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Music in Gaming

Conan Music, and A Bit About Basil Poledouris

by Damon Bradshaw
Nov 21,2002


Music In Gaming

Conan Music, and A Bit About Basil Poledouris

I don't know about you guys, but every once in a while I get a weird little surprise that for no apparent reason, really floors me.

In doing a bit of research for this month's article, I got one of those. It probably won't hit you like it hit me, but just the same, here it is:

Basil Poledouris is from Kansas City.


All right, it's really not that big of a deal, but here I've been listening to and admiring this guy's music for years, and I'm all thinking that he's probably Greek (I mean, come on, how could he NOT be?), or at least from Hollywood or something, and I look at his website (www.basil-poledouris.com, a fantastic site, the opening page has the Wheel of Pain, now that is just insanely cool) and lo and behold, he's a Missourian. Or at least, born here, and spent some time growing up here.

I was surprised.

I guess it's because I live in KC too, and well, you never really expect anyone to be from where you are, you know what I mean?

And here's something far out... The house I live in was built in 1945, the same year Basil Poledouris was born... Maybe his family needed a bigger house for the new baby. Maybe they lived in this house. I MAY BE LIVING IN THE HOUSE THAT BASIL POLEDOURIS GREW UP IN!!!


Okay, enough of the fantasy, let's talk about Conan!

I've had both of these soundtracks for quite a while, and listened the heck out of both of 'em. And I think we can all agree that Barbarian was the better movie (I hope we can all agree); Destroyer was so campy and Ahnold-y at times that it's a little embarrassing to watch (though not necessarily a bad movie by any means... Well, okay, maybe so).

Still, I think that Barbarian is better for gaming purposes, so I'm going to break it down track by track, and not really worry about Destroyer.

Obviously, these soundtracks would be best suited for some sort of fantasy game. Now I'd like to caveat this by saying that I am by no means an expert on Conan, I read one of the books long ago, I don't even remember which one or who it was by, for all I know it could have been a crappy one, and I know that some people have a problem with the movies and comics not reflecting the original stories, but what I'm going to talk about here really has nothing to do with that so discuss that elsewhere, please.

Right off the bat, one of the things you notice about Barbarian is that the orchestra just isn't... well... that good (it's the Orchestra & Chorus of Santa Cecilia, Radio Symphony of Rome, by the way). There are all sorts of instances of sections being slightly off-tempo (especially with the chorale movements), the recording picks up the occasional page turn or slight murmur; nobody's really off key, but just little things stand out that keep the production from being flawless.

Normally, that would bug the hell out of me. But with a CD of Conan music, it's almost appropriate, and entirely forgivable. It sort of parallels the adaptability and spontaneity of the title character. That maybe doesn't make much sense written down, but listen to the music, and see if you don't agree with me.

Another thing, that I've really just recently noticed while listening to the soundtrack with headphones, is that there's lots of interesting stereo effects; not really panning, back and forth type stuff, but more like certain instruments or sections separated left and right that makes for a really cool headphone experience, but something you may not notice on speakers.

And one more quick note: this whole album is really melancholy. Sometimes purposefully tear-jerking, but as a general tone the themes are just this side of depressing; sort of a "there's absolutely nothing you can do about all the impending death and destruction that's about to happen" feel. It is, at the very least, very interesting.

* 1. Anvil of Crom [2:37]
How can you not hear this and think of a flaming title sequence? It's very main-title-y, and has heavy thematic change at about 56 seconds into some melancholy stuff (note the separated panning of the horns and the strings; also listen for the horns to be slightly behind on a few entrances and sequences).

*.2. Riddle of Steel/Riders of Doom [5:37]
Again with the melancholy. It's perfect for conveying the "comforts of home" feeling that soon will be disrupted by some badass Riders of Doom. And at 1:35, they come riding in, with a big thematic shift. The rest of the piece is actually pretty good battle music, with a decent tempo and the chant-like chorale. It's actually quite heroic-sounding in spots. Then at 3:35, another shift, into a theme you'll hear later on, during more butt-kicking scenes. The ending is pretty cool, as well. I can see some good reverse choreography, because of the big changes in this track.

