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Vangelis:
Spiral

As became obvious in many of the former editions of Counting Out Time, the synthesizer and other electric keyboards have become very important for progressive rock, although some bands (e.g. King Crimson) also have made records without the use of these instruments. Nevertheless, since synths developed, the boundaries of electronic music were explored by people like Jean Michelle Jarre and Vangelis. The music of the latter is the subject of this part of our Prog History.

Vangelis was born in Volos, in Greece on the 29th of March 1943 as Evangelos Papathanassiou. The musical talents of Vangelis first became obvious at the age of four. His parents tried to encourage him to study with a professional teacher, but he did not respond well to formal education as he was generally unwilling to follow instructions.

Vangelis explains, "I have always felt that you should not borrow knowledge from others, because personal experience and development are of utmost significance."

The History

After leaving school he and some friends formed a group called Formynx. In the early 60s this band packed Greek stadiums with thousands of music hungry fans. Vangelis was virually the first artist that brought pop music to his home country. Formynx was soon Greece's most popular musical group.

During the Greek upheaval in 1968 Vangelis moved to Paris. Together with Demis Roussos and Loukas Sideras he formed a band called Aphrodite's Child. This group scored an immediate world wide hit with their first release, Rain and Tears. Aphrodite's Child went on to release several further European number-one singles over the course of three years. The band split up after their controversial 4th (double) album 666. Although Demis Roussos took a completely different musical direction than Vangelis, he made a good career for himself. Still, much of the early Aphrodite's Child compositions feature on Roussos' "Best Of"-albums. Not many realise though, that the E.Pappathanassiou mentioned in the credits, is no-one less than Vangelis.

Vangelis remained in Paris for a while, recording a couple of film soundtracks for the French director Frederic Rossif (among these L'Apocalypse Des Animaux and La Fete Sauvage) and giving an amazing performance at the "Olympia" to promote his first solo album, Earth, on the Philips label.

In 1974 he moved to London in the midst of a storm of rumors that he would be joining the group Yes as Rick Wakemen's replacement on keyboards. After rehearsing with Yes for several weeks Vangelis left, explaining that his musical theory and directions and the group's were too far apart. It was during his stint with Yes that he and Jon Anderson became friends and collaborators. They released their first album as "Jon & Vangelis" in 1980 after which many would follow. With Jon Anderson he had some of his biggest single-sucesses with 'I Find My Way Home', 'I Hear You Now' and 'The State of Independence', which also was a big hit for Donna Summer in the '80s.

Vangelis soon signed a recording contract with RCA, and assembled his own 24 track studio known as Nemo Studios. Nemo Studios is near London's Marble Arch, and is referred to by Vangelis as his laboratory. The first album cut here was Heaven and Hell. This first album on the RCA label, a collection of extraordinary and forceful music, catapulted him to the forefront of popular music in Europe and the United States. To this date, all albums that followed Heaven and Hell were equally internationally acclaimed and enormous sellers. Vangelis achieved an array of awards, among them an Oscar in 1982 for the soundtrack of the film Chariots of Fire.

Proud as he is of Chariots of Fire, Vangelis does not see it as his highest point in his career. Music to him is "not a flood, a contest to pile one wave higher that the next against some measure of public acceptance". In Vangelis's eyes, "it is more of a river, a steady stream of inspiration, twisting here, falling there-perhaps to accommodate dramatic action in a film, for example-but always flowing outward, from the heart". If the Oscar seems to represent a standard for him to beat in his future work, Vangelis may well at times wonder whether he would have been better off without it.

This final judgment really represents Vangelis position towards music and the music-industry, as will become clear in this portrait.

