. I wrote a review at time, thinking I would be posting it in September on its rumoured revised release date, but that didn’t happen. In fact so many revised and rumoured release dates never happened, I began to wonder if it would ever get a release at all, and superstitiously deleted my review without ever posting it. Vangelis cancelling releases is hardly something new: I’m always thinking of the 2011 Qatar concert that was filmed for a DVD and CD release that never happened. While its bizarre that it would be over a year before the proper release ever occurred, at least Juno to Jupiter finally came out.

Which leaves me in the peculiar predicament of reviewing a ‘new’ album release which is quite old to me. Over the past year I have listened to this album so many times, with it often becoming a soundtrack to my workday since I’ve been working from home throughout the pandemic. Its as familiar to me now as all Vangelis’ albums; its lost that exciting, this-is-new feel that comes with every fresh Vangelis discovery. I’ve listened to it and recognised nods back to the Heaven and Hell music used for the Cosmos TV series, or the officially-unreleased Tegos Tapes and other little musical easter eggs scattered throughout its generous near-73 minute running time (as far as Vangelis releases go, this is some kind of epic in length at least). Unfortunately, while 73 minutes sounds wonderful, this is spoiled somewhat by just too many ideas being squeezed in, but more on that later.

jupiterjunoOne curiosity of Juno to Jupiter is that, contrary to its epic length, the actual music feels rather intimate and low-key. There are exceptions, of course, such as the 11-minute workout that is Zeus Almighty, but on the whole the album feels very restrained when compared to, say, the sprawling, huge operatic odyssey that is Mythodea, another of Vangelis’ works that just gets better and better with age. I mention  Mythodea because, like Rosetta, it shares a common theme to Juno to Jupiter, in that it is music written to accompany a real-life, actual space mission of discovery. In fact, one could almost consider those three albums as being a trilogy of sorts, and its clear that Juno to Jupiter is much more like Rosetta, sharing much of that albums approach and sonic stylings (inevitable, really, as they are two of his most recent works while Mythodea dates back to a 2001 release, and its music actually farther back than that, to at least 1993).

There is an ambient feel to Juno to Jupiter, each track transitioning to the next, the audio journey mirroring that of Juno itself. It makes for a very good listening experience, similar to how Vangelis would often rework his film scores into album releases, but conversely I think this may be the biggest weakness of this album, something I also felt true of Rosetta. Other than the aforementioned Zeus Almighty, when listening to this album I keep wishing Vangelis developed each track more, they each feel like little ideas that need development and stretching out, but instead they rather play out a theme or motif and then frustratingly ebb out into background noise to enable a transition to the next track. Its the biggest weakness of Rosetta, too, in my mind, with tracks that were not given sufficient room to breathe. I guess I just miss some of those big epics of the Nemo years, those tracks that were given time to stretch and breathe like the sublime Himalaya from his 1979 album China. I think its a genuine weakness of the tracks that they usually last about three or four minutes (some less than two, even) compared to the average of six or more minutes of those on Mythodea, for example.  

Which is not to say that Juno to Jupiter is a bad album. Its a very good album, and a very good listening experience, but its the individual tracks themselves that are weakened by Vangelis’ likely preoccupation with that overall experience and ensuring the flow from one to another (the transitions are largely very, very good indeed, its just a shame they conversely hamper the quality of the tracks themselves). I guess its largely something of personal taste, but I would have preferred fewer, but longer tracks, ones which shared the scope and breadth of Zeus Almighty. Instead, the generous album running-time is compromised by it squeezing eighteen tracks in -eighteen!-which leaves many of them feeling almost like sketches than the fully-developed tracks that Vangelis might have had on earlier albums. I’m sure many fans and purists are furious at my description of the tracks as sketches, and rest assured a Vangelis sketch is something very good indeed, with moments of genius nonetheless, but all the same, having sat with this album for twelve months, in just the same way as with Rosetta, for me there is something not quite ideal regards Vangelis and these shorter compositions, especially when so many are cut even shorter by the need to find passages to transition between the tracks proper. Compare the tracks on Juno to Jupiter to those of Direct, say, which all seem perfect and fully-formed, whatever length they really needed to be to proper realise their promise.

