Vangelis gets a bad rep lately and I can understand why, even though I can’t really blame him. The reason everyone knows about him is definitely linked to the famous movie soundtracks he made in the nineties, which were then so massively overused and abused that it’s not surprising now that people have a less than favorable reaction at the mention of his name. Paradoxically, the work which made him most famous to the general listener is also some of his least impressive and organic, sounding rather dated, although it’s much closer to the present than the albums which really warrant attention. I’ve been his fan since a very early age. I would listen to full albums on the radio, back when there were shows structured like that, and I think he’s one of the first musicians I’ve ever truly felt partial to. So, today, The Dragon, one of his first solo albums.
You might remember me writing about Aphrodite’s Child and mentioning he was one of the founding members. Their last album together was a progressive rock masterpiece and it tore the outfit apart, because apparently Vangelis was the only one of them who actually wanted to continue making challenging music like that. After Aphrodite’s Child broke up, that’s exactly what he did, issuing the very rare album Hypothesis in 1970, which is a truly hardcore, experimental jazz thing, and following it up the next year with The Dragon, which is, I believe, one of the most… satisfying records I’ve ever heard. Vangelis is well known for his method of spontaneously creating music, no matter how layered and complex, right on the spot. He has walls of keyboards at his disposal at all times in his studio and uses them, all at once, to put together his albums in what would seem like record time. Once accused of plagiarism, he demonstrated this technique in court and eliminated all suspicion of him having the patience and working style which would allow for such an act. It’s all the more fitting then that The Dragon should be a jam session. Throughout the years, Vangelis started working alone more and more, but on this record he employs the help of some truly outstanding musicians, and the results are remarkable in my opinion.
This is a patient album, apparently monotonous, but in reality very well dosed and nurtured carefully. The tracks don’t explode and shift as much as prog-rock would normally dictate, they’re built slowly, stoically, like growing organisms, and sounding just as natural and miraculous. That being said, I have my doubts The Dragon is prog-rock at all. Vangelis’ influences were so vast and his creativity so vibrant, even at that early time, that easy classification defies him, and in this case, that’s a great thing indeed. The Dragon sounds simultaneously like jazz and rock, reunited under a warm shimmer of Mediterranean style, a certain ethnicity which shines through in every musical phrase, but not only that, in every sound, in the very vibe of the thing. I froze my ass off today, so I came home and was immediately drawn to listening to The Dragon – it’s just that warm, that welcoming and relaxing. It’s like the entire pallet of aroma and color and scent of Greece has been captured in this music, and I’m reckless enough to say that even though I’ve never been there. But the point is, were I to go there now, I’m certain what I’d experience would remind me of The Dragon. And if that’s a horrible logical fallacy, so be it.
There’s magic in this music, in the same sense as there is magic in the Greek mythology. The same larger than life, theatrical, sweeping mood seems to be pulsating in the rhythms and notes of these songs as there is in the words describing the acts of the ancient gods of Greece, the same sort of easy to relate to and to remember set of rules is animating both of these things. The Dragon speaks of the sun and the sea, it speaks of symbolic food and sweetened wine, and from my perspective it’s a treat to all senses. I can’t think of another record that can transport me so entirely to such an unjustifiably familiar setting, but I guess that’s because I’ve scarcely heard another record so genuinely organic and… palpable, somehow.
I get the feeling I’m rambling. I though it’d be easier to speak of The Dragon because of its utter lack of pretentiousness but it seems that very quality is making it difficult to describe the simple, honest joy it brings me. In any case, the grinning winter outside should be enough incentive to give it a chance, since I can pretty much guarantee it’ll make you feel like you’re sailing from Greece to Turkey, sometime in the 18th Century, on a ship filled with spices and wool. Just drift off and enjoy!