If you want to do an album of “New Age Orientalia,” you have a hard act to follow. In the late ‘70s and mid-‘80s Kitaro and Vangelis cornered the market on it with their blockbuster albums China
(Vangelis, 1979) and Silk Road
(Kitaro, 1985). Those who follow on the musical Silk Road are always going to be under the shadow of these predecessors.
French composer Jean-Luc Berthelot works much along the lines of these big commercial musicmakers. He uses lots of synthesizers, both as “solo” instruments and in “orchestral” textures, and he also uses exotic percussion. His melodic choices are appropriately Far-Eastern pentatonic, though more often he opts for modal harmonies which also go with the Oriental territory. Unlike Kitaro and Vangelis, though, Berthelot in this album stays away from the “big sound” and the bombastic quality which often characterizes those two pop heroes. The sound throughout Marco Polo is quiet, moderate in speed, and delicate. He likes to use timbres which resemble plucked and bowed strings, light bells, and flutes. It rarely, if ever, gets loud. As a result, it tends to be less noticeable – edging toward ambient rather than New Age pop music.
The “ambient” quality of Marco Polo means that there are no memorable catchy tunes, nor are there any major dramatic moments. The melodic lines tend to ramble on around a modal center without going anywhere. In some of the tracks, this works, as a kind of exotic audible landscape, for instance as in the lovely track 2, “Infinite Steppes.” In other tracks, it just gets dull after a while. The best music comes in those pieces which have a steady rhythm to back up the modal embellishments, such as track 6, “Kubilai Khan’s Caravan,” and in the last track, #8, “Dreams of Venezia.”
Like Marco Polo, Berthelot is a European traveling in Oriental territory. He makes no pretense of being “authentic;” this is, like his other albums, a very “European” sounding interpretation of another culture’s sounds. It is a kind of “Chinoiserie,” like the fashionable Chinese designs which graced European salons in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Berthelot’s Marco Polo is enjoyable not only for its stylish sound but for its unpretentiousness.
There is an extra, undocumented 9th track on this album, so stay tuned after Marco Polo seems to end. The "encore" is a non-Oriental synthesizer piece somewhat in the style of Jean-Michel Jarre, containing two short sections of feathery electronic twitters.