The long-standing tradition of fantasy films should be considered separate form the comparatively shorter history of fantasy scores; the former can be traced back to the earlier days of pre-Nosferatu (1922, F. W. Murnau) surrealistic short films, while the latter would have to wait a few decades more before acquiring a proper identity. The brilliant Bernard Herrmann probably played a larger role in reinvigorating the genre than anybody else, with his seminal 1951 score for "The Day the Earth Stood Still". The scoring of science-fiction and the more adventuresque type of fantasy progressively detached themselves and formed more defined genres of music, helping the emergence of more romantic genres as "heroic fantasy". As with any genre or (as in this case) sub-genre, one particular orchestral work or set of works always stand out as emblematic. If John Williams captured the adventure genre with his Indiana Jones scores, and Herrmann took the thriller world by storm with his works for North by Northwest and Vertigo... then Basil Poledouris also joins the pantheon of all time greatest with his ultimate contribution to the heroic fantasy genre. In fact, there is little doubt that "Conan the Barbarian" is Basil Poledouris' magnum opus. Many have tried to emulate it and failed miserably.
One can't help but smile at the similarity in tone and structure between the opening track "Anvil of Crom" and the main titles of Jerry Goldsmith's 1990 score for Total Recall. This is masculine, almost military, music with a commanding trombone at its forefront and thundering bass drum in the background, setting the tone for the entire score... that is to say nothing less than epic. Whereas some copycat ostinatos would grow tiresome after a minute or so, Poledouris' genius is in crafting emotion and tenderness out of seemingly brutal sounds. For those of you who are familiar with the composer's later work for Robocop in 1987, you will be familiar with the man's unique sense of blending alien elements together, specifically the cold industrial clanging and eerie electronic motives (bringing the cyber-punk universe of Robocop to life) with the heart-breaking harmonics of traditional orchestration (detailing the protagonist's feelings). As was the case with Jerry Goldsmith, Poledouris seemed able to create something totally different by slamming two contradictory elements together, and make them become inseparable in the process. All of this probably explains why the film still enjoys a cult following to this day - the music captured something that the image couldn't, so that scenes of romance wouldn't feel like mere filler between sword-wielding action, but rather part of a natural continuum.
"Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom" deserves a special mention, here. It brings together all the thematic elements of the film into one epic 5-and-a-half-minute roller coaster of a track. The first third "Riddle of Steel" scores the musings of Conan's father, as he gets a tad too philosophical about swords. However, the multi-dimensional quality of Poledouris' music accomplishes two things at once: on the one hand providing a sort of ideological core to the main character, and on the other showing the strong bond between these two characters. This particular theme is the most common one heard throughout the score, often highlighting matters of love, loyalty, friendship and (dare I, an atheist, use the word) spirituality. As a side note, if you are a massive admirer of Poledouris' trademark fluttering violin movements, this track contains the most beautiful and jaw-dropping example of the technique. Some two minutes in, the track morphs into what sounds like a dark re-envisioning of a Carl Orff composition... only better. While that may be deemed blasphemous to the most fervent Carmina Burana admirers out there, I must insist that those among you who haven't yet heard Poledouris' "Riders of Doom" should do so immediately, or hang your heads in shame! Adding to the whole chivalric mythos, things kick off with a few celebratory trumpets, as if to signal the troops to get ready for battle (or, as in this case, barbarous carnage). Choir voices swell in the background, growing louder as the percussion builds up with a tambourine. Finally, the icing on the cake comes in the form of a trumpet motive so... well, triumphant... that you almost feel like donning a suit of armour and swinging an oversized sword over your head. For many, this section of the score is the most memorable.
"Gift of Fury" and the amazing "Battle of the Mounds" tread similar territory to "Riders of Doom", but add so much variation and richness to the proceedings that they deserve to be assessed separately from the former. "Gift of Fury" acts as an opera of death, as Conan's brave mother is decapitated in front of him. All of this is captured very dramatically as the choir voices and violins lament at the desolation of a raped village. "Battle of the Mounds" is introduced with breezy flutes and adventurous oboe notes, as preparation for the film's final battle are made. The theme from "Riders of Doom" reappears during the last minutes, with a much more pronounced timpani pounding alongside the orchestration, giving the whole an intensity hardly matched by any other score (perhaps with the exception of Jerry Goldsmith's Total Recall and John Williams' work on The Empire Strikes Back).
All manner of unique and colourful tracks crop up along the way, such as the magnificent "Atlantean Sword" for instance. This track is hard to put into words, but for those who are familiar with the work of French electronic composer Cecile Schott and her mesmerizing ambient distortions of traditional instruments (check her Les Ondes Silencieuses album), you will feel right at home. Other less avant-garde comparisons could be made with the music of Brian Eno too. However, Poledouris' approach is much more like Goldsmith's in that traditional instruments ultimately reside at the heart of the composition, as becomes apparent a minute into the track when the strings soar to what could be one of the most beautiful climaxes in film score history. "Wifeing" comes as yet another spectacular piece. In the first twenty seconds, a lone violin paves the way for the most minimal track on the score. Given that most tracks contain either deep layers of warm orchestration or bombastic and highly energetic movements, "Wifeing" comes as a surprise. This only adds to the sheer volume of ideas present on Conan the Barbarian, without feeling out of place in the slightest. The track has been subtitled "theme of love" and feels very much like a formal concert suite (not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you).
"The Kitchen / The Orgy" enchants with its introductory ballad (or valse) of strings, the "Mountain of Power Procession" delights with its adventurous tone and clashing cymbals... in fact, every single track on Conan the Barbarian merits its own paragraph. By the time the score is over, you will be emotionally drained. The sheer amount of originality and boldness Poledouris' pulls off is literally exhausting. To get the most of out of this masterwork, however, you need to acquire the correct version of the score, that is to say the Varese Sarabande (a label many of us score enthusiasts have learned to love throughout the years) 16-track edition, as opposed to the lacklustre (though cheaper) Milan release:
Since this review was written, Tadlow have released the "World Premiere Recording of the Complete Score" with Nic Raine conducting The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. This version comes on 2 CDs and includes all the music in the film. The new recording addresses some of the concerns expressed by Basil Poledouris about the original recording to Tadlow's James Fitzpatrick. It contains a wealth of previously unrecorded tracks, plus some bonus material including alternative versions and a suite from "Conan the Destroyer". The new released can be found at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.