Review: Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack (composed by Basil Poledouris)

In 1982 maverick director John Milius wrote and directed a sword and fantasy epic based on the Robert E. Howard pulp character Conan the Cimmerian. Though some changes were made to the character and his adventures to make a much more accessibe fantasy epic, Milius’ Conan the Barbarian became a smashing success and ushered in the Age of Schwarzenneger. Milius had his leading man and an action-packed script with exotic locales to shoot the film at. Now all Milius needed was someone to compose a film score worthy and complementary to the character and the film. The person he ended up choosing to score his epic would be Basil Poledouris and it would turn out to be a very wise choice.

Basil Poledouris’ took on a different tack in scoring Conan the Barbarian. Instead of just coming up with music as a background to scenes in the film he opted to score the film as if it was an opera. Taking his cue from Wagner and Carl Orff (whose Carmina Burana was a heavily influence in the tracks Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom and Battle of the Mounds), Poledouris created a score that could stand on its own as a piece of operatic work. His use of leitmotifs to sound the arrival of the main characters was reminiscent of Wagner’s work especially that of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Conan and his archnemesis Thulsa Doom would have their leitmotifs intertwined in the tracks Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom with their pounding drums, crashing brass and triumphant horn section. This motif would return once more in the Battle of the Mounds track.

Another recurring motif would be the light and airy theme Poledouris came up with for what I call the introspective section of the film. This section of the score made great use of this motif which used less of the drums, brass and french horns in the more militaristic and martial beginning of the film. A trio of tracks made up this section with Theology/Civilization, The Wifeing, and The Leaving/The Search with the first of the trio being a light and playful tune smoothly segueing into the intimate and ultimately mournful middle track of the trio. The third and final section would combine the two towards a determined conclusion to Conan’s introspection of what his decision should be in his quest for vengeance.

Other tracks in the score adds its own personality to the story being told. There’s Gift of Fury which starts off as a slow dirge to the aftermath of Conan’s village being razed by Thulsa Doom’s men to a gradual dramatic crescendo marking the end of young Conan’s innocence and path to bondage and slavery. The other track of note which helped give the scene it was composed for a greater impact would be The Kitchen/The Orgy. This track with its dual personality of Thulsa Doom’s martial motif smoothly transition into a sensuous and decadent, albeit discordant theme showed the dual nature of Conan’s rival. A nature both militaristic and disciplined, but also hedonistic and debased. This was one piece of the score which stood out to show Poledouris’ great understanding of the characters and the subject matter he was scoring for.

Poledouris’ final score for the film works well within the boundaries of the story being told. It both complements the action and thoughts shown on the screen and enhances its dramatic weight. In fact, the symphony and choral work done in the score could be listened to without seeing the images on the screen with just the CD liner as a guide and the story would be easily understood. On its own the score would count as a great symphony which told a story through music. But when combined with the words and images crafted by Milius on-screen it takes on a greater dimension.

Conan the Barbarian was a film that helped usher in Arnold Schwarzenneger as a force in Hollywood. It was also a film which showed that sword and sorcery fantasy could be done seriously and done so with quality in mind. The film and Milius’ choice who to score it would resonate in the film scoring community for years to come as it showed that a film score didn’t have to be just a secondary afterthought in the filmmaking process. Poledouris’ score for Conan the Barbarian still counts as his best to date and remains the standard-bearer for fantasy film scoring. It’s influences could be felt as recent as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where film composer Howard Shore uses Poledouris technique of Wagnerian leitmotifs to help tell the story as if it was an opera instead of just a film. A masterful work by a master of his craft that would live long after all the participants in the project are long dead and buried.

Below are videos of the only live concert conducted by Basil Poledouris of the Conan the Barbarian symphonic score.

Part 1: Anvil of Crom/Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom

Part 2: Gift of Fury/Atlantean Sword/Love Theme

Part 3: Funeral Pyre/Battle of the Mounds

Part 4: Orphans of Doom/The Awakening

Part 5: Anvil of Crom/Encore

Ten 2009 Albums You Should Listen To

What is a year-end list anyway?

Can a truly fair assessment really be made? Like any other year, 2009 offered a vast assortment of great albums across many genres. How does one weed through all the hype to extract them? I for one listened to over one hundred new releases in 2009, yet the top 30 I compiled out of this fell into very few other lists. With so much music available these days, my year-end list is like picking up a handful of seashells and calling one the prettiest in the entire ocean. What I want to do here instead is couple my own experiences with two other sources and come up with a more balanced top ten of what we should all go back and listen to, whether I’ve heard it or not.

