CD Review: Sword And Sorcery

By • November 15, 2010

Composers: Basil Poledouris / Ennio Morricone / Simon Boswell
Labels: Prometheus / Perseverance
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95 / $19.95 / $19.95
Grade: A+ / B+ / B+

For baby boomer fantasy fans, there were never better days than the early 80’s when it came to seeing sweaty, near-naked barbarians hacking their way through the Hyborean Age with sex and gore to spare. But in a period that’s fondly remembered for the cheesy likes of ATOR THE INVINCIBLE, YOR, HAWK THE SLAYER and THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, one film truly took the genre seriously, with all the production polish to spare. And 28 years later, John Milius’ adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN still remains the king of this genre, whose blood and thunder score by Basil Poledouris stands as the soundtrack to rule them all.

A masterwork of Prokofiev-esque intensity whose acclaim rings far outside of the nerd set, CONAN stands for many as one of the greatest film scores ever written. Though its CD variations have gradually expanded on the original LP program, Poledouris’ acolytes had always dreamed of seeing a release of CONAN’s music in all of its Crom-chorus’d glory- let alone Poledouris, who never quite got the orchestral array he wanted from CONAN’s original Rome sessions. Now that day has come for CONAN to live up to its intended glory with a robust re-performance by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Nic Raine. Even if these may not be the original tracks (which probably reside in Thulsa Doom’s flesh-filled vats by this point), fans certainly won’t be disappointed by the passion that’s gone into this two-CD set and its two plus hours of Poledouris’ masterwork.

Milius essentially launched his USC film school buddy’s Hollywood career when he asked him to compose the lush, romantic strains for their Brotherhood of Surfing with 1978’s BIG WEDNESDAY, a beautifully languorous approach Poledouris would continue with for the erotic aquatic awakening of 1980’s THE BLUE LAGOON. But if Poledouris seemed destined for tenderness, leave it to Milius to have the faith to put the musician’s talents to the sword with CONAN. Right from its brazenly pounding main theme “Anvil of Crom,” Poledouris announced a new, primal sweep to his music with a score that summoned up the heroic spirit of author Joseph Campbell as much as it did the masters of Russian music with more than a touch of Miklos Rozsa’s biblical pageantry. A firm believer in the power of great scoring (as he’d more than shown by letting Jerry Goldsmith soar with THE WIND AND THE LION) Milius let Poledouris be an equal partner in CONAN’s epic storytelling, with music front and center to drive long stretches of the movie. The result would be some of the greatest examples of the visceral power of music meeting image- with only death screams to intrude on the soundtrack.

CONAN impresses with a staggering wealth of themes that at once play its surface fury while also digging at something deeper. Conan’s sorcerer nemesis Thulsa Doom charges in with a trumpeting chorus in “Riders of Doom” for the traditional village sacking and slaying-of-parents that makes for any legendary fantasy hero. Where sword and sorcery music was usually about parrying and attack, Poledouris heard it like a joyous, blood-soaked ballet, with much of CONAN’s score playing like a savage dance for very manly characters.

In “The Gift of Fury,” Poledouris uses a gorgeous, melodic ramp-up to the beheading of Conan’s mother, a scene the conveys the hypnotic power of Doom, at sensual, calming vibe that also transfixes his ancient hippy followers with the chanting, drums and fiddle-like strings heard inside “The Tower of Set.” Doom descends from “The Mountain of Power” with a pomp befitting the entrance of a Roman general. Then as Conan and company intrude on “The Kitchen / The Orgy,” Poledouris cleverly synchs up his chants to match the bobbing of masked brutes and their fleshpots (the cue also including a melody written by Poledouris’ then-eight year old daughter Zoe). Evil has rarely been this intoxicating, which is exactly the point of Doom’s power.

