The Dune Sketchbook (Hans Zimmer)

dune sketchbookGiving us our first real glimpse of what will be the musical soundscape of Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune film, WaterTower music have today released the first of what will ultimately be three Dune albums from Hans Zimmer. This first one, The Dune Sketchbook, is a pretty substantial one, one hour and forty-two minutes of what I presume are sonically finished (they certainly are not demos), works-in-progress musings and expansions of themes and motifs that we’ll hear on the official soundtrack (released September 17th, apparently).

I’m not really one for buying soundtracks ahead of a films release; I remember hearing the The Empire Strikes Back album before it came out over here in the UK (I seem to recall it came out before the film did Stateside, too), and have found I much prefer seeing a film ‘fresh’ and experiencing the music at the same time as the rest of the film.

But the idea of The Dune Sketchbook seemed an intriguing one, and presumably much of what I’ve heard here will be different in the film and much of the actual score re: themes, motifs etc will be missing from this. Its also quite possible that these versions will be more rewarding than the official soundtrack counterpart, as these pieces are not constrained by the whims of film editing etc. and have been given plenty of room to ‘breathe’.

LOTS of room: some of these tracks are very long. The album has nine tracks but they are really each more lengthy musical essays or suites than simply ‘tracks’: the two best pieces, I See You In My Dreams and House Atreides are substantial: the first is eighteen minutes long and the other just shy of fourteen. I remember entire soundtrack releases totalling less music than that of just those two tracks. There’s some very good stuff in the other tracks (Pauls Dream and Moon Over Caladan spring to mind) while in others Zimmer slips into less easy-listening, experimental sound design, but its all quite fascinating stuff, even when it descends into the very weird. There’s an atmosphere to it all that is very promising: its not scoring in the traditional John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith sense that is sadly missing today, but it does have a clear identity and sense of self which is quite refreshing. That said, I’m sure people more familiar with Zimmer and his colleagues doing the ghost-writing will have fun picking out bits similar to earlier scores like Gladiator or Dunkirk etc.

That being said, I did sense a distinct Vangelis vibe to some of it, particularly the two standout tracks I mentioned earlier. I suspect Zimmer still had some of his old keyboards handy that he’d pulled out of storage for the Blade Runner 2049 score, because there is a Vangelis feel to some of those electronics weaving through the voices. Also reminded me of the Tron Legacy score (which itself nodded somewhat to Vangelis with its ‘old-fashioned’ analogue synth pads etc). Indeed, the voices that are a big part of the score’s soundscapes (at least the experimental workouts here) remind me of Vangelis’ work with Irene Papas: latter parts of the track I See You In My Dreams which feature a woman’s voice in an unknown (native Fremen?) dialect weaving through electronic drone reminded me of the Vangelis/Papas track Song of Songs from their Rapsodies album (which is a brilliant albeit obscure album) and also Vangelis’ See You Later album, in how Vangelis featured spoken and sung vocals in that album’s partly dystopian music. 

The House Atreides track breaks out into a bold anthemic piece that will inevitably remind some of Braveheart’s James Horner score (or indeed Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music) but to me pointed almost directly to Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire score, particularly the triumphant swells of Eric’s Theme (possibly even more so in Vangelis’ re-recording album for the London play from a few years back). I’d never imagined music like this for the Atreides but it does make perfect sense; its noble, heroic, clearly signifying the hope and tragedy of what befalls them: an emotional quality totally missing from, say, the David Lynch film.

I’m not suggesting Zimmer is being a plagiarist here, its just that I’m hearing plenty that I like, especially as I’m such a huge Vangelis nut. This album is certainly worth a punt for those curious, and while I’ll be leaving the official soundtrack proper until I’ve seen the film, I’m sure I’ll be listening to this a lot in the meantime up to the film’s release. On the strength of this album I think its very easy to get just all the more excited regards what Zimmer has been doing for this film: it could be great. 

Really, at this point, is there anything negative one can say about Villeneuve’s film other than its a Part One currently without a Part Two? You can almost touch the hope and positivity about the film, its difficult not to get swept up by it. If this film turns out to be as great as it might be and still flops at the box office… ugh, I can’t bear to imagine.

