Home > Reviews > CONAN THE BARBARIAN – Tyler Bates


September 3, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Film music aficionados generally consider the score for the original 1982 version of Conan the Barbarian, written by the late great Basil Poledouris, to be one of the finest scores ever written. While remaking the film itself is, from my point of view, neither here nor there as I thought the original movie was greatly flawed, stepping into Poledouris’s musical shoes was always going to be a daunting task, no matter who the composer is. It turns out that the composer is Tyler Bates, returning to the historical action epic genre that first brought him to prominence – or should that be notoriety? – with 300 back in 2006.

The film, which is based on the sword-and-sorcery pulp stories of Robert E. Howard, is directed by Marcus Nispel and stars Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa in the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger role. The straightforward story follows the adventures of Conan, a vengeful warrior who marauds across the landscape of medieval Hyboria searching for those that murdered his father and slaughtered his village when he was a small boy. The film also stars Stephen Lang, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman and Rose McGowan, and packs the screen with sword-wielding spectacle, as films of this type tend to do. Unfortunately critics have not been kind the Conan reboot, and that extends to those whose primary focus is its music.

I really, really don’t like continually ragging on Tyler Bates. I’ve met him on several occasions, and he’s an extremely nice man, and God knows he works hard, but of all the composers working on major Hollywood productions today, his rise to the top is the one I find most inexplicable. I have continually struggled to find the positives in each of his most popular scores to date, from the terrible plagiarism we all know about on 300, to the disappointingly tepid efforts on The Day the Earth Stood Still and Watchmen, to the truly execrable and unlistenable Rob Zombie Halloween reboot scores. Looking at his career as a whole, Conan the Barbarian is probably Bates’ best score to date, but the score’s biggest problem – and this is something I‘m going to keep returning to in this review – is focus.

All the elements are there: a loud and powerful orchestra (a 40-piece ensemble recorded in Prague and then double tracked for added oomph), an equally large and powerful choir, a vast array of ethnic percussion elements, electronic and synthesized enhancements, and an electric guitar to give it all a contemporary edge. This may be, somewhat ironically, part of the problem, because having been given all these toys, Bates doesn’t seem to know what to play with first, so he plays with everything all at once, resulting in a score which is the film music equivalent of a Las Vegas buffet. There’s so much choice, and so many options, that you want to try a little bit of everything at once, and pile it all on your plate, but end up with a shapeless, tasteless lump of goo that occasionally resembles one of those tasty initial items, but for the most part all blends together in an unidentifiable mass of tastes, textures and flavors. Yes, I’m aware that this paragraph is a linguist’s nightmare of mixed metaphors, and I did it to illustrate my point.

Themes, rhythmic ideas and instrumental textures come and go seemingly on a whim, with no real consistency or recurring conceptual thought process. Just when you think there’s a cool new theme brewing, or an interesting percussive sequence developing, or a moment of harmonic beauty in the offing, it’s gone before it can take hold, and Bates is off with a shiny new thing in its place. For long stretches, it’s like listening to the musical embodiment of the dog from Up, but instead of being distracted every few seconds by a squirrel, Bates is distracted by his instruments, and his need to use them all, seemingly simultaneously. The end result of all this is that far too many cues are barely listenable as a result of these multiple layers of sound, sampled and processed effects, vocalists and god knows what else, all playing different things very loudly at the same time so that you can’t really hear any of them. When you compare this to the work of, say, Alexandre Desplat, whose orchestrations are so clean and crisp you can hear everything perfectly even when he’s writing for a massive ensemble, the difference is like night and day.

To be fair, Conan the Barbarian does have quite a few good moments. Parts of “Egg Race”, “Cimmerian Battle”, “Off With Their Heads”, “Horse Chase” and “Fever” contain some tremendously exciting action elements, while cues such as “His Name is Conan” have a prototypical Zimmer-style heroism that is undeniably appealing on a base level. There are also some unexpectedly beautiful romantic moments for strings and woodwinds, notably in “Fire and Ice”, the aforementioned “Fever”, and the unexpectedly sweeping “A Kiss”, which show a hitherto underutilized softer side to Bates’s writing, and stand as the best part of this soundtrack as a whole. I’d love to hear Bates tackle a score that required this sort of restraint and lyricism throughout.

Some of the instrumental textures also leave a positive impression, from the death-rattle brasses in cues such as the opening “Prologue” and “Prison Interrogation” to the unexpectedly intimate hammered dulcimer in “Monastery Approach” and the opening part of “Fever”, to the undulating timpani rolls that crop up down in the depths of several tracks. There’s a definite world music vibe to a lot of the music too, especially in the way Bates uses ethnic vocalists and unusual percussive textures to create a sense of time and place that is at once alien and familiar.

Ultimately, however, the lack of focus spreads from the orchestrations to the score’s thematic core, in the sense that there isn’t one, and that’s the score’s other major problem. Rather than having a cohesive sense of itself, with identifiable themes and variations, recurring motifs, and a narrative flow, Conan plays like a series of vignettes, which all sound perfectly fine as standalone pieces, but have no apparent connection to one another. Conan himself does have a theme – a faux heroic thing which appears in “His Name is Conan” and later in “12 Years Later” and “Conan Returns Home” – but any secondary motifs that exist are so insubstantial as to be rendered almost useless. There probably are several recurring thematic ideas buried under all the sludge, but they are so difficult to identify they might as well not be there.

It’s unreasonable to compare Tyler Bates’ work to that of Basil Poledouris. The original Conan score was written thirty years ago, at a different time in Hollywood, and for a project with different aesthetics and different aims. Marcus Nispel is not John Milius, Jason Momoa is not Arnold Schwarzenegger, and times change. Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling more than a little disappointed at the fact that a canvas as broad and exotic as Conan brings couldn’t elicit a more coherent score than the one Bates was able to provide. It is the best score of Bates’s career to date, knocking Doomsday and Slither out of the top spot, but when the career high still only elicits two-and-a-half stars from me, you have to wonder what’s going wrong.

Rating: **½

Buy the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prologue (2:08)
  • His Name is Conan (3:35)
  • Egg Race (2:52)
  • Fire and Ice (3:15)
  • Cimmerian Battle (3:19)
  • The Mill (1:55)
  • The Mask/12 Years Later (3:06)
  • Freeing Slaves (2:38)
  • Prison Interrogation (3:35)
  • Monastery Approach (1:44)
  • Off With Their Heads (1:09)
  • Horse Chase (3:11)
  • Death of a Priest (2:48)
  • One Way Ride (2:35)
  • Outpost (7:57)
  • Fever (4:47)
  • Victory (0:36)
  • A Kiss (2:41)
  • The Temple (1:55)
  • Oceans of Blood (2:41)
  • The Dweller (2:36)
  • Skull Mountain (1:21)
  • Wheel of Torture (2:07)
  • Zym’s Demise (2:30)
  • Conan Returns Home (3:42)

Running Time: 71 minutes 00 seconds

Warner Bros./WEA Records 528435 (2011)

Music composed by Tyler Bates. Conducted by Jan Chalupecky. Performed by The Czech National Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Tim Williams, Drew Krassowski and Susie Seiter . Additional music by Tim Williams and Dieter Hamann. Recorded and mixed by Gustavo Borner. Edited by Shannonn Erbe. Album produced by Tyler Bates.

  1. September 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Another problem would be the fact that, besides the orchestra being dubbed by synths, it’s that most of the score was Bates working with two co-composers. About his soft side, he manages to bring that side in scores like Super and The Way.

  2. September 3, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Also, the film is a new take on Robert E. Howard’s stories, not a remake of the John Millius film.

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