A Tale of Two Soundtracks – “Rollerball” (1975) and “Blade Runner” (1982 / 2018)

I’m not much of a soundtrack guy.  When I do pick one up it’s usually something consisting of actual pop/rock/metal songs, such as for Lost In Translation, Singles, or The Decline of Western Civilization.  In many ways these are no different than compilations, and I do love a good comp.  I only own a few that are more on the instrumental side, like Flash Gordon and The Terminator.  So it was a bit unusual that I found myself flipping through the soundtrack section at Easy Street Records the other day, perhaps even more so that I came away with a couple of records – an original 1975 pressing of Rollerball and the new 2018 version of Blade Runner (the original film from 1982… not the soundtrack to the new movie).

I’m a huge fan of dystopian fiction, both in print and in film, and these are two of my absolute favorites.  I feel pretty confident in saying I’ve watched each movie a dozen times or more, and I’ve read the stories on which they are based – William Neal Harrison’s short story “Roller Ball Murder” and Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  I generally categorize this genre into two different buckets and these films are perfect representations of each.  The first group takes place in a future that doesn’t look that wildly different than our current day other than being a bit more run down.  Rollerball fits into this category (we mostly see the trappings of the rich and powerful, but it’s clear the common person isn’t living in anywhere near that level of luxury), as do works like A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, and more contemporarily Children of Men.  The other is more technologically advanced and generally futuristic-feeling, including Blade Runner and others such as Total Recall and The Fifth Element.  This is, of course, a gross over-simplification and there are things that don’t neatly fit into either category (I’m looking at you, Brazil….), but what can I say, I tend to categorize things.

When it comes to film, music is a key element in setting the mood.  And that is fully on display when comparing these two soundtracks.  So without further ado…

Rollerball (1975)

Sonically Rollerball is defined by classical music.  In fact, the movie opens with the recognizable-to-almost-everyone “Toccata In D Minor” as we’re introduced to the track upon which the rollerballers will perform their dangerous and sometimes deadly sport.  Quite a few dystopian stories use classical music, especially in the 1970s and 80s – Rollerball, A Clockwork Orange, and even 2001:  A Space Odyssey, often to great effect by creating a jarring disconnect between the futuristic visual elements and the old classical music.  Of course, it also gets a little 70s smooth-jazz-funky with “Symphony No. 8” because, well, 1970s, duh.  But the classical music also has the effect of anchoring you to the scene in a more familiar way, one that almost dictates exactly how you should feel about what you’re seeing.

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Driving home from Easy Street with this sitting in the bag next to me in the passenger seat I came up with about four paragraphs worth of Rollerball deconstruction in my mind, but now as I sit here listening to the record it all seems so far away.  It’s certainly a brilliant film, one with an even deeper and biting social commentary than what appears as obvious on the surface.  And I could probably write 5,000 words on it without even watching the damn thing again.  But instead let me leave you with this.  The movie stays fairly true to the original story… but do yourself a favor and read it anyway.  It ends just before the start of the final game, the one with no rules, as Jonathan E tells us:

Before the game begins I stand with my team as the corporation hymns are played. I’m brute speed today, I tell myself, trying to rev myself up; yet, adream in my thoughts, I’m a bit unconvinced.

A chorus of voices joins the band now as the music swells.“The game, the game, all glory to it” the music rings, and I can feel my lips move with the words, singing.

This Jonathan is a bit rougher around the edges than the one in the movie, and the score has a role in softening him, humanizing him, to the viewer.  So while the stories are the same on the surface, the music and film attempt to give more thoughtful purpose to his actions and to give us, the viewer, a sense of closure through the outcome of that final game as we see Jonathan, the sole survivor, racing around the track while the previously hostile New York fans chant his name.

The selections on the Rollerball soundtrack are beautiful, making it a record worth playing on it’s own merit.  Because if you can listen to “Adagio” and not be carried away (♥), well, then you’re not alive.  What’s particularly interesting to me upon reflection, however, is how much of my emotional response to these songs is driven by how they were used in the film – I can’t separate the music from the images and emotional tension to which they contributed.  As strange as it seems, I’ll never be able to listen to something like “Adagio” without thinking about specific movies.

