Sony Classical ASK 92942
Reviewed by: Rudy Koppl
When it comes to Vangelis scoring motion pictures, it’s truly a unique occasion. Unlike a composer that does this for a living year after year, Vangelis has been a keyboardist and percussionist developing his sound for forty years. Along the way he caught the ears of various directors who brought him into the film realm and in 1981 he won an Academy Award for Best Original Score to director Hugh Hudson’s film Chariots of Fire. This is what most people identify him with, but he’s worked with many great directors including Frédéric Rosiff, Roger Donaldson on The Bounty, Costa-Gravas on Missing, and Ridley Scott on Blade Runner and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Over time Vangelis has mastered the art of integrating his sound within a list of mainstream dramas as well as many documentaries, and one thing that remains constant is his style. It’s something I fell in love with many years ago before I even ventured into the film world and it’s grown with me ever since. Now years later after I began listening to the Greek master, he’s finally joined forces with director/producer/writer Oliver Stone to create the score to the Warner Brothers epic Alexander.
The great thing about this soundtrack is its strong thematic material and how it’s edited on the CD. Vangelis has done an excellent job of creating a symphonic ‘Suite’ for a listening experience. The music is seamless up until track nine, when there’s a small pause, but then it continues to the final note as if it was a single composition. As the album opens with ‘Introduction’ it surges directly into ‘Young Alexander’ and then rhythmically segues right into ‘Titans’ sounding like a single composition. The mystifying thing about this score is trying to separate the real orchestral sounds from what is generated from Vangelis’ arsenal of keyboards and percussion. Here in the beginning the synthetic and the organic flow together in such a way that they fuse and become almost inseparable. As the soundtrack develops the orchestral sounds become more distinct, but it’s definitely a musical game of cat and mouse; is it real or is it Memorex?
With ‘The Drums of Guagamela’ the rhythmic talents of the composer surface as brass and percussion take the spotlight in an ambitious percussive movement. Lisa Gerrard-like vocals encapsulate the percussion as this turns into a mixture of orchestral hits and live orchestral work. Over three minutes into ‘The Drums’ a small anthem breaks out as it ends with those strange Gerrard like vocals and some great brass.
‘One Morning at Pella’ is where Vangelis’ orchestral composing stands out. In the beginning you simply hear an oboe and a harp. It’s this type of compositional restraint that makes the mood effective as it builds into a sweeping orchestral lullaby. It’s pieces like this that are mixed so we can distinctly hear the orchestral players clearly as Vangelis pulls his wall of sound back or out completely.
‘Roxane’s Dance’ is another way of how music can feel mystical, almost magical. This and the music toward the end of the CD almost sound as if this score has been influenced by a biblical film of epic proportions. The esoteric use of flute, sitar, percussion, finger cymbals, and harp, is what makes this work, like a forbidden dance in a land far, far away. The key to this dance is its mood and that’s what puts your imagination to work.
The transition from ‘Roxane’s Dance’ into ‘Eastern Path’ is seamless. We hear a Duduk, an esoteric instrument that has been made popular by many film composers over the years. The Duduk solo is excellent, crystal clear making it more distinct than other recordings I’ve heard in the past. The combination with bass drums used as a sonic background effect and a subtle orchestral backdrop makes the mood effective.
In ‘Gardens of Delight’ Vangelis used a dreamy female soloist to give an exotic feeling. With this voice, harp, and strings, we’re treated to a mini two minute introduction. It’s like we’re in another land, a foreign and adventurous place. ‘Gardens’ eventually picks up with some steady and laid back percussion, but when the voices join in, we transcend time and place creating a parallel feeling to ‘Roxane’s Dance’.
‘Roxane’s Veil’ is definitely the highlight and my favourite piece on this soundtrack. It undoubtedly has one of the most beautiful violin solos I’ve heard in a score. The emotional content is strong as if the music is riddled with sadness with a sorrowful or weeping violin. For about the first two and a half minutes there is no orchestra or choir, just pure Vangelis. Eventually a low-keyed choir is brought in, but if the orchestra plays at all here, it’s used in the background for effect. The key to this composition is its thematic material, sweeping, breathtaking, emotional, just brilliant writing that brings out feelings.
