Yes, that's exactly how you'd think British psychedelic music recorded by Greek musicians in France would sound. Provided you'd ever think about it.
1) End Of The World;
2) Don't Try To Catch A River;
3) Mister Thomas;
4) Rain And 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;
The best way to explain a particularly unusual sound is, of course, try and do it through comparison. Like "The Flaming Lips sound like the Beach Boys trying to sound like the Beatles if Brian Wilson tried to sound like John Lennon and not like Paul McCartney". Or "Pearl Jam sound like shit". Yes, despite the numerous annoying yelps of people who contend that every piece of music should be listened to based on its own individual rules, comparison is nevertheless a mighty weapon in the hands of a reviewer. So here's to comparison.
Now then, we were going to talk Aphrodite's Child and their debut album here. And the first and foremost comparison I would offer are none other than the Moody Blues. Yes, by all means, as Vangelis and his compatriot, croonster extraordinaire Demis Roussos (let's just forget his solo career ever existed, shall we?) ponder over the artistic path to take, they certainly take the Moody Blues into account. Well, maybe a little Bee Gees, too. But given their background (Greece) and their working environment (France), they couldn't just emulate any of these bands. No, they had their own private ambitions, more expansive indeed than the soon-to-be tummy of Roussos, and the ones that are responsible for both the positive and negative aspects of the record.
From a purely serious (logical, mathematical, rational, cold-hearted, snobby, sarcastic, nihilistic, post-modern, politically correct - or politically incorrect, not that there's much difference) point of view, this album sucks notoriously. Cheesy syrupy vocals that make you think better of Ted Nugent on atmospheric pretentious ballads that make you think better of Billy Joel. "Epic" numbers with big bombastic production exploiting psychedelic cliches that scream "1968!" at you as if they really want to make you believe that was the most important year in history or something. (Actually, I can't prove that it wasn't, but I wouldn't include Aphrodite's Child into its top ten events all the same). Whitebread soul excourses. No truly independent vision. A bunch of kids who want to be stern and artsy and actual but don't have the least idea of what they'd actually like to tell the world - and why is it that it's Aphrodite's Child the world needs to tell these things and not Neil Diamond, for instance.
But strange as it is, it all works. It's one of those crazy paradoxes I like to discover - the sound is technically not "original", yet it's definitely unique in its own way. And, of course, it's all due to the astute Greek mind of Vangelis. There are some guitars on here theoretically, but I hardly hear them (and as far as I know, these guys weren't too hot on guitars themselves, with Roussos and an uncredited guy called Silver Kolouris handling them alternatively); all the record is thoroughly based on Vangelis' keyboards. And boy, does he revel on here: there's nothing even closely resembling the stern minimalism of his solo work. Pianos, organs, Mellotrons, overdubbed to hysterical level, all played in a vicious, aggressive manner. That doesn't mean he sounds anywhere near Emerson, as throughout the entire record he evades show-off-ey finger-flashing warp-speed solos and the like. But he shows himself to be an apt user of all kinds of sonic gimmicks, with echoey production, reverb, distortion, etc., and thus compensates for the lack of guitar perfectly.
It all really comes together on raving tracks like 'You Always Stand In My Way', which might have passed for a stupid take on "soul", with Roussos almost throwing a fit in the studio, if not for an absolutely incredible keyboards arrangement. A moody, but sharp organ pattern in one speaker - a majestic heavenly Mellotron part in the other speaker, plus occasional distorted harpsichord notes added to achieve further perfection. Same goes with 'Don't Try To Catch A River', whose title brings on strange associations with 'River Deep Mountain High' (indeed, there are melodic similarities as well) - the main harpsichord pattern that drives it is pretty funny, while the occasional whooshing Mellotron outbursts and organ 'insertions' attract your attention as fine as anything.
This magnificent keyboard sound is, like I said, the main attraction and distinguishing sign of the entire record - in 1968, few people would dare to bring keyboard experimentation to such complex levels, not even the Nice. But I won't deny that the melodies themselves are also pretty fun. For instance, I quite enjoy the three "corny" ballads - heck, if I enjoy the Moody Blues and ELO, nothing can prevent me from praising a ballad by Aphrodite's Child when it's really well-written. 'End Of The World' is my favourite, with a few well-placed hooks, a few adrenaline-raising powerful piano chords and a few chillin' 'AIIIEEEYAH' by Roussos that are probably meant to signify the protagonist approaching said 'end of the world' (yeah, the song's simply a love ballad, but "metaphysically loaded", if you know what I mean). The European megahit 'Rain And Tears' is pretty nice as well, graced with luvingly gentle harpsichord playing... and say what you will, but Roussos' tremblin' oh-so-Greek vocals are indeed beautiful in their own way. 'Valley Of Sadness' is also good, if a bit repetitive.
The two 'epics' of the album are a bit more dubious - 'The Grass Is No Green', in particular, sounds exactly like what you'd expect of two intelligent well-bred kids having inhaled for the first time and describing the results. But Roussos' Eastern influenced chanting is catchy and, well you know, authentic. It's really a triviality, but I'd still like to remind that these Greek guys really knew what 'Eastern motives' are better than anybody in the Western world, as popular Greek music is infested with Turkish influences - which means that, experienced potheads or not, they could be pretty good at capturing the 'pothead world' as it is. And turns out they were pretty good at capturing the world of paranoia, as well, as 'Day Of The Fool', the album-closing number where Roussos impersonates a poor romantic madman (quite a thrilling story, too).
About the only misfire, I'd say, is 'Mister Thomas' - a rather lame Britpop imitation a la Ray Davies which naturally comes across as nothing but a manneristic number, too carnivalesque for its own good. Well, I'd be surprised if they did succeed in this genre, so it's simply a bit strange they'd want to try the style out at all. Maybe they were big Kinks fans? Whatever.
It's interesting to speculate on the subject of what could have happened if the band were allowed to work in Britain (they weren't) and recorded and released End Of The World in London instead of Paris, consequently reaching the "progressive" Anglo-Saxon part of the population instead of the "uncool" continental European part. At the very least, this could have seriously cost the Moody Blues a big part of their fanbase. On the other hand, maybe it was only logical to have stayed on the continent, as Vangelis' heavy use of interweaving keyboard and orchestration parts certainly ties in far better with the European symphonic practice than with the far more restrained British tradition. It's fun to compare this "catchy", "commercial" sound that Aphrodite's Child have with some of the "inaccessible", "elitist" music of Britain's most renowned prog bands and eventually discover that in certain ways, Vangelis wrote music that was far more complex and multi-layered. You just don't notice it at first, but it's right there. Cool album, in short - if a bit too eccentric for its own good.