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"Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aries, there was an age undreamed of. And on to this
Conan, destined to bear the jeweled crown of Aqualonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!"
The 1980's proved to be very blossoming for adventure/fantasy films, also known as "sword & sorcery" epics, in Hollywood. In the wake of futuristic space age adventures (spear-headed by Star Wars), many filmmakers started creating films that took place in ancient times during the Middle Ages, or in rough fantasy enviroments not of this Earth, while struggling to make them seem authentic and believable. By the late 1980s this phase would begin tiring itself out due to over-exposure of one epic after another and audiences started to get increasingly unresponsive to many such films. This genre of film has of late been resurfacing to some extent with The Lord of the Rings, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven, but the kind of craze involving muscular men, primal lovemaking and action on steroids is not likely to come back with quite such a force as before.
One of the prime examples of the genre, as well as one of the best, came in the beginning of this phase when director John Milius came up with making a film based on Robert E. Howard's cult pulp-novels of Conan the Barbarian. The story involves the young Conan witnessing the death of his parents in the hands of the evil Thulsa Doom's servants. This sets Conan on the path of vengeance through spending a few years strapped into a grinding Wheel of Pain, becoming a gladiator and finally coming after Doom himself. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his career setting role as Conan is perfect for the part as well as James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom, giving the character a more menacingly nonchalant quality than being downright evil personified. Also Milius' approach in making the fictional Hyborean Age seem real and authentic helped add a great sense of reality to the proceedings without trying to make it seem silly or self-conscious. Helping to add dramatic gravitas to no small degree was the music of Basil Poledouris, one of the virtues that makes Conan stand far above many other such films and imitations.
During the 1980's, film scores were undergoing a huge change-over as major orchestral film scores were returning as the main medium of accompaniment for films, spurred by John Williams' award-winning contributions of the time. From the very outset Milius and Poledouris had an orchestral score in mind, thinking it the only possible way to properly bring the Hyborean Age to life. The producer of Conan, Dino de Laurentiis, on the other hand thought differently. He was an avid experimenter of pop/rock scores in the fantasy genre and this was the approach that he suggested for Conan the Barbarian. Milius and Poledouris however were not convinced and discarded the idea in favor of a more authentic style. Instead, de Laurentiis took his pop score ideas to be realized in 1984's Dune (a $47 million flop) where the rock group Toto created a strangely effective pop/rock/symphonic score that was one of the film's few saving graces. For Poledouris, the attempt for Conan was to create a musical soundscape that would evoke the Hyborean Age as a primitive and hostile time and for this he took much inspiration from the music of the Middle Ages as well as abandoning ideas of sweepingly lyrical melodies.
More than simply providing accompaniment like most film scores, Poledouris' music was required to actually tell the story as there is not much talking around going on in this movie. The first 30 minutes alone features about three lines of dialogue as a whole. This gave the composer ample opportunities to create long suite-like cues where he could create and develop multiple themes with great leisure. To help create the kind of primitive and brutal sound Conan required was a powerhouse of an orchestra comprised of members of the Santa Cecilia Chorus and Orchestra and the Radio Symphony of Rome in an epic recording session that took place in Rome. To be honest, the recorded quality by 1982's standards could have been a whole lot better, which can also be said of the performance itself that includes several distinct mistakes. But when viewed in the context of the film, the harsh recording and less-than-sophisticated performance actually enhances the film and makes the music more believable as an authentic composition from the age. The music often has a knack of sounding strangely familiar and there is a certain similarity toward Carl Orff's famous Carmina Burana, a composition often credited when film music features heavy choral music, an observation more often inaccurate among less informed reviewers. But in the case of Conan, this similarity is quite tangible. However, this is not to say Conan the Barbarian is a mere imitation. Rather Poledouris took certain aspects of different classical compositions and made them his own, such as the Gregorian plainchants. This all makes for an incredibly flavoursome score, helped along by a strong thematic base.
