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SONIC DEATH MONKEY Soundtrack Reviews - The Score of Scores, Conan the Barbarian by Basil Poledouris

by Marc Kandel aka Grandma Dynamite

For folks out there confused as to why Natasha Theobald has evidently changed her signature to some obscure juvenile reference, let me quickly state for the record this ain’t her. Your friendly neighborhood Grandma Dynamite is doing a guest Soundtrack column today. Why? Hell I dunno. Ask her. Viva La Difference. On with the show:

In this modern world of “Soundtrack: the Movie” being every bit the marketing tool that the previews, product placements, band cameos, and DVD’s of a film are, I thought we would take a jump back to a time when the soundtrack was exactly that- a tool that was used to help tell the story. Not a quick rehash of boring retread orchestral notes augmented by several boy bands I don’t need to hear while I’m trying to listen to what the characters have to say, or even Danny Elfman putting the Batman theme in the microwave and reheating it for two minutes. I’m talking about an honest to God SOUNDTRACK that makes its presence known but never distracts, nor detracts from the story. I can think of no better example than perhaps the greatest soundtrack ever put to a film- a rippling, fierce work that not only feeds the story with its shining, original, powerful sound and momentum, but also, effectively takes the place of dialogue as the music actually becomes the narrative for the movie, which works to glorious perfection. I speak of composer Basil Poledouris’ claim to genius, his score to 1982's “Conan the Barbarian.”

The goal for the music of Conan was to score moments and scenes, not just as background for a movie, but to actually instill a feeling of ritual to events in Conan’s life (as told by commentary on the Collector’s Edition of the DVD) - as if another warrior in another time on the eve before battle had a musical prayer taking him on the path of a legend of the past, recounting great accomplishments and triumphs over tragedy to inspire victory- that’s my interpretation by the way, so no listening to the DVD and calling out Shenanigans on me. Hell, if it gets me through a 4-5 mile jog, I’ll take it. What makes this idea so beautiful and relevant, is its juxtaposition against Conan author Robert E. Howard’s style for telling the stories of Conan. Howard always felt that these tales were being told to him by Conan, as if the warrior were picking out favorite adventures in no particular order and recounting them over a tankard of ale in some Hyborean tavern.

The idea that the music should transform these tales into an epic, near religious testament is ambitious, and Poledouris succeeds magnificently, giving the film a weight and soul unheard of in most fantasy/action movies. The music actually becomes a fully fleshed out presence, even a character that guides us through the tale. And what a guide it is…

The three signature tracks of the film are “Anvil of Crom, Riders of Doom, and Battle of the Mounds.” You have heard these tracks swiped and replayed in countless previews- all promoting films inferior to the source- and yes Gladiator fans, if you want to consider that a shot across the bow, feel free asswipes, I can smack that flick down all day in the face of Conan- and of course lesser composers have attempted to emulate this greatness many times over and have failed miserably. This truly is the Valhalla of all soundtracks, the work of ages- tread carefully. Take heart “Gladiator” fans, at least you’re not “King Arthur” acolytes. When I heard “Riders of Doom” backing that stone boat, I damn near put my foot through the screen. I find that every bit as offensive as hearing The Beatles “Across the Universe” promoting some bullshit product on a TV commercial, as if John Lennon wrote that monumental song for that pathetic, useless non-purpose. The tracks contained on this score are audio amphetamines- adrenaline and primal freedom seared into a disc. Turn it on and feel the power and chill surge through you. You’ll be sacking villages and quaffing ale in no time. And the wenches… Ah the wenches.

A quick word on the signature pieces (honestly you should just get a copy and listen- words almost cannot do these tracks justice):

“Anvil of Crom” immediately sets the tone of the film with a strong, foreboding, a construction of base percussion and soft, high strings, and then come the horns- a call to arms from brass complementing the forging and creation of the sword that serves as the metaphor for Conan himself. Turn it on and triple your bench press.

“Riders of Doom” is a building charge, beginning softly and stirring the heart with a clarinet/flute tale told by a father to his son and culminating in the brass/choral music of war and rapine, the death of a people, and a man’s last stand. This will make you bare your teeth and rally your feral soul.

“Battle of the Mounds” oh my God in heaven, what doesn’t this piece cover- Defiance and vengeance put into notes. A beginning that promises great violence and the calm before the storm plucked with strings and some oriental chords evoking the Mongol heritage of Subotai, calmly surveying the enemy’s distant advance, the thundering final charge of Thulsa Doom’s army, a soulful prayer to an uncaring god that brings back the loving, warm theme of Conan’s father, and the culmination of Conan’s revenge against the source of his life’s pain. If you are running fast enough during this you may find yourself no longer touching the ground.

The wonderful thing about the score is that between these triumphant outings, there is not one note of filler to be had- every track has something to offer the ear. For those who think Poledouris is all crashing drums and clanging brass, try “Theology/Civilization,” a clarinet/soft horn/bells predominant piece providing a light, primitive folk tune to back Conan and Subotai’s religious debate, which rises into an uplifting celebration of the total freedom and loyal camaraderie the two warriors enjoy.

