Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Feature!

In an effort to get myself blogging more often, I'm going to steal a page from my friend Donna Beck and schedule some features. To start with, I've decided to write a weekly piece in which I'll examine one of the albums in my music collection. For lack of a better plan, let's begin at the top of my CD rack and move along one artist or perhaps one category at a time and have a brief discussion of whatever merits, drawbacks, and/or interesting facts strike me about one of the CDs.

And the inaugural CD is ...

The complete Basil Poledouris score for Conan the Barbarian.

Right off the bat, let's get this out of the way: although I've got a soft spot for this movie, I am not its biggest fan. I saw it twice in the theater as a teenager, which for financial reasons I only did with movies I really liked. But the summer after it came out, I actually read all the Conan books and discovered that the Conan in the movie was a big wimp compared to the Conan in the books. And other than having muscles, Arnold Schwarzenneger actually looks nothing like Conan. Nor does he really talk like Conan or display much of Conan's cunning. So by late adolescence, I was already pooh-poohing the film, and rewatching it in adulthood didn't do anything to improve its standing with me.

But the soundtrack manages to perform the amazing feat of elevating an inauthentic adaptation of the character into a sweeping and majestic epic, and for that reason, I was more than happy to shell out the thirty bucks (plus shipping) for this 3-disc extravaganza.

I'm sure your first question is, "Who the hell needs three CDs worth of Conan the Barbarian music???" The answer, of course, is no one. Which is why the "complete score" part of the package is all on two CDs, with the third disc in the set comprising the truncated soundtrack released on vinyl in 1982. So this product is really aimed at people with both a completionist mania to possess all 108 minutes of the full score and an understanding that it will often be preferable to listen to the 48-minute version everyone else considers more than sufficient.

To sit through the whole thing, you've got to have a pretty significant appreciation for theme and variation. Poledouris crafted a number of distinctive melodies for this soundtrack, but not as many as you'll find in, say, John Williams' original Star Wars soundtracks. So there are a lot of recurring motifs and themes, rendered in different arrangements and at different tempos.

Rather than try to work my way through a description of the musical highlights, I'll just give a couple of personal notes on my connection to this music.

First, does it say something about my 16-year-old self that my favorite piece from this soundtrack is called, "The Orgy"? Maybe. But the music for the orgy scene is so sensual and lush, and really just does a perfect job capturing the carnal and charnel decadence of the Doom cult's fiendish bacchanalia. Even though it's been maybe 20 years since I last saw the movie, hearing this bit still vividly conjures images of Conan and his partners in their bizarrely conceived makeup (intended as camouflage?) sneaking around the huge chamber full of dazed, indulgence-sated cultists. It's gorgeous music, and it always reminds me of the Jupiter movement from Holst's "The Planets."

Second, I'm one of perhaps three people in the whole world for whom Poledouris's main title theme doesn't conjure images of Conan or wild Hyborian battle sequences. Instead, it gives me visions of a bunch of claymation Dungeons and Dragons characters fighting trolls and evil sorcerers. In high school, my friends and I used to make stop-animated films using modeling clay and a super-8 camera, and one of our best ones featured our D&D characters marauding through a dungeon with the Conan music playing in the background. By some miraculous quirk of fate, the title theme matched up almost perfectly with the stop-motion adventures, even the part where the brash, percussive battle theme modulates into the more sedate, sweeping, Romantic segment. I've got the movie on VHS somewhere, if the tape hasn't decayed with age. Someday maybe I'll pay to have it transferred to DVD.

So there you have it. Rush right out and buy your copy. And if you're really ambitious, buy a single-frame-capable video camera and some modeling clay, too!

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