Few fantasy adventure scores are as renown among soundtrack fans as Basil Poledouris's Conan the Barbarian. And though the 1982 Varese Sarabande release of the original recording holds up extremely well to this day (as does to a lesser extent the shorter Milan Records one), it has become increasingly hard to find, and Poledouris himself was reportedly never completely satisfied with the results within. Thus Prometheus Records and Tadlow Music have undertaken the task of creating a more fully realized new recording, spanning two discs and enlisting the talents of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the 100-voice CPPO Chorus and conductor Nic Raine (the same orchestra-conductor combo game music fans might recognize as being behind the soundtracks to Kameo and Viva Pinata). The result is another fantastic Conan the Barbarian soundtrack, though its improvements upon earlier editions are more a matter of quantity than quality.
The first of two major selling points for the album, its new orchestral and choral performances and modern recording, are billed as more accurately fulfilling Poledouris's original vision for the score. Now the original version was no slouch when it came to its performances, so to even hint at improvement is quite a boast. And in many ways I'd say the promise holds true. Right at the outset of the score, "Anvil of Crom" flaunts the strength of the City of Prague orchestra, adding an extra layer to the opening anthem's climactic notes and bringing an even more epic sound. And the chorus in "Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom" makes a strong case for being even more powerful than in the original version, something I would never have considered a possibility until this new release came along. In "The Gift of Fury" and "The Tree of Woe / Recovery", a more nuanced choral arrangement and fuller-sounding recording make the Prometheus versions even more emotive.
In the quiet instrumental tracks, however, I'm inclined to say I prefer the original recording. Though the Prometheus edition includes two versions of the lovely town theme "Theology / Civilization" - a wispy new arrangement with more distinctly medieval instrumentation, and an "alternate version" closer to the original - in the original recording the instruments sound nearer the listener and the solo performances even more beautiful. In "Conan Leaves Valeria / The Search", the orchestra at full sounds more even and immersive in the Prometheus edition, but again I find the solo performances more moving in the original. There's also a question of whether the more diverse instrumentation - particularly in the percussion section - always constitutes an improvement. It certainly makes the soundtrack more faithful to its medieval setting, but in "Column Of Sadness / Wheel Of Pain" and briefly in "The Search", I find the atypical accompanying percussion a slight distraction from the lead themes.
The second major selling point of the Prometheus edition is the exclusive extra material. There's almost 50 more minutes of music over the Varese Sarabande edition, and its effect on the score varies. "Prologue (Film Version) / Anvil of Crom" and "Battle Preparations / Battle of the Mounds (Part I)" have new minute-long intro segments, but as both are superfluous bits of sparse percussion they really should have been split into separate tracks. "Wolf Witch" and "In the Court of King Osric" are similarly simple percussive pieces, but at least they are separate tracks and can be easily skipped. "Orgy Fight" and "Epilogue / End Titles" are both simple rehashes of "Anvil of Crom" and "Riders of Doom", melded not entirely cohesively together.
The extra effort put into this Prometheus edition certainly wasn't all for naught though. "Pit Fight" adds to the gritty mood pervasive to the score, the choral piece "The Street of Deviants / Hopefuls at the Tower of Set" has an extremely dark fantasy sound faithful to the old Conan comics, "The Tower of Set / Snake Attack" enchants with its combination of light percussion and female chorus, and "The Tavern" is perhaps the most medieval sounding piece of the whole soundtrack. All contribute to their respective aspects of the score, though as they don't add anything essential theme-wise I'd say they're more for film buffs and completists.
Along with the various alternate takes included at the end of the second disc comes one very special extra - a new seven-minute performance of the sequel Conan the Destroyer's "Crystal Palace", retitled "Chamber of Mirrors". This piece is brilliant. Moving from quiet mysticism to raw danger to a main theme similar to "Anvil of Crom" but more proudly heroic, it captures the medieval fantasy feel of the property as perfectly as any piece from its esteemed predecessor.
For die-hard collectors who appreciate having different recordings of the same score, and for completists who generally prefer multi-disc sets, the Prometheus edition of the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack is absolutely worth tracking down. For others who would rather save a few bucks and still enjoy the essence of the score, without a few interesting but inessential extras, the older Varese Sarabande edition is no less of a classic than it's ever been. If I were forced to choose one or the other purely for the Conan the Barbarian score, I would probably stick with the original, but the different qualities of the Prometheus edition and its fantastic Conan the Destroyer bonus track make me glad to have both in my collection.