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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Jean Michel Jarre, "Oxygene"

Jean Michel Jarre
Disques Motors (1976)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Imagine if you will, modern music listener, the club scene in the mid-'70s. Electronic music has not been "invented" yet, per se, and hip-hop was still a gleam in the eyes of some kids in The Bronx. Rock 'n' roll per The Comets was no longer in vogue for dancing. Thus disco, a scene that either you or your parents still regret taking part in, held sway. Something clearly had to be done. One of the biggest names in getting that something done was Jean Michel Jarre.

Jarre, the son of a French film composer and native of Lyon, was not like the Armin van Buuren disc jockey-style figurehead that currently looms over the electronic scene. He was a ballet composer who found early in his career that he enjoyed the hardly-explored territory of synthesizers more than traditional keyboards. Today, simply using synthesizers doesn't qualify as electronica, but at the time of "Oxygene," an entire album of instrumental synth tracks (accompanied by other futuristic instruments to be mentioned later) was groundbreaking stuff.

Jarre was fortunate to exist within the timeframe that he did. The world, having it's dreams of space realized by the lunar landing spree of the '60s, was looking farther and further outward. "2001: A Space Odyssey," among other releases, had equated the sound of the synthesizer with the great unknown of the universe. "Star Wars," although not a synth-based soundtrack, would reignite the interest in space in 1977, the year "Oxygene" was released in the United States. The world had space on the brain, and Jarre had the perfect soundtrack to fill it.

"Oxygene Part 2" (the six tracks share the same title, split into parts, one of several reasons the album was found too risky by many industry heads. Nine Inch Nails would echo the style on its 2008 instrumental album "Ghosts I-IV") is the best example of the classic outer space style, and also demonstrates the flexibility of a synth. There are the long, ethereal chords that everyone associates with the instrument (per Rush's "Tom Sawyer"), but there are also looping melodies and curious chirps that combine to create a vivid soundscape. If you're looking for an obvious influence on modern electronica, check out the "laser beam fade" at 0:50, an effect used constantly, perhaps most famously as the intro to Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba Dee)."

Jarre's music was part of the science fiction trend, but perhaps proves even more influential to the scores of '80s horror films, such as John Carpenter's "Halloween," and cult classics like "Cave Dwellers." A good part of his horror motifs is not only Jarre's proficiency on the synthesizer, but also his incorporation of the theremin, another "nu-world" instrument that goes a long way on tracks like "Oxygene Part 1."

For being on the threshold of electronica, this album is admittedly not very danceable. It has its moments (the intro to "Part 1" and about halfway through "Oxygene Part 5"), but this album is best appreciated for its contributions to the later scene. This album is perfect if you've got a taste for the schlocky soundtracks of sci-fi and horror films however. If you enjoyed the Aphex Twin album examined earlier on this blog, you'll spot the references back to Jarre's world.

INTERESTING FACT: Jarre holds the record for the largest concert attendance ever, a Moscow extravaganza celebrating the city's 850th anniversary in 1997. The show had 3.5 million in attendance, the fifth time Jarre has appeared before audiences more than a million. Another one of his contributions to modern electronica is his use of lasers and lights as part of his performance, cementing his reputation as a live performer, rather than a studio artist.

"Oxygene Part 2"

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