Touted as being the definitive edition of Ennio Morricone's darkly seductive score for the first motion picture directed by Italian master of the macabre, Dario Argento, this release of L'uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo, or The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, coincides with the film's debut on Blu-ray (see separate review). The entire original soundtrack-album is presented here in stereo for the first time and, not only that, but a very generous helping of bonus and alternate tracks have been included as well, making this one comprehensive package indeed.
Argento's chiller-thriller took an already established Italian genre vogue - the masked killer/slice 'n' dicer - but put enough new spins on it to propel giallo to an appreciative worldwide audience. To accentuate the highly polished and supremely provocative visuals, an atmospheric and haunting score was required and Argento turned to a composer who was, already by this time, his country's premier tunesmith and someone who he knew could evoke the mystery, madness and all-round chic of his daring screenplay. Still, getting Ennio (A Fistful Of Dollars) Morricone to score his first movie must have been a coup of epic proportions.
For my money, the most successful composer ever to delve into the broken mindset of the deranged, or to capture that superlative atmosphere of suspense, dread and terror is Bernard Herrmann. Although Herrmann never actually worked with Argento, it is tantalising to imagine the kind of sounds that a union between the two could have conjured. But Morricone was certainly no stranger to lending symphonic voice to the machinations of a fractured psyche, himself. What else was he doing when he wrote themes for Ramone in A Fistful Of Dollars and for El Indio in For A Few Dollars More - both characters brought to majestic and powerful life by the inimitable Gian Maria Volonte? He could effortlessly spin a child's nursery rhyme right around and transform it into something horribly dark and sinister. His unique gift was always to find a layer of emotion to each theme that he crafted, even for the most depraved and twisted of individuals. And this entwining of the sweet and the innocent with the sick and the demented was to see his score for Crystal Plumage help the film find global success and, in the process, put its director well and truly on the map.
The main title track, Violenza inattesa, is justly celebrated and will, over the course of the score and the album become the oft-repeated theme going by the title of Piume di cristallo from this point on. At once the epitome of the sixties - a soft, flowery serenade for a small acoustic ensemble complete with soothing, breathy “la-la” vocals - and the kind of deceptive lullaby-cum-lament that would soon come to characterise a genre based around gender-defying murderers with tragic histories and a collection of knives and fetish-gear. There is a vague hint of Krzysztof Komeda's score for Rosemary's Baby about the vocals, which was released a year before Crystal Plumage - the impression of smiling, tanned young Californian babes sitting in a sun-dappled meadow and swaying in folksy rhythm somehow subverted, and its lilting harmony laced with deep foreboding. The sixties vibe is carried on into the next track, as well, and this time, Morricone just lets the giddy pleasantries hold sway with a slice of delightfully light and airy time-killing. The third track brings in the desperate and strange flip-side of all this - a mental fusing of jazzy depravity, moans of fear and/or pleasure, out-of-breath panting and, most menacing of all, some horrible, wordless male mumbling that bubbles thickly just beneath the surface. Frightened strings are plucked, muted trumpets stammer, chimes echo and percussion marches all over the place. Morricone is certainly having fun with this, but the track is full of disquiet and unrest.
I'm not going to do a full track-by-track analysis of the score, because, barring only a couple of cues that break the cycle that Morricone builds - the beer-keller hullabaloo of Se Sei Stonato being the most obvious one - the score weaves between whimsy and darkness quite regularly and becomes a meld of two distinct and disparate themes - soft pop/folk sounds that cajole and airbrush over the top of the more sinister and dangerous secondary core motif of the killer's attacks. On the surface, these two extremes should sit awkwardly together, yet Morricone manages to segue both elements into one spellbinding symphony. Discordant and infernal jazz-inflected riffs and stabbing scythes of bleating brass during these attacks and their suspenseful instigations are reflected with continued use of fluttering strings, shimmering bells, triangle and chimes. The terrific use of that female voice providing an almost orgasmic counter-pulse to the frenetic, rise and fall disharmony, making many cues both frightening and arousing at the same time, a dangerously sensual combination that takes some degree of finesse to accomplish successfully without descending into farce. The creation of this aural pleasure and terror is, of course, the entire point of his score. With Argento's visuals combining sex and violence, Morricone's symphony of fury just has to follow suit.
