Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Old Blade Runner "Magic"

Greetings, folks...Benthoven here. In what must have been a fit of XTC-driven insanity, Mugshot decided that I might bring something potentially worthwhile to this mongrel of a music blog, so despite my relative lack of knowledge of the pop music scene compared with the site's other posters, I figured I'd give it a shot. And since we focus here on music experiences, I may as well tell you about my recent infatuation with an album dubbed by one reviewer on Amazon as "simply instrument suitable for use during torture by South American dictators." I refer, as you no doubt deduced from the title of this post, to the soundtrack of the most seminal cinematic cyber-noir of the 1980s: Blade Runner.

The CD in question was borrowed from the local library, which for those of us without iTunes is one of the best ways available to check out interesting new music on the cheap. Growing up in the suburbs, I shunned the music collection at my local library for the most part, since for the most part the selection was rather minimal. Since then however, library music collections have expanded and larger libraries, like those found in major cities, are gold mines for any music lover with eclectic . During my last few trips to the library in question, I checked out Weezer's Green Album (which maintained the high standards of its azure predecessor) Johnny Cash's Murder (arguably the greatest country-western compilation of all time), and the aforementioned Blade Runner CD.

I should stop now and note that the album under discussion here is not in point of fact the music you will hear in the movie Blade Runner, but rather the New American Orchestra's reinterpretation of those themes released shortly after the movie premiered in 1982. The soundtrack's composer, Vangelis, was apparently concerned that the movie soundtrack market would be oversaturated with his music following the success of Chariots of Fire. So he withheld the original tapes for a while, driving science fiction fans and soundtrack aficionados until the mid-90s when the "real" album was deemed ready for release. For better or for worse, I did not realize all of this backstory when I picked up the album...I was just a movie buff who wanted to see how well Vangelis' soundtrack worked outside the context of the movie. Even if his work sometimes has a tendency to slather his compositions chock full of 80's vintage synthesizer, the Chariots of Fire soundtrack was excellent, especially the title track, and I wondered if there might be a few hidden gems on this disc as well.

Consider me pleasantly surprised. On the whole, this album captures the gritty, noirish feel of the film, evoking the classic detective stories of the 1930s while capturing the futuristic landscape of Scott's movie...and all of this with only minimal use of synthesizers!

Let's do a quick track rundown...

Track 1: In striking contrast to most movie soundtracks, the producers of this disc decided not to begin the album with the film's main titles. Instead, the coveted first slot of the album is filled by a track entitled "Love Theme," a slow-paced instrumental track whose wailing saxophone solos by Tom Scott place one in the mindset of the classic detective voice-over narration. The whole "a dark night in a city that doesn't sleep" kind of mindset as channeled through a Shirley Bassey-ish brass section. I confess, on repeated listenings, that the later parts of the track seem like something of an easy-listening radio station, but the track still serves as an effective opener.

Track 2: Ah, there's the main title! Now here's a track that really would sound better in the original synthesized version, and it shows. The first thirty seconds or so is a gradual crescendo towards...well, that's the interesting question. Where is this track going? It wends its way up and down for a little while, dies out for a few seconds, and then restarts on what, in my opinion, should have been a separate track. But no, instead, the music comes back, and provides some lovely background stuff, before fading out and restarting again. This time, one wonders who's to blame for the seagull like flutes and the bells evoking buoys...and then just as you're starting to get immersed in the waterfront of this dystopian L.A. of the future...well, the track is over.

Track 3: A vocal track of the classic 1930s school. With its muted piano and bass accompaniment and standard structure, "One More Kiss, Dear", really sounds like something you might have heard had Sam Spade or one of his colleagues had flipped on the radio before enjoying a couple of shots of whiskey and thinking about the lost loves of his murky past. Listening to the spoken verse over muted trumpet playing, you would never suspect that Vangelis wrote the music, much less that this was slated for inclusion on the soundtrack of a science fiction movie!

Track 4: This track, entitled "Memories of Green," is a poignant little piano piece with violin orchestration. The title reflects one of the film's central themes, the importance of memory in identity and what makes an individual experience valid, having lived through it or possessing memories of the experience. I am curious to hear whether the actual film's soundtrack is capable of evoking the same level of haunting emotion using synthetics as this piece does. Arguably, the best track on the album with some nice, bluesy modulation thrown in from time to time to keep things interesting.