A great example of how the composer uses percussion and the unique sounds he has to offer us in this area is highlighted by ‘Bagoas’ Dance’. Gongs, animal-like sounds, bells, and strange percussion all around, make for a strong atonal piece with very little melody in it, but a rare and unique percussive performance by Vangelis on his toys. Primitive is the thought that surfaces here and this dance segues into ‘The Charge’ perfectly.
‘The Charge’ is a fantastic one minute and forty one second prelude to ‘Preparation’. The operatic overtones are clear with a magnificent opening choir. This is a great example of how Vangelis can transcend playing his keyboards and percussion and write for orchestral brass, strings, and choir. The sheer wall of sound reaches a highpoint as the tympani launch into a rhythmic pattern reminiscent of Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’. The orchestral work is significant because some of Vangelis’ brass sounds, especially at the beginning of the CD, are in the vein of his famous solo brass sound from Chariots of Fire. This is his signature sound that’s generated from a classic polyphonic synthesizer called a Yamaha CS-80 or some type of analogue synthesizer. This type of brass sound doesn’t sound transparent or orchestrally organic because of its rich overtones and how it cuts through other sounds easily, but here Vangelis leaves this behind and it’s purely compositional for the orchestra and choir. In ‘The Charge’ the composer makes us feel the drama, he reaches inside the audience and moves them.
‘Across the Mountains’ blossoms into a traditional Vangelis Hymn. It has that catchy melody with a choir singing or even humming the piece like an anthem. The melody sticks with you, it’s catchy, thoughtful, but it’s a style that definitely separates itself from the rest of this album.
With ‘Chant’ we take a very moody but brief journey into a composing style close to the composer’s heart. This is the perfect creative spawning ground for Vangelis who loves to write chants and drones for an all-male choir. Go back to Ridley Scott’s 1492, there’s a fantastic parallel to this vocal part in ‘Monastery of La Ribida’, not melodically, but in concept. ‘Chant’ is much more sublime and held back as compared to that type of writing, but it’s directly connected to ‘Immortality’ which takes on a pure orchestral presence to begin with. This is more of that spiritual approach which showcases Vangelis’ best compositional work on this album, very classical and totally atmospheric.
As the soundtrack comes towards its end ‘Dream of Babylon’ signifies the composers link to his past and what he’s been identified with for years. Here the thematic essence of Vangelis surfaces in an almost Chariots of Fire way. This shred of similarity develops into a musical dream state with his traditional use of percussion, choir, and harp; its pure magic.
The sound of wind gently fades from ‘Dream of Babylon’ into ‘Eternal Alexander’ as the familiar themes emerge with that vocal hymn or anthem accompanying the film, like seeing millions of people marching through the land on a crusade. This is some of the best orchestral and choral writing that this composer has ever done. It really does make Chariots of Fire pale in comparison.
Finally in ‘Tender Memories’, Vangelis brings his intense musical journey to a moment of soft closure. A mood is established here that’s similar to ‘Memories of Green’, a piece that was created for the album ‘See You Later’ and was then used in Blade Runner. This is a final song or a gentle finale for what is an epic affair. The softness and the dynamic create the emotion here. There are no esoteric moods, epic symphonic climaxes, over the top operatic choirs or galactic percussion suites, just melodic simplicity and the true style of Vangelis leading us all to a very gentle and emotional closing.
If you are a Vangelis fan or you’ve loved him in the past, you’re going to absolutely love this album. This soundtrack is moody, dramatic, powerful, adventurous, and stunningly beautiful at times. If you are an orchestral purist it’s possible the power of talent that graces these compositions will take you in and seduce you. When you have listened to film scores for years it’s easy to find similarities, but after hearing Alexander many times it’s great to hear something different and have Vangelis back scoring film again.