Dragonslayer - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review
In the Dark Ages, Magic was a weapon, Love was a mystery, Adventure was everywhere ... and Dragons were real.
Apologies, folks, for the length of this review, especially after the leviathan write-up I gave Robocop. But the score for Dragonslayer is a beast that positively demands such finite attention and, seeing as how this has remained a cherished score and an oft-demanded, long-awaited release ... how could I refuse the opportunity to furnish it with such well-earned detail? Spoilers abound in the track-by-track notes, so be warned ... here, there be dragons.
Back in 1981 Disney (in conjunction with Paramount) unleashed a splendidly dark and gritty fantasy adventure that was a poke in the eye for their old animated classics such as Snow White and, especially, Sleeping Beauty, which had its own dragon. Their original screenplay, Dragonslayer, written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, and directed with a committed realism by Robbins, as well, came out during a time when the genre was enjoying something of a renaissance. Conan was being Barbaric, Swords and Sorcerers were duelling, Titans were Clashing and Beasts were Mastered. It was a time of chaos - quite literally.
One of the best of this Dark Age bunch was this retelling of the once enormously popular, and highly symbolic dragon quest tale. Boasting fantastic locations all set around the truly authentic environs of North Wales and the Isle Of Skye, a cast that combined established theatrical and screen character actors such as Sir Ralph Richardson, as well as absolute newcomers, including a young Peter MacNichol (forever remembered as Biscuit from Ally McBeal) and Caitlin Clarke, a surprisingly bleak and grim story, and what is still regarded as the greatest dragon-monster that the cinema has ever wrought, Dragonslayer went on to become critically acclaimed and fondly recalled even though the film was utterly swamped by the release of Raiders Of The Lost Ark that same year, which is viciously ironic considering that the duo of Barwood and Robbins, both prolific screenwriters, had once courted Steven Spielberg to helm their spiritual take on the first contact with aliens. Entitled Home Free, but never actually made, this 1971 script bore a weird similarity to what the wunderkind later crafted with Close Encounters. And the pair were also the guys that introduced ace conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie to George Lucas way before Star Wars. McQuarrie had, at the time, been employed in pre-production paintings for Home Free. Thus, it seems a bit like a slap in the face that their lavish fantasy got lost in the tail-wind of the Bearded Ones' first Indy adventure.
Basically this is the Beowulf saga as seen through the eyes of English peasantry, infiltrated by the legend of Saint George and mixed with a dash of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. The story of lottery-drawn sacrificial maidens left for the ferocious beast, of a kingdom rotting in fear of the fire-breathing behemoth and of the perilous quest that an unwitting magician's protégé must undertake to right some fundamental wrongs and bring peace and justice back to the realm is much more seriously depicted than the standard Disney fare - indeed, there is much violence and death, a nude scene and, above all else, a genuinely terrifying dragon. Brilliantly named Vermithrax Perjorative, this fantastic creation, designed by Industrial Light & Magic and Disney's own FX-wing, is the real deal. Where the later Dragonheart revelled in CG glory, but softened the approach with giving the beast a noble soul and the voice of Sean Connery, and Reign Of Fire frittered its monsters away with unbelievably scant screen-time and a lack of proper menace, Vermithrax Perjorative dominated much of the film with a true sense of overhanging dread and pure evil. Even though barely glimpsed for the first half, her unrivalled malevolence, attained with the odd incendiary-based slaying and some terrific large-model construction of a bulky scaled hide rising up from the Satanic crack in the earth that houses the beast, and vast, raspy breath simmering with ashen-rage, is paramount to the darkness that hangs like a pall over the entire story. Ostensibly a family fantasy, Dragonslayer ventured bravely into territory grimmer than Grimm, and added a desolate authenticity that would have had those weaned on Star Wars squirming in their seats.
Although I was entranced by the film when it opened, I will admit that it wasn't quite the disposable fun-ride that I'd expected it to be. I also felt quite alone in my adoration for it. Even now, as older films are regularly dusted down and re-evaluated, very few of my fellow-fanatics seem enamoured with it, despite the cult popularity that the film has attained on home video in America.