SCORE DETAILS AND THEMES
This thematic base is set strongly in the first seven cues on the album. After a minute-long prologue (featuring the classic opening lines of Mako found on the top of this review), the pounding percussion kicks in and Poledouris unleashes his full array of 24 French horns in the cue "Anvil of Crom", which many people have mistaken for being a representation of Conan. This however is most likely meant to depict the Hyborean Age itself in its savage and primal simplicity. Although not particularly inventive either in rhythm or theme, it was impressive enough that Jerry Goldsmith adapted it for a remarkably similar beginning to his score for Total Recall eight years later. The lyrical interlude between the pounding Hyborean motif is the true representation of Conan, a theme that will resurface throughout the score and has a truly noble sound to it. In fact, it is this theme that really elevates Conan above a simple mindless primitive by making him sound more high and mighty. This theme receives further appearances in the next cue "Riddle of Steel" where long garlands of string triplets embed a sensitive take on the theme. Here we can also see another feature of the score that prefers the use of soloistic instruments, namely the woodwinds, that are never drowned out by the full orchestra. This kind of instrumental usage is something many don't usually mention when talking about Conan, but it does lend the music a far more sophisticated air than simple wall to wall action scoring could.
The second half of the second track, "Riders of Doom", then brings us the more Orff-inspired music of the score. It is a very strong cue where the chorus is chanting in Latin verses of Poledouris' own invention and the brass gives mighty flourishes to the rhythm of a tambourine. The music is very reminiscent of "Fortune plango vulnera" from Carmina Burana and the whirl-wind performance by the full ensemble and chorus would put to shame any hard-core rock songs with its relentless assault on the senses. In the cue "Gift of Fury" Conan witnesses the death of his parents and the choral plainchants increase the menace of the scene with the orchestra backing up with primitive underlinings. Yet the woodwinds again are clearly heard in the background, preventing the music from ever exploding into real chaos. The following "Wheel of Pain" is an interesting cue that takes Conan's experience of being strapped into a giant rotating column where he grows up and gets his strength. The orchestra literally creates a metallic grinding noise in the background as the orchestra marches onward in an oppressive style with a slight Oriental touch added for flavour. It is however broken as Conan's theme is stated in a bold brass fanfare as he grows up to become a man.
The "Atlantean Sword" takes a variation on Conan's theme with some mystic undertones created by celeste and the minor-keyed string dirges of Rózsa-like feeling. It is followed by the most jolly cue in the score, "Theology/Civilization", which is a representation of Conan's Mongol friend Subotai. It is a gently lyrical theme, first presented by cor anglais and clarinet. It is then extended to full strings in a swingingly flowing and happy way that just can't fail to bring a smile to one's face. Also the constant clanging of tambourine and small bells makes for a really pleasant effect after so much oppressiveness. It is like a field of flowers with the sun shining over your head and the blue sky is all clear for but a few fluffy clouds. Maybe the description is a little unprofessional, but that's just how it feels. Bringing the main thematic material to close is the beautiful "Wifeing (Love Theme)" cue for Conan and Valeria. This is not a gently sweet love theme, but is rather tinged with an overwhelming sense of melancholy that is lovely to listen to. The woodwind solos are again very apparent in this theme and in the subsequent performances of it, with Conan's theme appearing near the end as counterpoint over the lush strings that take over the cue near the end.
"The Leaving" brings further extensions of the love theme with Subotai's plucking rhythms appearing for a moment in the middle. "The Search" continues in the same melancholy, yet hopeful feel as the previous cue and is a beauty of lyrical invention to which the solo instruments again bring much character. The "Mountain of Power Procession" brings another aspect to the score, that of a triumphal march. The music is full of Rózsa-esque pompousness apprarent in scores like Quo Vadis, Julius Caesar and Ben-Hur. Near the end we also get a tantalizingly haunting appearance of the Orgy music to be heard in full later on. Among the most interesting cues is "The Tree of Woe" where Conan is plagued by some really silly-looking ghosts. Again Poledouris' music really adds drama to the scene with eerie dissonance, swooshing effects and the sounds of wind-chimes. The moment is lifted as Subotai makes his appearance accompanied by his jolly "Civilization" theme. The following "Recovery" cue then extends Conan's theme for a full two minutes of performances, also adding a wordless female chorus in the process.
