Insight: Vangelis - 'The Dragon' and ‘Hypothesis’ (both recorded in 1971 and released in 1978)
As the story goes, The Dragon and Hypothesis were unfinished albums recorded shortly after the break-up of Aphrodite's Child when producer Giorgio Gomelsky introduced Vangelis to some musicians in London. They formed a loose collaboration in 1971 and recorded two albums worth of material in the studio, with, according to Gomelsky, the intention to evaluate the sessions and add overdubs where necessary later. Unfortunately, they never reconvened, and the tapes were shelved.
The recording sessions had been financed by BYG Records, with the intent of releasing them on their label. BYG was a French record label that existed from 1967 to 1972 that specialized in free jazz. They released albums by artists such as Don Cherry, Sun Ra, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago, but also delved occasionally into related artists from other genres, such as Terry Riley and Gong. But BYG was having financial problems and went bankrupt in 1972. One of the three partners behind BYG, Jean-Luc Young, re-located to the UK and formed his own record label, Charly Records, specializing in re-issues. He had managed to hang on to the BYG catalogue which included the unfinished Vangelis recordings, and despite them not being finished, decided to issue them as they were under the titles The Dragon and Hypothesis in 1978. This was done without permission from Vangelis or the other musicians involved. After their release, Vangelis sued Charly, demanding that the albums be taken off the market and he won. Nevertheless, copies of them continue to float around used record shops to this very day.
Vangelis himself felt that the albums were sub-par and had no interest in having them re-issued himself. It’s a pity, because there is a lot to like on these works, especially on The Dragon, perhaps a little less so with Hypothesis, but if they were indeed unfinished, I’m not sure what else they would have added to them, because to my ears, they sound like complete works.
On The Dragon, the line-up, consisting of Vangelis on keyboards, Michel Ripoche on violin, Anargyros ‘Silver’ Koulouris on guitar, Brian Odgers on bass and Mick Waller on drums, create a unique and beautiful sounding blend of rock music, drone and ethnic folk music. The band wasn’t entirely new to Vangelis. Koulouris had been the lead guitarist in Aphrodite’s Child (and after this would go on to work with Vangelis on his first solo album, Earth) and Rinpoche was an accomplished player who had done session work on the recently finished Aphrodite’s Child album 666 (The Apocalypse of John, 13/18), (he would continue to work with Vangelis, appearing on a several of his solo albums in the 70’s and early 80’s).
According to Gomelsky, the idea for the sessions was to find grooves that would lead into long, Sufi trance-like patterns that would continue to evolve with a lot of improvisation on top of them. The 15-minute title track of The Dragon certainly accomplishes that. It’s a deeply grooving jam with a Middle Eastern/Mediterranean vibe to it. It’s hard to tell exactly what Vangelis is doing on this piece. Perhaps that was something he wanted to add in the overdubs. But there are enough drones and strange sounds emanating from the mix that Vangelis had to be responsible for some of them. Certainly, The Dragon might sound repetitive to some ears, but I find it rhythmically spellbinding with the spacey drones and other instruments adding depth and texture. Its trance-like nature is what makes it such a masterful piece. Ripoche’s violin playing is mesmerizing and Koulouris’ guitar-work explodes like liquid sound through the grooves adding pure acid drenched beauty to them.
Stuffed Aubergine turns the corner into a much mellower vibe, and on this one Vangelis shines. Set against a background of a low-key, loping rhythm section with strumming acoustic guitars and swells of ambient sound, Vangelis improvises on both electric piano and what sounds like clavioline, adding in some synthesizer as the piece progresses. And the amazing Stuffed Tomato (I think these titles may have just been joke titles given to the jams temporarily until they came up with something better, but who knows?) shifts smoothly from ancient sounding folk music, to something that always struck me as the perfect soundtrack to some epic movie based on Greek myth and legend, like the returning Odysseus at the bow of his ship as it crashes through the sparkling waves of the Mediterranean Sea. That is, of course, if Odysseus was a jazz keyboardist on the side.
The Dragon may sound a bit rough around the edges compared to the Vangelis works that would come later, but it's not out of line for the time it was recorded, sharing elements of both late period Aphrodite's Child and Vangelis' first solo album Earth.
Hypothesis is a different beast altogether, and fits much more neatly into BYG’s specialization of free jazz. The line-up for this album is slightly different. Tony Oxley replaces Mick Waller on drums. While Waller flirted with jazz, he predominately played with R&B, Blues and Rock bands. Oxley, though, was a jazz drummer through and through, with a preference for free jazz, which certainly fit the slant of the material on Hypothesis much better. And Oxley and bassist Brian Odgers had worked together just a couple of years before this with John McLaughlin during the sessions for his Extrapolation album.
But perhaps the biggest change was the absence of Koulouris on the album and the fact that they didn’t replace him with another guitarist. Without guitar, the group pushed themselves further away from the rock idiom more evident on The Dragon.
Consisting this time of just two long tracks, about 16 minutes in length each, Hypothesis drifts back and forth between totally avant-garde and free improvisational stuff to more structured fusion-style material, with heavy doses of spacey ambience reminiscent of the kind of thing Vangelis would do on Invisible Connections many years later. People who bought The Dragon and enjoyed it, who then ran out to get Hypothesis likely had a rude awakening. The music on Hypothesis is a much more challenging listen, with dramatic shifts from near silence to screeching noise. It’s not all avant-garde craziness though, as the band does occasionally break into a groove, on occasion even a funky one, but this is definitely an album that would have less appeal to a rock audience (or even to long-time fans of Vangelis’ music). Personally, I’ve heard much better fusion and free-jazz recordings than this, despite the participation of Odgers and Oxley (and admittedly, Oxley does provide some excellent and creative drumming). In the end, as diverse a player as he is, Vangelis is not really a jazz man.
I can see how Vangelis could have been disappointed with the Hypothesis sessions, but don’t understand his dislike of The Dragon. Maybe he just lumps them both together into one session that didn’t work out for him? To me, The Dragon is the missing link between 666 and Earth as Vangelis moved away from psychedelic rock into more esoteric styles of music and it fits in very nicely between them. Nevertheless, on Hypothesis, you can hear some of the kinds of ideas he would later explore on albums such as Beauborg and the aforementioned Invisible Connections, so it does provide some insight into Vangelis’s evolution as a musician.