The setting and the believably miserable Olde English ambience of the film was exactly on a par with the likes of John Boorman's Excalibur, The Pythons' Holy Grail and Terry Gilliams' Time Bandits, a pervasive look and mood that just couldn't be manufactured elsewhere, or by a crew that wasn't resolutely British. Young apprentice Galen (MacNichol) must make the dangerous journey to Urland to slay the dragon that presides over the realm after his master, a grand wizard, dies. His early efforts only succeed in antagonising the beast who, spitefully, wreaks revenge upon the village. Galen, in turn, incurs the anger of King Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre) and his mighty mulletted henchman, Tyrian (the great English thesp John Hallam, also seen as Vultan's right-hand man - or wingman, perhaps - in 1980's Flash Gordon) and, after learning the secret of the fixed lottery selection of sacrificial virgins, breaks free from the castle gaol to do battle with Vermithrax once more, in honour of his fallen master and also to win the heart of the young woman who has stood beside him. Intriguingly, the story is an ode to the passing of magic and superstition and the emergence of Christianity in much the same manner as Boorman's Excalibur. Those expecting something light-hearted and chivalrous and full of innocent virtue along the lines of the Disney standard would be in for a big surprise. Dragonslayer took its material very seriously indeed and, with scenes of baby dragons feasting on slain maidens, and a lawless ambience about the story, pulled very punches.
Alex North was an incredible choice for composer. The highly distinctive sound and unusual orchestrations of the man behind the classic Spartacus score would not specifically lend themselves to a more fantastical milieu. Certainly at this time, someone like John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith - both with a proven track record in the genre (Star Wars, Close Encounters etc for Johnny and Lionheart, Star Trek, Alien etc for Jerry) - or even Basil Poledouris, who was just unveiling the majesty of his Conan The Barbarian score, but North had been an eclectic voice across several genres, from Westerns to comedies to kitchen-sink dramas, though there was a defiance and aggression that he tended to bring that often made his scores come over as sort of cold, imposing, complicated and dissonant. Intimidating, even. His avant-garde instrumentation and “disruptive” melodies tended to catch listeners off-guard, his sheer unpredictability something that was hard to properly grasp the first couple of times. Of course, he had also a softer side and an agreeable sense of the ghostly and the ethereal, as his unused, but justifiably famous score for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey so beautifully proved. But with Dragonslayer the composer opted for his more familiar style of broad powerhouse brass, oblique cutting dissonance and rumbling, lyrical foreboding. So, once we understand the message and the underlying theme behind the story, the recruiting of North becomes not only clear, but almost imperative. Whereas all the three active composers working in the field at the time - Goldsmith, Williams and Poledouris - would have surely opted to run with the heroism inherent in battling a dragon, North sought solutions to the drama elsewhere and concocted a dense stew of atmosphere-drenched power and depth, depravity and dank, Gollum-tinged squalor. Listening to the score, it is apparent that he found little of heroism, or compassion.
La-La Land's exquisite release of the complete score, for the first time on official disc, also includes a fair amount of music that was never heard in the final film, or was altered in sequence from how North perceived. Now you can enjoy this profound and important score exactly as the composer wrote it and in its entirety.
Right from the start of the first track, Main Title, we are thrust into a bleak, brooding and inhospitable land of fear, superstition and death. This is the theme for Vermithrax, herself, and it is truly thunderous and diabolical. Low brass carry the hell-spawned theme across an echoing plateau populated by very shrill high-woodwinds and the rumble of log drums to provoke an earthy, primal aura. As threateningly appropriate as this is, it should come as a revelation to discover that this was not actually the title theme that North originally composed - which you will hear as one of the bonus tracks. But it is so indelible and intrinsic to the mood and the character of the film that it is nigh-on unthinkable to consider otherwise. The opening scene, taking in Ulrich, played with a weary credibility by Richardson, as the old wizard mixes potions and receives visions, and the progression of the party from distant Urland who have come to enlist his services in the destruction of the dragon, is fraught with unease and destiny-fuelled foreboding, Flutes and chimes add a suggestion of magic and what will become North's “maiden” theme makes an appearance, the track a portent, then, of the things that will follow.
