A giant of electronic/space/soundtrack music has passed away: Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, better known as Vangelis. His music for the movie Chariots of Fire won an Academy Award for Best Score in 1981 (back when Oscars reflected both artistic excellence and popularity).
His first solo album, Earth, was released in 1973, just before his soundtrack to the Frederic Rossif film, L‘Apocalypse Des Animaux. He continued to release solo albums and soundtracks at a regular pace until 2021.
I first became aware of Vangelis via his extraordinary soundtrack to one of my all-time favorite movies, Blade Runner. Rarely has the music matched the visual landscape the way his did for that movie. Set in a dystopian Los Angeles, Vangelis’s themes are a perfect complement to the many moods Ridley Scott evoked in that masterpiece. Unfortunately, his actual soundscapes for the film were never officially released. Curious listeners should seek out a bootleg album called “Blade Runner: Esper Edition“, which compiles all of Vangelis’s music directly from the film.
Another excellent example of his empathetic soundtrack composing talent is Antarctica. His music for Koreyoshi Kurahara’s film is an incredible evocation of snowbound wastes, adventure, open spaces, and timelessness. His compilation album, Themes, is a nice introduction to Vangelis’s best soundtrack work of the 80’s.
One of his best solo albums is El Greco, which is dedicated to the Greek artist who lived and worked in Spain in the late 16th – early 17th centuries. That, and 1984’s Soil Festivities, are masterpieces of melodic electronic music. Vangelis’s gift was to take electronic music and make it sound warm and organic, and both the aforementioned albums are prime examples of that.
He could also compose and record very challenging music. His sole album for the Deutsche Grammaphon label, Invisible Connections, is a melding of Anton Weber-like atonality with Tangerine Dream rhythmic drive. His 2001 album, Mythodea, is dedicated to NASA’s Mars Odyssey mission. Scored for a full chorus and orchestra, it is a massive work that, frankly, I find exhausting.
Much more accessible is his final trio of albums, Rosetta, Nocturne, and Juno to Jupiter. Rosetta is dedicated to the European Space Agency’s mission to the Rosetta comet, and it has some of the most moving music he ever composed. Nocturne is a delight – Vangelis revisits some of his most memorable songs and plays them on acoustic piano. Juno to Jupiter is dedicated to the NASA mission of the same name. It features the outstanding vocals of soprano Angela Gheorghiu, and is a terrific summation of all Vangelis has done in his career. Whether intentional or not, it is a perfect final solo album.
Finally, we have to acknowledge Vangelis’s most popular music – the albums he recorded with Jon Anderson of Yes. Short Stories, The Friends of Mr. Cairo, and Private Collection are all wonderful examples of prog/space/ambient music. I’ll Find My Way Home from The Friends of Mr. Cairo was a big hit in the U.S. in 1981, but for me, Private Collection is far and away the best music of this fruitful partnership. Every song is a timeless classic, with the epic Horizon closing things out on an incredibly majestic note.
If you aren’t familiar with Vangelis’s music, I hope this post has piqued your interest. He was a towering talent in electronic music and composition, and he will be missed. R.I.P. Vangelis Papathanassíou.