Blade Runner is a science fiction classic, and it has a classic electronica score to go with it.
In the early eighties, Vangelis helped redefine the world of soundtrack music with his scores to films like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. Chariots of Fire won him an Oscar, but his music for Blade Runner is even better.
The music mixes a variety of elements, including synthesized orchestration, percussion, vocals and acoustic instruments. The film is a dark film noir vision of the future, and Vangelis’ music captures this spirit. The story concerns a bounty hunter named Deckard who has to track down and kill androids who are trying to pass as humans. In the tradition of film noir, Deckard has doubts about his role, and the lines between right and wrong are blurry, at best.
Vangelis’ soundtrack took a winding road to release. The film came out in 1982, but the CD didn’t come out until 1994. The studio released a forgettable, orchestrated version of the soundtrack at the time of the movie’s release. The orchestral version is uniformly bad, and doesn’t capture any of the electricity and style of Vangelis’ work. Several bootlegs of the real soundtrack circulated because of the film’s cult following, and because many recognized the important part that Vangelis’ music played in the movie. Selections from the movie were released on Vangelis compilation CDs, including the memorable Love Theme and the Blade Runner Blues.
Even when Vangelis finally released the soundtrack in 1994, some fans were not satisfied, because Vangelis chose to add some new music, rework some of the original tracks, and leave out some of the other music used in the film. The CD also doesn’t follow the exact sequential order of the movie. Several piece are shifted in time, and in several places Vangelis added some spoken word samples from the movie, irrespective of their place in time within the movie.
People looking for the ultimate Blade Runner soundtrack will miss some music used prominently within the movie. This CD has to be appreciated as a Vangelis album of his soundtrack work. He has worked with his original material not to reproduce exactly the background music of the movie, but rather to create a recording that captures the best music within the movie and present it effectively. He leaves out some minor themes from the movie, music that was interesting, but that may have been too short to be included without making the album feel episodic.
Vangelis takes this approach with the spoken dialogue from the movie. Vangelis uses the spoken word samples thematically rather than programmatically – they introduce the ideas that his music deals with and tie pieces of music together.
The tracks on the album are almost all excellent, and they flow together well to create a great listening experience. The Main Titles throb with incredible bass notes. Rachel’s Song was recorded but not used in the movie. It features a lovely wordless vocal by Mary Hopkin singing a romantic theme.
The Love Theme is film-noir jazz, but with Vangelis’ unique take on orchestration. It features sax work by Dick Morrisey, and the sax fits the track perfectly. One More Kiss, Dear sounds like something from an old 78 RPM record. It’s an Ink Spots type pop song, complete with crooning vocals and a spoken middle section. It sounds a little cheesy, but reflects the superficial retro styles that are popular in the future world of Blade Runner.
Memories of Green is a classic cut that was originally on Vangelis’ album, See You Later. It is basically nostalgic piano solo, but it is given a real twist by the way Vangelis processes the sound. The piano is run through a phaser, giving the piano a warbly sound that seems like it could be from an old record or tape player. This is accompanied by faint siren sounds, and various synthesizer blurps and bleeps. This creates an mood of loss for something in the past, in this case a past with green grass and sunny days.
The End Titles are very different than the rest of the music. Most of the soundtrack is sparsely orchestrated, and very free rhythmically. The music for the end credits is proto-techno. Listening to it in the eighties, the music seemed to reach back to the disco electronica of Giorgio Moroder. Now, it’s sounds more like Vangelis was anticipating the machine aesthetic of techno. The track features a four-note sequenced riff that plays throughout the track. On top of this Vangelis adds synth strings and a brassy melody.
The final track, Tears in Rain is out of sequence chronologically, seems a fitting end to the album. In the film, the action builds to a climax with a battle between the leader of the androids and Deckard. But instead of having Deckard kill the android and having a conventional ending, Scott has the android save Deckard’s life, and then give a short speech that shows that the android has learned to value life and understand compassion. Through this, Deckard is redeemed, and learns to value all life. Vangelis presents this speech along with the original score, and this sums up the movie and the album perfectly.
The music of Blade Runner relies heavily on synthesized orchestration. Vangelis especially uses a Yamaha synthesizer, the CS-80, to excellent effect.
The CS-80 was one of the first polyphonic synthesizers (able to play multiple notes), and was built with dozens of switches, sliders, and controls that made it an extremely flexible instrument.
It also had polyphonic aftertouch. This was unique, at the time, and still a rarity on modern synths. Vangelis often uses this capability to bring out certain notes within a chord, like one player in an orchestra can emphasize one note within an orchestration. The CS-80 also has a unique ring-modulator that can turn a sound into a clangorous mess. Vangelis makes extensive use of these abilities throughout Blade Runner.
Fans of Blade Runner may also want to check out See you Later, a 1980 release. It’s a concept album about a dystopian future, and many of the themes tie in with ideas explored in Blade Runner.
Update: a new version of the Blade Runner soundtrack is now available that is a three-cd collection!