by Basil Poledouris
One of Basil’s first major scores was the epic, sweeping, and surprisingly
lyrical music for the action film Conan the Barbarian. (Seriously,
if I didn't know what the film was, I'd have no idea that this nonviolent
music was actually written for scenes of Schwarzenegger running around
killing people :) There are several major themes and motifs: the Riders
of Doom choral theme, the soft love theme, the Theology theme, and various
medieval motifs. Each of these combines into one of the best film
scores of the ‘80s. This Varese Sarabande CD sports about twenty
minutes of previously unreleased material, for a total of 68 minutes of
Poledouris’ masterful music. Unfortunately, the performance by the
Orchestra & Chorus of Santa Cecilia + The Radio Symphony of Rome is
sub par at best, with various sections of the orchestra (especially the
percussion) losing each other in some of the more intense moments.
Additionally, the sound quality leaves much to be desired. In the
booklet, however, is a lengthy, informative essay on the music by Kevin
Mulhall. Despite these shortcomings, this is one of the most monumental
film scores ever composed, and worthy of anyone’s collection.
Track by Track Analysis:
1. Anvil of Crom (2:34)
Poledouris promptly sets the mood of the first few tracks of the score
in this overture, scored for 24 (!) French horns. The main Conan
theme is stated first, followed by an old fashioned string interlude.
The onslaught of French horns returns, giving a final rendition of Conan's
theme. Unfortunately, the orchestra sounds very disjointed with the
horns rushing ahead.
2. Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom (5:36)
This introduces more of the thematic material, beginning with an appropriately
medieval, sweeping theme first stated on the oboe accompanied by string
arpeggios. This fades, leading into one of the grandest passages
of the score, the introduction of the choral Thulsa Doom theme. An
instrumental interlude begins the piece, with the Latin chorus entering
backed by chasing strings and brass. Another quieter interlude follows,
leading into more frenzied chanting. The first time, the chorus is
only backed by the furious violins, with the brass cadence entering later.
The theme eventually completes itself, climaxing in pagan screaming from
the chorus, and fading with strings. This is an absolute highlight
of the score, and one of the most original and exciting uses of choral
music in films.
3. Gift of Fury (3:50)
After a brief introduction, a brass fanfare enters, leading into another
theme in the chorus, with the "Riddle of Steel" theme interpolated in the
strings. The tone of this piece is much more tragic, and not nearly
as exciting as the previous track.
4. Wheel of Pain (4:09)
Befitting the title, this is more of the oppressive music first heard
in track 3. The music shifts into a permutation on the "Steel" theme.
It builds with several string chords, leading into a dirge-like march accompanied
by some kind of scratching percussion. This march begins nondescriptly
with various string lines, but builds into an awesomely fanfaric (new word)
brass section based on the opening material of the march. This drifts,
and the track fades out.
5. Atlantean Sword (3:50)
This fairly boring track begins with various hovering string/celeste
passages, but eventually becomes laden with more oppressive brass/string
combos. A final large brass chord ends it.
6. Theology/Civilization (3:13)
Another one of my favorite tracks, the mood of the score finally changes
into a lyrical, uplifting whole. The Theology theme begins with clarinet
chords, leading into a bassoon reading of the folk-like (another new word)
uplifting theme. It shifts to a flute solo, the whole time accompanied
by tambourine and triangle. A jaunty scherzo follows based on the
earlier material, but this time more sweeping and melodic with the theme
stated in the strings. It continues for a few minutes, building into
a major key brass chord and ending with a final reading of the scherzo
version of the Theology theme. This uplifting theme quickly became
one of my favorites.
7. Wifeing (Theme of Love) (2:10)
The melancholy love theme is given its first statement in the oboe
after a violin solo introduction. The strings later take over, completing
the complex theme. Poledouris' genius shows again as he interpolates
the "Steel" theme in the oboe while the strings continue the love theme.