To be sure, there is some beautiful music here, and some of it is vintage Vangelis the likes of which it seems only the maestro can accomplish. The opening section is very strong -I adore Inside Our Perspectives, if only it could be stretched into an eight-minute workout, and likewise In the Magic of the Cosmos is a nod to Vangelis magic (sic) of old. The three tracks featuring Angela Gheorghiu as soprano are very strong and remind one of Mythodea, and I only wish the closing track In Serenitatem, which seems to gloriously harken back to the sublime Summit from China, could have been twice as long as it is. There isn’t really a bad track on the album, its just the balance seems wrong to me, it should have been fewer, longer tracks, but again, that’s likely just my own personal taste and affection for some of Vangelis’ masterworks of old. Its very possible that time will be kind to this album and its perfection will dawn upon me, who knows, its happened before with Vangelis’ music.

The increasingly curious journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter nears its end, (almost…)

junoboxDecca have finally announced the release of Vangelis’ rather belated album, Juno to Jupiter, now scheduled on CD and digital download on September 24th, unless you’ve been waiting for the vinyl, as that’s not coming until February next year (that particular journey continues, then). Of course some of us who bought the somewhat premature digital release have been listening to it since last August, so its a rather strange instance here of getting excited about something that already feels like history. Still, it will be nice to be able to finally purchase it on CD and find out what my mate Andy thinks about it when he finally gets to listen to it. And hey, I may be able to finally write that album review.

Meanwhile, I wonder what Vangelis has been crafting in the meantime? One never knows, but we might be heading for one of those curious situations in which, having waited so long between releases, suddenly a few seem to come within several months of each other (presuming we’ll be lucky enough that Vangelis releases another album in 2022). I’d rather like to see a release of some kind or other based upon his score for the dance production The Thread, which was streamed last year, but we’ll see; the maestro has a way of confounding hopes and expectations.

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

alex1…except that it wasn’t really a Final Cut at all, because Oliver Stone followed up with another cut (‘The Ultimate Cut’) a few years later, which was actually little shorter. In all, I think there are four different cuts of this film and only one of them, the theatrical cut, is currently available on Blu-ray here in the UK (I imported this ‘Final Cut‘ several years ago since when its languished on the Shelf of Shame until now). I think the theatrical version was 175 minutes, the Directors Cut several minutes shorter, the Final Cut is the longest version some 45 minutes longer than the theatrical  and the Ultimate Cut several minutes shorter than that- the biggest difference between all the versions (other than additional violence and gore) seems to be the sequencing of scenes and how Stone juxtaposes those sequences within the internal chronology of the film. 

I’m sitting here reconsidering how I started this post and where I’m going with it. Maybe it would be especially apt to revisit this post and post alternate versions, reordering paragraphs, remarshalling my train of thought. Stone himself would possibly appreciate the irony of that. 

It would be especially interesting to sit down with Stone and discuss this film and his experience making it and re-making it. As a movie lover, I think there is something almost endearing about a film-maker’s fascination with a project driving him to rethink himself, and not quite let go of something. I think Oliver Stone didn’t quite succeed in making the Alexander he dreamed of, and his frustrations drove him to return to it, trying to perfect it. It is clearly a passion project, and such films are not always the best films but they can be the most interesting. Sometimes I’d rather watch passion-project failures than formulaic by-the-numbers successes. Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is quite superior to the theatrical version I saw in the cinema- Stone was under immense pressure to trim the film down to a manageable length and he discusses this in the opening section of his commentary on this disc. Its indicative of the friction between the artist and the businessman, and clearly one of the boons of the home-video market of the past few decades on VHS/DVD and Blu-ray was the opportunity for film-makers to release longer cuts of the films, most of which are superior (but not always). Whether such opportunities will continue in the shift towards streaming is questionable.