The darker tracks are atonal, aggressive and utterly weird. He brings in the female voice once again to ululate an endless series of high-speed “la-la-la-la-la's” that come hurtling at you like the horn on a runaway car, and then recede into the distance. Harsh squalls of strings and brass jangle and blurt, mini-crescendos of panic that give you no sense of proper momentum, no tune to catch onto and, distressingly, no obvious way out. The desire is to place you within both the mind of the killer and that of the terrified victim they are pursuing. It works, and produces an insane, wit's-end cacophony of emotions. Something about one or two of these death-tracks must have struck a chord with Lalo Schifrin, as well, because much of his own musical depiction of a maniac's feverish brain for Dirty Harry's psychopath, Scorpio, sounds eerily similar to the audio picture that Morricone paints of Plumage's frantic slayings, and of the inner workings of their perpetrator. It may sound strange, but there is a moment in John McTiernan's superior actioner, Predator, when the intergalactic Rastafarian is beating several muscle-bound shades out of Arnie's super-soldier when we hear it manically giggle in the ecstatic throes of its own violent fun, and this unsettlingly childish sound is almost exactly the sort of effect that Morricone aims for here. In amidst the death-dealing and the depravity of Plumage's more intense moments, there is a taint of innocence, a whiff of femininity and a lick of almost clownish mischief all rolled into one unholy melange. An American horror film score, especially from this era, would be blatant and clichéd - the stalking, the killer's taunts and the grim death-blows designed with shrieking brass and the jarring use of traditional stingers. But the Italian maestro delves way beyond convention and dredges up the sweetly hellish litany of deranged memory, confused obsession and dark, taboo-wrenching desire, and fuses them all together with intimate tragedy and pathos.
A stand-out is Track 8. We are in a dreadful place of strangled gasps, breath-snatched gulps and a terrific heartbeat thumping as the terminal bass-line, ticking away the final seconds of life. It be uncomfortable to listen to, and difficult not to squirm at, but this is complex, unorthodox and profoundly intuitive composing. Not exactly the best thing to have playing when your gran comes round, though. Track 9 delivers much the same sort of thing, but supplies a ghostly piano, bells and chimes and that warbling express-train of “La-la-la's” again.
Track 10, the album's finale, is a lengthier version of the film's main theme. Morricone increases the pain, pathos and tragedy of the entire story this time out and adds in some ever-more glistening chimes, a much slower pace and a darker, more doom-laden ambience. It may be funereal, but this is simply gorgeous. You could almost, with hindsight, say that Ennio Morricone and Dario Argento were closing the door on the optimism of the previous decade. Ethereal, melancholic and thoroughly haunting, this cue, alone, seems to sum up the entire transition from colourful, escapist genre hokum to the infinitely darker material that would be ushered through the door in the wake of Crystal Plumage's influential impact.
As unusual and off-putting as a lot of this score may sound to many people, these are precisely the qualities that are required. It should sound weird, fragmentary and undisciplined. But it takes an enormous amount of talent to pitch such contradictory elements together like this. The 60's turned sour and the flowers in the hair became wreaths. The Summer of Love was eclipsed by black-garbed demons and flashing blades in the night, the grim spectre of the 70's, looming like a cloud, swallowing up all those good vibrations with maniacal zeal. Where once the musical voice of the horror film had been the province of full orchestral might - Herrmann's Hitchcockian forays, Rozsa's Spellbound, James Bernard's gut-thumping Hammers, for example - Italy's chic flamboyance and treacherously off-kilter sense of drama began to nudge their way into the genre, courtesy of Ennio Morricone and the lush menace that he created for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.
