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Vangelis - Spiral CD (album) cover

SPIRAL

Vangelis

 

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3.73 | 158 ratings

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Frankingsteins
3 stars A landmark, if flawed release by new age electronic composer Vangelis, 'Spiral' is a departure from the artist's bombastic 'space jazz' style as he adapts his synthesiser stories to more commercial, hook-oriented songs along the lines of Jean-Michel Jarre. This electro-pop direction would never dominate Vangelis' output completely, as by the 1980s he became more skilful at balancing both strands of creative output, leading to the successful (and in one case, Oscar-nominated) soundtracks for 'Blade Runner,' '1492: Conquest of Paradise' and 'Chariots of Fire.'

Spiral is one of Vangelis' most popular albums, and catches the Greek composer in the midst of his most creative and productive era. It's questionable whether the album truly innovated anything, especially as some of Vangelis' most notable work was already behind him, as was that of his contemporaries such as Tangerine Dream and Jarre, but its approachable catchy, modern / futuristic sound (1977, remember) lends these consumer-friendly tracks to appropriation and over-playing on TV adverts internationally. The length of the tracks needn't be off-putting either, as the extension of 'Ballad' and 'To the Unknown Man' is essentially just that: the song sequences stretched out and jammed until their time is up. To Vangelis' credit, none of the pieces here really outstay their welcome, as the more progressive songs that demand the listener's attention (as opposed to those that can essentially act as background muzak) cease long before the ten-minute mark.

To clear up any confusion, this is all Vangelis' own work. He plays all the instruments (mostly synthesisers, but there are 'real' percussion instruments in there somewhere) and programs the album's trademark sequencers, prominent throughout. The album features no lyrics or real vocals, except for a distorted sample repeated throughout 'Ballad' that sounds like a male voice saying 'bim-bam' and reminds me of the living-toys nightmare scene in the Manga film 'Akira.' Vangelis also handled all production work, leading to crystal clarity, perfectionist use of stereo techniques and a flawless mixing and layering of instruments. Along with Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side of the Moon,' this is a record that obsessive audiophiles can use to test their home stereos.

Vangelis self-produced the iconic sleeve art depicting an amplifier plug snaking through a cloud-filled sky, that at first glance could be anything. If I'm going to read too much into the album cover, this focus on the Earth's atmosphere could suggest Vangelis finally coming 'down to Earth' and simplifying after the excess of his previous releases. 1975's 'Heaven and Hell' was his first real success, a grandiose and amazing electronic suite in the opposing realms of the afterlife, and 1976's 'Albedo 0.39' was a stripped-down collection of spacey synthesiser tunes, occasionally inflated by introducing loud organs. The final, eponymous track of Albedo focuses on the pollution content of the Earth's atmosphere, leading us seamlessly to the following year's 'Spiral.' (Vangelis' next major album, 'China,' would focus on specific areas of the planet's surface, with tracks such as 'Himalaya'). Do these five songs, therefore, possess a more human quality, connecting more with earthly concerns?

Nah, not really. It was a nice thought though.

The rapid, elastic-band-esque sequencer loop that opens 'Spiral' makes it evident that Vangelis has leapt forward since 'Albedo,' at least in his handling of production techniques. The echoes of Spiral add a depth that was previously lacking, and would have made the lunar landscapes and immense cosmos all the more convincing on that release. Prominent lead keyboards slowly fade in, making for a calm and measured but very loud introduction before the fragile bass loop collapses in on itself and leads into the song proper. This is one of Vangelis' more accomplished standard-length songs, and the crazy lead keyboard melody is one of the highlights of the whole album, forming the bulk of this track. The finale is more understated than the grand opening, and fades out modestly to make way for the more subdued, melancholy tone of the next song.

'Ballad' is a little overlong, but that doesn't matter immensely as this one is all about setting and maintaining a mood. It plods along a little tediously in places for those listeners who are paying attention, but the keyboard highs and lows keep things fairly interesting, as does the constant hypnotic vocal, mentioned earlier. All things considered, not one of the album's high points. The third track, 'Dervish D,' goes for completely the opposite approach, but also fares disappointingly. This commercial-oriented dance piece is, apparently, inspired by swirling Dervish dancers, but that isn't really prominent in the music which, apart from a fairly catchy lead keyboard hook, does nothing to enhance the enjoyment of the album and, if anything, only spoils the pleasant atmosphere generated by ballad and continued after this six-minute interruption in 'To the Unknown Man.'

Originally opening the second side of the LP but nowadays familiar more simply as track four, 'To the Unknown Man' is sometimes seen as Vangelis' second failed attempt to construct the perfect synth-pop classic, developing the piano sound he would achieve fame for with the 'Chariots of Fire' score. Personally, I think this song is much better, and although obscenely long at over ten minutes without much in the way of internal development, it achieves much more effectively the same mood and tone that the earlier 'Ballad' strived for. A deliberately simple five-note melody repeats endlessly throughout the song's duration and is gradually joined by other instruments that accompany and revolve around the guiding riff, evolving the song to include military drums. Perhaps the unknown man was an anonymous fallen soldier, and this is his funeral march? Similar to 'Alpha' off the previous record, only not as interesting and almost twice as long.

The pointlessly titled '3 + 3,' which likely holds some sort of useless significance (parts of the song are definitely in 3/4 time), contributes the final 'loud' song in the album's alternating pattern, but in a way it combines the best elements of what has come before. The groovy opening keyboards remind of 'Dervish D,' but the similarity ends there; this is more of a cross between 'Spiral' (prominently) and the two reflective pieces. Again, too repetitive and far too long, but well worth the listening time of any electronic or new age music fan. This song at least has the distinction of sounding unlike any of Vangelis' other works, something that can't be said of the rest of the album, although the reasons for this may not be positive.

In terms of popularity and sales, Spiral is a Vangelis classic, but its appeal is more grounded in its historical context than some of his other 'timeless' works. Leaving behind the artistic integrity of the epic 'Heaven and Hell' that would thankfully resurface and improve over the following decades up to the present, 'Spiral' sounds more like a dated synth-pop release that fans could rightfully label a sell-out. Vangelis would improve upon this sound in 'China,' his final work of the decade, before retreating to release some of his least ambitious and most overtly commercial work yet. To complicate matters, the following year's 'Beaubourg' is an indigestible, time-wasting 'suite' of pointless, arbitrary noise.

Spiral boasts some classic Vangelis compositions ('Spiral,' 'To the Unknown Man,' '3 + 3') and pushed forward the use of computers in the composition of music. As this would eventually lead to the outbreak of dance music, I don't know whether this is a commendable or regrettable accomplishment. While comparisons of electronic music to classical symphonies are hotly contested, Spiral is contentedly removed from such allusions. Weirdly, despite the album's fame as one of Vangelis' most well-known, no tracks from Spiral appeared on the best-of collection 'Odyssey,' although other collections regularly feature 'Spiral' and time-permissible edits of 'To the Unknown Man.' At the risk of heresy, such edits don't detract much from music like this, and Vangelis could have easily fit a couple of extra tracks onto this forty-minute album rather than a mere five, somewhat lengthy ones.

Perhaps more noteworthy today as a relic or eccentricity from a burgeoning electronic age (a fate that should hopefully render Jarre obsolete some day), this isn't one of Vangelis' most notable or enjoyable albums, but helped secure the fame that would lead to some of his finest work, including 'Blade Runner.' It's quite a fun album if you're into music history or a fan of kitsch stuff in general, but doesn't offer a great deal to anyone else when set against the multitude of superior synthesiser-based rock albums out there.

Frankingsteins | 3/5 |

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