Blade Runner (1982 / 2018)

To be clear, I’m writing about the original Blade Runner movie (1982), but the most recently released version of the soundtrack (January 2018).  I’ve been passively looking for a copy of this for a while, so I was happy when I came across an original 1982 pressing in the New Arrivals bin.  I saw the recent re-releases as well but figured I’d go with the original.  Fortunately for me, however, Easy Street’s Vinyl Czar Andy saw what I was carrying around and asked if I’d seen the new versions.  I told him I had, and that’s when he hit me with a very important nugget, that the original soundtrack didn’t include the versions of the songs that appeared in the film but were instead recordings of those songs by The New American Orchestra.  Apparently for a decade or so after Blade Runner first came out there was no way to get the actual Vangelis versions of the songs!  In fact the Vangelis compositions didn’t appear on vinyl for the first time until 2003.  Needless to say I put back the 1982 copy and picked up a copy of the just-released “Start Your Ear Off Right” 2018 180 gram gatefold edition.  So Andy, if you’re reading this, you’re the man!

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Thematically there are some basic similarities between Blade Runner and the book it’s based upon, but in many ways the film lacks the depth of the original story.  But that’s OK, in large part because the movie is both intriguing and visually brilliant.  This is the more technologically advanced dystopian future, one with flying cars and androids that can’t be easily distinguished from humans, but one that is still based in a gritty, post-war version of the future and broaches some deep questions about what it means to be human (♠).  I likely first saw Blade Runner on VHS back in the mid-1980s and at the time the combination of the intense visuals with the electronic Vangelis score was unlike anything I’d experienced before.

Vangelis burst into the public consciousness the year before the release of Blade Runner with his work on the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire, which seemingly won about 8,000 awards in 1981 including the Oscar for Best Original Music Score (♣).  In a year he pivoted from making music for a film about runners and the 1924 Olympics to one that took place in 2019 and featured a cop who was basically a hit man hunting androids.  That’s not doing a musical 180; that’s breaking through the space-time continuum.  A legal dispute prevented the original Vangelis compositions from appearing on the soundtrack back in 1982 and we’re fortunate that things eventually got worked out.  What appears on the 2018 version is a combo of music that appeared in the film as well as some compositions that didn’t make the final cut.

My guess is that I’d never heard music like this prior to seeing Blade Runner.  Within seconds of the opening track kicking in, I’m transported right back to the scene where Deckard is flying in his police car over the city and we’re treated to the lights and signs that make it look like some futuristic version of Tokyo.  The soundtrack also includes a number dialog samples from the film, and these were well chosen to fit the mood of the music (or is it the other way around?).  The whole thing has an almost future-classical feel to it.  In fact I suspect it would still sound fantastic even if I’d never seen the movie before.  This 2018 180 gram pressing is impressive.

 

There you have it.  Two soundtracks for two dystopian future movies that were made only seven years apart but couldn’t be more different musically.

(♥)  I believe this was used in the pivotal scene of the insanely brilliant Australian World War I film Gallipoli (1981) as well.

(♠) And inspired the White Zombie song “More Human Than Human”, which, depending on your feeling about Rob Zombie, is either a great thing or a terrible thing.

(♣)  The official soundtrack reached #1 in the US and #5 in the UK, and the famous track simply called “Title” was a #1 single as well.  You literally couldn’t escape that song in 1981/82.

Skelkur í Bringu – “Þrífðu Þetta Hland” Cassette (2017)

I’m completely and totally intrigued by Steinunn Eldflaug Harðardóttir, aka dj. flugvél go geimskip (translation – DJ Airplane and Spaceship).  Her quirky live performances include lots of lights, lengthy stories about cats in outer space, and a set-closing audience participation segment in which we’re all told we have to do karate chops in order to get back to planet earth (♠).  However, her music definitely isn’t for everyone and I’m pretty sure that I was the only one in our Airwaves crew last year that was way into her stuff.

