Monday, March 17, 2014

Greek Odyssey: From "666" to "Chariots of Fire"

The reboot of Cosmos is under way, and it's actually great. Really great. I am such a fan of the original that I had no loftily high expectations for Neil deGrasse Tyson, which works in his favor. That's not to detract from his intrinsic merits, because like Carl Sagan, DeGrasse Tyson speaks with sincere wonder at the majesty not only of the Universe, the Cosmos itself, but also of humans' astounding ability to start piecing it together, i.e., science. DeGrasse Tyson's no Carl Sagan, but neither is he trying to be.

I realize when I re-watch the original Cosmos that one reason I love it so is the plaintive and sparse music of Vangelis that enhanced Sagan's wonderment and the visuals of distant spiral galaxies and nebulae. The Universe, from outer space to the subatomic realm, is filled, so to speak, with a mysterious emptiness. The music hits that note. When most folks hear the name Vangelis, they immediately think of the iconic soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, and with good reason. Along with Cosmos and Blade Runner, it is evidence of Vangelis's ability to capture moods with his synths.

Few people, myself included, would immediately associate him with psychedelic music. But in the late 60s to early 70s, contemporaneous with early Hawkwind and Gong, Vangelis played the keys in the Greek rock outfit Aphrodite's Child. Their hits, like "End of the World," come through in a kind of slow-tempo, Scott-Walkerish, torch-song mode, with raspy-voiced lead singer and bassist Demi Roussos delivering lines in meandering melodies with a sometimes overwrought melodrama. It all works for me.

Vangelis, however, wanted to move into a more grandiose prog direction than the pop-loving Demi. In 1970 and 1971 the band recorded Vangelis's brainchild, the album 666. Based on (you guessed it!) the Book of Revelations, this ambitious album opens with a repetitive militaristic chant like something out of Laibach circa 1985: "We've got the system/to fuck the system." The album that follows is a mixture of quick-clip folk-rock ("Babylon"), catchy ethereal anthems ("The Four Horsemen"), eery soundscapes ("The Marching Beast"), strangely moving choral arrangements ("Loud, Loud, Loud"), and completely off-putting orgasmic freak-outs ("Infinity Symbol"). Apparently, this hour-and-twenty-minute-long concept piece broke the band up, and the rest is cultural history (see above and below).

Demi Roussos went on to become a caftan-draped pop idol in his native Greece and Europe. I came across him, in fact, while researching Greek folksinger Nana Mouskouri, with whom Roussos sang more than one duet.

Aphrodite's Child "End of the World"

Aphrodite's Child "The Four Horsemen"

Demi Roussos & Nana Mouskouri

Cosmos (orig.)

Updated 3/17/14.

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