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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Aphrodite's Child: End Of The World


1) End Of The World; 2) Don't Try To Catch A River; 3) Mister Thomas; 4) Rain & Tears; 5) The Grass Is No Green; 6) Valley Of Sadness; 7) You Always Stand In My Way; 8) The Shepherd And The Moon; 9) Day Of The Fool.

What do you get when you take an experimental composer, specializing in atmospheric electro­nics, and a cheesy East-Europop crooner, and stick the two of them together? Feed this question to an advanced AI system, and it will probably answer: «Something that sounds awesomely crazy and unbearably sentimental at the same time». And, more or less, that is exactly what Aphrodite's Child were about. Except that the chronology is reversed: Vangelis would go on to become one of the most revered electronic wizards of his generation, and Demis Roussos to become the epitome of feta cheese already after the band had broken up.

When the band had just formed, though, it was all different. They were young, ambitious, and, of all things, they were all a bunch of Greek journeymen stranded in Paris in May 1968 — someone should give Martin Scorsese an idea for a script. And, of course, since most of them were musici­ans anyway, having already served time in various Greek bands, what a better time and place to try out a bit of mad genre synthesis than Paris in the spring?

Now here is the curious catch. Apparently, Demis Roussos, at heart, was a balladeer from the very beginning, and he was never all that interested in pushing forward musical boundaries as long as he could score one with the ladies. But the healthy climate of a shifting musical era, and the fortunate advantage of having the ambitious and daring Vangelis Papathanassiou at his side, made sure that his croonery was not backed with generic syrupy strings or whatever the croonery «norm» was in the old pre-disco days, but rather with a refreshingly romantic, and sometimes even downright «gritty», art-rock sound.

Put it all together — the will to experiment and innovate, the sentimentalism, the spirit of the ti­mes, the Mediterranean flavor, the talent, the youth, the energy, and Aphrodite's Child (quite an apt name for the band, as a matter of fact) emerge as a fairly unique curio in an age that had its fair share of unique curios. Most of these songs are befuddling, so much so that I cannot decide if I should laugh or cry. But as long as you do not make a definitive choice, End Of The World re­mains a fascinating puzzle.

The band's original direction was indicated by the debut single, ʽRain And Tearsʼ, musically ba­sed on Pachelbel's Canon — following in the vein of Procol Harum, but in a wimpier manner, since the band did not have a guitarist at that time (their regular player, Anargyros Kolouris, was on military duty in Greece, so Demis Roussos, in addition to playing bass, also has to supply all of the guitarwork). Vangelis' arrangement, with authentic harpsichord and baroque strings, is quite masterful, so it all depends on whether you are able to swallow Roussos' plaintive, operatic intonations without getting sick to the stomach. It's hard, but it may be worth the while.

Personally, I find it easier to succumb to the artsy charms of Aphrodite's Child when they switch from purely romantic mood to a little apocalypse — primarily on the title track, which begins de­ceptively, as just another organ-and-piano-led ballad, but then, with a mighty "HEYYYEAH!" from Demis, enters a Romantic (with a capital R) world of solemn drum-and-keyboard fury. It sounds a bit silly when you stop and think about it, but don't make the mistake of stopping.

Actually, the band's repertoire is quite diverse. They fiddle about with fast-paced R'n'B (ʽDon't Try To Catch A Riverʼ — with its spirited tempos, the song seems like an answer to ʽRiver Deep, Mountain Highʼ; at any rate, the Spector production must have been the chief inspiration); Kinks-flavored character-assassinating Brit-pop (ʽMister Thomasʼ); totally drugged out, dragged out, mantra-style psychedelia (ʽThe Grass Is No Greenʼ); gritty, soulful blues-rock (ʽYou Always Stand In My Wayʼ, probably the angriest, rock'n'rolliest performance Roussos ever gave in his life — and one track on which his ever-present whiny notes actually work to perfection, giving the whole song a frenzied, paranoid atmosphere); avantgarde sonic landscapes (ʽDay Of The Foolʼ, sung from the point of view of a madman and eventually «degenerating» into bits and pie­ces of his fragmented conscience); and, of course, something that they brought over with them from faraway lands — ʽThe Shepherd Of The Moonʼ is the only song here to properly incor­po­rate the Near Eastern vibe, both in the sung harmonies and the accompanying melody.

These tunes may sound comical, and, if you are well acquainted with the context, somewhat of a naïve, crude attempt to «fit in» with every bit of popular/trendy Western music they could lay their hands on. But the truth is, they all work to some extent. Perhaps the band rarely succeeds in making it seem like they were born and reared to perform this kind of stuff, but they certainly un­derstand all the small details that make this stuff great — the vocal hooks and the arrangement de­tails are formally impeccable, so that on a purely technical level, ʽThe Grass Is No Greenʼ has no problem holding its own against the flood of «authentic» drone-flavored psychedelia of the times, and that Tina Turner might not have refused a duet with Demis on ʽCatch A Riverʼ, had she even been aware of this band's existence.

In short, it is best to view End Of The World as a heartfelt tribute, coming from a bunch of en­thusiastic, adoring, and not untalented fans, to the whole wide world of «popular musical art», than as an individual «meaningful statement». But I'd rather take a chameleonic tribute like that, masterminded by a guy like Vangelis, over an «individualistic» statement by somebody with no musical gift at all — so, clearly, a thumbs up here.

Check "End Of The World" (CD) on Amazon

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