No Sorcerers - No Dragons, Track 2, is equally nerve wracking. Goldsmith-style high strings striate the gloomy ceiling of the wizard's castle, latticing the storm clouds in the sky as weary travelers approach. Splendid glissandi forms a spirited wailing that flutes upwards like spectral smoke. High glacial strings close over the top, whilst trembling woodwinds ripple in the middle and a menacing low tone creaks underfoot. The sense of fate and of the melancholy is ripe and raw. The third track, comprising Ulrich's Death and Mourning/The Amulet, details the suspicious death of the wizard at the hands of Tyrian, as his own invulnerability spell appears to fail. Trilling brass and chimes herald Galen's impotence to intervene in his master's demise as all the doors in the castle swing magically shut, trapping him. Some of the material here sounds fresh, as the film had various elements of double-bass and cello dialed-down, and the piece now feels far more rounded and emphatic as a result. Piccolos and brass provide a mournful passage for the funeral pyre that Galen constructs to send his master into the afterlife. The final, and very important cue in the track alters the tone appreciably with a mischievous motif for woodwinds, strings and harp. The clarinet pokes its nose in as well, and then those cheeky little log drums return. The wizard's amulet is calling to Galen, signifying that there is still a job to be done, North bringing a whiff of optimism after all the doom and gloom. This motif for the amulet will see much more activity in various guises.
And if you weren't convinced by this little playful coda, then the composer will ram the point home in the next track, Forest Romp, which is a recurring cue that I have never actually warmed to whilst watching the film. It always seems too clownish, too circus-like and frivolous, almost a Three Stooges sketch that has wandered in to the score by accident. And yet, here on the CD, I love it. This is definitely an example of how scores work away from their visual companion. With the almost unmatched levels of brooding intensity and tempestuous orchestral squalling that Dragonslayer has to offer, this fun little respite is resolutely welcome and entertaining. What North delivers is an energetic scherzo that basically takes the amulet theme and runs, helter-skelter, with it as though he has given the instruments over to an orchestra of drunken sprites. Chasing after the band from Urland, Galen shows off his inherited powers by stripping the clothes from poor Hodge's back and dancing his pack around in the air. MacNichol is, at heart, a little cherubic performer and although his mettle will be tested later on as a fully-fledged hero, the actor is definitely more comfortable with such slapstick. Try as I might, I will never get the image of him dancing to Barry White in Ally McBeal out of my mind.
Slapstick, however, is in very short supply in the next track, Maiden's Sacrifice, in which an unfortunate damsel has been selected by the rigged lottery and winds up chained to the post outside the lair of Vermithrax by the frightened retainers of the King. Chimes, piccolos and percussion transfer us from the forest camp to the scene of the barbaric sacrifice and, here, North throttles three separate themes - for the dragon, for the Urlanders and the Maiden motif - and meshes them together. In a surprisingly brutal scene, the maiden wrenches her bloodied and bruised hands through the manacles and attempts to escape from the beast rising out of the pit. Brilliantly sharp chimes strike out over the brassy fortissimo surges from contrabass and tuba, harsh layers of bass and woodwinds tussling violently within the frenzied orchestration. The film plays this sequence out with some degree of variation from the cue that plays here, mixing in the dragon theme from the opening of the film which, in itself, is actually the core of Track 17, A Slight Skirmish. This is gruelling stuff and thoroughly dissonant, nerve-shredding and remorseless.
Visions and Reflections abound in Track 6, as well as a revelation or two. Skinny-dipping with a reluctant Valerian, Galen is stunned to discover that it is actually a girl who led the party from Urland. This is not exactly a surprise to the rest of us, of course, as Caitlin Clarke is definitely cuter than the rest of her ragtag entourage, no matter how shapeless her clothes make her appear and how deep she tries to speak! But North's music has to tackle the grim vision that Galen sees reflected in the lake of nasty Tyrian and his men plotting and scheming in the hills above the camp. Sensing the imminent danger they are in, Galen races to give warning, but is too late to save old Hodge from an arrow in his gut. Keening strings and squirrelly woodwinds generate a mood of uncertainty and growing trepidation. Tragedy comes as the old manservant collapses, with low strings and a sliding phrase from violins, evoking something of a similar flavour as some of the more measured Satanic clue-discoveries that Jerry Goldsmith brought to his Omen score. Long lines cruise, in anguish, until the maiden theme makes a forlorn return, evolving slightly into the beginnings of what will become a new love theme.