Where Milius’ then-shocking depiction of sex and brutality appalled critics and delighted everyone else, the film’s detractors missed the mythic existentialism that truly elevated CONAN to the stuff of movie greatness. Doom rightfully calls Conan “My son” by nature of brutally transforming him from young victim to supreme warrior. And Conan’s musical quest becomes one that’s as much about revenge as it is discovering his own self-worth, especially when Poledouris shows he has the stuff of kings with the mythically grand melody of the “Atlantean Sword.” CONAN’s ancient world can be a place of delights in the exuberance of “Theology / Civilization,” which gives way to the softer theme of Conan’s true warrior-woman love Valeria in “The Wifeing,” When Conan ends up burning her at the “Funeral Pyre,” Poledouris’ love theme becomes a storm of loss and vengeance. It just might be the only time in a Schwarzenegger action picture where the music makes you get a lump in your throat, even as various other limbs are being chopped off.

CONAN’s score memorably culminates in “The Battle of the Mounds,” where Poledouris goes into full ALEXANDER NEVSKY mode, complete with sleighbells, fateful voices singing for warriors’ fates and an exuberant orchestra that turns carnage into a thing of glory. With Conan’s fury temporarily spent with the destruction of Doom and his minions, the score achieves its true reflective beauty with “Orphans of Doom / The Awakening” as a tender, mournful chorus sees the sorcerer’s followers quench their torches, the strings pondering with Conan before ramping up for the resplendent thrill of seeing him torch the Mountain of Doom. For a scene that’s essentially the same ending as the Willard’s becoming the savior-cum-killer of Kurtz in the Milius-scipted APOCALPYSE NOW Poledouris’ swelling music tells us that there’s a cerebral meaning, even poetry to the bloodshed that preceded this- the musical power and glory that spells out Milius’ old-fashioned morality of might making right.

With Greg McRitchie’s original orchestrations on his stand, Raine and the Prague players unleash all of CONAN’s sound and fury with unequaled fidelity to the source material and the composer’s original instrumental wishes, all of which makes this feel like the CONAN recording that should have been. The scope of Poledouris’ towering accomplishment comes smashing through, along with numerous “new” cues that CONAN fans have been slavering for. “The Pit Fights” churn with exhilarating trumpeting barbarity as CONAN horrifically learns his fighting skills, the cue reaching an orgasmic climax of bloodlust. The MLF “Wolf Witch”’s lustful percussion gradually builds to a night Conan won’t forget, while Doom’s chorus and Medieval-style strings wind up for a blown snake sacrifice inside “The Tower of Set.” The more playful fighting skills of Mako’s wizard at last get to shine in a complete “Battle of the Mounds,” while Doom’s deviously pleasant music gets a rude awakening in “Head Chop.” But of all the long, unreleased cues here, my most eagerly awaited one is the minute of “The infidels,” a great, gleeful mad dervish escape from the Tower of Set for Conan and his pals. Subtle symphonic additions for this CONAN recording also give many of its cues a new twist, especially with the metallic scrapes that make “The Wheel of Pain” even more grinding.

With all of CONAN’s music present and accounted for, the CD’s end with such alternate cues as “The Tower of Set” and “The Battle of the Mounds,” along with the clanking action from “The Chamber of Mirrors” for Poledouris score to the far inferior sequel CONAN THE DESTROYER, music that certainly shows a film’s quality is no reflection on a composer’s commitment to the material. Ditto Nic Raine, the Prague players and singers, and album producer James Fitzpatrick, all of whom Poledouris is doubtlessly smiling down from musical Valhalla. Even with such lavish musical reproductions as EL CID, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and THE ALAMO, this team reaches a height of musical fastidiousness that will be hard to match with CONAN- a feat no doubt abetted by the immortal quality of Poledouris’ music.

