The Andromeda Strain - Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review
Considering the massively limited number of copies available and the relative lack of appeal that this CD release from Intrada may well have, I intend to keep this score review quite short. The soundtrack to The Andromeda Strain is, also, a work that is very difficult to actually supply much in the way of track-by-track analysis for ... its structure and composition is bleak, atonal and discordant, and its style unusual and grating, by nature. But it remains an important and challenging entry in a genre that has always been remarkable and groundbreaking and it reveals an intelligence and an ingenuity from its composer and the director he was working for that makes it hard to dismiss.
Much is made of Gil Melle's astonishing score for Robert Wise's coldly clinical adaptation of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1970) being the first all-electronic for a major motion picture - but this isn't strictly true, of course. Louis and Bebe Barron beat him to it by fourteen years when they created the weird and wonderful soundscape for the classic and eternally popular Forbidden Planet. And, if we are to be totally honest about this, Melle actually used a lot of more conventional instruments as well as all manner of natural and man-made sounds, albeit sampled, manipulated and synthesised in his electronic melting-pot, which is something that the Barrons didn't do. But the resulting sphere of elliptical pulses, metronomic beats, neo-industrial buzzing, futuristic whirring, undulating and cycling phrases and textural layering certainly forges into new musical territory, capturing the essence of the sterile world in which our highly specialised scientific protagonists are forced to do battle with the death-dealing bugs of a space-born virus that has reached Earth and already infected and killed the inhabitants of a small desert township. Melle would go on to score The Night Stalker, Frankenstein: The True Story and The Six Million Dollar Man, taking this mixing desk and synthesiser approach with him, although he would never again compose such a riot of dense tones, bleeps, whirs and thrummings as this. A true innovator, Melle believed that if the sound, itself, didn't exist, then he could form it, himself, via instruments of his own creation. Thus, he toiled away at crazy constructions that oscillated, modulated, equalised and reverberated, his music workshop coming to resemble the kind of laboratory that Universal's Frankenstein would be proud to conduct his experiments in.
One such instrument that Melle designed was the aptly named Percussotron III which can be heard liberally in this score. But he was also fond of taking the more conventional sounds of the piano, string basses, bassoon and percussion and blending them into an electronically modified melange of their former selves, literally mutating the standards of the orchestra. Such experimentalism was no doubt founded by his earlier passion for jazz and the often warped and intricate patterns that he and his band, The Jazz Electronauts, could give birth to. All of this found its way into his music for Wise's scary yet sanitised film treatment of Crichton's best-selling techno-thriller.
Starring the often leathery-faced, smarmy-tongued James Olsen as Dr. Mark Hall, The Andromeda Strain marked a radical departure from the usual SF hokum that had prevailed during the previous two decades. Naturally invoking the nihilism that was soon to dominate the cinema of the seventies, Wise's film, with a screenplay that was adapted from Crichton's book by Nelson Gidding, was cold, clinical and implacable. The brief touches of humanity were almost completely eclipsed by the vast and sterile environment of the underground desert complex in which Olsen and a handful of other experts, including Arthur Hill, David Wayne and Kate Reid, who have been drafted-in to thwart the emergency, find themselves. The tone of the movie was austere and semi-documentary, and its legacy one of the more serious and sombre of the genre. I know that, as a young kid already weaned on a staple diet of horror and sci-fi , whenever this was shown on the TV, I would be suckered-in by the synopsis given in the listings and by the presenters touting it as being some big adventure, but would just sit there bored, almost to tears, by the resulting movie. Over the years I have, naturally, grown to appreciate Wise's endeavours a lot more, although I must confess that I still find the film dry and, ultimately, stale in spite of its hard-hitting implications and quite frightening depiction of such a covert means of annihilation and of the utter irrelevance of Man. The cleverest analogy that Wise makes is his clear recognition that the scientists scampering around the labyrinthine warren of antiseptic rooms and corridors are exactly like microbes, themselves, coursing through the veins of some leviathan body. But my appreciation for film-scores has grown far beyond the films that they often accompany and it is to the viral-music that Melle created that we now turn our attention.
Commencing with Wildfire, which is the codename for the vital scientific project that must find a cure and a means of destroying this alien germ, the score immediately drones into infernal, circuit-board life, a textured landscape that avoids being white-noise by virtue of skilful manipulation, high-tech sophistication and pure alien design. This unusual strand of avant-garde musicality will become the norm across the entire album, yet as much as it is chillingly machine-like and emotionless, it is also eerily captivating with its unstoppable and thickly smothering folds of sound, impressions and tonal colours. This first track comes to denote the hive-like activities of the machinery and workers down in the underground complex. Fittingly, it is driven, blind and remorseless. It is immediately reminiscent of the Krell technology given electronic life in Forbidden Planet.
The rest of the score roughly follows the same sort of manipulated and disruptive pattern. You can clearly recognise certain instruments within the synthesised soup, such as the piano, whose notes are transmuted into a sort of quasi-harp glittering and filtered through a variety of contortions to finally arrive at a sound that equates the angelic with the utterly alien. The bass-cello and contrabass also appear. But Melle didn't just rely on the traditional orchestra to locate sounds that he could convert. He took himself off to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to record the engines and machinery at work there. He also made trips to lumber mills to gain the unique growl of the buzz-saw, and recorded the hollow echoing clatter of the pins at a bowling alley. The wind would also find its way into his repertoire. These diverse and percussive noises would be stretched, singulated and corrupted via cycles, loops and continuums that would go on to fashion the inner cadence of a colossal machine hardwired for dissonance and a throbbing angularity that would become the signature for the entire score.