8. The Leaving/The Search (5:59)
Opens with woodwinds, followed by a lone oboe playing the love theme
introduced in track 7, which leads into various statements of that theme
and other motifs in the strings. That oboe comes back with the love
theme, ending on an unresolved note. Lower oboe enters (get the feeling
he likes the oboe?) but gives up the melody to the strings, which play
another yearning motif. Another theme enters (the "Steel" theme)
for the last few minutes. Overall a fairly nondescript track, and
I usually skip it.
9. Mountain of Power Procession (3:21)
This begins with a march accompanied by all sorts of clanging percussion.
In the beginning, the tone is much like the rest of the score (in a folk-like
minor mode) but the key turns major for the brass cadences. This
march plays throughout the track. One of the themes to be heard later
(in The Orgy) pops up in the strings for a few seconds, as well.
10. The Tree of Woe (3:31)
As the title implies, the oppressive nature of the majority of the
score returns. This track opens with ominous horn passages coupled
with sustained tones in the strings. This continues throughout the
track, with most instruments eventually joining the strings, including
some weird celestial percussion. Later, the scherzo version of the
Theology theme makes a welcome appearance to lighten up the gloom.
11. Recovery (2:11)
The oboe begins the track with the longing "Riders of Steel" theme
accompanied, as usual, by strings. For the second part of theme,
both the strings and brass get solo passages. For another statement
of the "Steel" theme, the women's chorus provides some nice backing to
the oboe, brass, and string solo passages.
12. The Kitchen/The Orgy (6:30)
My favorite track on the CD, the tone changes drastically, with a slower
reading of the Rider of Doom theme, this time only with men's chorus and
strings. Since the tempo is slower and there's no brass interfering,
the furious strings really get a chance to shine in their insanely difficult
runs. For the second part (don't be scared away by the somewhat questionable
title) Poledouris writes what is almost a ballet movement, with everything
based on a positive string theme plus various motives and runs stated by
the woodwinds and brass. Each playing is different, with each statement
more complex than its predecessor, so there's always a variety, and the
repetitive nature never gets old because of the constantly evolving instrumentation.
Unfortunately, in one of the transitions, the entire orchestra just loses
it, and it sounds like something a high school marching band could have
13. Funeral Pyre (4:29)
The overall bittersweet tone returns with a reading of the Riddle of
Steel theme beginning the track, segueing into a particularly potent version
of the love theme.
14. Battle of the Mounds (4:52)
A reprise of the Mountain of Power Procession opens the piece, and
a mischievous string motif emerges, only to be swallowed by another melancholy
motif. A pulsing drum rhythm eventually appears, and a brass/choral
theme enters, based on the final part of the funeral dirge from "Wheel
of Pain." The music drifts back into woodwinds/strings with a typically
pretty motif. The tone radically changes with an onslaught of Thulsa
Doom's awesome choral theme, adding a trombone line in one of the cadences,
and being more exciting overall.
15. Death of Rexor (5:34)
This doesn't make use of much thematic material, besides the Riddle
of Steel theme, but the beginning is grand and loud with all kinds of fanfares.
Unfortunately, the sound quality drops out a couple of times during the
choral section. Trumpets proclaim a section of the love theme, and
wailing chorus gives an impressionistic anthem. Much of the rest
of the track is based on this, with most sections playing some permutation
16. Orphans of Doom/The Awakening (5:31)
The final track has a lot of material based on the impressionistic
choral passages from the previous cue. It opens with harp arpeggios
under a choral theme reminiscent of that theme mentioned above. The
Riddle of Steel theme makes a final (somewhat veiled) statement.
Major chords in the brass end the score.
Although it can become wearing in some of the endless string tracks,
the performance is bad, and the sound quality could be better, Basil Poledouris
has crafted a masterful score that will stand the test of time. I
recommend it to all, mainly for tracks 1, 2, 6, and 12.
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Conan the Barbarian is Copyright 1982 by Varese Sarabande. Its appearance
on this site is for educational use. Review Copyright 1999 by Andrew
Drannon. Opinions are not those of Tripod. Get over it.