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 2021 List: January

I’m back. Well, I’ve not really been away, just side-lined by work and life. I’m sure anyone reading this appreciates just how strange life is getting, and how we’re getting worn down. Its really quite relentless, and most nights now I’m so tired in the evenings I don’t have energy to concentrate enough to even watch a film, let alone write about it. Maybe I just need a holiday (ha, ha) – ain’t that the truth/sick joke (delete as appropriate). Its been  more than two years since my last holiday anywhere, and my booked holiday in May (which was deferred from May last year, for reasons obvious to everyone) is looking as unlikely as Vangelis releasing an anthology of his unreleased soundtracks headlined by a complete Blade Runner. Or him ever releasing that Juno to Jupiter album.

So what have I been watching? Not included on the list waiting for your perusal below as its not finished until next Wednesday, is Season Five of The Expanse, which has been quite brilliant. As someone who championed this series way back when I had to import the Blu-rays to watch it, its great to see the show having some critical success before it ends next year. Amazon saving The Expanse from its third-season cancellation is the rescue Farscape deserved but never got. Anyway, more on that next week/month/when I get to write about it.

toastJanuary is a hell of a bleak month, and Lockdown is just making it all the bleaker. I’ve been retreating to sitcoms, mostly Toast of London, a show from a few years back that I vaguely recall noticing but never watching. Finally watching it thanks to the Netflix algorithm bringing it back to my attention,  its quite funny and quirky and I enjoyed it enough to binge all three seasons of it, but not enough to write a post about it. There’s that energy-sapping thing again. I don’t know. There was a feeling of biding time watching it; I knew I should be watching something more worthwhile but it was low-effort, making little demand of me. I’ve just moved on to another feast courtesy of the Netflix algorithm, an American sitcom titled Superstore, currently watching season one. There’s five seasons of this show and I never knew it even existed until I started watching it last week. I think this is what’s called Sitcom Hell. I need to find some escape.

Television

Most ill-conceived reboot of the month:

2. Black Narcissus (BBC Miniseries)

Sitcom ‘comfort food of the month’ (lockdown special):

6) Toast of London Season One

7) Toast of London Season Two

11) Toast of London Season Three

Sexed-up Downton Abbey of the month:

15) Bridgerton Season One

Female Space Messiah Award:

9) Star Trek: Discovery Season Three 

Films:

The Good, and the even Better:

3) Proxima (2019)

4. Hidden Figures (2016)

5) The Garment Jungle

8) The Lineup (1958)

16) The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Distinctly Average:

10) The Gentlemen (2019)

12) Sputnik (2020)

14) The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (1961)

The Utterly Woeful:

1) The Midnight Sky (2020)

13) Outside the Wire (2021)

So that’s sixteen titles, split between six seasons of TV shows and ten films. Regards re-watching stuff, apart from the fantastic Millennium Actress that I did actually post about, I did re-watch The Two Towers, the second film of the LOTR trilogy, part of the 4K UHD boxset that came out late last year and which I seem to be struggling to get to actually watch, never mind actually writing about. I watched The Fellowship of the Ring over the Christmas period, and while its proving a struggle, strangely, to get around to watching all three films (possibly its because they are the extended versions which makes it awkward to schedule, in all honesty, with everything else going on) its been very interesting, returning to what is quite possibly the last genuinely great blockbuster trilogy ever made, and seeing how well they have aged (or not).  I intend to possibly expand upon this in a future post once I’ve managed to watch The Return of the King, which, on my apparently monthly schedule will happen in February. Some people managed marathons of the LOTR in a single day, or over three consecutive days- I haven’t even managed it over three weekends.

It has occurred to me that the sheer bravura of shooting all three films back-to-back might be something we never see again, considering the state of theatrical exhibition in this Covid World. We are in a situation now in which traditional blockbusters are not economically viable and are being delayed one or even two years waiting for some kind of stability regards exhibition. Where this leaves Villenueve’s Dune and its ‘will-they-won’t-they’ second film completing its story is anyone’s guess. At some point if things don’t change, more of these films will end up relegated to streaming premieres such as those Warner have announced for HBO Max in America, and what that means for studios cutting their losses and plans for 2023, 2024 etc is really a concern.

