I’ve always felt that the greatest travesty in the history of the Oscars is the fact that this did not win Best Soundtrack; it wasn’t even nominated. If you ever needed proof that the whole ceremony is a shambles then surely that is it. Better than ET, better than Star Wars, Conan The Barbarian is the greatest movie soundtrack of all time. While others like the two I’ve already mentioned may have a superior or more memorable stand alone theme, Conan is consistently brilliant. Each track stands as a wonderful piece on its own while taken as a whole it is epic and flowing, telling a hundred stories without words. While each piece evokes images and moments from the film they go further and open one’s own imagination; like the best music, the best albums, you can drift away into a world of your own making very easily after a few seconds of this. Massively influential on every fantasy and action movie soundtrack since it is rousing, thumping, tender and emotional, written with every last ounce of love and skill from an artist at his peak, and played sublimely. This should be on every music fan’s shelf.
`Anvil Of Crom’ opens the score with ominous, loud drums and horns, foretelling a great battle and sounding like ten thousand horsemen galloping forwards. As it is the first track it wants to tell the entire story of the course of it’s two and a half minutes. The middle section is a rousing, emotional violin piece giving the listener visions of glory and wonder. The track builds up again towards the end with further brass blasts and percussion before ending suddenly.
`Riddle Of Steel/Riders Of Doom’ begins in a quiet, mystical fashion and immediately those who have seen the film will remember the young Conan watching his father and hearing about the riddle of steel which would go on to shape his life. This doesn’t last long though as the peace is broken by marauding warriors, introduced by steadily growing horns, timpani and monk like chanting. The melodies here are as good as any song you could imagine, every section of the orchestra used to perfection, all melding together as one. The pace picks up to signify the fury and confusion of the attack before launching into a final two minutes of charging, brutal, beautiful music. We can see the battle raging on, the good guys struggling to overcome their enemy, and the introduction of several motifs which will recur throughout the entire score.
`Gift Of Fury’ starts with a slow, downbeat marching rhythm before the mournful, cult like chanting begins. Given that the first 20 or 30 minutes of the film has little or no dialogue the music needs to powerful enough and noticeable enough to carry the plot itself, here we notice the change from Conan’s tough but innocent childhood into one of slavery and revenge. The last minute of the track is quite bewitching, hinting at the wizardry and mystical powers of Thulsa Doom and how even his gaze was enough to lead people to their deaths.
`Wheel Of Pain’ is the track which accompanies another major turning point in Conan’s life- from boyhood to manhood. The famous scene in the movie is of Conan and a bunch of other children and men pushing a giant wheel in a desert for reasons unknown. Seasons change, months pass, and one by one the prisoners fall by the wayside. Months turn into years and soon Conan is the only one left; he looks up at the camera and we see what he has become. This track follows the scene flawlessly, beginning with the creaks of the turning wheel, the steady rhythm growing to signify his change.
`Atlantean Sword’ is another mystical, eastern styled track, beginning softly with unusual instruments building and fading to give the impression of uncertainty and discovery. It may be one of the less memorable tracks on the score but is still expertly constructed. For such an epic score, subtle, more quiet tracks like this give a different edge to the more violent parts. The soothing violins recall Conan’s childlike wonder and his memories of what his father taught him.
`Theology’ is full of eastern charm, with thoughts of dripping jewels and opulence as well as some semblance of peace and belonging. The track is in two pieces, the same music played slow, then fast. This signifies both the glory of what Conan and his gang have achieved along with the knowledge that it is not real- that their real reason in life is to be nomadic, constantly on some adventure. The melody here is one of the most upbeat in the film, fast, fun, and youthful and free of the warlike percussion of other tracks.
`Wifeing’ on the other hand is quite a somber theme, potentially hinting at coming tragedies, possibly portraying how serious the love between Conan and Valeria was felt. The track flows and soars with an epic string section, the high notes aimed at your most sensitive emotional nerves, and the gentle inclusion of the harp in the final melody is tenderness amongst chaos.
`The Leaving/ The Search’ continues the quiet middle part of the soundtrack as Conan has temporarily forgotten his thoughts of revenge and massacre, taken over by wealth, friendship, and love. The familiar, soft love theme repeats here on both string and flute style instruments. This theme peaks before descending back to the tragic love them on horn. This merges into The Search, another emotionally charged softer piece which sees Conan remember his mission. The sad strings show that Conan’s friends want him to stay safe and wealthy as they are rather than going on a suicide mission, but that they will follow him regardless into hell and back. For the final minute the speed shifts and the trumpets sound as if they are being blown in announcement of something, hinting at a clue in Conan’s quest.
`Mountain Of Power Procession’ accompanies one of the both disturbing and funniest scenes in the movie. Disturbing in that we see the hundreds of snake cult followers dressed in a hippy style following their master blindly, funny in the way Conan earns his disguise. The music sounds like a march, the drums hit in a steady rhythm and each section having a turn at the main melody one after the other. Like many tracks here the final minute offers something different, breaking off into a separate piece.