I will say I really enjoyed this version of the film. How much of a success the film is, is probably a subject of some debate; there is always a sense of Oliver Stone reaching for something and not quite getting there- some sequences are breath-taking and others feel ill-judged, but you always feel an immense passion behind the film, for good or ill. I recall at the time the film came out in 2004, much criticism of Colin Farrell in the title role, but funnily enough, all these years later it doesn’t seem such a problem at all (how incongruous Kirk Douglas as Spartacus or Richard Burton in his own Alexander film? After awhile does it really matter?). I think Farrell does very well here and his Alexander lingers in the mind afterwards, so does Val Kilmer as his father, King Phillip- perhaps it is something to do with additional scenes or their sequencing in this version: its been so many years since I saw the theatrical cut that I cannot really vouch for any differences between the cuts. Maybe its just a case that Revisited works better, that Stone got the edit right. 

There’s some big names in this film (Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins) and while its really a European film rather than an old-style Hollywood epic, it does seem something of a throwback to the big epics of the old days with such big names attached. It results in an odd tension within the film, of the old and the new: the incongruity of all those accents and Western actors of various nationalities appropriating Greek characters and the English language and text in scenes in ‘an enlightened, modern film’  feeling wrong: albeit inevitable, while attempting to visually be as authentic as it possibly can the film flounders on the edge of farce. While opening the film to criticism, I guess the old adage “its only a movie” holds so very true, and certainly, one could not expect someone like Oliver Stone to make some dry historical epic; this is Cinema.

To fully understand and ‘know’ such a complex character as Alexander and his achievements, you really need a time machine. In that sense, the real meaning of the film is in its tensions between West and East, in how Alexanders generals feared that Alexander had ‘gone native’ and forgotten his Greek origins, and how that makes Alexander seem to us, unconsciously in his part or not, a very modern individual. That might well be a Western, twentieth-century interpretation that gets it absolutely wrong, but Stone seems to paint a picture of Alexander of a man out of time. He’s us, in the Ancient World. Trying to bring modern sensibilities to it, trying to assimilate West and East. But there is also the sensation that’s just us appropriating Alexander, and one of the complexities of the film that nettles at Stone. Alexander and the Greeks were Pagans, who absolutely believed in their Gods and believed  that there was a limit to their world, physical as well as intellectual, that was a much smaller world than the world we know. We cannot really get into that mindset. Some things are human and universal, but other things are alien and unique: as I have written before, the distant past is as much science fiction as any story of the far-future.

Perhaps oddly, I think my favourite scenes of the film are those featuring Anthony Hopkins’ aged King Ptolemy that pretty much bookend it; Ptolemy’s reminisces of his old friend Alexander, trying to grasp who/what Alexander was or what his achievements meant, so likely mirror Oliver Stone’s struggles, and indeed those of historians for centuries. In some ways its trying to understand the human condition, our mortality and the impermanence of everything we create. Ptolemy in Alexandria of 285 BC, some forty years after Alexander died, is one of the last people to have lived in Alexander’s time and to have known him, so his thoughts would be the most definitive, but of course Alexandria itself would eventually fail, and the memoirs Ptolemy put down for posterity would themselves be eventually lost. In just the same way as Ptolemy’s effort failed, its impossible for Stone’s film to properly define who Alexander was;  all things fade, except Alexander himself, or certainly the myth of him that remains.

alex3Visually the film is quite amazing- I think the battles are gritty and brutal and give us a sense of what it must have been like, and the landscapes are wonderful: I have always been quite enchanted by the film’s representation of Babylon. What an astonishing place; one can understand how Alexander might have been so intoxicated by the East. Imagine a Greek, or anyone from the West, entering Babylon having conquered it and then himself becoming conquered by its unique beauty, its smells, its colours.