* 3. Gift of Fury [3:51]
This one starts out with a cool menacing fanfare-ish ditty, then at :33 it goes into a slow, droning chorale dirge backed by strings. It's got a few interesting little changes, going into major at a spot or two. Overall it's very sad, again, melancholy; perfect funeral music, "saying final good-byes to old friends" type theme.

* 4. Wheel of Pain [4:10]
This piece is incredibly interesting. It kicks off with another melancholy string sequence, punctuated by quiet resonating drums. Again, I sound like a broken record, but this music is just plain sad. You get the feeling that absolutely nothing is going the right way for the poor loincloth-clad warrior. At 1:20 it goes into the recognizable "Wheel of Pain" theme; it's repetitive with a heavy downbeat and marked tempo, with a fantastic screeching effect throughout. This is where Poledouris' ability to evoke feeling really shines through, because it's really the perfect tone for this sort of scene. At 3:05 the theme changes to a more heroic march, and closes out on a bit of sad hope.

* 5. Atlantean Sword [3:52]
More sorrow music, but this time it's peppered with a little "sense of duty" tone. This would be a good track for fantasy "off camera" type stuff.

* 6. Theology/Civilization [3:15]
This is one of my favorite tracks from the disc. It's a simple little waltz that for once breaks away from the melancholy attitude of the soundtrack, and conveys some fun and freedom. It's great traveling music, "crossing the great wide expanse" music (which Poledouris is good at composing).

* 7. Wifeing (Theme of Love) [2:11]
As we all know, romance is fleeting for our friend Conan, and this song sums it up well. You know, I wonder of Basil was clinically depressed when writing this music, because it's all so SAD! This is a good track of background music for a "forbidden love" scene, or painful parting.

* 8. Leaving/The Search [6:00]
More. Sad. Music. Sheesh.

It's like it will never stop.

This soundtrack will definitely not leave you hanging for sad "goodbye" or "painful parting" music.

And amazingly, at 2:50 it gets EVEN SADDER. Lonely sad, with fleeting glimpses of hope that quickly are swallowed by more sorrowful strains (which is the worst kind of sadness).

I'd say it's about time for some Conan-style nameless-bad-guy slaying, what do you think? The next track pays up.

* 9. Mountain of Power Procession [3:23]
A crashing and bashing march with interesting metallic percussion. At 2:22 it slows a bit and gives you a taste of the Orgy music. (That's something you'll never hear said very often, "...taste of the Orgy...")

* 10. Tree of Woe [3:33]
A menacing, droning, track of no hope, perfect for the scene it accompanies. Around 2:00 it changes to the waltz from the early Theology/Civilization track, which I guess could be called the "friend" theme. A great scene in the movie.

* 11. Recovery [2:13]
This is a revisiting of the theme presented in Riddle of Steel, track 2. Again, sad, melancholy, let's fix up ol' Conan and nurse him back to health. One minute in the chorale comes in with murmuring syllables.

* 12. Kitchen/The Orgy [6:31]
Those of you who know Carmina Burana (the whole work, not just the famous O Fortuna) will recognize Orff as an inspiration from this piece.

It's a bouncing rendition of the chorus from Riders of Doom sung in men's voices. Interesting, to say the least.

At 2:10 it changes to the very recognizable orgy theme (yes, we were all paying attention to the music during this scene, not what was going on on the screen, right?).

Here's a cool story: Basil Poledouris got the idea for this song's theme from listening to his daughter Zoe play the flute (she would have been around 10 years old). Consequently, she got writing credit for the soundtrack, and at the time, was the youngest person to ever get a BMI card. I'm not sure if that record still stands (probably not, what with all the younguns in the music biz nowadays).

The Orgy is a pleasant waltz that for all the world sounds like a big ballroom dance. If you didn't know any better you probably wouldn't be able to tell that it had a more... "erotic" heritage.

