Until the the Lord of the Rings trilogy and its lauded soundtracks, fantasy film scores were a niche within a niche, ranging from strictly B-movie fare to the occasional cult classic. Basil Poledouris's score for "Conan the Barbarian" counts as one of the latter, and is rightfully the most famous and enduring of them all. More than just a treat for genre fans, it has all the qualities of a classic.
The most striking characteristics of the soundtrack are its booming brass and powerful Latin chanting. Both are strong and unwavering throughout "Riddle of Steel / Riders of Doom", which offers the first appearance of a battle theme charged with action and danger. The sheer power of the orchestral-choral combination here is unmatched; for any game soundtrack fans out there bred on "One-Winged Angel" and "Liberi Fatali", consider this is their bigger, much badder daddy.
The score is much more than just charging battle music though. "Theology / Civilization" offers a pretty, enormously catchy melody likable to a great town or overworld theme. "Wifeing" and "Recovery" meld original material with poignantly tender reprises of the opening theme, while "Leaving / The Search" is introspective at times, transcendent at others, and absolutely beautiful throughout.
Poledouris utilizes an array of medieval sounds to carry these themes. The choir achieves a quieter presence at times, flutes come in at just the right moments and there is some nice accentuation by the harp. Stringed accompaniment is common but rarely takes the forefront. The pacing is excellent, moving from thickly-accented fantasy passages to more temperate, traditional orchestral moments, with nary a tedious or meaningless moment to be found.
For any with even the smallest desire to enjoy a fantasy-adventure score, Conan the Barbarian is a must-own. It proudly carries the themes and conventions of the genre while putting together all the essential elements of a great soundtrack.