I love the Vangelis soundtrack. Like many of his scores, it lives differently within the film, his soundtrack album following his method of being a listening experience alternate to that music heard in the film. I think his music works better in the film; there is a romanticism brought to the film by Vangelis’ customary style that lifts the film up, and indeed makes some moments of the film quite transcendent. Its possibly why I enjoy the film so much, that I’m a huge fan of Vangelis for so many decades now that I cannot seperate my enjoyment of his music from the film itself, but certainly he brings a great deal to Alexander and it would be a much lesser film without this score. Being electronic it works against the pre-conceived notions of what a period film should sound like, in just the same way as his scores for Chariots of Fire and The Bounty do. Vangelis has a gift for keying into the ‘soul’ of a film- in Blade Runner it was the bluesy, electronic jazz of a future seen through the old, mirroring the films future noir sense of being caught in between two worlds . Here in Alexander he seems to capture the lyrical, almost classical romanticism of the story, the myth beneath the reality that has allowed the story of Alexander the Great to be so… ageless. Stone seems to have been frustrated by the episodic nature of film, trying to evoke some meaning or message in the sequencing of the it, feeling it lacking in a conventional chronological telling, hence all these different cuts, but Vangelis seems to have it at hand in his keyboard. Its the meshing of Western and Eastern and the ethnic music of each, while each transformed by his mostly electronic orchestration. I think the story of Alexander is too big for one film, or one film-maker (or classical historian for that matter) to really encompass but I think perhaps Vangelis comes closest to nailing it. Maybe Stone and Vangelis should have made Alexander as some great opera; in some ways, its almost there.

The increasingly curious journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterThis may be more normal in the music industry than I expect, but the journey of Vangelis’ latest project continues to confound  (although referring it as ‘latest’ seems almost premature at this point- who knows, he may be releasing another album before Juno finally lands). Originally scheduled for digital release anytime between July and September last year, with a physical release a few months later in November, we’re still waiting. Well, some of us- a digital store inadvertently released the album in August over the weekend of the 7th, apparently in error. How they got hold of the music files (possibly a promotional copy?) could either be an interesting mystery or a mundane clerical error, but Decca and Vangelis’ team yelled foul and put a stop to it, citing an actual release date in September which never happened, nor later rumoured dates in December or January this year (including a vinyl release having an bonus track not on the digital or CD releases). Last week it transpired that even Amazon had gotten tired of the curious marketing dance, cancelling my CD pre-order.

I’ve been listening to the album since August, and its a great Vangelis album that everyone of his fans should be listening to, and I’m sure they will once they can actually buy it. I actually deleted the draft review I wrote up in September just in case I was the one jinxing it by some supernatural conjunction of the spheres (I’d written it hoping to post it on the albums release date, but hey, hope springs Eternal). I expect that Covid-related complications regards production might have something to do with it, as the Deluxe CD version is packaged with a book about the Juno mission, and its likely that its this book delaying things rather than something on the music side. I admit though to being curious after such a long delay as to whether Vangelis himself feels the inclination to revisit and revise the music in some way, but that’s surely a longshot (which would possibly mean those of us who purchased the digital version in August have something of a rarity).

So anyway, with no further rumoured release date in the air at all, we fans just need to wait awhile longer. But it is such a curious tale regards this release. Of course with everything going on in the world, there’s much more pressing things to get excited about, but Vangelis releases are so increasingly rare that we fans can only be more fascinated by Juno’s increasingly curious journey. I’ll post more news as it arises. There’s probably a major announcement due any day/week/month now. It does occur to me though, that it took the space probe five years from launch to eventually reach Jupiter, so who knows, maybe the maestro’s mirroring real-life space physics regards the journey-time of his album.  Isn’t that a sobering prospect.

I can only repeat its a fantastic album, and really, in all the years I’ve been buying Vangelis albums  I’ve known nothing quite like this (except, ominously, the ultimate no-show of the Polydor Blade Runner album advertised on that films end-credit crawl in 1982 that had me visiting record stores every week in vain).

 

The Strange Journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterIndeed, how strange. Vangelis has a new album coming out on September 25th, titled  Juno to Jupiter, which, in a similar way to both his 2001 Mythodea album and 2016 Rosetta album, is thematically tied to a space mission exploring the solar system. Vangelis has a deep interest in the cosmos and its wonders and as Carl Sagan discovered many years ago, his music is ideally suited to dealing with such futuristic/grand subjects. Anyway, that isn’t whats odd about it. The odd thing is that I’m listening to the album now, have been enjoying it for several days in fact. Have I used a Time Machine to travel to the future and pick up a copy of the maestro’s latest work in order to bring it back to this grim summer of isolation, social distancing and working at home?