Their journey to Urland complete, the band must wind their way to the village right past the dragon's den in Track 7. The impetuous Galen, cocky with the power of his master's amulet, demands to see it - I mean, there's no time like the present, is there? North layers on the fear and the unease with great élan as Galen draws nearer to the cleft in the rock that forms the gateway down into the lair. Trombones and bassoons gouge the rock whilst a gloriously unhinged harpsichord and organ scratch away at the nerves. Sinister chords growl and a brief brassy flurry reaches a crescendo before the track takes on a more spiky timbre. Shrieking strings, some metallic percussion and harsh discordant woodwinds compete against the jagged echoing of deep notes from a piano. Galen unleashes a spell that he cannot control and his efforts to block up the entrance to the lair result in a violent landslide that seems more than enough to have done the job.
Somewhat renowned by this deed, Galen is invited to the castle to perform some conjuring for the King and his court. All does not go well and the King spots the necessity of the amulet in all that Galen seeks to achieve, denoting the young sorcerer as something of a fraud. The score turns grimly mysterioso as Galen is flung into a dungeon. Chimes echo, cave-like, and an ominous line from bassoon signify that things are happening over at the dragon's rock-strewn lair - and not good things. The dragon is breaking free, and she is not happy. North's cue, as he wrote it, then returns to the Forest Romp version of the amulet's cheeky motif, albeit more briskly accelerated - which plays out the rest of the track here - but the film loses this comical approach and calls forth some action material from later on in the score to bolster Galen's escape from the castle.
A terrific scene then follows. As the frantic villagers react to the return of the monster they thought had been vanquished, Ian McDiarmid's lone Christian monk undertakes a holy mission to send the beast back to Hell. Needless to say, he goes up in flames as swiftly as his plan. North accompanies this sequence with Jacopus Blasted, Track 9, in which the crafty and witty composer drafts-in elements of a 6th Century Gregorian Chant to provide impetus for this theological battle of wills. The piece starts off slowly and grimly, but then brings in a marvellous mock-liturgical passage of religious might and divine courage as the monk, Jacopus, strays too close to the fire. Cathedral-like cadences soar with majesty and selfless duty as the monk's martyrdom is gratefully accepted by Vermithrax. The brief and frenetic Burning Village comes next and a truly unusual passage this is. As Galen rides through a splendidly realised burning wood full of falling embers, hints of the amulet theme play in mock-chaotic frivolity, counterpointing the macabre evidence of the dragon's fiery payback that North acknowledges with darker, swelling chords of agitation and doom. This weaving-about of tone from surreal romance to violence is not how it sounds in the film, however, which just keeps the darker, scarier material. It is hard to say who made the right call here. The track, when we hear it as North intended, is gloriously schizophrenic, but just how this would have sounded against a backdrop of the napalm-like devastation seen on-screen is a matter of conjecture.
Mysterious and magical tones from harp, low strings and blissfully echoing chimes accompany Galen's icily awe-filled inspection of the specially forged lance that Valerian's blacksmith father constructed to slay dragons. The first cue positively glistens, but North is wise enough to broker this quality with a growing vein of dread. The Urlander theme returns for The Lottery cue, but despondent brass and flutes then rub against a slow and angst-filled rendition of the maiden theme. The track plays out with distant, rolling gongs that shimmer deep within the fade.
Track 12, entitled Galen's Search for the Amulet, may only be brief, but it is peppered with interesting suspense motifs, from scissoring violins, apprehensive string flurries, James Bernard-like drum skitters and nicely modulated timpani. For the next piece, Valerian's Dragon Scales, North effects some glistening and magical harpsichord scurries, trilling woodwinds and a rising crescendo that crowns a marvellously edgy and eerie section as Valerian scours the dragon's lair in order to retrieve some of its fire-proof scales with which to coat Galen's shield. In Track 14, Still A Virgin, North then switches the tone completely into the romantic theme, now in full dressing and a marked contrast to most of what has gone before. Gentle woodwinds caress the string treatment of the evolved maiden theme, transforming it into a soothing pastoral that shivers with tenderness as both Valerian and Galen confess their true feelings for one another.
The harpsichord returns in Track 15, as Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), determined to carry out her pledge of self-sacrifice after discovering that her bribe-fed father, the King, has purposely kept her name out of the lottery, is led to the post and chains and staked outside Vermithrax's lair. Then tragic strings smother the grim deed about to take place, brass interjecting before a glimmer of timpani and bass drums, contrabass and snarling trombones deliver some agitated action as Galen attempts to rescue the Princess but is thwarted by a bestial Tyrian who meets him in a duel to the death. This section is very similar to the dark and confusing barbarity of North's gladiatorial music for Spartacus - fast, but intercut with stabbing discord to break the momentum and add total disarray. A brief spell of triumph marks Tyrian's demise, spun out along a brassy version of the amulet theme.
