In 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 The album was quickly withdrawn from sale over that odd, confusing weekend when so many Vangelis fans were wondering what in the world was going on, but it left Vangelis followers in a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.
One 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.