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SRS 2011

Artwork copyright (c) 1984 Universal City Studios, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2004 James Southall



Extraordinary music paints intelligent, psychological portrait of a descent into despair


One of the great Alex North's finest gifts was his ability to score a film not from the usual obvious points of view (scoring the landscape, the emotion, in short telling you things you already know) but to delve beneath the surface and score everything from a deeply psychological point of view.  He was the perfect composer in so many ways for John Huston's adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's tale of descent into alcoholism Under the Volcano, not only because it demanded such intensely psychological scoring but also because of its Mexican location, with North having spent several years in Mexico and having a deep love for the country.

The score opens with the breathtaking "Dance of the Dead", one of North's most wonderful creations, a strikingly off-kilter piece in which the composer presents his classic trick of almost - but not quite - burying a subtle but sublime theme under a mass of dissonance, here from various percussion players.  It underscores a surreal opening sequence to the movie and is perfect, rickety accompaniment to the shots of dancing skeletons.  It could not be in more contrast to the playful, delightful "Pastorale" which follows, showing off the composer's lighter side.  It very quickly becomes obvious that what North has created here is a series of self-contained musical vignettes, with every track being quite unique and brilliant.  "Empty Bottles" is a searingly powerful exposition of anguish, with quite brilliant wind and string writing.

"The Bedroom" is alternately tragic and romantic, featuring an exquisite oboe theme which would grace any score.  Then comes "Shower", a beautiful trumpet-based piece of Mexicana which can take the breath away.  "Off to the Fiesta" is an immediate contrast, a beautiful little piece which begins with a mournful cello solo before developing into a more romantic, old-fashioned melody for strings and piano.  "Yvonne Returns" is a true delight, mixing another slice of Mexican-influenced melodies with a lovely new theme.  "Death of the Flute Player" is, as its title implies, more dramatic, a piece simply full of anguish and tragedy, featuring fluttering brass and later a more dramatic flourish for the whole orchestra.

"Journey to the Farolito" is barely less dramatic, ending with a powerful, discordant piano crash, leading perfectly into "A Night of Death", which is another powerful piece perfectly evoking the emotional trauma seen in the film.  Finally, the end credits piece reprises the brilliant opening material.  There has never been a finer film composer than North at getting under the skin of the characters of a film (and, I suspect I could have ended the sentence before the word "at").  Under the Volcano is truly one of his most extraordinary works, music so powerful it leaves a deep impression, far more so than anything written today.  The score is only twenty minutes long and the cover of the CD describes it as a "mini-classic" - well, it may be mini in length but, as I frequently point out to the ladies, length isn't everything and there is nothing vaguely mini about its quality.  Sadly it is now one of the rarest of all film music CDs, having been released on Masters Film Music during Varese Sarabande's first bout of CD Club releases over a decade ago, which means so many film music fans are denied the chance of hearing one of the great, intelligent film scores.  It's absolutely phenomenal and there is no finer example of Alex North at his very best.


  1. Dance of the Dead (3:10)
  2. Pastorale (1:26)
  3. Empty Bottles (2:59)
  4. The Bedroom (1:17)
  5. Shower (1:25)
  6. Off to the Fiesta (1:25)
  7. Yvonne Returns (:45)
  8. Death of the Flute Player (1:42)
  9. Journey to the Farolito (1:00)
  10. A Night of Death (2:05)
  11. End Credits (2:43)