Some humour can be heard in the beginning of "The Kitchen" where the Riders of Doom music receives a more subdued appearance, namely sans big brass fanfares. The ensuing "The Orgy" is another fascinating cue. It was originally written by Poledouris' daughter Zoë and was then elaborated by her father to be played during Thulsa Doom's orgy scene. The music really brings Doom's hauntingly amicable and suave personality to the fore more than anything else and the rollingly hypnotic build-up of sound very much reminds me of the similar build-up of Ravel's Bolero to which the cue bears much apparent similarities. "The Funeral Pyre" brings the melancholy love theme to its grand culmination as Conan says farewell to his dead wife. The brass fanfares over the sweeping rendition of the theme is one that really delivers on the emotional front and brings a great sense of resonating tragedy.
The "Battle of the Mounds" brings another charging action motif that precedes a literal reprise of the Riders of Doom music in a slightly abreviated form. "Death of Rexor" also brings further new motifs of primitive intention along with the choral music heard in "The Gift of Fury". Many other themes are also reprised to some extent along with Conan's theme and the love theme. The haunting choral music before Conan slices off Doom's head is something quite interesting and reminds me a little of the choral writing found from Gustav Holst's "Neptune" movement from The Planets, an eerie and distant feel of other-worldliness. The concluding "Orphans of Doom/The Awakening" opens with a very sad and abandoned melody as Doom's subjects are left alone. The cue continues in a sustained adagio before a fanfare heralds a triumphal conclusion fitting for a film of this kind.
There are two official albums for Conan the Barbarian. The original Milan album features some 50 minutes of music (an impressive amount for a score this old) and has all the main presentations of the themes. The album has been released several times in the past (the latest in 2003) and is still widely available (particularly in Europe). However, in 1992 Varèse Sarabande released an expanded album, along with the sequel Conan the Destroyer, that added some 20 minutes of unreleased music and remixed it, adding more reverberation for a fuller sound. This edition, though missing the opening prologue, included such gems as the "Mountain of Power Procession", "The Tree of Woe" and "Recovery" cues as well as lengthy extensions of other scenes in the film. Accompanying the album is also a multi-page booklet with track description, pictures and production notes. Unfortunately this album is no longer in print and is difficult to find today. And usually when one can be found, the prices are often hefty.
As usual, the score has also been released in a more complete form in the bootleg market several times, the latest being a 2-CD edition appearing in the late 1990s (although with horrid sound quality). As for a more complete official release I'm not entirely convinced any such thing will surface. One source has said that the original masters are in so dire a condition or are missing entirely that nothing decent is likely to be salvaged. If this is true, it is unfortunate, as we now are missing such interesting cues as Conan's Gladiator Montage, the battle with Rexor and some of the other Battle of the Mounds material. For those interested enough to go through the trouble, the Varèse album is by far the one to acquire if you can find it. However, the Milan album is the cheaper and easier to find and has a good overall presentation of the music. Still, whatever version you will try to seek out, if you are either a fan of great orchestral music or film music in general, you cannot be without at least one version of the score. It really is a Classic with a big C and I can't recommend it enough. Simply a must-have!
Original 1982-2003 Milan album
1. Prologue/Anvil of Crom (3:39)
2. Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom (5:38)
3. The Gift of Fury (3:50)
4. Column of Sadness/Wheel of Pain (4:09)
5. Atlantean Sword (3:51)
6. Theology/Civilization (3:14)
7. Love Theme (2:10)
8. The Search (3:09)
9. The Orgy (4:14)
10. The Funeral Pyre (4:29)
11. Battle of the Mounds Pt.1 (4:53)
12. Orphans of Doom/The Awakening (5:32)
Expanded 1992 Varèse Sarabande album
1. Anvil of Crom (2:34)
2. Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom (5:36)
3. Gift of Fury (3:50)
4. Wheel of Pain (4:09)
5. Atlantean Sword (3:50)
6. Theology/Civilization (3:13)
7. Wifeing (Love Theme) (2:10)
8. The Leaving/The Search (5:59)
9. Mountain of Power Procession (3:21)
10. The Tree of Woe (3:31)
11. Recovery (2:11)
12. The Kitchen/The Orgy (6:30)
13. Funeral Pyre (4:29)
14. Battle of the Mounds (4:52)
15. Death of Rexor (5:34)
16. Orphans of Doom/The Awakening (5:31)
Music Composed and Conducted by Basil Poledouris
Performed by members of the Chorus & Orchestra of Santa Cecilia
and the Radio Symphony of Rome
"The Orgy" Composed by Basil and Zoë Poledouris
Orchestrated by Greig McRitchie
Recording and Live Mixing Engineer: Federico Savina
Recorded at International Recording Studios, Rome
Schwarzeneggers major film debut divided the viewing public. Some admired its attention to detail in creating a world existing just before history, where magic is dying and men can become snakes; some criticised what they viewed as a presentation of Aryan supremacy; some admired Arnies enormous arms and chest. But whether you are a nerd or a critic or a woman or man who is gay, Basil Poledouris score (ignore Dooyoo's ignorance in clasifying this as 'Various') is imperative in enhancing your view of the 1981 film as excellent or rubbish.