In a nod to a sign o’ the times (sorry, Prince), it was announced several weeks ago that Vangelis had this new album coming out soon, but that it would first be released as a digital download, only coming out later on CD. This has happened increasingly over the past few years- Watertower Music, for instance, has released soundtracks to HBO shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld on digital as soon as  their respective seasons have aired, only bringing out CD editions a few months later (I seem to recall Max Richter’s Ad Astra soundtrack album also had a delayed physical release). No doubt many musicians have done the same, but Vangelis finally going the digital route first seems, well, just a further indication of the shift away from physical releases and is a bit annoying in truth. I also think there are so few factories actually producing CDs, Blu-rays, Game discs etc now (I actually read awhile back that it was as few as four worldwide, I have no idea if that’s true), that there is a long waiting list perhaps only exasperated by Covid 19, and that many new film releases on DVD/Blu-ray have had limited initial runs creating some shortages at retail.

The original news of the album coming out was unofficial, just the usual Internet Grapevine, lacking any release date info, although someone involved in the album, Soprano Angela Gheorghiu, originally mentioned a July date that clearly never happened. It would seem however that an August date was possibly originally intended, because a music news website suddenly announced an August 7th release date for the digital version, and immediately an online store suddenly started selling it. It should be noted that his was a reputable online store of classical music (based in the UK) which I was familiar with myself, that has been in business for nearly twenty years online and with a high street store longer than that. The album didn’t appear on Amazon or other vendors though, who still  didn’t even have the album up for pre-order. It would seem someone had jumped the gun, and since this online store clearly had the music files there would seem some credence to the possibility that August was an original release date that was at some point deferred, possibly to ensure it could get a proper marketing/publicity push in the meantime. Maybe both the site that issued the news about August 7th and the store that sold it didn’t get the memo that Covid had possibly spoiled/delayed yet another party.

Ha, ha, there’s a thought- Vangelis suddenly has something in common with James Bond and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.

I don’t know how digital releases work, or how close to a release date content files etc are distributed out to retail outlets. I know with physical releases stocks of CDs/vinyl albums tend to arrive from warehouses a week or so prior to release date, but digital files? Like cinemas having digital copies of movies on secure hard-drives, digital is all smoke and mirrors to me, and pretty much irrelevant as I’m old-school physical.

So anyway, many Vangelis fans eagerly went to the online store and bought a copy that weekend. I didn’t hear of this till a day or two later, when it was announced as a leak -which I suppose it was, even though it wasn’t a case of someone simply illegally uploading an album onto YouTube or a file-sharing site for the sea-faring mob wearing eye-patches. Fans were buying the album like any other retail purchase, and I assume at least some of the money went to the label/Vangelis, but the label and Vangelis’ team weren’t too impressed and immediately ordered the site to remove the album from sale, questioning its authenticity and stating its proper release date of September 25th (elsewhere it seemed to become established that the CD was getting released on November 6th). The online store dutifully removed it from sale.

Fans able to have purchased the album and listened to it described it as very good and a welcome addition to the maestro’s discography, with flavours of Rosetta and Mythodea, while some professed amused bemusement that it might not actually be Vangelis’ album, but some sort of sophisticated Replicant instead (see what I did there?). The album was quickly becoming as fabled and notorious as his original limited edition release of El Greco.  Confusion reigned triumphant. As a longtime fan of Vangelis (since the late 1970s and the glory of his Nemo days) I was naturally annoyed to have missed out on the opportunity to buy the album – I’d be buying the CD edition, naturally, but getting the chance to hear it a few months early for a few quid would prove impossible to resist. Its a few more coppers in the bank for Vangelis and his label and maybe would improve its sales record- I’m pretty sure, after all, that these early digital releases are at least partly about getting fans to double-dip, and take advantage of their fandom/eagerness. Its done with movies these days and I’m always  amused at the daftness of folks buying digital downloads to see a film a few weeks before their Blu-ray copy arrives, people want everything NOW these days, unable to wait. But films are one thing, Vangelis quite another- I’m sure I would not be alone in buying a CD copy after the download, and I’m also pretty sure others would go one step further and buy the vinyl album edition if/when it comes. Oh well, it immediately seemed purely hypothetical.