Yet more chaos ensues in the delirious and massively complex next track. With the Princess having refused to be spared, Galen enters the cave of the monster and discovers to his, and certainly the audiences', horror that her body is being devoured by Vermithrax's babies in 3 Darling Dragonettes, the first part of Track 16. Now North begins the colossal maelstrom of intricate and violent writing that will see Galen battling the dragon and our first full vision of the beast in all its incendiary glory. We hear the strains of the maiden theme failing to surmount the Urlander theme, then bassoons, oboes and piccolos as Galen slakes his revenge upon the creatures with the lance. Crashes of percussion and eruptions of clamorous brass and woodwinds cavort with amazing aural dexterity across the squalid battlefield as a third baby sets upon Galen. Once he's despatched it, Galen ventures further into the lair until he comes across a fantastic lake of fire. Something simmers just beneath the surface and North smooths out the violence from before and layers a nervous refrain for xylophone and brass as Galen bounds across the lake on jutting rocks until, in the centre, something huge and monstrous rises from the steaming water behind him. Crazed brass darts about and chimes chatter in the shadows, the orchestra rising to a discordant cacophony with the emergence of Vermithrax.
Track 17, A Slight Skirmish, starts with the spine-tingling theme for the dragon that opens the movie, however sound effects and some unfortunate dialling-down lessens the impact of it in the movie as Galen is forced to cower behind his shield to avoid cremation by the huge flame-bursts that engulf his position. Heard properly here, this is the theme that gives Dragonslayer its signature. Tuba, contrabass trombone, baritone and bass oboe deliver a cadence that sounds like the birthing pains of the Earth, a roiling, churning rib-shattering shock-wave that blisters the soul, as well as the ears. Given splashes of necromantic colour via bell-tree, chimes and piccolos, this guttural bellowing is the stuff of nightmares. Even the great Bernhard Herrmann, whose own score for Journey To The Centre Of The Earth featured some unbelievably low, tectonic tones would have been amazed by the depth and antiquity of this. Galen combats the dragon in a running battle that ends up with him being flung Log drums, harpsichord and organ play a part as well and the whole sounds like a much more aggressive and alien take on Goldsmith's Planet Of The Apes. Cymbal clashes knock the senses, xylophones and those distinctive piccolos sharpen the thrust of the brass and spiralling strings scratch at the heavens in a devastating display of orchestral pyrotechnics. At first, this unholy passage sounds berserk and uncoordinated - which is a hallmark of Leonard Rosenman as well as North - but when you listen closely, this is extraordinarily well-written. And even those who just like to sit back and enjoy a musical deluge will be amazed at the powerful emotions and reactions it brings about.
Things take a more suspenseful and medieval turn in the next track. In the first of three cues, Dejection, North engages the warmth of the love theme, for woodwinds and horns and sweeping strings, as Valerian finds the stricken form of Galen, battered and bruised (and partially scorched!) on the rocks outside the cave. Torn between fleeing for good and staying to fight again, Galen begins to recall the prophecy that the dying Hodge attempted to tell him, and realises that his former master may well have one more trick up his sleeve and that the battle is not yet over. Harpsichord and brass bleats, horns and slow-burn strings and percussion crank up the majestic unease as the Eclipse is seen to begin - the time when the dragon can be destroyed. The liturgical phrase returns and the score now climbs onto a more elemental plain as Galen and Valerian return to the lair. Ulrich's theme is buoyed along with this, as Galen sprinkles the sorcerer's ashes on the fire-lake, North accentuating the resplendent, and highly symbolic return of the magician with scintillating chimes and xylophone in Resurrection of Ulrich.
