Vangelis – Albedo 0.39
When you think of Vangelis, your first thought is probably his film soundtrack work. His instantly recognizable theme for the 1981 film Chariots of Fire is well-known to people who have no other familiarity with Vangelis or even the film. Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise was a colossal commercial and critical failure, but Vangelis’s theme had an unlikely second life, hitting #1 in several European countries several years after its release when a German boxer used it as entrance music. His masterful and forward-thinking Blade Runner soundtrack (1982) has only grown in stature over the years; it’s the rare soundtrack that elevates its film while still standing as a work of art in its own right.
The period preceding Vangelis’s soundtrack breakthrough in the early 1980s is lesser known. Crate-digging producers like Madlib, who re-configured Albedo 0.39 standout “Alpha” into a hip-hop banger on Strong Arm Steady’s “Pressure”, sample Vangelis’s 1970s work frequently, but it’s been for the most part ignored otherwise. After early beginnings in the prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child and a few minor solo works, he began to hone his style over a series of albums on RCA Records during the latter half of the 1970s. All of the hallmarks of his best soundtrack work are here: masterful use of synthesizers, symphonic grandeur, and a knack for marrying sweeping melodies to evocative atmospherics. It’s easy to see how Vangelis would soon put these talents to use as a film composer. While an album like Albedo 0.39 is only conceptual in the loosest sense, the cosmic themes are practically an audition to soundtrack a sci-fi film.
The conceit of Albedo 0.39 is frankly more than a little bit silly, in the way that a lot of 1970s prog-rock can be. The back of the LP explains the album’s title: “The reflecting power of a planet or other non-luminous body. A perfect reflector would have an Albedo of 100%. The Earth’s Albedo is 39%, or 0.39.” The opening track on Albedo 0.39, “Pulstar”, starts with a single note urgently tapped out on a synth that’s soon joined by an insistent and instantly memorable melody, live bells, and dramatic cymbal crashes. Most of the other tracks on Side 1 are less dramatic: “Freefall” is all whistling synth lines and gamelan; “Mare Tranquillitatis” is a nearly ambient sketch comprised of synth pads and half-buried astronaut communications that’s reminiscent of Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Only the messy extended prog workout “Main Sequence”, with live drums played by Vangelis himself, brings the energy level back up.
Side 2 indulges in more of Vangelis’s jazz and rock leanings. Live drums are prominent on three of the four tracks. Opener “Alpha” is the album’s highlight. Its restrained, staccato melody grows from a quiet whisper to a roar for over 4 minutes, until finally breaking free into an uplifting finale. The two-part “Nucleogenesis” is the closest to straight prog-rock on the record. It could easily be mistaken for an instrumental track on a Yes or Emerson, Lake, & Palmer record. Unfortunately, the prog elements, especially on “Nucleogenesis (Part Two)”, have not aged very well and date the album heavily. The overserious spoken word facts about Earth on the closing title track are equally goofy and dated.
If you are looking for an entry point into Vangelis’s work, the Blade Runner soundtrack is still the best place to start. The triple album Blade Runner Trilogy: 25th Anniversary (2007) is close to definitive, despite still missing a few pieces that are only available on bootlegs. But if you’re already a fan of Blade Runner and Vangelis’s other more popular works, Albedo 0.39 is definitely worth a listen. Despite some of its more dated elements, it’s a showcase for Vangelis’s abundant talents and a fascinating relic of an important era in electronic music.