Track 5: So the opening credits are the second track on the album. It only makes sense that the end titles should show up at the halfway point! Seriously, I'm not trying to bad mouth the music, but this album's organization continues to throw me for a loop! Perhaps the most catchy piece from the whole film is this track's repeating four note violin theme with the bass and the timpani in the background driving it home. Over and over again...each time with slightly different background noises in the higher registers. I guarantee after a few minutes you'll never forget the theme, no matter how hard you try. Oh, and in case you do, come back again for track 8... (That's right...there's more!)

Track 6: "Blade Runner Blues" (n.) : 1. What some of you may be experiencing right now as you read this blog posting. 2. A trumpet track featuring Chuck Findley intended to mirror the heartache of the title character in the film Blade Runner. Rick Deckard, former detective, here has his life captured in brass, with Findley's trumpet crying out in all of its muted glory, almost presenting a musical monologue to the audience. Because after all, it sucks when your job is killing hyper-realistic androids, especially when your latest girlfriend may be one of them, and oh yeah, it looks like you might be too depending on which cut of your life story you're watching.

Track 7: Shouldn't a track entitled "Farewell" be the last track on the album? This one misses the mark by one. It's on the penultimate space on the album, and in some ways serves as filler. The use of metallophone (or glockenspiel?) is nice and all, but in a fashion similar to the main titles, the track is otherwise just building towards a resolution which never seems to arrive. Perhaps, some might argue, this is the point, and Vangelis is suggesting that there is no pat resolution to the story in Blade Runner. Or perhaps he just prefers to let his musical stream of consciousness run off to who knows where instead of just ending things...

Which finally brings us to...

Track 8 (the last): End Title Reprise! It's like the end titles...but longer! And with a quicker tempo! And that damn end theme will be stuck in your head for hours to come. It's strange, as I relisten to this track, it sounds like the orchestrators decided to throw in a little bit of the jazz on this track. Maybe it's the electric bass...maybe it's the inclusion of something very much like a synthesizer...who knows? The point is, it's a catchy track that serves its purpose...bringing the whole album to a tight conclusion. A good bookend piece, even if it suffers from what seems to be Vangelis' trademark of fading out rather than just ending his instrumental pieces...

Right, so that's the album deconstructed. Let's pick up the pieces and summarize. Whenever I consider a movie soundtrack, I approach it in two different ways. First, does it complement the action of the movie it was intended to accompany? In this case, the answer is yes...even with its repetitious moments, this soundtrack perfectly matches Blade Runner's unique pedigree, combining the best aspects of Philip K. Dick and Dashiell Hammett.

The second question however, is whether the soundtrack is interesting enough to listen to on its own...without the movie in front of me to distract from its more monotonous parts. Here, unfortunately, I'm not sure this reorchestration holds up. There are a few gems hidden here, particularly "One More Kiss, Dear" and "Memories of Green," and of course the end title is damn catchy...but otherwise, I'm not sure the album stands on its own after repeated listening.

It does make excellent mood music however after a long day at work, so I may consider buying a cheap copy of it off Amazon eventually. Of course if I can find the original Vangelis version to compare that would be even better!

Well, this ran longer than expected, so I suppose I'll end it now. Expect more eclectic musical musings in the near future including some vintage Billy Jones recordings from the golden age of radio.

This is Benthoven, signing off.


At 11:33 PM, Blogger ryunited and it feels so good said...

I never understood that movie at all. The bizarre laughing at the end? Was Daryl Hannah supposed to be hot?

Isn't Ridley Scott responsible for the recent film, Alexander?

At 11:55 PM, Blogger Benthoven said...

Apparently, there are around 6 different versions of the film, some of which have ambiguous and/or contradictory endings. Whether or not the film's soundtrack retains its ambiguous and/or contradictory nature in all of these versions remains a mystery to this blogger.

As for your other questions:
1. Yes, Darryl Hannah was supposed to be hot. As you imply however, intent and reality do not always coincide.
2. No, that was Oliver Stone. You can blame Kingdom of Heaven on Ridley Scott though. It's ok. He won't mind!


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