The giddy pastoral from earlier opens the next track - again something that isn't heard this way in the film - though it is swiftly elbowed aside for some more dragonistic material to convey the swooping arrogance and frightening anger of Vermithrax flying over the mountains and silhouetted against the burgeoning eclipse. She's lost her children and the return of an old nemesis signifies one last confrontation to decide who will reign supreme. In Destroy The Amulet!, Track 20, shivering strings and chimes feed into a pensive line from the harpsichord, the predominance of magic taking over from the more earthy fire and brimstone theme of the dragon. Ulrich and Vermithrax take their dispute to the highest peaks, whilst Galen, now in full realisation of the part he has been playing in this drama all along, undertakes to end the reign of terror and sorcery forever by destroying the pesky amulet once and for all ... at just the right moment, of course. What North accomplishes now is an emotional transition from the diabolism of much of the score to something far more impressionistic and spiritual. There are nods and acknowledgements to Williams' Close Encounters, perhaps, with angelic phrases for high strings, glittering chimes and xylophones, the mood, though still dangerous, switching to something much more esoteric. The liturgical motif, though, is not invited - North is exploring a realm altogether higher, although unquestionably doomed. The track ends with a plateau of distant rumbling, the final showdown drawing close as the dragon flits through the eclipse-blackened firmament.
Track 21, 'Tis The Final Conflict, suffered from more meddling in the finished film, but is heard in its original and complete form here. North intended not to climax with sturm and drang fury, but with a lilting rendition of the pastoral love theme, his reasoning being that since we have shown the dragon to be a grieving mother, she is much more sympathetic and not as evil as folklore has dictated. Whilst this makes perfect sense, I can see how it wouldn't work in the film, where a full-on fiery battle accompanied by the blood 'n' thunder music we have been bludgeoned with all along is much more fitting. To this end, Robbins re-purposed the Vermithrax theme for much of the sequence, before returning to North's more fluttering, playful melodies once the struggle is clearly over and the amulet has been destroyed. North, however, invests this piece with alternate factions of airy romance and more percussive and dynamic flurries of monstrous action. Heard here in full for the first time, the music for the passing of the Age of Magic is spellbinding and cathartic, a celestial action-lullaby, if you will. As the sun re-emerges and both sorcerer and dragon plummet, in flames, from the sky, we hear a glorious final statement of the Resurrection of Ulrich, the score coming alive with gleaming bells and chimes and taking on the grand opulence of many of North's more revered historical epics, such as Spartacus and Cleopatra and The Agony And The Ecstasy. It is, quite simply, beautiful after all the searing malevolence and aggression.
In a neatly ironic spin, King Casiodorus Rex contrives to take credit for slaying the dragon and our heroes, content now in the knowledge that progress has been made, not only as far as peaceful existence is concerned, but also that civilisation has shifted from superstition and that magic no longer wields any power. Alex North obviously doesn't believe this as his music cheerfully engages in that amulet theme, now sounding, at times, a little more waltz-like with its joyful relief and happy-go-lucky final coda - the Intro to End Credits and End Credits that make up this final track of the score sweetly magical in the harmony of a happy ending.
Several bonus tracks are offered with this release, found as the final 3 tracks, numbers 23 - 25.
The first of the bunch is Dance Montage and this is the “source music” that North composed for the celebratory party sequence after the villagers mistakenly believe Galen has vanquished the beast. Duped by the optimistic festivities at large, Valerian reveals her true identity as a woman and, amidst the stunned reaction to this, Galen takes her hand and leads a dance that North scores in as close an approximation to true medieval madrigal-style music.
The second is an alternate version of A Slight Skirmish, in which North reins-in his chaotic orchestration to accentuate the woodwinds and strings for a slightly longer version.
The third bonus track is the composer's original Main Title which was, somewhat bewilderingly given the overall tone of the rest of the film and score, a reworking of his Forest Romp sequence - which would very definitely have given the wrong impression as to what audiences were in for. Certainly, I agree with director Robbins on this point. That monstrously deep, doom-laden Vermithrax motif was definitely the way to go. The hidden bonus at the end of this track is a surprising little drum roll crescendo that appears a good few seconds after the actual cue has faded out.