And then a few days later the online store put the album up for sale again. Maybe it was getting released after all. Confusion reigned triumphant once more. Fans online in newsgroups etc were perplexed, what was going on? Still didn’t appear on Amazon or other sites yet (indeed as I type this, it still hasn’t, oddly enough). But I couldn’t resist. I’ll be honest, as daft as it might seem to many, had it been a file posted on the ‘net to download for free, I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole, but what seemed to be a legitimate retail transaction? Less than a tenner to listen to a new Vangelis album while sitting at my desk here in my spare bedroom/man-cave being miserable ‘at work’? The next morning I noticed that the album had been removed from sale again. Locked away for a few more weeks, I expect.

You know, I quite wish for the old days, the simpler times, and that Vangelis and the label had simply released it on CD at the same time as digital, whether it be September or November. I have no idea how often this kind of thing happens but it does seem a bit farcical, more akin to how our current Government here chooses to run our country. Juno to Jupiter is a wonderful album and vintage Vangelis (I suspect it isn’t a sophisticated Replicant, but if it is, its hoodwinked me, and I’ve been listening to the maestro’s music for decades. It really doesn’t deserve to have been subject to this strange journey. I would be absolutely fascinated to learn what went wrong, how and why, regards its preemptive/aborted release, maybe that info will come out. Seems all rather bonkers. Something to do with living in an increasingly digital world, with so many of us still pining for the analogue world of our past. I think back to the pre-internet, and being so pleasantly surprised and elated at an advert for Vangelis’ album Direct, out just a week later as if out of nowhere…

Out of respect to Vangelis, I won’t be posting a review of the album until its release date, and I shall of course be pre-ordering the CD as soon it is becomes available to do so, so it can join all my other Vangelis albums in my collection. I will just point out that in these days of lockdown and working from home and all this other Covid 19 madness, this music has been a very helpful tonic. Its a great, great album with some genuine surprises, and is a big improvement on Rosetta (an album I liked but never really loved).  As usual for Vangelis, the magic is in how lushly romantic the music is, and how his electronic textures evoke the ancient past as well as the distant future. I don’t know how he does it, but it never gets old. Deeply emotive and following a narrative that mirrors the odyssey of discovery that Juno represents, the music is at turns symphonic, funky in a jazzy sort of way (no doubt that/s Vangelis improvising all the time), uplifting, scary… its Vangelis at his very best, albeit lacking that particular Nemo sound that I am so attached to (Vangelis must be so weary of old fans like me). As well as Mythodea and Rosetta, I’d also note a surprising similarity to some of Oceanic. Definitely an album anyone interested in Vangelis’ music should be looking out for when it is finally, properly released in September (or November, depending on format).

What a strange, crazy Covid world we live in these days. But I have to say, Juno to Jupiter has just been making it easier. Bravo, Vangelis, as always.

A CS-80 Masterclass

Forgive me another YouTube link, but this one’s pretty special. This is a one-hour demonstration of the legendary Yamaha CS-80, most famous for its use by Vangelis in so much of his music, particularly during the Nemo days and albums like Spiral, China and the soundtracks Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, portions of the latter being played  midway through the video leaving me amazed. Imagine sitting down with Vangelis at his Nemo Studio in London, as Ridley Scott must have done, and seeing/hearing him play that iconic Blade Runner score…I remember reading stories of Vangelis’ assistant redressing Nemo to establish mood and atmosphere for when the maestro was creating a particular piece of music or an album. Must have been spine-tingling, for instance, when he was performing the first movement from Soil Festivities, say, or Rhapsody from his collaboration with Irene Papas, Rhapsodies. What I would give to be there and to have witnessed it. All in a days work for the Greek maestro, I imagine, but something quite inspiring and astonishing to me.