Let me qualify each.
*The Pitchfork Reader Poll – Pitchfork used to be the most widely respected source of music news around, and while their editing staff has fallen into irredeemable disrepute, the reader poll maintains a degree of legitimacy that few other sites with a 10,000+ voter base are likely to attain.
*An anonymous music group’s poll – My anonymous source requires a level of interaction, diversity of taste, and depth of exploration that qualifies the bulk of its hundred or so voters as thoughtful individuals with enough experience to make legitimate choices.
*Me – I’m a metalhead with indie inclinations, and completely distanced from media hype. (No, I don’t read Pitchfork, and I only realized Phoenix were popular when I heard 1901 playing at a Steelers game.)

So here are ten albums of 2009 you should go listen to. Never mind what styles they are. Never mind that I haven’t heard half of them:

1. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
This ranked as my second favorite album of the year, #9 in my anonymous group, and #28 on the Pitchfork reader’s poll. Why should you hear it? Pitchfork’s reviewers gave it a pathetic 5/10. This album got voted in because it was so damn good that no amount of negativity could stop the masses from voicing their opinion.

2&3. Mastodon – Crack the Skye
and Converge – Axe to Fall
I placed Crack the Skye at #6. My music group gave it 14th, and Pitchfork 33rd. Axe to Fall got 15, 25, and unrated in the top 40 overall but #2 in metal albums. Why should you hear them? Metal doesn’t get much attention these days, but unlike Wolves in the Throne Room, these two bands rose to celebrity status through quality releases. Sure they ranked high due to hype, but I can attest that both are good, albeit not the best, metal albums of the year. It’s safe to assume you’ve already heard them if you’re a metal fan, so I speak to everyone else in saying these are your best bets for sampling what the genre had to offer in 2009.

4. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
In the top 5 on both sites, I haven’t heard it myself, but a metal fan who I respect marked this as the best album of the year. That’s enough to tell me that hype alone didn’t place them so high.

5&6. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
and Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Both placed #1 on one site and in the top 5 on the other. Both were also hyped more than perhaps any other releases this year. But I have heard and enjoyed WAP, not on any provocative level but enough to recommend it. Animal Collective have released decent enough albums in the past that I am confident this one would have at least made my top 30 had I heard it. With music this hyped one has to ask “is this actually great, or am I just fooling myself?” Well, I can safely count these two as “pretty good” in their own right. Great? You be the judge.

7. Peste Noire – Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor
This French black metal masterpiece is hands down the best album of the year that I’ve heard, but it didn’t make any group charts so I respectfully held it until #7. Here is my reaction the day I first heard it: This is brilliant, fascinating, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Their ambiance of hate is gone. What replaces it is something I can’t quite define, but it’s captivating. If Famine hadn’t coined it “Black’n’Roll” I think the term still might have popped up, but it’s also a whole lot more than that. The 60s-70s rock and roll styles it incorporates, while similar in construct, conjure nothing of the sort to mind. Instead, it gives this sort of ironic (I hate that term applied to music criticism, but it fits here) lively essence to a dismal, filthy Dark Age. Take my irc reaction: “Track three feels like I’m dancing circles around someone in a torture chamber randomly sticking hot pokers into them and really enjoying it.”

8. The Fiery Furnaces – I’m Going Away
I placed this album at #4, and again no one else gave it attention. I have no idea why. I haven’t heard any of their other albums. Perhaps their earlier releases are even better? This jazzy indie disc contains some of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard. Just listen to the last track, Take Me Around Again, and try and tell me you don’t walk around singing the barely sensible lyrics for weeks on end.

9. The xx – xx
Here’s another album I haven’t heard yet. The reviews I’ve read of this really make me think I’ll hate it, but as the only other album that made both polls’ top 5 there surely must be some merit to it. I said the same thing about M83 last year, and Saturdays = Youth became a staple album for me in the months that followed. Maybe I won’t be so lucky this go around, but love it or hate it I would be doing my music sensibilities an injustice to not check it out. The same goes for you.

10. N.A.S.A. – The Spirit of Apollo
Has this discredited my entire list? Maybe. It didn’t place in either poll, but the Pitchfork editors gave it a 1 out of 10, so there must be something good about it. They went so far as to write up an eight paragraph review about how impressively unpretentious it is. “[The] beats on this album are total washed-out dorm-room funk . . . “The People Tree” is an excessively polite bloopy organ groove. “Way Down” is the reason acid jazz no longer exists. “Hip Hop” is a horribly boring attempt at ca. 1998 sunny smiley-face West Coast indie-rap. And on it goes.” In other words, this album ignores all expectations of taking music to a new level and just gets down to business with fun, catchy, simple songs that anyone can enjoy. You mean hip-hop doesn’t have to be angry or arrogant? Amazing! I ranked it my 3rd favorite of the year.

Project Natal: Evolution and Revolution

This past summer of 2009, during a company press conference the day before the start of E3 2009, an announcement which might have brought a paradigm shift in how consumers interact with their consumer electronics. The announcement I speak of is their 3D, full-body motion-cap sensor control scheme dubbed Project Natal. Tweets, texts and status updates across the ether that’s the web was a consensus jaw-dropping with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. The initial reaction was that this was Microsoft’s answer to the new 800 lb. gorilla in the gaming industry: Nintendo’s Wii.