This is a great scene, with Conan and the gang sneaking around while lots of people are groping each other and copping feels left and right, and something in the music sort of evokes the "Shhhh! Don't disturb the rutting crowd!" feel that the scene has. Again, Poledouris shows his amazing ability to evoke specific feelings.

* 13. Funeral Pyre [4:31]
More sadness, the title of the track should clue you in to that. This scene has one of what I consider the coolest lines in all of moviedom, after Subotai gives Conan the torch to light Valeria's pyre: "He is Conan, Cimmerian, he will not cry, so I cry for him."

Classic. Sniff.

* 14. Battle of the Mounds [4:53]
Possibly, the never-ending sadness that the previous tracks have displayed can be forgiven with this single track, which accompanies an awesome fight scene in the movie.

It starts with a great "preparation montage" sequence that goes a long way to evoke tension and approaching doom (no pun intended). You can't help but listen to this and think, "Hurry, hurry, hurry, HURRY!"

At 2:35, the prayer: "Crom, I have never prayed to you before..." Classic moment in fantasy cinema. Then, at 3:30, it erupts into sword swinging, shield clashing mayhem, perfect for any wild, heroic fight scene, with a great "up" ending.

* 15. Death of Rexor [5:35]
Denouement music, for sure. Still, it's pretty sad, a bittersweet ending tone, but has a definite feeling of closure to it. It ends with a sort of strange airy chorale sequence that lifts the mood a bit (just a bit, because the next track is downright tearjerk-y).

* 16. Orphans of Doom/The Awakening [5:32]
Man. I hate to just keep saying it over and over again, but holy cow this is some weepy music. This track, especially, as an ending to the film. Poledouris manages to really pound melancholy into your ears with this entire soundtrack. It's beautiful music, perfect for the movie, and I'm by no means saying that it's bad or anything, just really, REALLY evocative of gloominess.

As far as using these tracks for gaming, you're really going to have to listen to them for yourself and decide what the best use would be. You know, some music just screams to be used for a certain scene or a certain theme, but the Barbarian soundtrack is a bit more abstract, harder to put your finger on. It's definitely worth using for reinforcing a fantasy setting game, though, and I highly recommend it as both possible music for gaming, and as a great piece of Basil Poledouris' cinematic work.

However... The Destroyer soundtrack... Man. It's a bit off the mark, somehow. I'm not saying it's bad music, it's just, well, very, very strange. It revisits some of the themes from Barbarian (with obviously better recording), but the skill level of the orchestra still seems relatively low. There are times when they sound like a high school marching band--which isn't necessarily bad, just strange.

And to put the some weird icing on the strange cake, give a listen to track 6, "The Crystal Palace." It starts out as one of the better cuts from the soundtrack, building up towards a very tense encounter, then just when you think it's going to climax... oh, wait, nope, back to building tension, and then here's another climax... what's going to happen?!? What will Conan do?

Apparently, he'll throw on his cowboy hat, pull out his six shooters, hop up onto his horse and start riding slow motion into the sunset.

That is to say, the slow tense fantasy battle music changes abruptly into unmistakably heroic western movie music. It's soooooo bizarre. I was thinking to myself, "What the hell is happening in this scene?" Well, it's where Toth-Amon has trapped them all in the tower with all the mirrors, and Conan is trying to figure out what to do to beat the wizard cum polymorphed ape lizard thing. When he starts breaking the mirrors is where it breaks out into the gunslinging music. You've seriously got to hear this to believe it. Watch the movie, or find the track online somewhere or if you're really jonesin' to complete your Conan music library, go buy the album. Just don't blame me when you're boggling at how vastly, vastly different in theme, style, and tone it is from the Barbarian disc.

Also, I've heard told, there is a soundtrack that I know nothing about to the Conan TV show, which I also know nothing about. Anyone wishing to fill me (us) in feel free to tell us all about it in the forum below.

As always, I'd love to hear about your music in gaming experiences, and recommendations for music you think is appropriate. Shoot me an email at Damonicus@NOSPAMexcite.com or post in the forum if you've got any comments. Game on.

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