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CONAN

THE BARBARIAN

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 done.
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 of it.
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.



 
Conan: The Final Score
Music Rating 9/10
Packaging/Liner Notes 8/10
Orchestral Performance 5/10
Sound Quality 4/10
Length 7/10

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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.