The Sound Worlds of Vangelis

Vangelis (1970). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.

The mighty Vangelis—aka Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou—died on 17 May 2022, aged 79.

He is perhaps best-known in mainstream culture for his early 80s film music: the Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire (1981) and his hugely influential soundtrack for Ridley Scott’s 1982 cyberpunk masterpiece Blade Runner.

When it comes to writing about and exploring Vangelis’s music, the Blade Runner score tends to dominate the discourse, and probably rightly so; it remains a stunning achievement in the context of late 20th century cinematic music, and a significant moment in the development of electronic music aesthetics.

Because of this, the full extent of his catalogue—which covers a deliciously wide range of styles, atmospheres, and vibes—is talked about less often, from his proggy beginnings with Aphrodite’s Child, to the psychedelic solo freak outs in the early 70s, through the atmospheric maximalism and sequenced mayhem of the Nemo Studio years to the quasi-symphonic pomp of his later work.

Vangelis’s music at heart is built around killer keyboard rigs that are imminently playable with a wide range of tonal options within arm’s reach at all times.

An abiding posthumous image of the artist might be one of him nestled heroically in the middle of a vintage music technology paradise, surrounded on all sides by various organs, Fender Rhodes, clavinets, gigantic polysynths, sequencers, and later on with walls of sampler modules and bespoke MIDI routers operated by foot switch.

Poring over rare performance footage and studio photos from Vangelis’s career has long been a joyous occupation for gearheads and synth spotters. Let’s take a look at some of the vintage gear that features in some of his best work (aside from Chariots and Blade Runner).

Aphrodite’s Child and the pre-Nemo years

In the late 1960s Vangelis played keyboards in the influential Greek psychedelic rock band Aphrodite’s Child, who found success in Europe with hit singles such as ‘Rain and Tears’, ‘I Want to Live’ and ‘It’s Five O’Clock’. The band featured Loukas Sideras on drums, Silver Koulouris on guitar, and Demis Roussos on bass and vocals, who would go on to become his own cultural phenom and ‘kaftan-wearing sex symbol’.

Aphrodite's Child - It's Five O'Clock.

In this video, a lip-synced performance for ‘It’s Five O’Clock’ from a TV appearance in 1969, you can see Vangelis is miming on a Hammond organ with a battered looking Hohner Clavinet II perched on top. Vangelis’s rig during this period did feature a Clavinet II and Hammond L-100.

When the song hits the chorus, the sound explodes into a vast Phil Spector-esque orchestra, a swelling sound that was not achieved with string ensembles but rather a bespoke modification on the L-100. The organ was then treated by a series of two Binson Echorec delay units for maximum miasmatic density and crunch.

In addition to organs, Vangelis also played a modified Fender Rhodes with special EQ controls mounted on top, and he fed the signal through his chained Echorec units to create lush and gooey psychedelic textures. You can hear this effect exploited on the band’s third and final album, 666 (1972), a concept album inspired by the Book of Revelation.

The album—by now firmly established as a prog-rock classic—was much more psychedelic and experimental than anything the band had released previously, though borrowing atmospheres from the film and TV composition work Vangelis had been doing on the side.

While there are many excellent prog bangers to choose from on 666, including the classic track ‘The Four Horsemen’, the outsized atmospheric combo of echo-treated Hammond swells, rippling Fender Rhodes and ethereal clavinet melodics captivates on the beautifully moody ‘Aegian Sea’.

Aphrodite's Child - Aegian Sea.

The reedy synth-like tone that comes in at around the 2:30 mark (as well as the grinding bass tone at around 4:20) could be a Selmer Clavioline - an early forerunner to the analogue synthesizer, invented by French engineer Constant Martin in 1947.

Vangelis spoke about the rare instrument in a 1974 interview with Sounds magazine, saying “It’s a very old thing… easy 20 years old. They don’t make it anymore because nobody buy it. But it’s beautiful. But the way you use this it can give you many, many things. It’s up to you.”

'La petite fille de la mer' from L'Apocalypse des animaux, 1973

In 1970, as a side project away from the band, he composed music for a nature documentary series called L'Apocalypse des animaux (directed by Frédéric Rossif). The soundtrack is one of Vangelis’s earliest solo works, displaying a much gentler and more restrained aspect to his sound. ‘La Petite Fille De La Mer’ showcases the delicacy and nuance that could be achieved by softening and shaping brash and unwieldy sounds through outboard effects in creative ways.

During the early 70s, before his move to Nemo Studios in London—where he would begin working with synthesizers for the first time—Vangelis pretty much perfected his form using this set up with his 1973 album Earth. You can spot all of the gear from this era in this amazing televised live jam on tracks from Earth especially created for French TV show Melody, in 1974.

Vangelis live on Melody, 1974

The Nemo Years

From 1975 to 1987, Vangelis almost exclusively produced music from his own recording studio in the W1H area of London, Nemo Studios. From 1975's Heaven and Hell through to 1977's Spiral, 1982’s Blade Runner OST and 1985's Mask, Vangelis’s output from Nemo rode the wave of emerging synth technology and expanded the limits of what electronic music could become.

Throughout the mid-to-late 70s, Nemo acquired a number of monosynths—Roland SH-1000 and SH-3A, a Korg MiniKORG 700S, and an ARP Pro Soloist. He also collected some of the first polyphonic synthesizers, including the Korg Maxi-Korg 800DV, the Farfisa Syntorchestra, an Elka Rhapsody 610, and the mighty Yamaha CS-80 which was introduced in 1977.

