Every now and again I encounter an album which seems to exist in its own bubble. Aphrodite’s Child are a band I had certainly heard of, but I couldn’t name you any of their songs, although realising that following their split, half of them would individually achieve international mega-fame as Vangelis and Demis Roussos is distracting enough for me to purchase an album without hearing a note of the band’s output. The fact that 666 is the sound of a Greek psyche/prog quartet based around a series of biblical passages (The Apocalypse of John, 13/18), only increases the bafflement factor. Okay, Aphrodite’s Child, challenge accepted.
Starting out as a psychedelic pop trio (having lost their guitar player, Silver Koulouris to National Service) and, following a detour to France, basing themselves in London in the late 60s, Aphrodite’s Child had enjoyed a string of hit singles across Europe (the biggest being the title track of their second album, It’s Five O’Clock). Koulouris had rejoined the band in 1970, Vangelis Papathanassiou then set about planning the band’s most ambitious album to date, recruiting lyricist Costas Ferris to help him pen a double album based on the Book of Revelation. Such a strong move apparently sat uneasy with the rest of the band, who were happy with the psyche-flecked pop direction that they had enjoyed success with, however Vangelis would not allow his ambition to remain unrealised and the resulting album was one of the most unique albums of the early 70s.
Starting with the short chant of “The System”, 666 makes an impact with “Babylon” a gloriously unbound acoustic rock song driven by Loukas Sideras’ relentless drumming and Roussos’ elastic bass playing. So far so Prog. This is great stuff. Things then take a change for the slightly weird with “Loud, Loud, Loud”, a spoken word pierce underpinned by a delicate piano piece, and a choir intoning the title of the song. Okay. That’s interesting.
666’s reaches its accessible apex with “The Four Horsemen”, a keening tune which takes advantage of Roussos’ vocal abilities. It’s a great slice of 70s Prog tune smithery, with all the band having their chance, particularly Koulouris with a particularly well judge guitar hero style solo.
After “The Four Horsemen”, 666 strides into less commercial material, but material that influenced their more mainstream prog-peers for years to come. There’s little doubt that Rick Wakeman has listened to Vangelis’ keyboard wizardry on “The Lamb” a few times, while the tenor sax work throughout the album would inform Jethro Tull on their A Passion Play and War Child albums over the next few years. Throughout 666 you can hear snippets of ideas and conceits that other, better selling, acts would co-opt and develop on some of the biggest selling albums of the decade. Yes Pink Floyd, you may have had an influence on Aphrodite’s Child themselves, but you’ve certainly borrowed enough of their ideas as well.
666 is an album seemingly over-burdened with ideas. Sure, not all of them are great, but when it works, such as on the short heavy-metal blister-bursts of “The Battle of the Locusts” and “Do It”, you can only admire Vangelis’ determination to experiment with a successful formula and the band’s combined technical ability. While a song like the Sideras sung “The Beast”, seems a little kooky, maybe even camp, you can’t deny that it’s at least fun and memorable.
Of course, not all the ideas work, and this is particularly obvious on the second half of the album, where experimental tendencies overwhelm Vangelis and the rest of the band and for every solid (if slightly odd) tune brimming with potential like “The Wedding of the Lamb”, there’s a major lapse in taste like “∞” on which legendary greek actress Irene Papas overdoes the orgasmic yowling for over five minutes. Then there’s the near twenty minute mind-melter “All the Seats Were Occupied”, which could have done everything that needed to be done in a third of its run time. In many ways, that’s the point of an album like 666 though – the expression of ideas, which is all well and good as long as the listener accepts that some of those ideas will be far superior to others.
666 was the last stand for Aphrodite’s Child, as their record label ummd and ahhd about releasing for the best part of a year after it was completed and the band had gone their separate ways when they finally put it out, with Vangelis developing his career in film soundtracks (something he’d already started while a member of the band) and Demis Roussos achieving global fame to the point where he became an undeserving figure of parody for much of his career.
As an album 666 is certainly ambitious, occasionally overcooked, but ultimately a unique statement by a talent that would achieve far greater recognition as his career progressed. For the other band members who weren’t Vangelis, they evidently gave their all despite their misgivings and the whole album stands as a testimony to their willingness to put in the effort regardless of the musical direction. For Roussos, it’s the album to point to silence all those that have unfairly mocked him in recent decades.
As biblical psych-prog-pop-metal epics go, there’s few that have had more effort put into them than 666.