You couple Vangelis’ mastery of the CS-80 with his vast collection of percussion instruments that filled Nemo and… well, magic is not the word, the recordings speak for themselves and his music back then formed the soundtrack for most of my life since. Timeless, gorgeous sound, and so much of it from this remarkable… do you call it a machine, or instrument?

Vangelis made the CS-80 his own, and funnily enough, it is commented upon by the presenter of this video that one of the only negatives regards the machine is that its so hard to play it without someone remarking “that sounds like Vangelis”. Frankly I think that is possibly the highest praise one could receive but I imagine some musicians would be infuriated by it.

If nothing else, the CS-80 goes to show that progress isn’t always, well, progress, and that in many ways this instrument remains unequalled. Mighty indeed. This is a fantastic video, absolutely fascinating stuff.

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.

On Nocturne’s Eve…

All being well (Amazon permitting, anyway) when I come home from work tomorrow night I may have Vangelis’ new album Nocturne waiting for me.

A new Vangelis album is a rarity, as I have mentioned before. I can vividly recall first listening to ‘new’ albums (as opposed to buying his back catalogue) of Soil Festivities, Mask, Direct, Voices, Oceanic, El Greco and so many others. Funnily enough this morning I was driving on my commute listening to his China album, a personal favourite, and the track Himalaya, revelling in that old Nemo Studios sound. Sweetest sound I ever heard. Its a sound Vangelis moved away from decades ago, but that just makes it all the sweeter.

Nocturne of course will be devoid any of that Nemo Studios sound, and any electronic soundscapes will be mostly absent barring some tonal textures, as it is a piano album at heart. I have heard the two tracks that have been released prior to tomorrow’s album being launched and they indicate the general feel of the album, I guess. It sounds fine, still a Vangelis album, I am certain, but one that may have a unique ‘sound’ amongst his discography, which is certainly a bonus. It may sound like heresy to most fans, but I’ve been growing weary over the past decade or two of Vangelis’ ‘sound’- ever since the Direct album he has used what has been termed the ‘Direct’ device, a system of creating/recording music ‘on the fly’ allowing Vangelis’ music to be spontaneous but it does suffer from the music sounding very much… well, not the same, but… the samples he uses, the pads and infections etc leave it sounding like the same electronic orchestra. I think the old Nemo sound was more varied, helped at least by it requiring live percussion and some real analogue instrumentation. It sounded more organic, I think, despite being mostly electronic. There is something a little too digital, too artificial about some of Vangelis’ later work. Perhaps being piano-based, Nocturne will sound different, and more authentic. I’m looking forward to it- all being well I shall be able to post a review of first impressions over the weekend.

Missing (1982)

missing2Such a odd experience, sometimes, revisiting ‘old’ films that you haven’t seen in many years. The films are the same but we aren’t- we are older, wiser, have more personal experiences that impact on our viewing experience. At least, that’s the way I see it- how else to explain this rather revelatory experience of re-watching this film after so many years? Admittedly, my previous experience of this film was a television broadcast with commercial breaks , which wasn’t ideal. Now, on Blu-ray, it was a whole different thing- yes, it was clearly a very good film before but now… now it is a rather profound, terrifying and almost brutally heartbreaking work.

I can only assume that now I am older and more wise of the world that its message is all the more powerful and effecting, I was surprised by just how terrifying it is; the sense of being isolated and powerless in the face of a brutal state and clear crimes against humanity going unpunished. Perhaps when I was younger and watching it before, I had felt that this was something of the past and events such as depicted in the film could not happen anymore, but the last few decades have taught me otherwise. Sadly, Missing is as relevant as it ever was.