So anyway, that’s January. Looking towards February, well, its anyone’s guess how that month will likely turn out. Indicator’s second Columbia Noir set is due out so I look forward to getting into that, having so enjoyed the first set. And I have a pile of unwatched films on the Tivo etc and waiting on Netflix and Amazon, if I can ever muster the enthusiasm to watch any of it. Or indeed the time, due to working at home proving particularly problematic of late. We’ll just have to see. Oh, and its possibly going to include my biggest non-event of a birthday in all my 55 revolutions of the sun. That should be curious, although as a bonus it sees me jump up a group on the Vaccination schedule. Life. Is. So. Strange. Now.

COVID-Vac-priority-tiers

Vangelis’ incomplete Juno to Jupiter

Incomplete? Well there’s a twist for those of us who bought the download back in August. The saga of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter continues, with various updates suggesting release dates in October or even December- and a tracklist with an additional track at the close of the album, entitled Cosmos Autopator, which is either a vinyl-exclusive bonus track (God I hope not) or an addition to the album which was erroneously sold in August and which perhaps caused the delay in the first place (can you imagine Vangelis’ team screaming at Decca “You’re missing a final track!”). The cynic in me might suggest that Vangelis or his team decided to revise the track listing to ensure those who bought the album in August will need to buy it again when it eventually comes, but hey, we would anyway, right? Fans want their physical copy on CD or vinyl. Actually I think an additional track would prove a welcome bonus. Oh well, the strange journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter continues to confound, and I keep on holding fire on my review.

Last week…

Still working from home, close on six months now. As we slip towards Autumn, it looks like there’s little rush getting the team back into the office, at best it may be for just two days each week, and that’s still some time off.  Its not lost on me that after all the fair weather we’ve had, the time I’m going to finally be expected to commute back to work will be when the frosts return/bad weather/possibly snow etc.

Meanwhile Covid 19 numbers are climbing, particularly here in the Midlands, and our Governments latest desperate roll of the dice, the ‘rule of six’ (limiting the number of people at any social gathering to just six people) begins tomorrow. A rule that can’t possibly be policed,  simply dependant on the public happily following the rule… I mean, its not as if its Mega City One and some Judge will be kicking the door down if there’s more than six perps chatting in the lounge or back garden. Mores the pity with some of the idiots out there. Regards Covid, so many people seem to be in denial, or just bored of it, and think everything is back to normal. Hence the numbers rising? All I can see is lots of idiots out there, most of them proving the (ironically old) adage of too young to know better. The next few weeks seem to be crucial. The days are shortening. Winter is Coming. Hang on, that didn’t end well, just ask HBO.

Anyway, last week. You may have noted that I had a busy/productive week regards watching films: i’m thinking of ending things, Under Suspicion, Bumblebee, City That Never Sleeps, The Man Who Finally Died. I didn’t get around to reviewing Under Suspicion– a thriller starring Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Monica Bellucci, Thomas Jane… a great cast, but wasted in a pretty lousy film that almost had me hitting that abort button. Only the great Gene Hackman kept me stuck with it: one of my favourite actors.

ohmssRegards re-watches, I managed two. The first was one that…well, we lost Dame Diana Rigg on Thursday, which was an awful shame, and I’ve been meaning to watch On Her Majesty’s Secret Service again for awhile now. Its an awful reason for doing it, but Dame Diana Rigg’s passing was the push that I needed; I reached for that Bond 50 Blu-ray set. OHMSS is my favourite Bond movie; its the film when the Bond franchise grew up and yes, graced with the best Bond Girl of all, the one that got Bond to the altar. But what a downer at the end. This time I watched it, it just seemed so remarkable, such brass balls of the producers to close out a film -and a Bond film at that- on such a huge emotional downer. And in a film with a new Bond, too. Talk about loading the dice for a serious gamble, like a real-life Casino Royale moment. Dropping George Lazenby and breaking the continuity (OHMSS really needed such a proper sequel with Bond out for revenge) was a terrible error, I think, and it would take Bond decades to grow those brass balls again.

