Wednesday, July 21, 2010

1492: Re-Hash of Paradise

Okay, let's get some business out of the way:

1. Yes, this blog is back! I took some time off to direct my show in May, as it was clear that I could not continue to fire on all cylinders as a new homeowner, director, and martial artist and still keep doing my "real" job to a reasonably high level of quality -- let alone write a blog that requires some measure of my cognitive faculties. And May became June and most of July. So, now Music From and Inspired By is making its triumphant return, and it's gonna be bigger, uh . . . bloggier, and more consistent than ever.

2. Yes, for the first entry after my return, I'm backtracking in the alphabetical order. I recently acquired the soundtrack to 1492: Conquest of Paradise, along with a bunch of others, thanks to the newly expanded catalog of soundtrack offerings at emusic, where I've had a membership since 2006. I promise this whole order-violation thing won't happen again. Or at least not much.

I had a high-minded notion to write this entry about the influence of Progressive rock on all aspects of modern music, using Vangelis as my jumping-off point. I quickly realized, though, that about two paragraphs would probably exhaust my ability to say anything interesting about Prog. Oh, sure, I can rattle off names like King Crimson and Yes and even Porcupine Tree, or maybe talk about early Genesis or Wishbone Ash . . . but what's the point? You probably know as much about them as I do.

I had a much different entry point for this album in the first place. I happen to own a great album called Summon the Heroes, produced for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and containing a bunch of Olympic music performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops. It includes all of Williams' own Olympic themes (from the '84, '88, and '96 games) as well as many other compositions from the classical or film music realms that evoke the pomp and circumstance of the games. Vangelis' 1492 theme is among them, in a bombastic arrangement for full orchestra and chorus. It's always been one of my favorites on the album.

Based on that track, I decided to pick up the full album from emusic, even though I haven't actually seen the Ridley Scott film. I adore Vangelis' music for Scott's Blade Runner, and I really do appreciate much of Vangelis' other work, especially his experimental electronica from the '70s. (Albedo 0.39 is still an amazing album, and I had "Pulstar" on my iPod running mix for a long time.) He was a true pioneer of electronic music, and popularized it in ways that paved the way for more adventurers to come. (He may also have played a part in spawning the 'New Age' sound movement. Jury's out on whether that's a good or bad thing. On the one hand, you have Dead Can Dance and Enigma. On the other, you have Yanni and John Tesh. It's probably about 50-50.)

What I didn't expect was that this album, written and produced in 1992, would sound so much like its predecessors in the late '70s and early '80s. I kept listening to this album, thinking it sounded so primitive and cheesily (I know it's not a word) synth-heavy. "Maybe it just sounds dated because of the period," I thought. But a moment's more reflection brought to mind the similarly synth-reliant score to The Last of the Mohicans, which came out the very same year, and hardly sounds dated now. The Last of the Mohicans - another adventure in the (not-quite-as) early years of the New World - often sounds satisfyingly rich and deep and organic, despite the synthesizers, in ways that 1492 just doesn't.

I can appreciate Vangelis' albums from the Seventies, and other similar period electronica, because I know that it represented the state of the art of the time, and they're just musically interesting. But in 10-15 years, you expect a musician to evolve and change somewhat. That's what I love about great artists, and in some ways, even demand of them. If I were interested in music that didn't change or evolve in a decade, I'd listen to Top 40. Or Hans Zimmer. (Geez, that Teutonic dummkopf irritates me. He's most of the reason why film music in the '00s was so boring. But more on him later, as I actually own several of his scores, for reasons I cannot consciously identify.)

But for some reason, most of this album just sounds like Vangelis isn't really trying -- which is odd, since he's usually a pretty obsessive composer. There were parts of this album that actually reminded me of The Princess Bride, of all things, and that just isn't good. The Princess Bride, while one of my very favorite films of all time, has possibly the most annoying score ever recorded.

1492 does exemplify - and maybe originated - one trend of '90s scoring: Tossing in "ethnic" instrumentation over the top of whatever you're doing. This was used most often, with varying effectiveness, by James Horner in the '90s. More on him later, too. Here, atop the dated synth, it's just an added dimension to a truly wrong choice for a period piece about a navigator from the late Middle Ages.

At any rate, the full orchestral recording on Summon the Heroes retains all of its power, and stands as a true improvement on the original. That's probably the version that will get the most play in the future.

Don't worry, some much better Vangelis music is on the way pretty soon, once I get to Blade Runner anyway. Until then, maybe I'll throw Albedo 0.39 or La Fete Sauvage on the Hi-Fi.

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