The first release from Nemo, Heaven and Hell (1975) departs from the jammy psych sprawl of Earth, instead offering a slightly avant-garde and baroque-inspired synth aesthetic. At times, he explores what individual monophonic voices can do when arranged in polyphony and counterpoint. This is evident in tracks like the spikily ornate ‘Needles and Bones’, sounding like a fusion of a horror film soundtrack and Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach album.

"Needles And Bones" from the album Heaven And Hell, 1974

The following year he released Albedo 0.39, which saw a shift away from classical inspirations towards something spacier and jazzier. This is the album where we can hear the Elka Tornado IV combo organ, a cheap vintage instrument from Italy—as he described it to Sounds Magazine in 1974, “very, very cheap. I mean it’s for babies… I bought this in a child department”.

On ‘Nucleogenesis’, you can hear the Elka burning through a Roland RE-201 Space Echo unit, sizing up the sound like a pipe organ in a gigantic cathedral. The RE-201 is also responsible for the spectral echoes around the vocal narration on the title track.

The title track from the album Albedo 0.39, 1976

The CS-80 makes its first appearance on Spiral in 1977, and we get to hear some analogue sequencing courtesy of two Roland System 100 modular units that were reportedly rather difficult to set up and impossible to keep in tune, according to engineer Keith Spencer-Allen. You can hear these sequencers doing their thing across the arpeggios that introduce Spiral’s title track.

The title track from the album Spiral, 1977

Moving into the 80s, old analog effects like the Binson Echorecs, Roland Space Echo RE-201s and AKG spring reverbs were ditched in favour of the brand new, cleaner-sounding Lexicon 224 digital reverb. As Lexicon's first official customer, Vangelis was the earliest adopter of the 224, having purchased serial number 0002 (0001 was the unit that Lexicon had kept for themselves).

The digital revolution in the early 80s also brought new and improved sequencing technology to the artist. Roland's microcomputer-controlled CSQ-100 and CSQ-600 units could hold more steps in their memory, with the latter able to hold four different sequences that could be triggered, chained together, or played simultaneously.

In this clip below of a live jam from Nemo Studios—broadcast by Musical Express in 1982—we can spy some of these new sequencers in action in addition to some pretty righteous soloing on the Yamaha CS-80.

Improvisation for the TV series Musical Express, 1982

After Nemo

1988's Direct was the first release after the move from Nemo Studios to a more iterate and mobile way of working. This album bridges the synthetic-cinematic sound that made Vangelis popular in the 80s with the orchestral sample-based sound that characterises his later works.

Promotional images from around the time of Direct’s release reveal the presence of some iconic digital and sampling synths from the era—namely Yamaha's DX7 and DX7II as well as E-mu's Emulator II—alongside some classic analogue polysynths like the JUNO-106 and Prophet 10, and a few samplers including the Roland S-50 and AKAI S-900.

'Glorianna (Hymn A La Femme)', from the 1988 album Direct

If any single track on Direct points towards the next stage of Vangelis’s evolution in style, it must be "Glorianna (Hymn a la Femme)". On this track he uses the above sparkling synths and samplers (equipped with orchestral, percussion and natural sounds) to accompany a soaring, wordless operatic duet. The result is emotional, beautiful, and intense.

Vangelis composed the musical score to Ridley Scott’s epic historical drama 1492: Conquest of Paradise in 1992, their first collaboration since Blade Runner a decade earlier. Much like his score to Blade Runner, the music would end up having a larger life of its own a few years down the track when political parties in the mid-90s began used the title theme it as a campaign rally anthem—notably by the Portuguese Socialist Party in 1995, and the second round of Russia's presidential election in 1996.

After that, it became a popular entrance theme for athletes and teams at sporting events all over the world—the soundtrack broke many sales records as it infiltrated the popular consciousness, despite the film being something of a box office flop.

Excerpt from the original soundtrack of 1492: Conquest of Paradise

Once again there is wordless singing—courtesy of a unison male choir—set against a stirring orchestral arrangement comprised of sampled symphonic instruments, with the synths covering what would traditionally be the brass parts of the orchestration. 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a classic work of symphonic electronica, a notable expression of the ‘hybrid score’ sound, later popularised by Hans Zimmer, and predating his synthetic-orchestral Crimson Tide soundtrack by 3 years.

Beyond the sonic affordability of samplers and sound modules, the digital revolution and development of MIDI allowed Vangelis to compose and perform more efficiently. From the mid-90s onwards he used a unique MIDI system custom built by YES Audio, which was connected to various synth racks and up to 17 foot pedals, which were used to control instrument changes, volume/dynamics, articulation envelopes and effects.

The system was designed by Vangelis to allow him to play and compose music live without the need for multitracking overdubs, keying through complicated soft-menus, messing with timecode, or painstakingly having to program sequences.

Vangelis working his magic on the Roland SR-JV80-02

In the above video, Vangelis demonstrates the ease with which he can realise complex orchestral textures in real time—Vangelis becomes the orchestra. You may recognise the 90’s-era sounds of the Roland SR-JV80-02 Orchestral Expansion board.

Watching him improvise in this creative zone, one cannot help but be reminded of where he started, how he magicked ethereal orchestral tones from his Hammond L-100 and banks of Echorecs. It’s almost as if this ability to become orchestral was the goal all along, finally realised here in this last phase of creativity.

Reportedly, Vangelis never gave in to the world of virtual instruments, DAW plugins and effects. Staunchly hardware-based until the end, he was spotted still using that rig with the mysteriously labelled white boxes, switches and floor pedals as late as 2013, with his appearance on the BBC documentary The Sounds of Cinema.

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