If CONAN THE DESTROYER was a pale, campy shade of CONAN whose saving grace was Basil Poledouris’ score, then Ennio Morricone could be called the musical Jesus of the lamentable sort-of follow-up RED SONJA. DESTROYER director Richard Fleischer was reunited with star Arnold Schwarzenneger, whose character understandably took the pseudonym of “Prince Kalidor” to accompany Howard’s warrior woman on a rote revenge quest. So close your eyes, and imagine the far more spectacular film that Morricone scored. No stranger to writing great music for the likes of TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS, Morricone’s RED SONJA stands as a mini-masterwork for something far less than that.

Better yet, Morricone went on his own, inimitable path here instead of trying to out-Prokofiev Poledouris. If anything, RED SONJA’s tone could just as easily fit a knightly adventure, right from the “Main Title” that majestically gallops along with trumpet and chorus in hand, as female voices reach a beautifully religioso, revelatory tone for “The Talisman” and “Sonja and the Swordmaster.” And where Poledouris CONAN’s music made it unmistakably take place on the Russian steppes, Morricone goes for more of an Oriental sound in his brassy action music for “Temple Raid” and “Fighting the Soldiers,” where choral shouts of “Sonja!” join in the fun before the voices deliver a pounding payback for “Sonja Defeats the Queen.” Yet Morricone uses the vocals in an exciting, instead of goofy way (a feat recently pulled off by James Newton Howard as he daringly injected chants of “Salt!” over that self-titled film’s score).

It’s during SONJA’s latter stretch where you really hear the melancholy sweep that’s trademark Morricone, first with the grandeur of “Sonja Teaches Tarn,” then as the “Treasure in the Cavern” swells with an orchestral yearning worthy of “Tristan and Isolde.” The meaningful heroism of “Sonja and Kalidor” could just as well accompany two men with no name as they sauntered down the range, a barbarian-western vibe that builds with brass flair before percussion and an ever-building orchestra and chorus give a heroic uplift to finish this relatively brief, but worthy musical saga.

RED SONJA remains a textbook example of how a brilliant composer can elevate absurdity to the heights it’s haplessly striving for. Previously issued on a long out-of-print Varese Club CD (along with Morricone’s exceptional, and still-unreleased score for the far more execrable movie BLOODLINE), this extended SONJA sounds unexpectedly terrific, especially given how hard it was for Perseverance to track the musical elements down. SONJA is a true Morricone re-discovery that’s best played in your imagination, the place where film music can truly become the stuff of legend.

It’s more than likely that the creator CONAN and SONJA was inspired by the sword-slashing heroes of yore, of which JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS rank high. Following Zeus instead of Crom, this strapping young man and his crew slew hordes of beasts for the glory of the gods. While no one was going to forget Ray Harryhausen’s dueling skeletons, Hallmark had the stones to attempt a two-part TV re-telling of the saga, one more faithful to Homer’s source material.

Certainly one of JASON’S bigger inspirations was hiring Simon Boswell to do a huge, orchestral score to accompany the quest for the Golden Fleece. Having started with instrumentally quirky scores for such genre favorites as DUST DEVIL, SHALLOW GRAVE and SANTE SANGRE, Boswell’s orchestral talents grew with the likes of such scores as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and PHOTOGRAPHING FAERIES. And he’d fully deliver on his symphonic potential with the 2000 version of JASON. While there’s certainly the feeling of valorous romance that Bernard Herrmann had given to the1960 original, Boswell’s work for the TV version is as hard-edged as our heroes’ shields and swords. Clashing, swirling brass drive much of the Argonauts’ battles with human and beast. And where Herrmann used resplendent washes of themes, Boswell’s music reflects more of a striving humanity to Jason, the sound of a kid becoming the stuff of legend in a resplendent orchestral world that carries the sweep of STARGATE by “The End of the Quest.” In shirking the classic sound of the past, but not its ideals, Boswell found his own, powerful voice for this newfangled JASON. It’s a musical quest worth taking along with CONAN and RED SONJA, a triumvirate that shows much musical beauty can lie in barbarity, whether it comes from the stuff of pulp or literary legend.

CLICK on the album covers to buy CONAN RED SONJA and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS

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