Dragonslayer is full of dark and demented music. I would be lying if I said that it was comfortable to listen to or a delightfully harmonic experience. This is violent and aggressive in a way that no other action/fantasy/adventure score could ever be. It is unique and disturbing and will linger in the mind for a long time afterwards. With the genuine sound of an older time and of a primal savagery that does not compromise in terms of mood and symphonic colour, this could run the risk of alienating people with its cold bombast and raucous discord, and despite its sheer and undaunted class, some effort is required to stick with it in full appreciation of what North is conveying. Casual listeners will, perhaps, be put off by the dense orchestration, the unparalleled dissonance and the wild modernist stance of North's quasi-baroque compositions. An easy listen, this is not. But Dragonslayer is so amazingly written - dizzyingly complex and impressively comprehensive in tone and texture - and so damn intense that even those without any knowledge of what goes into composing a score of this magnitude could not fail to be utterly mesmerised and beguiled by it. The infernal rage of the Pit slams head-on with liturgical resonance and this results in a work that becomes epically profound, the fragments of whimsy along the way only adding a human texture to the age old conflict of good versus evil. The clever move that the film makes is to use such religious symbolism and magic and not belittle or renounce either. The epochal passage of civilised belief feels, therefore, natural and, perhaps, inevitable. Alex North captures this cultural transcendence not with subtlety, but with respect for the passing of an Age - and this is where his credentials really show how those who recruited him did their homework. His score for 2001: A Space Odyssey, although rejected by Kubrick (but available also from Intrada), with its jump from primitive savagery to ethereal beauty serves as the perfect foundation stone for Dragonslayer's not dissimilar theme of destined progression and the vanquishing of former ideals. And let's be honest - the amulet theme here is merely an evolution of his flirtatious track Space Station Docking.
As well superb clarity, La La Land's hotly anticipated release features a terrific set of notes in a lavishly illustrated 20-page booklet. Regular music score writer, Jeff Bond, supplies some marvellously detailed orchestral information, track-by-track, as well as a great overview of the film, the score and the critical acclaim for both. The recording came from a 3-track LCR master of Alex North conducting the 98-piece National Philharmonic Orchestra performing at the EMI Abbey Road. It is hard to image the players ever having survived a more pulverising or complex workout.
This 3000-copy limited edition is another awesome release, folks, that so richly deserves top marks. Ditch those bootlegs immediately!
Full Track Listing
1. Main Title (2:46)
2. No Sorcerers No Dragons (1:47)
3. Ulrich's Death and Mourning / The Amulet (3:29)
4. Forest Romp (1:32)
5. Maiden's Sacrifice (4:25)
6. Visions and Reflections / Hodge's Death (4:46)
7. The Lair / Landslide (4:14)
8. Galen Jailed / Galen's Escape* (2:20)
9. Jacopus Blasted (2:25)
10. Burning Village** (1:10)
11. The Lance / The Lottery** (4:40)
12. Galen's Search for the Amulet (1:09)
13. Valerian's Dragon Scales (1:29)
14. Still a Virgin (1: 57)
15. Elspeth's Destiny / Tyrian Galen Fight (3:12)
16. 3 Darling Dragonettes / Triumphant Dragon (2:38)
17. A Slight Skirmish (3:15)
18. Dejection / Eclipse / Resurrection of Ulrich (5:27)
19. Dragon Sore-ing (1:13)
20. Destroy That Amulet! (2:46)
21. 'Tis the Final Conflict** (4:13)
22. Intro to End Credits / End Credits** (4:35)
TOTAL SCORE TIME: 65:43
23. Dance Montage (2:53)
24. A Slight Skirmish (alternate) (3:22)
25. Main Title (original)
(1:22) (with hidden bonus)
* not used in film
** contains material not used in film
Highly sought-after and much admired, North's score for Dragonslayer is a gruelling and disturbing experience. Some moments of pastoral comedy that never quite sat right with the rest of the deep-set tone of pure menace and brutality in the score as heard in the film now work much, much better on disc. The grand chaos and expertly wrought suspense that North delivers in spades make for a challenge in their own right. The various themes vie for supremacy throughout several violent confrontations, the ferocious overall texture of the score being the final victor. What helps make this particular release so valuable and so engrossing is the plethora of music that was previously unheard, offering, as it does, an insight into what North had initially intended and revealing a slightly different tone to that heard in the movie. It has also won me over with regards to the playful amulet theme - which totally surprised me, I can tell you.
Dragonslayer is a great film, but it owes a debt to Alex North who took its grit and grime and provided a musical canvas that supported such a canny collision of myth, folklore and religion with apocalyptic-cum-ascendant gusto and virility. An unforgivably overlooked film and an unforgettable score.
A powerful and grandly orchestral tsunami of ominous colour, North's Dragonslayer is, therefore, another essential score purchase, folks. After the phenomenal release of Intrada's Robocop (see separate review), this is another monumental spoil for score-fans - a Holy Grail that has been longed-for since the film's theatrical debut. My advise is to snap this up from Vermithrax's volcanic jaws before it goes the way of the Dark Ages, itself.
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