It’s a logical reaction and one that was duplicated in a smaller part from Sony’s introduction of it’s own motion-based controller system. But Project Natal seems to be the one that has the world of not just gaming buzzing with excitement and possibilities, but the whole tech industry. Microsoft’s gamble and evolution of existing technology has the making of revolutionizing not just gaming but how people interact and use their PC and everyday home gadgets and technology.

First and foremost, Project Natal will be focusing on expanding the base of Xbox 360 owners and players to include not just the kids (both young and old) who play games ranging from kid-friendly to mature-oriented, but the rest of the family who want to be able to join in without having the master and pick up a controller. Yes, Project Natal will allow gaming to move forward with the option of actually not having to use a physical controller in one’s hands to play a game. Does it mean it will replace the handheld controller core gamers have gotten used to and by years of use become an almost intuitive part of their bodies? I don’t think it will, but instead become an option.

I will be the first to say that I will never ever get rid of my console gaming controllers. There’s an ease and familiarity of it in my hands when playing games. But the prospect of having the option of trying out all my games using my body as the controller itself is both exciting and intriguing. Project Natal is science quickly catching up to science fiction.

I say Project Natal both excites and intrigues me as a gamer for several reasons. It’s exciting to see how far gaming has evolved from the early days of the Atari VC (2600 for those who don’t recognize). While I have never been truly sold on the complete immersion Nintendo has touted the Wii and it’s Wiimote was to be for gamers, I will admit that it’s success has spurred it’s rivals to innovate and come up with the next step. If Natal is not bringing excitement back to an industry that is stagnating (even with the Wii’s innovation it has slowed down in terms of innovation) then why complain about the industry’s lack of innovation and imagination. Natal, whether one truly believes in it or believes it to be vaporware, has opened up a new door in how gaming will move forward in the forseeable future.

Another reason why Natal has me excited as a gamer is how it could breathe new life to old gaming experiences. I have never been a very adept fighting game players as combo systems and how to make them work on a controller pad has always eluded me. But with Natal I can see a future where even the most novice fighting game player could chain combos and attacks by simulating the moves themselves in a basic fashion. Playing Madden using the QB POV would actually become interesting and give a player a very close approximation as to what a real QB may see when standing in the pocket. The possibilities are endless.

Project Natal intrigue me as a gamer for the games dedicated to it that developers could come up with. Why have controller peripherals playing Rock Band when Natal could possibly make air guitar and air drumming a true reality. Console RTS would finally have a control scheme that could match the precision of keyboard and mouse system of their PC cousins. There will be hits and misses, but the fact that such a dynamic option on how games could be played should intrigue gamers looking to have a future in developing in the industry they love.

This coming evolution in gaming may be too ahead of its time. Some will say that Microsoft just took the existing technology already available with the Wiimote and EyeToy and just packaged both together into one package. That may be true but it doesn’t mean it won’t work. The industry has always been taking the latest innovation by one company and evolving and tweaking new ideas from it. While Nintendo and Sony may have arrived first in their respective tech they never thought of actually combining the two and adding new features to remove the controller outright.

Revolution that Natal brings will not be limited to gaming, but should also impact everything which relies on the synergy of software and hardware people’s everyday lives. Project Natal should be made to work with PCs, HDTVs, home electronic systems and everything in between.

It seemed such a coincidence that the one film depicting a near-future using a Natal-like technology would have its creator tout the new Microsoft technology. Project Natal does seem to be making the tech of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report move from the realm of science fiction and into the realm of science reality. Natal has the possibility of allowing people to forgo the use of keyboards and mouse when using their computers. Pretty much the whole armor development sequence in Iron Man where Stark manipulates, designs and finally complete a new suit design without ever typing anything on a keyboard I could see Natal turning it into a real-world application for mechanical and electrical engineers. Not to mention research scientists in other fields.

While it is still too early to consider Project Natal as a success. It is still in a beta form with no announced released date other than sometime around 2010. It should be seen with eyes looking at the exciting and intriguing possibilities it opens up for gamers and the world of technology instead looking at it with cynical eyes already deciding to view it with skepticism. It doesn’t matter whether one likes Microsoft as a company or not. What they announced and showed on June 1, 2009 in the Galen Center in Los Angeles may just usher an evolution and revolution in gaming and tech that everyone will benefit from.

As we have seen with the pre-release and post-release reaction regarding James Cameron’s Avatar sometimes the product does live up to the promise and hype. When they do the general public will embrace it even if it does have some initial flaws and weaknesses. I think like Cameron, Microsoft’s Consumer Electronics and Gaming Division decided to gamble and leapfrog what others have started and move it in a direction no one had been expecting or even comtemplate as a remote possibility.