Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vangelis - Heaven and Hell (1975)

Vangelis is a Greek composer and multi-instrumentalist most famous for his score for the film Chariots of Fire. As surprising as it may seem, he actually has a long and productive career with many studio albums to his name. This is one of his most well known and celebrated, a collection of two side-long suites based on the concept of - you guessed it - Heaven and Hell.

This is a difficult album to review, because musically, it's all over the place. I'll be frank, there are a lot of cringe-worthy moments here. The use of the synthesizer was still relatively unrefined in 1975, but Vangelis dives in with gusto, producing sounds that now seem very badly dated. The first half of side one is bombastic and unpleasant, with annoyingly abrasive synths and hackneyed vocals by ominous sounding Greek choirs. This is supposed to be Heaven?

Side two, Hell, is, in general, much less prone to these sorts of problems and has plenty of lovely moments with tolling bells and a lovely female vocal melody, although the tasteful creepiness is still occasionally interrupted by obnoxiously dated sound effects, including an incredibly annoying siren-like synthesizer that won't shut up.

So why am I featuring this album when it seems to have so little going for it? Because Vangelis makes up for all of it, all of the tacky synths, the lack of restraint, the bombast, the hokey choirs, and the general vagueness of his concept in the second half of side one. He makes up for it, and then some.

About ten minutes in to the Heaven half, all the choirs and keyboard riffs drop out and a sense of cosmic peace washes over the listener. This section may be familiar to some as the theme from the Carl Sagan TV series, Cosmos. The music here is absolutely perfect, capturing the vastness and beauty of space, and then just when you think it can't get any better, it does.

The last section of the Heaven side is a song called "So Long Ago, So Clear" sung by Jon Anderson of the band Yes. It's utterly gorgeous, with Anderson in fine voice and the melody one of exquisite grace and tenderness. This section along with the previous one comprise roughly a quarter of the album, yet they are so good that they force to (almost) overlook the record's other flaws. Honestly, that ten minutes is worth the price of admission.

Maybe other listeners are less bothered by the synth parts (or less taken with Jon Anderson) than I am, but for me Heaven and Hell is a bewildering listen, a product of its time that leaves me feeling both moved and vaguely annoyed.