Intrada's new 3 CD set of Basil Poledouris' epic score for Conan the Barbarian
represents for me the end of a journey that was begun in earnest on January 1 of 1991 with the purchase of the MCA Records cassette of the original soundtrack album. The original LP configuration concentrated on the more introspective aspects of the score and that is what colored my initial impressions of it. One does sort of expect a certain level of brutality from the score to a film about a barbarian, and so to be presented with so much incredibly varied but beautiful and flowing music was something that took me by surprise upon my initial exposure to the music.
That tape lacked Dolby noise reduction, and its already muddy sound was dulled even further by the sheer amount of plays it got throughout my remaining high school years. Shortly afterward, I rented the film and was shocked by how much more music was in the movie than on the (relatively generous for the era) album. When I was a freshman in college, Varèse Sarabande came out with their expanded edition, which I devoured greedily.
The Varèse disc was rather satisfying for its time: the sound was much better than my tape cassette, and most of what I really wanted was on there. The thing about time is that it moves inexorably forward, and eventually I wanted more. I satisfied that yen throughout the years through a series of alternate sources, all of which were mono and all of which had severe audio issues, most primarily that they were buried under a thick layer of hiss. It was therefore with great relish that I anticipated Intrada's edition.
However, a few years ago, James Fitzpatrick produced a brand new Tadlow recording
of this score for Prometheus Records with Nic Raine conducting the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. The new recording wasn't supposed to reproduce the original, but rather the score that Poledouris had written but was forced to alter to accommodate the abilities of the two Italian orchestras involved in the recording. As a result, there were many differences between what one hears on the original soundtrack recording and on the Tadlow.
When I first got the Tadlow recording, I primarily noted the different orchestrations
, and then praised the performance itself
, while acknowledging some issues with the sound that I considered pretty minor. And while I never stopped listening to the original soundtrack recording, as well as my Conan compilation Let Me Tell You of the Days of High Adventure
, over time I found that when I listened to Conan the Barbarian
, it was the Tadlow edition I reached for most often.
Thus, rediscovering the original score through Intrada's new edition was in many ways re-acquainting myself with an old friend. The music has been completely remixed from the original masters, and it sounds great; there are those who would have liked a little more low end, but I agree with Doug Fake's contention that what's here is the more natural sound of the orchestra. It is an undeniable fact that there is much more detail to be heard now; instruments that were buried before are crystal clear, strings have a fine sheen, and the brass is more cutting. It's like a veil was taken off of the music. Everything here is in pristine stereo except for the prerecorded source music; "The Hall of King Osric" (which wouldn't have much of a stereo presence anyway) and the adaptation of 'Las Cantigas De Santa Maria' that incorporates the Clemenic Consort performance, both of which appear in somewhat hissy mono. Given the story behind those cues, especially the latter, I'm just glad they were able to be included.
Ironically, the clarity of the sound does reveal some of the shakier elements of the two Italian orchestras' performances. There is much power there, to be sure, but there are moments when the music gets a little ahead of the orchestra (more so on the expanded edition, as Poledouris selected the cues with the best performances for the previous editions). In fact, this remaster puts to bed any doubt in Fitzpatrick's statements that Poledouris, who was by all accounts a perfectionist, wasn't satisfied with the performance of Conan the Barbarian
. While this obviously wasn't the sort of disaster he experienced whilst working on Conan the Destroyer
, there certainly are moments that are rougher than they ought to be.
So, while it should be no surprise that I've been listening to Conan
nonstop since I received Intrada's set, what I've ended up doing – not by design, it's just how it ended up working out – is alternating
between the Intrada and the Tadlow versions. Each one has elements that I like, and frankly having two complete versions of this particular score makes me gibberingly happy.
While there are some who have said that the Tadlow performance is more mechanical, I disagree and I've found that I've gotten rather attached many of Raine's readings of the music. Despite its sonic limitations, his "Anvil of Crom" has more energy and fuller orchestrations, more resembling Poledouris' own performance of "Conan the Symphony" at Ùbeda than that in the film. The City of Prague Philharmonic's take on "Pit Fights" is much tighter than the film version, which comes apart a bit as it gets faster; the better performance allows the cue to be more brutal. Raine's rendition of "The Tree of Woe" incorporates a female choir that turns what I had previously considered a primarily ambient portion of the cue into something more mysterious and eerily beautiful.
Most importantly, the Tadlow's version of "Recovery" is in every way an improvement over the original – and I'm talking about one of my favorite cues from one of my favorite scores. In my notes for Let Me Tell You of the Days of High Adventure
, I said of this piece, "This is one of the most arresting pieces of music from either film, a beautiful reworking of familiar material to illustrate not only how a character feels but how he has been changed by his experiences." The performances are so introspective and the direction, particularly the transition from the first statement of the main theme with cor anglais
and trumpet, to the second with the choir, is absolutely sublime.
