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.

Vangelis Nocturne Update

Well, here’s a pleasant surprise- Nocturne, the recently teased new album from Vangelis, will be a piano album. This is a great news. I appreciate some fans may be a little disappointed or confused, as they may prefer another electronic work typical of the Greek maestro, but I think it’s really exciting. Its actually something I’ve been hoping that Vangelis would release for years. Some of the best tracks on Vangelis’ albums have been those featuring solo piano- really emotional pieces that demonstrate Vangelis’ gift for playing with genuine feeling. Tracks like Dream in an Open Place from Voices, or the Tenth Movement from El Greco, Memories of Blue from Oceanic, or Piano in an Empty Room from his Blade Runner Trilogy album. Seriously, this could be his best album in many years, and it almost feels as though Vangelis has been listening to me somehow. Time to manage my hopes/expectations, then.

nocturneInterestingly (or inevitably, as the cynic in me would suggest it’s a great marketing ploy) the tracklist includes amongst several new pieces, piano versions of old favourites- the Love Theme from Blade Runner, the track Longing that appeared on the Blade Runner trilogy album, Chariots of Fire’s Main Theme and Conquest of Paradise and a few others. It will be interesting, for example, to hear the piano version of Movement Nine from Mythodea.

Even more tantalising, advance pre-orders on European websites (jumping the gun a bit, as they aren’t supposed to be up until Dec 7th) suggest a release date of January 29th or -drum roll- February 15th, which is my birthday. Hey, a Vangelis piano album on my birthday? How cool is that? If it’s January I’ll take it but Feb 15th… oh man, I need a drink and a cold flannel to cool me down, a Vangelis album on my birthday is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal.

Vangelis’ Nocturne?

There is a weird sense, here, of history repeating- many years ago during the ’80s I remember buying Jean Michel Jarre’s Revolutions album and it being overshadowed by news of Vangelis’ album Direct being released shortly after. So here we go again, with Jarre releasing last week his Equinoxe Infinity album (I’ll likely post a review sometime soon), and news that on December 7th a new Vangelis album, Nocturne, will be available to pre-order for a release presumably early in the New Year.

For whatever its worth, I like the title. You have to be wary of getting carried away with the possibilities because with Vangelis anything, frankly, is possible, but the title Nocturne carries with it all sorts of possibilities regards mood and ambience etc. We’ll have to wait and see, but I always get excited at news of a new Vangelis album. Its rare enough these days (Jarre seems to be getting busier and busier of late, obviously taking a page out of Ridley Scott’s book of dealing with old age, while Vangelis is definitely semi-retired now) but after all these years (well, okay, decades, let’s be brutal about it, we’re all getting on) the release of a new Vangelis album always brings back memories of past releases and past discoveries, of excitedly listening to new Vangelis music- the soundtrack of over half my life now, thinking about it. The grim truth is, how many new Vangelis albums even lie ahead? Anyone of them could be the last one. I’m reminded of one of my favourite rock bands, Rush, finally calling it a day awhile ago, following the release of their Clockwork Angels album- we fans may have suspected/feared it, but we didn’t know it was their last album for certain until after the following American tour. It’ll happen with Jarre, and Vangelis, eventually- they’ll either call it a day or life’s natural expiration date (hey! another Blade Runner reference snuck in!) will decide it for them.

Apologies for the maudln mood. I’m excited really.