Tangerine Dream – “Thief (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” (1981)

thiefI’d been keeping my eyes out for a reasonably priced, nice condition copy of the Thief soundtrack, and I finally found one the other day in the New Arrivals bin over at Easy Street.  I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been wanting this other than knowing the music is by Tangerine Dream and the film is a gritty and brilliant crime noir classic.  Ironically later that same evening I was flipping through the channels and what did I land on?  That’s right, Thief.  Which was followed by the original Rollerball as part of some kind of James Caan retrospective.  Needless to say, I watched both.

I’ve never been a soundtrack guy, especially not soundtracks that are comprised primarily of scores as opposed to previously released songs.  Having listened to a few over the last couple of years, though, I’m kind of intrigued, as this strikes me as a very different way of writing music.  You can feel an emotional flow to the compositions on Thief, an underlying base mood that is nuanced and transformed by the soundscape.  The musicians are writing to align their art with someone else’s art, and when it’s done correctly the results are magical.

The music is a defining element in Thief, just as it is in most Michael Mann directed films.  He could have just as easily scored the album with rock songs and it would have given then entire thing a totally different feel.  Same scenes, same dialogue, different emotional content.  In fact, Mann originally intended to score it using Chicago Blues songs.  It’s hard to imagine what that version of the film would have been like, though the final track “Confrontation” may give us just a hint, the only guitar-based number on the album.

Thief stands on it’s own fairly well.  If you’re into Tangerine Dream and similar electronica, it’s a perfectly enjoyable stand-alone album.  It’s hard for me to separate it from the film in my mind, but it’s not a major leap by any means.

Tangerine Dream – “Exit” (1981)

Trying to use words to describe sound is often quite futile, at least not without us, writer and reader, having some general agreement as to what certain sounds are like.  If I describe the low end on a classic rock song, that’s one thing; describing the low end on an EDM song is another thing entirely.  And I’m musing on this because I’m sitting here right now listening to and trying to write about Tangerine Dream.  And it feels a bit futile.

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Exit came out in 1981, and the best way I can describe it to you is that it feels like a sic-fi version of the original Miami Vice, one set in a not-so-distant future that is largely recognizable, but also a bit better and a bit worse at the same time.  It has that dark style of the “gritty” version of the early 1980s, but society has continued to slowly slide even as the technology has improved.  Better vehicles and weapons and tools, but worse in the lengths that the criminal and quasi-criminal elements will go to in order to survive.  Those early 80s synths keep things very deliberate and precise, just like Crockett and Tubbs’ wardrobes.  It’s probably no coincident Exit came out in the same year as the Thief Soundtrack that was scored by Tangerine Dream – the film has a bit of that grittiness I’m talking about, though it lacks any sic-fi flourishes.  The music of Exit would have replaced Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” as the nighttime cruising music and defined the entire Miami Vice aesthetic.

It kinda sounds a bit like that.  Sort of…

Tangerine Dream – “Hyperborea” (1984)

I feel about 90% certain that the first electronic album I ever bought was something by Tangerine Dream, though for the life of me I can’t remember which one.  I distinctly recall buying a CD while in high school, though I don’t know if it was because of something I’d heard in a movie score, or a band citing them as a reference, or possibly even something I read in Rolling Stone.  I feel like I didn’t listen to it much as I couldn’t get into it, it was so different than the standard rock that filled up the rest of my shelves.

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For whatever reason, I never went back to the Tangerine Dream well again, even though I’ve gotten a lot more into electronic music over the last four or five years.  When I came a cross a Japanese pressing of 1983s Hyperborea the other day at Hi-Voltage Records during their 20% off sale, however, I saw a perfect opportunity to rectify that massive aural oversight on my part and picked up this pristine copy.  I’m not 100% sure why, but the Japanese pressings just seem to hold up better.  The jackets are thicker and glossier, which accounts for part of it, but I suspect that the people who spend money on these imports tend to be more hardcore audiophiles/record collectors/OCD/nerds (like me) and the probably just take better care of their toys.

Sonically Hyperborea is smooth and chill, a bit spacey but with a touch of Persian influence, most notably on “No Man’s Land”.  “Cinnamon Road,” the shortest of the album’s four tracks at just shy of four minutes (the next shortest clocks in at 8:31), is the oddest composition, almost sounding like a muzak cover of some kind of 1980s new wave song instead of an original tune.  Like, as in it sounds really familiar, but I just can’t place it.  Weird.

The entire B side is given over to the 20 minute “Sphinx Lightning,” a piece of art that feels more like a movie or a book than a song with its seemingly distinct yet related chapters, pieces that fit into part of the greater whole but vary in how they convey pacing and feeling.  Sometimes slow and thoughtful, sometimes anxiety-laden, though always with a bit of a post-modern if not quite sci-fi feel.  Definitely my favorite track on Hyperborea, one that can actually transport you to a different mental space.

I may need to explore this Tangerine Dream thing a little more as opportunities present themselves…