Back in 1981, a film about UK runners competing in the 1924 Olympics changed the cinematic landscape.
While Chariots of Fire took home the Best Picture Oscar, it also made a celebrity out of the film’s enigmatic composer, Vangelis– a Greek, bearded bear of a man whose contemporary, synthesizer-driven soundtrack sold millions and turned a theme song (“Titles”) into running’s greatest pop culture cliché.
Few in the states probably knew at the time – perhaps many still don’t – that this apparent “apex” was really only the fulcrum of Vangelis’s varied work. Previously, he was keyboardist for the Greek psychedelic-progressive trio Aphrodite’s Child (whose 666 is hailed as one of the greatest spacey albums of all time), a documentary composer, a synthesizer pioneer and a near replacement for Rick Wakeman in Yes. Other film work would follow (Blade Runner, Missing, The Bounty among them) but Vangelis needs to be known for his work outside the commissioned space, especially considering that – despite his talents – he doesn’t read or write music.
I find that once a year I “discover” a great band or artist and then am hell-bent on getting hold of all their music. This year it’s been Vangelis – a man who doesn’t say much in public, but speaks volumes through his multi-layered compositions.
For those who’d like to ride this bandwagon with me, here are ten essential tracks (in chronological order) to check out that promote all facets of his virtuosity. I know I’m neglecting specific, obvious pieces, but I imagine the last thing Vangelis would want is for me to promote his art in any kind of commercial manner.
#1: “Heaven and Hell (Part II)” – This 1975 work is terrific all the way through, complete with cameo from Jon Anderson during the first 20-minute movement (“So Long Ago, So Clear”). However, it’s the “12 O’Clock” section of Part II that is altogether haunting and beautiful – think Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain intertwined with operatic arias. Back in May, I listened to Vangelis all the way during a flight to London and expected to sleep through my seven-hour-long playlist. This track woke me up instantly and I haven’t stopped listening since.
#2: “Alpha” – Centered around five celestial notes, the track builds on a single, pleasing theme to symbolize a space shuttle reaching the heavens. Carl Sagan knew what he was doing by featuring this prominently on Cosmos.
#3: “Ballad” – Coming from Vangelis’s terrific Spiral album, this is a slower, brooding number that’s notable because it contains Vangelis’s own voice as accompaniment. Hearing him compete vocally with the notes he plays – with true fire in his belly to boot – is a major treat.
#4: “L’Enfant” – This simple piece was originally supposed to be the theme to Chariots of Fire, and was even used as the inspirational music for its actors during their iconic on-screen beach run. Vangelis, always pushing for perfection, told the film’s director he could compose a better tune in its place. The result was “Titles,” his only American Number One hit.
#5: “Far Away in Bagaad” – Jon Anderson has an uncanny ability to sing whatever’s in his mind, regardless of whether it makes sense. This playful romp is a great back and forth between Jon and Vangelis as Jon’s voice soars to Close to the Edge heights while Vangelis keeps right up with him with perky synth frolics.
#6: “Abraham’s Theme” – While “Titles” is the Chariots track everyone remembers, this track is perhaps the soundtrack’s most emotional. Played as runner Harold Abrahams loses a race to competitor Eric Liddell, this short piece is brooding, sad and altogether eerie. The subtitle should be “Weight of the World,” as we not only sense this is on Abraham’s shoulders, but our own as well.
#7: “State of Independence” – Coming from the second Jon and Vangelis album, The Friends of Mr. Cairo, this wasn’t a hit (that went to album opener “I’ll Find My Way Home”). However, this eight-minute opus has just about everything to make it interesting – repetitive synthesizer melody, piano flourishes, Jon’s voice, saxophone, you name it. The song also has the distinction of being one of Donna Summer’s more unique cover songs back in the 1980s.
#8: End Titles from Blade Runner – Vangelis is one of two electronic composers I listen to on a regular basis. The other is Jean Michel Jarre, best known for his Oxygene works encompassing 13 movements. It’s hard to know which one influenced the other over time, but all I know is that stylistically, this track is the perfect meat in between the bookend bread slices of Jarre’s works.
#9: Theme from Antarctica – Cool and uplifting, this is a somewhat jubilant track whose sentiment proves bittersweet given the impacts of global warming. I wonder if Al Gore has this on his iPod Shuffle.
#10: Soil Festivities, “Movement One” – While 18 minutes long, Vangelis accomplishes one thing here – he proves he’s the only other artist apart from Stevie Wonder who truly appreciates the secret lives of plants.
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