vertigo1The second re-watch was the 4K UHD disc of Vertigo, that graces the four-film Hitchcock 4K set that was released last week. The film looks utterly gorgeous in 4K, really something special. We’ve seen some great 4K releases for classic films this year and this is one of the best, I think. Mind, is it just me, but as I get older, does Vertigo on subsequent viewings just get more disturbing, and James Stewart’s obsessive Scottie more repellent?  As a deeply flawed character who proves difficult to root for, he reminds me of Robert De Niro’s character in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America. The difficulty in revisiting films with such doomed, self-destructive characters is that you have to re-experience it all over again, with the knowledge of hindsight that the character itself obviously lacks. There seems something deeply personal, of both Leone and Hitchcock, in these two films, and I’m sure that’s part of each films endless fascination. Glimpses of flawed humanity’s darkness. Vertigo is such a powerful film, exquisitely filmed and scored (by the great Bernard Herrmann), and really so daring, its one of my favourite films and it feels a blessing to be able watch it again in this kind of quality. I’m building quite a collection of (hopefully definitive and final) editions of some of my favourite films in 4K, with some great additions this year.

dunetrailrLast week also brought us the first trailer for Villeneuve’s long-anticipated  Dune. Mind, it seems we will have to wait longer for the film itself, as word has it that the film will be delayed to next year now, with Wonder Woman 1984 being moved to the Christmas Day slot (Tenet‘s box-office woes causing much consternation for a troubled film industry struggling to manage the Covid crisis). Of course the Dune trailer looks great and pretty much everything we might have hoped for. I was a bit surprised that it looked, visually at least, like a Blade Runner 2049 sequel set Off World, it seems to share so much of the monochromatic, brutalist ‘look’ of his previous sci-fi epic. I’d hoped for something a bit wilder, more ‘out there’ and unusual, but we’ll see. There’s so much, after all, that we didn’t see.

Speaking of delays, news broke last week that Vangelis’ latest album, Juno to Jupiter, accidentally released on digital by a UK store over a weekend a few weeks back before being hurriedly pulled, has been officially delayed (again?). This is so frustrating, its a great album, one of his best in decades, but it seems so strangely (and unfairly) blighted by mishaps. Possibly its just a Covid thing effecting marketing etc, but I sincerely hope that perhaps this delay will facilitate a simultaneous physical and digital release, rather than the latter first (which was the original plan, and which possibly led to that premature release foul-up).  Its a great piece of work, and I was gearing up to finish my track-by-track review… well, I’ll just join the pack and let my review suffer another delay. Hey, its just so Covid, man.

I just hope that the Super-Deluxe of the Prince classic album Sign o’ the Times isn’t going to get delayed. Its only two weeks away now so seems to be all on track. Certainly review copies are out and some reviews have been released, track breakdowns on forums etc so my only worry is problems with stores getting stock out. Hope springs eternal- I’m actually on leave from work the week it gets released, and naturally I’m going nowhere, so the opportunity to just relax for a few lazy days, chill with that box of peach and black goodies is the nearest thing to Christmas I’m actually likely to see this year.

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.

Blade Runner Orchestral Suite

Here’s something I’m really in two minds about; the Danish National Symphony Orchestra performing a suite of Blade Runner music live in concert, a recording coming soon on Blu-ray and Compact Disc. Its… interesting.

Like the New American Orchestra recording that came out way back in 1982, there’s something that just sounds ‘off’ with someone other than Vangelis playing these themes, although I do like the choral elements, they certainly seem to add something.Why they feel the need for a narrator to mimic the irritation of the dialogue that annoyed so much in Vangelis’ original 1994 soundtrack release just seems weird, though. Wouldn’t be surprised if the Greek maestro insisted on it just to further annoy the fans. But hey ho, Happy November, 2019….