Along the way, there are instances when some fundamental form of harmony occurs, and these conspire to create elements of musical narrative, with tension and suspense ensuing. There is the continuity of being trapped within the centre of a seventies computer room, surrounded by the Towards the end of the score, however, Melle delivers moments of insistent intensity that genuinely goad the listener, losing the unusual beauty of what has gone before and fostering a disquieted and nerve-jangling reaction. This, however, is purely intentional and part and parcel of a story that sees the unpredictability of nature - albeit cosmic (or even man-manipulated) - circumventing the noble aspirations of a very taxed academia. The Andromeda Strain generates an internal voice that, like a brainwashing tool, worms its way beneath your skull and kicks up a mini-storm. Unsettling and jarring, Melle's mad music of infestation paved the way for Howard Shore to find the cerebral chaos at large in Cronenberg's Scanners, The Brood and Videodrome, Tangerine Dream to epically reflect upon Nazi madness and Satanic rage in The Keep, and for Vangelis to harmonise plateaus of scintillating synth for Blade Runner, Chariots Of Fire and The Bounty, amongst a vast variety of equally engineered soundtracks from all and sundry. As Gil Melle, himself, portentously proclaimed, synthesisers and computer-generated music would enrich the collective arsenal of sound, and that electronic music was, indeed, “here to stay.”
Regular readers of these score reviews will probably recall the disdainful attitude that my wife often takes when she is subjected to some of the more, ahem, “offbeat” soundtracks that I plague the household with, but even I will have to concede that The Andromeda Strain probably takes the award for the one she most wants me to “turn off!”. Even the kids, who I have found to be far more accommodating, as a rule, utterly resented the litany of harsh discord that this disc projected upon their innocent little ears. So, be warned, if you obtain a copy of Melle's score and play it without the dubious aid of headphones, you run the risk of complete alienation from not only your unsuspecting neighbours but from your nearest and dearest, as well. Like an armada of steroid-enhanced bees flying around the interior of a pinball-machine, this score is a senses-jangling barrage of sounds, samples and synthetics, and a complete deviation from thematic, melodic or chord structure.
And, as such, there can be no doubt that Melle made an impact with his techno-inspired lunacy. It may have been something of a quiet and idiosyncratic one, but this score permeated the minds of many film-makers and film-score composers who first experienced it back at the doom-filled end of the sixties and at the outset of swelling government distrust and stark environmental fears. I reviewed the Blu-ray release of George Romero's The Crazies recently, and it is clear that the cult-adored gore-meister took his cue from this clinical nightmare from Wise and Crichton. But Melle's score played an indelible part in securing that nightmarish vision for an entire generation, the filmic ripple of which is still being felt today.
For the tech-minded amongst you, the production of the album is extremely robust and consistently detailed, stemming from a direct lift from the masters. The stereo spread is wide and tremendously vivid, creating an image that is continually vibrant and lively. This is precisely the kind of score that promotes the qualities of an ear-flicking sound design simply because there are so many unusual nuances that spring up within it. Now, I know that Intrada, themselves, have sold out of their copies of this, but Screen Archives (FSM) still have copies left, as may other suppliers so my advice would be to act quickly if this suspenseful and complex score sounds like your cup of biological tea.
The 8 pages of illustrated liner-notes that accompany this release provide some background to the score and its creator, as well as giving some information on the film, itself, and the technical aspects of this recording. Interestingly, we also get the brief notes that came with the original Kapp LP release of the score, that tend to promote the uniqueness of what Melle came up with.
Full Track Listing
1. Wildfire 2.45
2. Hex 4.00
3. Andromeda 2.24
4. Desert Trip 4.14
5. The Piedmont Elegy 2.23
6. Op 2.45
7. Xenogenesis 2.40
8. Strobe Crystal Green 4.58
Total running time = 26:13
Incredibly weird and frustratingly short - though to some ears that will be a good thing - this almost-complete score to The Andromeda Strain is, understandably, of a limited appeal. But, as electronic scores go, this is one of the grandfathers of the style, foreshadowing the likes of John Carpenter, Alan Howarth, Tangerine Dream, Jerry Goldsmith, John Powell and, of course, Hans Zimmer who would all come to embrace the unusual fusion of ominous beats and pulses, atonal soundscapes and the glistening, futuristic ambience of musique concrete. It is a difficult, but interesting work from someone who found the perfect approach to the unique story and scenario that was pitched at him. His music served the film marvellously, but just how well it stands up as a listening experience is possibly down to what mood you happen to be in. Personally, I love it, although I am, and always will be, a much stronger advocate of full orchestral scores. Intrada deserve some credit for making this available and for releasing it with such wonderful sound quality and crisp stereo imagery. There is more music in the film but, despite the scant running time, this is a fine and perfectly accurate and absorbing treatise upon the score that Gil Melle came up with to encapsulate the stringent terrors of The Andromeda Strain.
Hideously limited in number - only 1500 worldwide - this release is bizarre and often inhospitable, yet for fans of electronic music and for those keen to discover an unusual and defiantly original score, Intrada's dusting-off of Gil Melle's outlandish contribution to The Andromeda Strain comes well recommended.
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