The Instruments

By the time of his move to London in the mid-'70s, Vangelis was already well on his way toward his goal of building a self-contained music studio, or "laboratory," as he calls it. Inside, up some stairs, it unfolds into two enormous rooms. The ceilings tower overhead, dark and indistinct, but a wonderland of keyboards and equipment spreads out brightly below. A simple walk-around tour offers a taste of the Vangelis arsenal: a Minimoog, Yamaha CS-40M synthesizer, Roland CSQ-600 digital sequencer, Yamaha CP-80 electric grand, Roland Compuphonic synthesizer, modified vintage Fender Rhodes electric piano, Roland VP-330 electric piano, Roland CR-5000 Compu-rhythm, Yamaha CS-80 synthesizer, E-mu Emulator, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 and Prophet-10, Simmons SDSV drum machine, Linn LM-1 drum computer, Roland JP-4, nine-foot Steinway grand piano, Yamaha GS-2, 24-track Quad-8 Pacifica mixing console, and an RSF one-octave Blackbox synthesizer.

Although he apparently owns many keyboards, he isn't really interested in the latest technology. As he says: "One half of the market is now completely oriented towards domestic users, with the Lowrey and Hammond organs and little Casio keyboards, while the other side embraces the Fairlights and Emulators of this world. Those instruments are very sophisticated and - I think - unnecessarily expensive. You could say there's also a kind of middle-ground made up of the programmable polysynths from the likes of Roland and Korg, which I think is going through a bit of a crisis at the moment. Well, perhaps crisis is too strong a word, but those polysynths haven't offered anything really new for quite a while.

The DX7, for example, is a nice, commercial little toy, at a reasonable price. But it's a little bit noisy, and I think the main reason so many people have bought it is that it has such a clever library of sounds. I don't want to criticize it too much it's good for studio work and nice to have around. I've used one myself quite a bit, but to me it's the equivalent of what the Korg 700 was ten years ago. A popular instrument, it is to the synth world what the Renault 5 is to cars. The Renault 5 was a hit because it was very versatile and you could park it anywhere . . . What I really don't like about it is that, for Yamaha, it's a step back from the CS80."
It seems that there is no instrument Vangelis admires more than Yamaha's late seventies synthesizer. He doesn't seem to be interested in the latest technology of midi and sampling, since he is not interested in producing to most "real" sounds: "I don't try to imitate. What is a horn or trombone? It is an instrument or a machine that is made to produce a certain sound wave with certain harmonics in a certain range. Now, this sound can be produced by blowing into one instrument, scratching another, or by electronics. You're talking in each case about similar areas of sound. These are all sounds that are in nature anyway. We don't invent any new sounds. The trombone sound exists in nature and to capture that sound from nature in the past, the only thing we could do was to produce a trombone. Now, to change or extend that sound, we build synthesizers. But even though the instruments are different, we are still taling about the same areas of sound, the same family. You can distor them or do whatever you like, but you're talking about the same given law, the first law of our acoustic system."

"Well, many times I've heard people who were looking at a painting of something like a flower say, "Oh, it's so beautiful. It's almost like real." And when they see the flower itself, they say, "It's so beautiful that it's almost not real anymore." Both things are absurd. In both cases it's a very intellectual way of accepting something. In music, it's not because it's a synthesizer or not a synthesizer. I like it or I don't like it, that's all."

It was exactly the same with the first synthesizer Vangelis bought: "It was a very cheap, quite small Korg. Quite nice, quite humble, a primitive, simple instrument. I've done a lot of things with it. But the first time I heard synthesizers, I was very disappointed. I never liked this OUEEE-OUEEE sound. It's a very cheap, small, uninteresting sound. So when I saw pictures of this great big Moog or whatever it was, I said, "My God, this is what all that's about?" The reason it sounded so bad, actually, was because of the way that people played it."

The Album

The music of Vangelis is too diverse to be described as either pop, rock, classical, jazz, or new age. Explaining his music, Vangelis says, "All I try to do is let people know what I think through my music. I just bring the music to you and it is up to you to do what you want with it." This is apparently also the case with Spiral. Although "Heaven and Hell" was Vangelis' breakthrough, some of his most famous melodies are featured on this album, which also has one of the most famous covers ever released. It shows a (microphone)-plug, but if you don't look at it too close, it could be anything.