True Detective Season Three

true detective 3aTrue Detective Season Three continues (following a lengthy post-season two hiatus) this anthology show, here with a rather dense structure spanning three seperate timelines. Indeed, the central mystery of this season (relating to the disappearance of two children, and the murder of at least one of them) is almost incidental to that central conceit of the passage of time and its effects on the characters, and its impact on memory and self. It turns the season into a fascinating puzzle spread across some thirty-five years and benefits strongly from an excellent central performance from Mahershala Ali as detective Wayne Hays, whose life seems forever caught up by the mystery concerning the Purcell children’s disappearance. Two investigations, the first in 1980 when the children are lost, and a further re-investigation in 1990, fail to satisfy Hays and in 2015, with dementia already unraveling his sense of identity as the memories of his life slip away, he anchors himself to the case like it’s some kind of mental life-belt, to try finally to make sense of the case and maintain his sense of self.

The season takes place over eight episodes and slips between the three timelines almost as if without reason and defintely without warning, Its certainly disorientating but cleverly draws you in, making you a participant in the story as you try to make sense with the characters, particularly the increasingly bewildered Hays. Its also very well handled, how it often transitions between timelines, and very reminiscent of the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the transitions are poetically lyrical.

true detective 3bIn one episode, having tricked the driver of a mysterious car hanging around his home in 2015, Hays finds himself suddenly alone in the dark street, one solitary streetlamp above him in a world of inky black void. He sees a fire a short distance away, and walks towards it, finally coming to the backyard of his 1990 home. He sees his younger self, naked but for boxer shorts, standing at a trash bin in which he is burning some clothes. His younger self, alerted by the sound of his older 2015 self, turns around to face him but that old self is gone. Now alone, he scrutinises his burning clothes and his wife walks out into the yard, worried at what he is doing… and the scene continues in 1990. This kind of thing happens all the time, and we often don’t know if what we are seeing is what really happened or just what the 2015 Hays is recollecting, his point-of-view that of an unreliable narrator as his dementia takes hold: in one scene in 2015 he has a positive conversation with his old partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) about the old case, then goes to the toilet. When he returns a few minutes later he greets West as if he hasn’t seen him in years, totally forgetting the earlier conversation. If his mind is that hazy, just how unreliable are the old events we are seeing?

Ultimately, it almost doesn’t matter, because the case isn’t the twisted and dark shocker that fans of the first season, certainly, may have been hoping for. You can go to the well too often in attempts to shock and surprise (as demonstrated in the unravelling of Game of Thrones in its final seasons). It instead transpires that perhaps the real central concern of the season is the ties between freinds and family, and how their relationships are affected both by the case and the relentless march of Time. I’m sure it’s no mistake that the way Kubrick managed the fluid flow of time and ageing in 2001‘s strange eerie finale in the alien hotel room is replicated here so often. Its almost as if Hays is lost in Time himself, as much a witness and viewer as we are. It makes for a really interesting storyline and I really appreciated having mature characters as central protagonists and feeling the impact of the decades upon them.

true detective 3cThe sense of morbid dread and unease permeating through this season was almost tangible, intensified no end by a really disturbing soundtrack that was quite relentless and reminded me of some of Vangelis’ more experimental work back in his Nemo days (particularly, say, the bell-like clanging of metal tubes/scaffolding during the Bradbury building chase in Blade Runner, drenched in reverb). Certainly something got under my skin; during this past week of watching this season my sleep became increasingly uneven and I often found my daylight hours pondering what was happening in the most recently-watched episode and what might happen next.

In something of a minority, I was actually a fan of the shows second season, and I think across its three seasons it remains one of the better shows currently airing. Its title recalls the dime-store pulp novels lining the book carousels in stores of the 1960s and 1970s, their gaugy covers and dark, noirish stories, but doesn’t ever fall into the trap of, say, the rather more populist sensationalism of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction movie. True Detective’s protagonists are people caught in worlds they cannot control, caught up in events that overwhelm them. Its Lovecraft by way of Philip K Dick. I could watch this kind of stuff all day long and hope that the wait for a fourth season isn’t as long as it was for season three.