DISCO RECHARGE: VOYAGE – S/T: Getting Conceptual While Getting Down

When people talk about concept albums, the genre being discussed is almost always rock, sometimes with the occasional mention of soul artists like Marvin Gaye thrown in on the side.  It’s easy to forget that disco offered popular music a vast array of concept material.  This was a case of commercialism being the mother of invention: the concept album was frequently the easiest way for a producer to fill two sides of vinyl with the expansive musical suites disco required and also provided the producer with a way to distinguish their product in a commercially glutted genre.

A great example of this is provided by the debut album of Voyage, a studio project assembled by Roger Tokarz, a French producer of library music.  He came up with the idea of a travelogue theme, mixing in the sounds of different nations to add flavor to the medley format that had been a mainstay of the disco genre since Gloria Gaynor’s first album with Tom Moulton.   The results were strong enough to storm the disco charts and make Voyage an outfit that was able to continue into the early 1980s.

Voyage establishes its theme and its musical aesthetic on the opening track “From East To West.” The lyrics give the listener an elegant sales job on the glamour of traveling to foreign lands, working in the familiar disco theme of all different nations getting down to the same groove.  The music captures that escapist spirit, wrapping the delicate vocal melody in a dramatic, sometimes brash Eurodisco arrangement: a cosmic intro built on dramatic, swirling synth notes gives way to a light, nimble groove stoked by wah-wah guitar and meditative piano lines.  Variation is provided by percussive horn stabs and a funky guitar-and-handclaps break before the vocals spiral upwards to match the return of the celestial synths at the song’s finale.

In just seven minutes and change, “From East To West” takes the listener on a dramatic journey… but it’s merely the first movement of an album-length journey.  It deftly segues into “Point Zero,” a tribal beat extravaganza where everything is oriented around metronomic hand-percussion and a matching, rhythmic vocal chant, before giving way to the airy exotica of “Orient Express,” a Middle Eastern-styled opus that alternates string-laden passages highlighted by oboe with intense, surprisingly hard-rocking guitar breaks.   It all adds up to a dazzling first side that covers a variety of genres and moods without ever dropping the beat.

The second begins on a novelty music style note with the bagpipes-spiked “Scotch Machine” and the Copland-esque fiddles of “Bayou Village.”  Though they fit the album’s concept, they’re the weakest material on here as they allow kitschiness to overtake the artistry that defines the rest of the album.  Thankfully, things get right back on track for the album’s closing one-two punch of “Latin Odyssey” and “Lady America.”  The former is fuelled by congas and horns as it simulates a steamy, percussive Spanish groove a la Santa Esmeralda while the latter is a piano-pounding slice of proto-boogie that features an addictive chant at chorus time, strong horn work and an unexpected vibes solo.

Like many a vintage disco album, Voyage is on the short side, clocking in at just over 34 minutes.  However, the album has recently been given the archival treatment by the Disco Recharge reissue series from Harmless Records and the results are a jumbo 2-CD package that offers well over two hours’ worth of music.  For starters, there are an array of single edits and twelve inch mixes for several album cuts.  “From East To West” alone receives seven alternate versions, including a few modern takes that weave in some techno-styled synth and drum machine overdubs.

Also included are both single and 12-versions of a pair of cuts recorded by Voyage’s musicians under the name V.I.P. Connection.  “Please Love Me Again” is the first and it offers a fluffy, almost Eurovision style take on disco, complete with a sugary string-driven melody and a female chorus swooping in at chorus time, Silver Convention-style, to coo the title.  However, the other track is pretty revelatory: “West Coast Drive” is a funky jam that uses swinging, jazzy horns and an early drum machine to create the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear on a blaxploitation film soundtrack.  It’s a real find and Disco Recharge deserves a tip of the hat for including it.

That said, the biggest treat on this deluxe reissue is the inclusion of Special Instrumental, a super-rare collection of instrumental-only versions of songs drawn from the first two Voyage albums.  It supplies yet another set of alternate mixes for Voyage fans, including some cuts that are much shorter and punchier than their album counterparts.

All in all, the Disco Recharge version of Voyage is both generous and educational, the latter tack further aided by a brief but informative set of liner notes by regular Disco Discharge scribe/disco expert Alan Jones.  If you’ve got a soft spot for vintage Eurodisco, this set will allow you to indulge it on a grand scale.

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