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BITE THE BULLET
by Alex North


Alex North has written some of the greatest scores of all time.  From the passionate, sometimes dissonant Roman music of Spartacus to the intimate Renaissance stylings of The Agony and the Ecstasy, to the celestial symphony of 2001 and the unearthly atonality of Dragonslayer.  Each score possesses thousands of unique nuances that truly set it apart from the rest.  Bite the Bullet is not one of these scores.
That's not to say I don't like it - it's actually pretty good - but when compared to the aforementioned masterworks there is definitely something missing.  It was one of North's few forays into Western scoring, for which he combined some of his more dissonant techniques with cliched happy cowboy music with harmonica.  We've all heard this score before, and in better forms.  While several tracks stick out as masterful, the rest is less interesting typical Western slop.  As you could tell from the first sentences, I'm a huge fan of Alex North, but Bite the Bullet simply doesn't do that much for me.
The album, just put out by the Belgian company Prometheus, is a limited edition set, so pick it up soon if you want it.  It was assembled from a mock-up of a would-be soundtrack album from 1975 that never got made.  The sound quality is pretty good if you take this into account.  Typical of these club releases, the packaging and liner notes are superb, giving essays on the movie, score, and Alex North.  Overall, though, Bite the Bullet is mainly for either fans of Western scores or die-hard North fanatics.


Track by Track Analysis:
1. Overture (2:43)
The score begins pretty badly with an overture based on the main theme, which combines a Mexican sound with the usual cowboy stuff.  It's almost like a Western version of the far-superior Spartacus overture and main title, but not nearly as dissonant.

2. The Foal (2:26)
Oh boy, more cliched happy Western music.  This one is more subdued, utilizing guitar and low strings, as well as a wistful melody.  To add to the kitsch he introduces a stereotypical harmonica version of the theme over guitar.  The trumpet takes the theme up for the last section of the track.

3. The Race (1:51)
Another track typical of the score with a Coplandesque brass/string statement of the theme over chasing bass and drums.  It still doesn't make a big impression for me...

4. Badlands (4:39)
...but this one really does.  North finally introduces his trademark dissonance in the form of chromatic chords over a pounding low string ostinato.  The extremely impressionistic mood continues throughout the track with chromatic brass, meadering woodwind chords, and a continuation of the ostinato.  What really makes it interesting is that he inserts nearly unnoticeable variations on the main theme to keep some continuity, which forms my favorite track of the album.  Unfortunately, the oppressive mood lets up at the end with more of the theme.

5. Miss Jones (2:03)
Out of all the stereotypical Western tracks, this one is probably my favorite.  It's made up of a chasing scherzo with various string and brass fanfares.  The music quiets for more intimate string work at the end.

6. Desert Ride (2:17)
Another semi-dissonant atmosphere track.  It's not as interesting as "Badlands," though.  It gets better in the second half with a fragmented variation on the main theme for brass.

7. Night Pause (3:05)
Probably the most cliched and pointless track in the score.  It's a quiet interlude for cheesy acoustic guitars.  Great if you like that sort of thing, torture for everyone else.

8. Old Timer's Horse (1:32)
Yet another subdued cowboy track.  It's got more of the theme (oh, joy) played on a bass flute with string accompaniment.  Like most of the other cues, this has snippets of the main theme.

9. Fun Drive (2:05)
The cue starts out promisingly as a dissonant action cue, but promptly degrades into humiliating circus music, complete with statements of "Camptown Races."  Did this really come from the same guy that did Spartacus?

10. Respite (2:10)
Haven't there been enough respites in this score?  Anyway, now we're back to cowboy guitars playing a chromatic, romantic ballad.  Sickening.

11. Carbo & Luke (2:40)
 Finally, a track I really like.  It begins as a piece of source music with a Mexican dance, but promptly becomes a signature North dissonant action cue, a highlight of the album and lightyears ahead of most of the other tracks.

12. Sand Dunes (3:44)
North gives us a third example of his talents for scoring atmospherically.  This cue is made up of a Stravinsky-like melody for woodwinds backed by ominous strings and dissonant percussion effects.  The second half continues with the melody in strings.

13. Bite the Bullet (2:17)
I love this - a pure example of unadulterated North atonality, at least in the first section, based around a pounding motif for timpani.  Unfortunately, a Mexican landscape theme has to come in at the end to ruin it.

14. Final Lap (2:42)
Unfortunately, we're back to the annoying Western cliche mode.  This cue is built around the main theme, in arrangements for harmonica and guitar.  Yay.  The mood brightens into more brassy Copland music in the second half.

15. The Winner (2:48)
The music returns to the precedent set in the first half of track 13, except this dissonance is uninterrupted.  Again, it's based around a rapidly-retuning timpani.  At various intervals the music climaxes into huge brass fanfares, making this one of the most noteworthy tracks.

16. Clay and the Mexican (2:04)
Why was North so obssessed with this pointless and repetitive quiet Western sound?  Of course, we're back to that mode here with yet more of the theme.

17. Prisoners (2:44)
Here's another good-natured action track, based around a dotted rhythm and brass dance movement.  It's as if North was attempting to write his own folk song, which makes this track actually worth listening to.

18. The Winner-End Title (1:23)
Unfortunately, the majority of this finale track is a reprise of the quiet junk.  Thankfully, North rescues the material in the last 30 seconds with a huge brass fanfare, making the whole track seem worthwhile.

Mexican Source Music:

19. Ole-Ole (1:25)
20. River Medley (2:44)
21. Mexican Dance #1 (1:22)
22. The Tooth (1:23)
23. Xalxoco Xochitl (1:13)

March Suite:

24. Stars & Stripes (1:54)
27. National Emblem March (2:12)
26. Drums and Bugles (1:34)
27. The Caissons Go Rolling Along (1:11)
After the conclusion of North's score we have two suites of source music and marches.  Most of these are traditional, arranged by the composer.  Truly, the album probably could have done without them.

Like I said above, Bite the Bullet is a fairly good, although not spectacular Alex North score.  Because of its somewhat expensive price, it's best left for the North completists.  If you want a 'Net link to buy it, go to http://www.supercollector.com



 
Bite the Bullet: The Final Score
Music Rating 7/10
Packaging/Liner Notes 9/10
Sound Quality 7/10
Orchestral Performance 7/10
Length 8/10


Bite the Bullet is Copyright 1999 by Prometheus.  Review Copyright 1999 by Andrew Drannon.  All Rights Reserved.