“Gift of Fury” is a heart-wrenching pause in the action, a sorrowful, dirge in the aftermath of butchery and the introduction for an unlikely theme for the villain- giving him an almost grieving, regretful air- A strangely compassionate, haunted piece.

Pleasing as well are the “Atlantean Sword, Wifeing, Leaving/The Search & Recovery” entries where again, we see that Poledoris can convey love and solitude as well as hate and teeming hordes.
Even the softest of arrangements such as these have passion and vigor, complementing the proceedings on the screen. The love themes, lonely travel music, and introspective tracks here prove that the composer can handle the gentler elements with an even hand, evoking Valeria and Conan’s desperate need for each other, their lust, their bond, Conan’s lone travels through empty, wind-blown vistas, and his discoveries along the way.

“Wheel of Pain” and “The Tree of Woe” can be slightly monotonous to the casual listener, but these are both pieces illustrating Conan’s drudgery and torture- there is a slow build, and great payoff at the ends of both. Wait for it.

“Mountain of Power Processional” is a fun march breaking up some of the softer tracks.

The biggest standout from the non-battle tracks is a brighter, celebratory variation on the “Riders Of Doom” choral theme titled “The Kitchen.” This is pure auditory pleasure- a joyous, thrumming revelry that opens the door to “The Orgy,” a sexy, wanton piece that gives its predecessor, Ravel's Boléro a run for its money, with a grand build to climax (naturally), which then, in the film plays right into a piece, which unfortunately, is not included in any soundtrack of the film- a non-choral, instrumental redux of “Riders Of Doom” that rings out as Conan and his party massacre the rutting cultists, then moving right into “Anvil of Crom” as Conan makes his presence felt against two of the leaders that butchered his village- my personal favorite point of the movie, sadly absent from any and all CD’s (I taped it to cassette straight from the movie a long time ago and still use it to this day). But again, spend some time on “The Kitchen,” a true standout- the purest mead transformed into music.

The last track, “Orphans of Doom/Awakening” is brilliant- just plain brilliant. There is no dialogue in the film at this point. The music is the speech here. The fighting is over. All fled, all done. What is left for Conan? What is his purpose, his future? Again, these questions are not uttered. The music asks them in soft flutes, and woodwinds, plucked strings- it is a questing tune, staring out into the world and asking “What now?” Staggering in its scope, this piece, while not the active flourishes we have come to know on our journey, tells us that there is more to be mined from this talented composer. As this music trickles across us, one almost imagines Robert E. Howard himself, in his ’38 Chevy with his .380 Colt, contemplating his soon to be ended life. Sadly, Howard was too fragile for the world, leaving his character to carry on in his stead. This piece could very well be his Requiem.

Now let me address some of the inspirations one can hear for this score before the slings and arrows of whomever wants to point out obvious similarities to the works of Carl Orff (Carmina Burana), Holst (the Planets) and Wagner (oh… Everything), begin to fly. I will state for the record I do not have any quotes from or info on Poledouris about who his influences are, but more than the inspiration the aforementioned artists have on the score, there is far more resemblance to the style of Prokofiev (Peter and the Wolf), specifically the brilliant “Alexander Nevsky” score, which is the zenith of war movie music, and is the source of most rip-offs and inspirations out there. Prokofiev is heavy on horns for majesty and power, utilizes strings for tension and build, backs these with strong male choral voices and soothes with superb female vocals, at the same time setting themes for specific characters and groups. Poledouris appears to be a student of this style- one brilliant moment in “Death of Rexor” even imbues the sword made by Conan’s father with his spirit, and marks the triumph of Conan’s vengeance. Truly wonderful stuff that parallels, but never apes what has come before.

The “Conan the Barbarian” score stands alone amongst Poledouris' many worthy compositions- he has never topped it. The most scathing critic would be hard pressed to accuse of mere imitation. The themes are original and bold, serving the story and moments without manipulating audience emotions with tricks or telegraphing; i.e. if a character is going to die, you don’t have music letting you know that’s exactly what’s going to happen- the music obeys the dictates of the story- it does not predict, it does not try to lead you to conclusions. The music is the road, the air, the unspoken dialogue and voice of the film full of sinew and force.

For me, Poledouris’ “Conan” is the highest achievement in cinematic music, best enjoyed whist engaged in physical activity, a good, long open road drive, or heavy, dangerous drinking. And if you don’t like it, then de Hell vit yu.

Thank you Tasha, you are a Scholar and a Lady. Or maybe you’re neither (some folks have a rep to protect after all), but you’re Aces by me for certain. Hope I’ve done your column justice.

Marc “Grandma Dynamite” Kandel

Note: The Soundtrack discussed is a specific one- there are a few floating out there. You will know you have the right one immediately if it has the “Kitchen” theme (an absolute necessity for the Conan fan or music lover) listed on Track 12 alongside “The Orgy.” The other is an import and it lacks several tracks- an inferior, overpriced version. The correct CD should have 16 Tracks- not the easiest item to get these days for some reason, but well worth the having. Skaal.

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originally posted: 12/29/04 08:58:21
last updated: 12/29/04 09:50:09
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