Steinunn collaborates with a number of other artists, perhaps most notably the one-and-only Dr. Gunni.  She also plays bass and sings in a psych rock band called Skelkur í Bringu who we saw on opening night of Airwaves at, of all places, the Hard Rock Cafe in Reykjavik (♣), and I was spellbound both by the music and the visual performance.  At the end of the show she had cassette copies of the band’s new live album Þrífðu Þetta Hland for sale, each in an individually crafted and decorated case (yes, that’s zebra pattern fabric on mine…), so I of course plunked down my kronur for a copy.

skelkurtape

Þrífðu Þetta Hland is a full-on psych trip, weirdly reminiscent of a slightly more structured version of Les Rallizes Dénudés.  Steinunn’s vocals retain the high-pitched, spacey quality she uses to such great effect in her solo work, not so much floating on top of the music but instead piercing it like stainless steel spikes.  Sometimes the band wanders about in a trippy soundscape, but at others they break free into weirder territory.  “Símanúmerið Hans Sigga” is pure punk rock at its core, while “Say No to Science” starts like a deranged surf tune before devolving into sludge metal.  You never know what you’re going to get from one song to the next with Skelkur í Bringu.  If you’re only going to listen to one song, though, make it “Dýragarður”, which is the best synthesis of all the band’s sonic elements wrapped up into one near-perfect tune.

While the video below wasn’t shot at the performance we attended, it was done just a few days prior by our friends over at KEXP and is pretty damn cool, plus it’ll give you a sense of their live vibe.  You can also listen to the album itself HERE, as well as buy the digital download for any amount you want to give the band – you can literally get it for a buck if you want, so help support indie music!

(♠)  Asking people to do karate chops in a packed club should be a recipe for disaster.  And in anywhere other than Iceland it probably would be.  But somehow it happens and no fights break out.

(♣)  That a city with as strong a small-club music scene as Reykjavik now has a Hard Rock Cafe (again… the first iteration of the HRC there went out of business around 2005) is unsettling and may be an indication that Reykjavik has jumped the shark.  That being said, the basement is a pretty cool little venue.

Dream Wife – “Dream Wife” (2018)

I am not my body,
I’m somebody.
— “Somebody”

The world needs more female rock bands.  Women have won over audiences throughout the musical spectrum (though at times their gains were hard-won), but the world of rock has proven a tougher nut to crack.  Certainly a handful have made their mark, especially fronting groups – I’m thinking here of super-talented women like Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and the woefully underrated Suzi Quatro.  Punk is the one area of the harder genres that women have been able to flourish and find acceptance for their talent, starting with the earliest days of the scene through riot grrrl and into the modern day.  Europe is more advanced than the US in this regard and over the last nine years of attending Iceland Airwaves we’ve seen tons of ladies on stage who rocked out faces off, both in all-female and mixed-gender bands.

But I have seen the future of women in rock, my friends.  And that future’s name is Dream Wife.

dreamwifedreamwifelive

Dream Wife’s 2016 debut EP (EP01) destroyed all comers, a four-song pop-punk masterpiece that will melt your jaded rock ‘n’ roll heart and make you fall in love with music all over again.  Last year they gave us the five-song 12″ Fire and later in the year they announced their first full-length, the self-titled Dream Wife that just dropped about a week ago.  They are talented.  They are empowering.  And they know how to rock.

First things first.  If you have some of Dream Wife’s other stuff you’ll probably notice that you know some of the songs on Dream Wife – five of the album’s 11 songs appear on earlier releases.  But in many ways that’s a good thing, because the band has gotten so much amazing press over the last six months or so that my guess is a lot of folks buying this LP will be experiencing the band for the first time, and those earlier songs are integral to understanding their sound. (♠)

dreamwifedreamwife

Dream Wife opens with “Let’s Make Out”, and right from the get-go it’s apparent that they’re exploring a harder sound.  Sure, it’s rock ‘n’ roll at its core and the backing vocals are reminiscent of the best of doo-wop, but Rakel Mjöll pushes her voice hard into what at times becomes raspy, yelled, and aggressive; she’s not suggesting we make out, she’s flat-out demanding we do so, right now.  Sonically it’s quite the juxtaposition to their earlier work, such as the album’s second track “Somebody”, a more poppy number on which Rakel’s lyrics drift about of their own accord, not tied down to any rigid musical structure.  It’s a technique she’s used to great effect both with Dream Wife and back in 2015 with the brilliant Halleluwah, whose self-titled and only LP was my pick for top album that year.