The extensive bonus tracks, also presented in stereo, comprise alternate cues to those on the original album and to those heard in the film. Adding quite a lot to the overall listening experience, these play out as ideas and variations on the established themes. There may not be anything overtly different about them - slightly altered instrumentation, emphasis shifted minutely in tone or pace - but they form a multi-layered backbone that helps to show how a score evolves. Track 12 gives another rendition of the main theme, this time carried by a sort of pseudo-Americana folk guitar, and there are three more interpretations to follow, the longest of these being Track 15. Subtle timing changes and meandering thematic drives enable the piece to register differing moods with each successive telling. It is typical of a Morricone score to re-use themes over and over again, part of his elemental ability to mesmerise and totally imprint an image, a character or an idea in the viewer's/listener's mind, and Crystal Plumage certainly gains a lot of its strength from such a subliminally determined device. Another dramatic and highly effective cue, Fraseggio senza struttura (the original album's Track 6) is also repeated several times in the bonus selection, the ominous, yet sleazy theme regurgitated and shifted through permutations that never quite stray from what I can only describe as “lazily spooky”. Listen to those tortured violins that sound like cats mewling in the fog.
Bizarre, yes. Repetitive, of course. But highly addictive at the same time.
The packaging is quite special too. We have a sturdy, carded gate-fold case, with terrific imagery front and back and inside. Found within the inner sleeve there is a full-colour booklet with lavish illustrations - stills from the film and poster art. The one-page set of liner-notes, however, are in Italian so, sadly, I'm none the wiser as to what they reveal about the score and its production history. I would love to know who supplies the essential Morricone hallmark of those tremendous female vocals, for instance. But there is no doubting the class of this release which, like the film it supports, is elegant, intriguing, sweetly beguiling as well as ferocious, and suffused with a haunting quality that is difficult to deny.
Argento's oeuvre, tragically, hasn't gone the distance, although each and every offering still has something of value somewhere inside it. His early movies are wonderful, though - from their gripping stories, bravura style and visceral approach, to their mesmerising, hypnotic soundtracks. The scores for Deep Red and Suspiria - both by Italian prog-rock band Goblin - are simply sensational, but these earlier Giallos have a power and a beauty that would be impossible to comprehend in any other genre. Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Ennio Morricone and Dario Argento have also, from time to time, been an impossible double-act to beat, although the composer would, arguably, come up with his best and most iconic material for other filmmakers, most notably Sergio Leone.
Highly recommended for fans of the composer and of the film, itself.
Original Album tracks are as follows -
1. Violenza Inattesa (4:08)
2. Non Rimane Piu Nessuno (3:17)
3. Corsa Sui Tetti (5:00)
4. Se Sei Stonato (0:46)
5. Svolta Drammatica (2:43)
6. Fraseggio Senza Struttura (4:16)
7. La Citta Si Risveglia (3:08)
8. L'uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo (1:23)
9. Silenzio Nel Caos (2:10)
10. Piume Di Cristallo (5:12)
Bonus Tracks -
11. Fraseggio Senza Struttura (#2)(2:27)
12. Piume Di Cristallo (#2)(1:40)
13. Silenzio Nel Caos (#2)(2:20)
14. Fraseggio Senza Struttura (#3)(4:08)
15. Piume Di Cristallo (#3)(3:55)
16. Svolta Drammatica (#2)(2:21)
17. Fraseggio Senza Struttura (#4)(4:48)
18. Piume Di Cristallo (#4)(3:08)
19. Fraseggio Senza Struttura (#5)(4:16)
20. Piume Di Cristallo (#5)(2:10)
Eerie, enchanting and eclectic, Morricone's avant-garde score for Dario Argento's inaugural cinematic bow is a beautiful, yet nerve-shredding experience. Released here with a bounty of alternate and bonus tracks, this is a terrific and comprehensive memento of the birth of modern Giallo. Replete with an excellent photo-booklet, this limited edition CD is well worth the collector's time and money. Morricone twists and turns his score through a labyrinth of emotions, rarely coming up with the expected and hell-bent on delivering an experience that has been designed to rattle the senses to the core. For my money, though, the composer's best element here is simply that gorgeous main theme which, in its various guises, seems to capture the very heart and soul of late sixties chic and savagery in one eternally haunting lullaby.
Definitely an acquired taste, but a taste that is well worth acquiring, nonetheless. Awesome.
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