The opener of the album, Spiral, starts off with a simple evolving sound, which we might call a "loop" these days, but I think Vangelis described it very accurate by calling it "spiral".
After a while, orchestral sounds and tubular bells come in, which give the track an olmost Olfield-like atmosphere. While the 'spiral' continues, a faster rhythm evolves. One of his most famous themes, often used for movies about saling-races and mountaining (you know what I mean), develops. It is played with a sort of trumpet-like sound, which may sound unnatural if you think it's a trumpet, but you have to keep in mind that it's just a synth.

As stated above, Vangelis has never attempted to create a 'natural' sound, by means of samples, because he didn't consider a synth 'unnatural': "People say that the synthesizer is a machine, not a natural sound. Everything is natural. The first instrument built -- a flute or maybe a tom-tom, was a machine to create sound. Acoustic conventional instruments are fantastic but are restricted and always give the same sort of sound." The keys at the end almost sound like a mouth-organ, which is - again - more a result of my imagination than of Vangelis intention to copy a real mouth-organ.

After a very atmospheric intro, Ballad evolves along a slow rhythm that is accompanied by sounds that could be a human voice through a vocoder, but it's unrecognisable. At least the lyrics are inaudible. It's probaly just music, which doesn't need word, according to Vangelis. "A picture is poetry without words. A poem is a picture without image. Music is both", he once said. To me, this song isn't the most inspiraing one of the album. The heavier sounds/chords that come in during this 'Ballad', don't help this. Maybe this is because the composition consists more of sounds than of melody. Towards the end it becomes clear that it indeed was human voice that could be hear at the beginning. There's a small 'a-cappella' part here, that finishes the song.

Dervish D is 'inspired by the Dervish dancer, who, by whirling realises the spiraling of the universe', as the cover states. Maybe that's why clouds are featured on the cover as well. This track brings very recognisable Vangelis trademarks again. Like Spiral, but a bit faster, this song has a 'loop', with a melody-line played on top of it. The melody stays the same for a while, but only changes in highth. Very effective! After this theme, that could even be called a 'chorus', a 'solo' follows, after which the 'chorus' returns, and so on. As Vangelis describe son the cover of the album: "Going on means going far, and going far means returning". This counts for most of his music, and for this composition as well (and doesn't this count for progressive music in general, from a different point of view?)

A slow bass-beat starts To The Unknown Man. Soon a very recognisable theme developes. This song fits in the row of Spiral and Dervish D.. When the snare drums come in, you understand what the title is about. It sounds very military, as a 'unknown' soldiers' funeral. One of the best tracks on the album to me.

I don't exactly know what 3+3 means, but it could have something to do with the rhythm of the song, which is a waltz or 3/4 as it is called. The song also consists of to parts, or two melodies - to be exact - because the first one returns at the end. Maybe that's why it's called 3+3. The first melody is played in the Vangelis style of the aforementioned three songs: a melody is simply repeated and played higher and higher. The second melody presents a combination of orchestral sounds with a mouth-organ-like solo in the middle again. It's almost 'blues' on synth.

The Conclusion

Probably this review of Spiral has turned into a story about a man, his past and his instrument, more than a story about the album itself. You can even question if Spiral was his best album, or if it was most important as a milestone in his career. I leave the answer to you. Doing my research for this review I was getting interested in the man's philosophy on music more and more. Vangelis would have rejected the question: 'is Spiral the definite Vangelis-album?'. For obvious reasons. About albums he once said: "I never record to make an album. I record because I record, and from what I have, I decide to release an album. Even if I stop releasing albums, I'm going to continue to compose. The album is a music industry term. For me there is not such a thing as an album; there are just pieces of music." And considering the question about Spiral being a succesfull album, he would say: "Trying to create a successful album is a failure. Trying to be true to yourself is a success."

Written by Jan-Jaap de Haan

Additional information taken from:
• the Greatest Hits album (1981)
• Keyboard magazine (1982)


 

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