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CONAN THE BARBARIAN
Epic masterpiece is one of the finest fantasy scores to date
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1982 Universal City Studios; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
While he had already attracted attention and widespread praise for his scores for Big Wednesday and The Blue Lagoon, there's no doubting which score it was which firmly announced the arrival of Basil Poledouris in the upper echelons of film scorers - John Milius's Conan the Barbarian. The film is utterly ludicrous, so the one thing that audiences were most likely to notice (apart from the emergence of someone obviously destined for high office in the state of California) was the music, which was a vital component in the film.
Poledouris positively revelled when given the chance to write a grand, old-fashioned score like this - it's full of the spirit of the Golden Age masters such as Alfred Newman and, especially, Miklos Rozsa - an overwhelmingly exciting, very long score which pretty much sustains the film by itself. The two main themes are introduced in the first two tracks - the muscular theme for Conan himself in "Anvil of Crom" (which features 24 French Horns!) is a propulsive, aggressive theme perfect for the muscular hero; and then a more fluid, but no less thrilling, theme appears in "Riddle of Steel" which goes on to be used as a building block for much of the action music (of which there is no shortage).
This is one of those rare scores which not only works beautifully as a whole, but where each piece is a self-contained gem in itself. Poledouris was given an unusually-long period of time to write the score, and responded by providing the kind of genuine musical quality which is possessed by only the very finest film scores (of which this is undoubtedly one). Take a piece like "Wheel of Pain", a fantastic piece of action music with a proper beginning, middle and end.
For all the wonderful action music, that's not all the score is about - "Atlantean Sword" is full of a sense of honour and glory, a rousing and inspirational piece. There's also a grand, sweeping love theme ("Wifeing") which is gloriously over-the-top. "Mountain of Power Procession" is surely a tribute to Rozsa, very much recalling that composer's Roman scores. One of the highlights is "The Orgy", a piece which builds and builds into a frenzy of orchestra and choir. "Battle of the Mounds" might be the finest action piece, a true thrill-ride which again makes full use of both the large orchestra and choir as Poledouris provides pulsating musical commentary to a scene which is completely dull and lifeless in the film.
Conan the Barbarian is a fantastic film score, and makes a fantastic album. The only slight criticism is with the Italian orchestra's performance, which might politely be described as "enthusiastic", or impolitely as "bad", but other than that you can't go wrong. Poledouris worked on a few more big fantasies in his career, but none afforded him the chance to write a score quite this complex and yet so directly emotional. It's beautifully-constructed, brilliant music.