In bringing the world of Robert E. Howards Conan to life, Poledouris went for majestic and booming over subtle and incidental. Every track on the soundtrack album can be instantly linked to its scene in the film, and running at over an hour in length its clear that Conan is highly soundtrack-oriented. Considering the respective acting talents of Conan and his companions (a bodybuilder, a surfer and a dancer), this was undoubtedly a wise decision.
I really like Conan the Barbarian. I dont play online games or collect Warhammer, but the film is fairly unique and highly enjoyable in a Jason and the Argonauts or Flash Gordon way. The orchestral soundtrack moves from energetic and lofty horn-oriented pieces to more mellow violins and ominous sound effects, relying on choral chanting in the more action-packed or storyline-oriented sections. Conan is a simple revenge story, and its fairly easy, even without the song titles, to distinguish between Conan having a fight and Conan running to his next fight.
1. The Anvil of Crom
2. Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom
3. Gift of Fury
4. Column of Sadness / Wheel of Pain
This first section of the album (and the film) deals with Conans childhood, the destruction of his village and his upbringing in slavery. After the bombastic opening track, the action is instantaneous and its only by track four, with its plodding bass and screeching metallic sound effects, that the soundtrack mellows down a little.
5. Atlantean Sword
6. Theology / Civilisation
7. Wifeing (Theme of Love)
8. The Search
9. Mountain of Power Procession
Conan meets his companions and learns the whereabouts of his parents murderer. The most varied part of the film in terms of locations, the storyline is obviously required to make complete sense of the shifting moods from intrigue and discovery (track 5) to jovial bartering (6), sweaty chicken-eating and loveplay (7), questing across the land (8) and an impressive cult demonstration (9). Theology / Civilisation is one of the stand-out compositions for its memorable light-heartedness.
10. The Tree of Woe
12. The Kitchen / The Orgy
13. Funeral Pyre
A subdued part of the album that borders on atmospheric but is brought to the foreground every so often, most explicitly in the little ditty of The Kitchen / The Orgy. Based on a simple tune hummed by Poledouris daughter, this loud and repetitive tune grates after a while, but its reminder of topless women rolling around in a blissful heap is something of a positive note.
14. Battle of the Mounds
15. Death of Rexor
16. Orphans of Doom / The Awakening
Tracks 14 and 15 are the most energetic since the start of the album, and are really entertaining. Death of Rexor features a deeper, bassier sound to the trumpets that is interesting, and the album rounds off nicely with the semi-happy, semi-regretful The Awakening.
Essential listening for Conan or fantasy fans, although the DVD of the film itself is much cheaper and features the same compositions without little in the way of talking over the top. But until they develop a way to combine soundtrack CD and DVD movie, Basil Poledouris impressive epic music can only be fully realised with this rare collectors album. The Anvil of Crom (also known as Conan the Barbarian theme on soundtrack collections), Theology / Civilisation and Battle of the Mounds are tracks worth checking out for soundtrack acolytes.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Anvil Of Crom
2 Riddle Of Steel Riders Of Doom
3 Gift Of Fury
4 Wheel Of Pain
5 Atlantean Sword
6 Theology Civilization Wifeing
9 Funeral Pyre
10 Battle Of The Mounds
11 Orphans Of Doom