`The Tree Of Woe’ is quite a hypnotic piece and evokes memories of movies set in deserts with mirages, snakes, and a dry and barren landscape. There are sounds and instruments and themes used in this track which do not appear anywhere else in the score, showing this is a situation unlike any Conan has face before. Of course we know that Subotai finds and rescues Conan, echoed by the sudden change in theme which returns to the friendship of Theology. This in turn breaks back into the tragic love theme as Valeria realizes the pain of seeing your loved one in agony is almost as bad as what they are experiencing.
`Recovery’ echoes Valeria’s strongest scene in the film. The love scene is played in a more tender, less tragic sounding way as she proclaims her love for Conan to the Gods, challenging them if they dare take him from her. Rather than the intense monk chants we get choral female voices singing in the background to signify a different kind of strength. This is the next turning point in both the film and soundtrack as Conan realizes that steel may not be strong enough to overcome every enemy, and the pace of the music picks up as we race towards conclusion.
`The Kitchen/The Orgy’ is one of the most famous scenes and tracks from the movie. It begins as Conan’s gang stealthily infiltrates Doom’s lair. The music has a brooding subtlety, the chanting voices are both more quiet but more pronounced than before, taking a greater role than the instruments. This fades into the orgy theme, one which mirrors the opulence of `Theology’ but takes it to extreme levels. We see people gorging themselves on each other, intoxicated, blinded by worship and false power. This may be the most catchy theme in the score, deliberately so to signify how tempting and addictive it is to be part of Doom’s following. There is also an addictive nature to the slaughter which occurs, a blood lust which always inevitably leads to tragedy.
`Funeral Pyre’ is the final turning point in the movie. Conan has been too focused on personal revenge and on the riddle that he has lost what was closest to him. The tragic love theme returns here, sounding more lonely than ever with just a single instrument. The realization for Conan has come too late and this is the moment which will haunt him for the rest of his days. The tone shifts from sadness to agony to rage as the entire orchestra comes crashing in. Much of the pain here comes from the smaller characters in this scene, just as much of the emotion comes from the addition of lesser noticed instruments in smaller parts. As the orchestra fades we know that Conan has accepted what has happened and knows exactly what must be done.
`Battle Of The Mounds’ is one of the most famous pieces of film music ever, yet not many know precisely what it is. To clarify, it is frequently used as a trailer for other movies such as Gladiator and often mistaken for being in a different movie or even computer game. The track sounds like it is a standard for war films, for battle scenes but it is never more appropriate than the scene it was written for. All the emotional from previous scenes and tracks builds up as the enemy charges towards Conan and Subotai, the two stand as one against many, and the music rises to its most epic. It recalls the opening themes as Conan’s life comes full circle, once again encountering his enemy though this time he is able to fight.
`Death Of Rexor’ is a softer theme for the one on one battle between Conan and Rexor. For the first time both the male and female voices collide and there is a sense of nobility. The female voices may be that of Valeria who returns to Conan’s recue in spirit form and spurs him on to victory. The battle is won and Conan can return King Osric’s daughter, but he isn’t finished yet with Doom. We know that Conan will be King at some point, but this is underplayed in the music the mirror his reluctance at such a notion. Some of the lesser melodies here sound almost like what would come later in Robocop (many parts of Conan The Destroyer are very similar to parts of Robocop).
`Orphans Of Doom/ The Awakening’ is the final track, a beautiful harp and voice led piece in which Conan speaks to Doom’s orphans now leaderless and without direction. The spell over them has been broken, but when they were enchanted they had a purpose. They may now have freedom, but they have nothing to do with it. Similarly Conan is now free from his memory and vengeance for Doom but now has little to live for. With Valeria gone and purpose of his life up to this point completed, he is as lost as the children. The sad music echoes this loneliness but it shifts towards a more hopeful, uplifting tone at the end; Conan has discovered the riddle and can choose to be a king over many, or to continue travelling to some new purpose. He has seen magic and believes there is a chance Valeria can return. The climax builds with horns and strings, bells and drums and we understand that Conan’s adventures will continue.
Whatever your thoughts of the film are, whether you have seen it or not, this is still a great soundtrack. Taken by itself it is theatrical, operatic, epic and tales a tale of its own. Taken with the film and it raises what most see as a cheesy, silly Arnie film to levels which many claim it doesn’t deserve to reach. True fans of the film all agree that while the movie itself is superb, it wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact it does have if it did not have this music. Each track fills each scene with underlying emotions, completes the gaps in the dialogue, speaks things that are unspoken in the script. It is a benchmark for all cinematic scores, not just for this genre- the love, the research, and the skill on show is sadly lacking in most movies before and after with only a few exceptions creating something monumental; this is exceptional; this is monumental.