Tentative Review #60

The City

(released 1990)

1. Dawn****1/2
2. Morning Papers****1/2
3. Nerve Centre****1/2
4. Side Streets****
5. Good To See You****
6. Twilight****1/2
7. Red Lights****
8. Procession****1/2



All tracks written by Vangelis.


Vangelis has a unique position in the lexicon of progressive music. Irrespective of what they think of his actual recorded output, most mainstream music critics generally respect this giant of the modern keyboard scene; similarly, many listeners who couldn't be bothered by even the most innocuous varieties of prog are known to favour some of his music.

There are several reasons for this favoured position, the most obvious of which is Vangelis's role in the soundtrack industry. It was, after all, Chariots Of Fire that first lifted him to the attention of the general public; more recently, the Bladerunner soundtrack has re-introduced his music to a 20-something generation that regarded his 1981 hit single as an inextricable part of the cultural landscape of the times. Vangelis's willingness to incorporate various samples and "found sound" bits into his music have moreover given a "multimedia" flavour to those works not specifically intended as soundtrack works. The importance of this factor in cultivating an audience is not to be overlooked.

Another important factor to Vangelis's popularity is his international reputation. Based in Greece, his music is quite obviously as significant in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean as in Western Europe and North America. Perhaps for this reason, he has managed to retain a degree of artistic integrity unmatched by many musicians trapped by the whims of the American and British markets (including a certain Yes vocalist that he's occasionally collaborated with). Generally above this fray, Vangelis has been able to produce albums of an essentially "progressive" nature for most of his career.

Vangelis has released an astounding number of albums in recent years, has worked in many film projects, and has consistently focused on keyboard-based thematic works in his recorded output. Ironically enough, such a statement could also apply to Rick Wakeman, whose reputation does not even come close to matching Vangelis's on either the critical or popular spheres. It would therefore perhaps be necessary to add that most of Vangelis's works are of a high enough quality to ensure that some substance lies behind his reputation, much as a dearth thereof ensures the general critical ignorance of Wakeman's works.

The City is a fairly recent Vangelis work, dating from 1990. Although not a soundtrack, this work nevertheless consolidates its fashionable status with a few film samples, of which the Polanski/Seigner quotation is by far the longest. Generally, these samples interplay fairly well with the music.

The album begins, appropriately enough, with "Dawn". The ambient introduction of the track is soon offset by a combination of tubular percussion and horn effects; the "urban" motif is thrust to the foreground very quickly, with a sound approximating that of car horns added to the music in a most effective manner. This is a nicely arranged work, with the aforementioned percussion taking care of the actual melodic development.

"Morning Papers" (featuring the aforementioned Polanski/Seigner excerpt) also features a melodic percussion role, as well as a curious drum program of air brushes in the style of traditional detective movies. The piece includes further variables as it develops, including obviously non-European flute settings (which become more dissonant as the song develops), a "phantom" choir, and a bass line which vaguely suggests "The Friends Of Mr. Cairo" in one section. A triumph, in total.

"Nerve Centre", not surprisingly, involves a bit of a shift. The drum and percussion effects are transferred to more conventional settings here, with the lead melody being taken over by a strange keyboard patch. Although beginning in a manner slightly less interesting than that of the previous tracks, "Nerve Centre" soon takes on a element of prog-rock grandeur which works in the context of the piece -- the levels of activity increase towards the end, and a "guitar" solo appears in the triumphant conclusion.

"Side Streets" begins with motorcycle sound effect; the percussion line thereafter suggests road travel, though it must be admitted that the cello overlay offsets this effect somewhat. Although still generally good, this piece is a bit less impressive than those before it (and the guitar effects at the end could probably have been avoided). Still, this isn't much to complain about.

"Good To See You" (featuring the voice of Kathy Hill) begins with industrial sounds. This track features many of the same effects as earlier pieces -- the flute, the interesting percussive developments, the car horn sound incorporated into the music -- but doesn't quite have the same strength of arrangement (though it still comes fairly close). Lacking a minimalist background, for example, the car horn effect doesn't have the same haunting effect that it did on the earlier piece. Both this track and "Side Streets" are still fairly good works, but fall a notch or two below most of the rest of the album.

"Twilight" (featuring the voices of Ricko and Yuko, also featured on "Red Light") incorporates an Oriental melody on keyboards, with subtle development throughout the work. The sound transposition works quite well on all levels of this ambient, meditative work, with he synthesized background effects taking the role of the cello. An impressive number, to be sure.

"Red Lights" is something of a contrast to this, commencing with a sudden statement of a drums/horns presence. The sampled voices are reproduced in a manner which suggests actual singing, and the synth effects are driven through with an effect that suggests a desire to emulate a "poppier" sound (some might even notice similarities to the sample on "Owner Of A Lonely Heart", although the parallels between the tracks would probably end there). The final horn statement takes the song to a minor key, as if to suggest the tone of the final track to come.

"Procession" sees the horn return to a prominent role, providing a thematic resolution for the album. The phantom choir returns, to be joined by an accordion effect (which seems to be a modification of horn sound) and a military drum addition (which eventually stands alone at the conclusion of the track, after having transformed the number to a march tempo). The dialogue from "Morning Papers" is reprised as the album comes to an end.

The City never quite reaches a level of transcendent quality, but it comes very close on most occasions. This album is strongly recommended for fans of this genre of music.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 11 December 1997)

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