Saturday, 16 July 2011

Hidden Gem: 666 - Aphrodite's Child (Vertigo, 1972)

Greek progressive rock wouldn't instinctively be my favourite genre of choice nor would I rush to hear an album featuring Charriots of Fire composer Vangelis (although you gotta love Blade runner) and 70's housewife's favourite Demis Rousos - but that's before I heard 666. This record has gained much kudos in recent years and is increasingly being regarded as one of the key psych-prog records of the early 1970s. Vangelis Papathanassiou (to give him his full name) actually formed Aphrodite's Child in 1963 but in the early 1970s he hooked up with Greek poet Costas Ferris in Paris  to create this ambitious (some would say preposterous) rock opera. The record isn't without its faults, its long, meandering and at certain times, tests the patience - much of side 2 of the original vinyl is essentially ambient -  but the scale of ambition here and the sheer value of experimentalism are to be applauded.

Opening track Babylon sounds like the Who with its driving drums and bass although I don't recall the Who ever using a trumpet. Its one of a number of tracks (The Battle of the Locusts, Altamont) that are typical of the hard rock sound of the day. However, to think this is a record of bombastic rock is a mistake, Loud, Loud, Loud, for example, is a different proposition - a female poet recalling Horses era Patti Smith - already one can detect a variety of sounds and approaches coming into play. The four horsemen is perhaps the best known track on the record and has been much imitated (check Beck's Chemtrails for one). Its a perfect combination of rock and soul (or psych as the geeks might call it). The guitars sing in the sort of way that Hendrix or Clapton could play. But for each stroke of genius there is indulgence. The Lamb for one is a ludicrous instrumental that could only have been made in the early 1970's.

First track on side 2 Aegian Sea however is majestic. Again the guitar comes to the fore but this is a track that has the texture and depth of Pink Floyd or early Dire Straits (yes I said early Dire Straits) Like The aforementioned Battle of the Locusts it makes you realise that these guys really could play. Perhaps the most surprising track of all however is Do it.  This is a bizarre rock/funk fusion that really wouldn't sound out of place on a mix by Coldcut or a record by Red Snapper. Even that though is upstaged by the sexual outpouring and orgasmic shrieks of Irene Pappas (apparently the first take of this performance art was over 40 minutes long - now that's stamina!).

Hic et Nunc veers more towards classic 1960's psychedelia. It wouldn't be out of place next to tracks by the Small Faces and the Zombies. We then get a 19 minute 'opera within an opera' in All the seats were occupied. Funky drumbeats, cut ups from previous songs and Greek folk melodies combine in a sound that could only be described as 'progressive.' That just leaves us with Break, an Elton John style nearly hit sung by drummer Lucas Sideras.

A few things really stand out about 666. Firstly its ambition and seriousness are without question. Second, every member of the band contributes to the whole to create something that none of them could create alone. Third, thank god for punk.

Having said that, this is a fascinating listen and it has actually aged very well. Three or four tracks are stand out great prog-psych classics (Altamont is particularly good with its driving beats and talk of 'rolling people' virtually setting the template for the Verve's whole career) and one wishes more of today's guitar based acts had such a feeling of freedom and experimentation in their music making.

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