After a trio of previously-released tracks we reach the second new song on Dream Wife, “Love Without Reason”.  And if “Let’s Make Out” made me think that maybe the band was moving in a harder direction, this does a complete 180, a sweet and dreamy song that suggests let’s be kids / and fall in love.  “Kids” brings us back to the combo rock-pop mold that is Dream Wife’s wheelhouse, a certain pop sensibility that can (and does) explode at any moment into a supernova of punk attitude and dissonance.

Dream Wife have been musically tight since their earliest releases.  Guitarist Alice Go and bassist Bella Podpadec drive the action, along with the band’s seldom-mentioned drummer (and only male member) Alex Paveley, but arguably the most distinctive element is Rakel’s voice and delivery.  She often appears to be following her own path as her vocals wander about in ways that are alternatingly charming and aggressive, and her Icelandic-accented English provides a certain uniqueness to her words.  Bella and Alice’s backing vocals, structured and punctuated, are the perfect offset to their lead singer, and the whole thing comes together in a way that gives Dream Wife a unique sound that commands attention.  If you haven’t heard them before, you owe it to yourself to check out the new album.  You can give it a listen as well as purchase it in a variety of formats on their Bandcamp page HERE.

(♠)  It appears that the only previously-released song (excluding remixes) that didn’t make it onto the new album is “Lolita”, which is a bit surprising since it’s so good.  When Dream Wife blows up and becomes hugely popular (which WILL happen), I suspect “Lolita” will be like one of those hard-to-find B sides that the die-hards are always searching for.

Chris ‘N’ Cosey And… – “Sweet Surprise” (1985)

chriscoseysweetI fully admit I’ve been a bit infatuated with Cosey Fanni Tutti over the last year or so.  It started with picking up some old Throbbing Gristle releases, then reading her autobiography Art Sex Music, and finally coming across some of her post-TG tunes as part of Chris & Cosey (♠) on some comps.  So I was pretty stoked to find this 12″ of “Sweet Surprise” on the display wall over at Daybreak Records the other day, even more so when I realized the “And…” was for collaborators on this project, none other than Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, aka The Eurythmics.

Frankly I love everything about this record.  It’s electronic, a little weird, and keeps you on your toes.  The 12″ contains two versions – the 1984 mix (see video below) and the later, longer 1985 mix.

(♠)  Chris is Chris Carter, her former TG bandmate and long-time life partner.

Sleep – “Dopesmoker” (1996/2003)

sleepdopesmokerI was blissfully ignorant of the album Dopesmoker until I joined the “Now Playing” group on Facebook and started seeing it posted from time to time, inevitably generating copious amounts of comments like “this is so rad” and “killer”.  It’s one of those weird albums that seems to have a tremendous amount of underground cred, and people who are into it revere it like it’s a holy book.  Plus it has a bizarre backstory that others have covered extensively, but long story short the trio Sleep wanted to put out an album that would be one hour-long song, they got signed to do so and presented Dopesmoker to their label London in 1996, and London basically shelved it.  It’s been released officially and unofficially by a number of labels over the years, both under the names Dopesmoker and Jerusalem.  Most recently it has been put out by Southern Lord starting in 2012 in, as near as I can tell, approximately 216,523 different color variations and versions (♠).  It’s one of these versions that I picked up the other day.

I enjoy doom metal, but the genre itself is at times given over to becoming monotonously repetitive if the band isn’t careful.  And somehow Sleep managed to write an hour-long jam that manages to dance around that trap time and time again.  It’s not that there aren’t segments containing repetitive elements, because there are.  But Sleep never stay so long in those places that you want to get up and put something else on instead, and somehow pull that off without any significant quieter intervals, a trick sometimes used in black metal to give the listener a short reprieve.

You can give the whole thing a listen on Bandcamp HERE.

(♠)  A slight exaggeration.  Slight.