Conan the Barbarian • Composed by Basil Poledouris
The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus Conducted by Nic Raine • Prometheus XPCD 169
On the other hand, the film versions of "Riddle of Steel · Riders of Doom," "Wifeing," "The Battle of the Mounds (Part I)" and "Orphans of Doom · The Awakening" just can't really be beat. There are also some cases where the versions are so different that they aren't really comparable, such as "Column of Sadness · Wheel of Pain," "The Leaving" and others. The Intrada edition also adds a few alternate versions of "Orphans of Doom" that are just beautiful. I also have to say that I really like the reprise of the "Pit Fights" material in the unused cue "The Snake," which does not appear on the Tadlow album (although the Tadlow version of the following cue "Infidels" is a much better performance than the messy one that appears in the film).
There were also a few surprises, most notably that there the film versions sometimes differ from what appeared on the LP and the Varèse edition – "Atlantean Sword" is noticeably different in presence and has a longer finale. I had tended to ignore the retracked section "The Defilers" despite it being included on all of the unmentionables because of their horrid sound (although I have to admit that I quite enjoyed its appearance as "Orgy Fight" on the Tadlow album, which ironically more accurately reproduces the edits made to "Anvil of Crom" in the film than the Intrada edition), but I found the alternate takes of "Battle of the Mounds" and "Riders of Doom," which feature additional lines for the brass section instead of choir, were actually quite exciting.
There was also something else that initially shocked me: "The Kitchen" – which was a cue not included on the LP but I was familiar with from the film and thus had been pining for when the Varèse disc came out – was not the same as what appeared in the film and on the Varèse CD! At first, I thought that Doug had messed something up, but when I listened closely to both, I realized that the track on the Intrada edition was actually what was recorded, while what's in the film, and subsequently reproduced on the Varèse disc, was achieved by switching two sections of the music! It's funny to me because when I first got the Varèse CD and could hear "The Kitchen" in stereo and without sound effects, I thought that section sounded like it had been edited, but I never thought much of it (the Taldow recording is of the film version).
I've seen too many Twilight Zone
episodes ever to make desert island lists, but if I ever were to list my top ten favorite scores, for nearly twenty-three years, this score would have been on it. Having this score in complete form, with extras (including a remaster of the original LP configuration) in good sound is a dream come true. It's not perfect, but my issues are so minor that they are pretty much worth a footnote.*
When Intrada releases their edition of Conan the Destroyer
, I will revisit Let Me Tell You of the Days of High Adventure
. I will be simply recreating the original edit with the new masters, however. I don't want to mess with that one.
So this is it. This is all of Conan the Barbarian
in all of its operatic glory, and the best it has ever sounded. I've searched far and wide for this music in the past, and it is all here, along with material I hadn't heard yet. There is no more. And while when Alexander saw the breadth of his kingdom, he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, I look forward to the years of pleasure this score has yet to give me. I've been listening to it for twenty-three years, and it hasn't gotten old yet.
Clockwise from the Top:
The original MCA LP
The aforementioned MCA tape cassette
The Varèse expanded edition
The Milan edition (LP configuration but with the opening prologue with Mako's narration)
The Intrada complete edition
* — The initial entry of "Anvil of Crom" after the Prologue on the first track should have had much more power, I could really have done without the crossfade from "War Paint" to "The Kitchen," and the tracked music in "The Defilers" doesn't reproduce the internal edits on "Anvil of Crom."
Today marks my thirty-seventh straight day of work. We are no longer working twelve hour days, but rather have gone down to ten. I don't know how much longer this is going to be, but I could really use a weekend.
On the other hand, working this much does have certain benefits. I am currently typing this LiveJournal entry on my brand new, fully loaded MacBook Pro. It's verrah nice-ah, and it is all set and ready for me to do what I need to do with it (and I may need it for that sooner than I thought…
…but that is another story).
I bought it the week before last, and this is the first time I have had a chance to really sit down in front of it for any length of time outside of transferring all of my music to the Mac. This actually wasn't really all that time consuming, at least, it wasn't time consuming for me. I set it to read the drive with all the music, went to bed, and it was done when I woke up. The music drive is currently connected wirelessly through my Airport Extreme, which also hosts the printer, my stalwart Epson RX-580 (it's what prints on the CDs, see?).
Well, I am off to bed. I must awake at the ass-crack of dawn to get to work. I exaggerate, especially seeing as the days are getting shorter, but that's what it feels like, damn it.