“Fuck!” was, somewhat surprisingly, the first thing Ólafur Arnalds said once he stepped on the stage of The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the ancient Roman stone theater right beneath the Acropolis in Athens. “It’s the first time we play live after almost 2 years, and this place is beautiful”, he continued.
It was a hot summer night, and the Icelandic composer quickly made it clear this was not his preferred climate: “It is too warm here, thank God the sun went down!” Having taken his seat at the grand piano, he went on to perform some of the music from his latest work Some Kind of Peace together with a string quartet comprised of Petur Björnsson and Viktor Orri Arnason (violins), Unnur Jonsdottir (cello), and Karl James Pestka (viola).
Ólafur’s delicate harmonies and elegant melodic lines were in tune with the serenity of the surroundings, and the sporadic singing of the cicadas complemented the music perfectly. The blend of piano, strings, loops and beats created a special ambience that captivated the audience, which responded enthusiastically throughout the evening.
The Icelandic musician and producer has had an exciting journey so far, marked by collaborations with artists such as Nils Frahm and pianist Alice Sera Ott. His latest album is a personal statement, a way for him to express his creative development amid a rapid-changing and chaotic world.
A way, as its title implies, to create some kind of peace – both for him and the listeners who find solace in his delightful, meditative music.
Based in Athens, Vinyl Suicide have been part of the indie Greek pop/rock scene for several years now. In 2015 they released their debut album Homeward Bound, which featured tracks such as Pictures of You and 6.40 Α.Μ. (On Lycabettus), attracting popular and critical attention.
Following an extensive period of working on new material, experimenting and performing, the band recently released their second album titled Stray Asteroids. Available both digitally and on 12-inch vinyl, the album was produced, mixed and engineered by Vasilis Nissopoulos [Whereswilder, Daphne and the Fuzz] and synths were recorded by seasoned keyboardist and session musician Orestis Benekas [The Cave Children, Σtella, Pavlos Pavlidis & B-Movies].
The album opener Asteroids immediately sets the overall tone and mood: well-polished sound and melodic tunes accentuated skillfully by Dimitra Sideri’s ethereal vocals and Ted Kapa’s effect-heavy guitars, supported by a tight rhythm section (Dimitris Patronas – bass, Dimitris Doumouliakas – drums, persussion) and given an atmospheric touch by Orestis Benekas’s synths and keys.
The album explores various themes ranging from youthful eroticism (Mad Love, Young Hearts) to desire and heartbreak (Pixel Soul), while occasionally drifting towards angst and darker thoughts (My Youth, Run). After all, this is “suicide pop” to quote the band’s name and self-description.
What prevails, though, is a mood of uplifting energy combined with a certain melancholy that owes much to 80s aesthetics and sound. Moreover, there is a sense of quiet expectation and looking forward, encapsulated beautifully in the album’s closing track (Fireflies):
Sun carves my face, summer ends / Fireflies and seashells, rides with friends / The air is filled with love, the night is near / Boys count to ten and disappear
As the band themselves put it, their songs “compile the soundtrack of the reality we prefer to live in.” Indeed, Stray Asteroids is an album filled with music and words that invite us to imagine and experience a reality worth living.
Taking on “Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division”, celebrated Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently launched The Bach Project, which involves live performances and actions in 36 selected locations across the globe.
In the musician’s own words: “I believe that culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – is an essential part of building a strong society. My hope is that together we can use Bach’s music to start a bigger conversation about the culture of us.”
Yo-Yo Ma in Kipseli
Prior to his big recital at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Yo-Yo Ma had a busy schedule including various stimulating discussions and actions around Athens. One of these included an impromptu performance at Kanari Square in the neighborhood of Kipseli, where the cello virtuoso shared the stage with local musicians and jammed with them, much to the surprise of an enthusiastic audience.
Ma went on about the influence of Africa on classical music and gave a short history lesson on the origins of the Sarabande, a dance form used widely by Baroque musicians (Bach wrote a Sarabande for each of his 6 cello suites). He then quoted from Thucydides’s famous Funeral Oration of Pericles (ca. 404 B.C.): “We throw open our city to the world and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing”.
After giving an intimate performance of Bach’s Sarabande from his Cello Suite No.3 in C Major, the great musician left the stage addressing the audience with a message of encouragement: “Stay open, stay courageous!”
Bach meets Epirus in Herodion
On the last day of June, during a warm summer evening, Ma performed all of Bach’s six cello suites in one go without intermission at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus under the imposing shadow of the Athenian Acropolis. For about 2,5 hours the crowd stood still listening to the sound of Bach’s timeless music delivered by Ma’s inspired, masterful playing.
Accompanied at times by singing cicadas, Ma’s performance was moving and powerful. His playing was elegant and spirited, in tune with the surroundings and the special ambience. The concert was concluded with a joint performance by Yo-Yo Ma and a vocal ensemble specialized in polyphonic music from the region of Epirus in northwestern Greece.