Missing is based on a true story, of the disappearance, in September 1973, of American journalist Charles Horman (John Shea). Living in Chile with his wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) the couple and their freinds get caught up in a nightmarish military coup that, unknown to them, is secretly sponsored by the US Government, and Charles disappears. His father, Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) a conservative New York businessman arrives in Chile a few days later to try to help Beth discover what has happened to Charles and where he might be. In the face of a increasing runaround by staff of the American Consulate, Ed begins to lose faith in his government and the integrity and protection he assumes is due an American citizen.  Although the film is decades old now and the true events fairly well known (albeit increasingly forgotten today) I won’t go into any further details regards the twists and turns of their efforts, as the film deserves to be seen ‘clean’.

missing3.pngJack Lemmon, of course, is s good as I remembered- when he finally receives the confirmation of his worst fears, I swear you can visibly see his heart breaking. Its a typical understated performance and I so miss him in movies today; he had a gift for portraying an ‘everyman’ that seems rather lacking in films now. Rarely do actors do ‘subtle’ like Lemmon managed, even if its just in the way he moves and walks or glances at people talking to him. Sissy Spacek, meanwhile, is actually a revelation-an actress I really haven’t seen much over the years (must be something to do with the films I choose to watch), I was really impressed  by her performance here; its really quite endearing and I think I’ll have to look up some more of her work.  She certainly manages to hold her own against Lemmon and she complements him very well.

The soundtrack by Vangelis is measured and understated – a product of the Greek composers’ prime it is a lovely reminder of his craft during his superior Nemo Studios era. Typically of him, its an unreleased soundtrack, barring a main theme that turns up on collections (a track which is actually, I believe, a re-recording by Vangelis himself).  The popular main theme familiar from those collections is a tender and heartfelt piece that kicks you in the stomach by the films end but is a minor part of the actual score. I suppose you have to be a decades-long fan like I am to appreciate that old Nemo Studios sound that he used to have, but its certainly a nostalgic element that improves the film no end. Its a wonderful score that is the soul and tender heart of the film.

This recent Blu-ray release of the film from Indicator is as top-notch as we have come to expect from them.  While the film’s master used isn’t a new one, its soft-focus, almost gauze-like picture (think Superman: The Movie, Days of Heaven and other films like that) probably wouldn’t benefit hugely from a new 2K or 4K remaster (and who’s going to do that for a film like Missing?) but it looks very good, has a gentle grain and solid colour. The mono soundtrack is fine; the dialogue is clear and the sudden crack of gunfire in the Chilean streets can still make you jump.

The extras, of course, are the real reward for investing in this disc release and they are very good; two pseudo-commentary tracks which are actually archive interviews (one with director Costa-Gavras in 1984, the other with Lemmon from 1986) which run under the film. Some accompanying featurettes include an appreciation piece by actor/director Keith Gordon which runs longer than you might expect, some interviews with the director etc. and a very special doc has an interview with the ‘real’ Beth, Joyce Horman. A charming and erudite woman,  with still photographs of the real Charles Horman and his father, she explains the truth behind the film and shares memories of the making of the film and its impact over the years- including litigation against it. This last doc lasts nearly half-hour and as you might imagine is utterly riveting, worth buying the disc alone for.

If you have never seen Missing, then this release is the perfect excuse to correct that folly, and if you have, well, I’m sure you likely own this disc already. In all honesty, Missing is actually a much better film than I remembered, and I shall no doubt be returning to it often.

1982: a hell of a good year for movies.

Vangelis & Blade Runner

Its probably old news to most of you, but I rewatched this all-too short video again yesterday and thought it worthwhile linking here just incase anyone missed it. This is exactly the sort of featurette that should have been down for the 4K release of Blade Runner, or at least put on the BR2049 discs to replace some of the EPK nonsense we were lumbered with instead.

Actually, no doubt a ‘proper’ BR2049 disc release will be forthcoming someday. I think it proved quite successful on home video (more so than at the cinema, I hope) and should it gain the following it deserves, a better release with a genuine documentary would be quite deserved. If physical formats endure log enough to see it, anyway.

In the meantime, a reminder of just what Vangelis achieved with the soundtrack for the original film.

And whilst on the subject of Blade Runner music, while it might not be of worth to purists, this was kind of interesting too-