Following a sober and reflective instrumental introduction, Ma accompanied the singers on Αλησμονώ και χαίρομαι (“Forgetful, I am truly glad”), a striking example of Epirotic polyphonic song, whose lyrics and melody still resonate with remarkable force to this day:
Forgetful I am truly glad, but mindful I am saddened; remembering those foreign lands, I want to set out for them.
Mid-1970s, Greece. Following the fall of the military junta, amid difficult circumstances that were however marked by widespread creativity and -hitherto suppressed- artistic activity, a rock band was beginning to take shape through lengthy jams inside improvised music studios somewhere in the western suburbs of Athens. Its name? The 4 Levels of Existence.
The 4 Levels of Existence – top to bottom: Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis, Marinos Yamalakis, Nikos Grapsas / photo by Vassilis Asimakopoulos
The band’s initial line-up consisted of ex-Frog’s Eye members Athanasios Alatas (rhythm guitar) and Christos Vlachakis (drums), together with Marinos Yamalakis (bass – vocals) and Nikos Dounavis (lead guitar). The group started rehearsing and making live appearances (mostly in local cinemas as was customary for Greek bands at the time), eventually managing to win third place in a music contest organized by the National Radio and Television Foundation (EIRT) in 1975.
After having Dounavis replaced by Nikos Grapsas (lead guitar – vocals), the band was asked to make an album for Venus Records, a small record label specialized -oddly enough- in Greek folk and popular music. It was, nevertheless, a unique opportunity and the band didn’t miss it: On 5 and 6 January 1976 at the legendary Columbia Studios in Athens, their first -and only- album was recorded. Within just 10 (!) hours in total, the recording was ready after two short sessions: first all instrumental tracks were laid, then the vocals were added.
Although born under such tight time constraints and adverse circumstances (there was essentially no producer or sound engineer), the band’s self-tiled debut album was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement : A guitar-based blend of psychedelia, folk and hard rock that also featured Greek lyrics – something unusual for a rock band at the time.
A highly original mix of diverse elements, the record manages to convey a considerably wide spectrum, both musically and emotionally – from teenage aggression and heavy guitar riffs (“Metamorphic”) to controlled emotional outbursts (“The Fool’s Trumpet”) and melodic passages that exude a nostalgic feeling of youthful melancholy and lyricism (“Untitled”, “Disappointment”).
The album’s original 1976 vinyl release – the cover art was created by Athanasios Alatas, initially conceived for Frog’s Eye
Shortly after the album’s release, the band was dissolved. However, their sole recording would follow its own incredible course, becoming a highly sought-after item among record collectors and considered one of the rarest Greek rock discs ever. Moreover, in an amazing turn of events, US rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z used Alata’s guitar riff from “Someday in Athens” as a sample for their hit song “Run this Town”, which would be sung by Rihanna and win two Grammy Awards in 2010.
Following subsequent releases in both vinyl and CD format, the 4 Levels of Existence album was recently re-released in beautiful 180gr vinyl by Anazitisi Records, a small independent label that specializes in psychedelic/progressive/blues/jazz/rock records from the 1960s and 1970s.
Just as the band’s music resurfaces once more, becoming available for a new generation of listeners, the story behind the 4 Levels of Existence has been just made into a film documentary. Directed by Iliana Danezi, the film will be having its première next week at the 21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
While offering an overview of the band’s history, the film traces the surviving band members (Alatas, Vlachakis and Grapsas) and depicts them in their current whereabouts, painting their individual portraits and highlighting the development of their distinct personalities. What is more, the three musicians are seen together again some -special- day in Athens, chatting, strolling around old hangouts, and jamming for the first time in a very long time…
The band’s surviving members in 2018, during the shooting of the documentary (left to right: Nikos Grapsas, Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis)
In the end, the band’s story can also be seen as a reflection on changing times and the things that matter most as time flies by: the common aspirations and dreams of youth, the power of friendship, the sense of group solidarity and identity, the fulfillment brought by artistic expression, the feeling that not everything has been futile or wasted…
In the words of the band’s guitarist Athanasios Alatas: “[Our] record is dedicated to all the bands that played in West Attica at the time. All those who didn’t get a chance to record, who broke up, etc. All those who did their best back then, to fulfill their life and dreams through music.”
Covering a wide range from post rock and metal to punk and electronica, the bands delivered some exhilarating performances, thus proving that truly authentic and elevating music is still out there, for all those willing to explore and go beyond the fringes of today’s largely commercialized and market-oriented music productions (perhaps ‘products’ would be a better word).
Contemporary music could definitely use more experimentation, innovation, and personal expression – elements found in abundance in all of the aforementioned bands, which will surely continue to entice and entrance audiences both around and -hopefully- beyond Greece.