Blade Runner Trilogy: 25th Anniversary Edition


CD Review by Gregory S. Burkart

I'm about to wax autobiographic for a little bit here, so I apologize in advance. But a release of this significance deserves a little setup.

It's sometimes hard to believe a quarter-century has passed since Ridley Scott's amazing vision of Blade Runner left moviegoers awestruck, or sometimes just baffled, in the wake of its theatrical debut. I count myself among the utterly amazed after what my eyes and ears experienced that summer, and my young, malleable mind came away with two indelible impressions: the first was that movies could be more than just a fun way to spend an afternoon, but could also be a mentally and emotionally transporting experience ? and I wanted to be a part of recreating that experience for others. Second, I understood how much more powerful images could be when woven with sounds perfectly suited to the visual world the filmmakers had created... and for that I have to credit the almost indescribable soundscape created for Blade Runner by legendary electronic composer Vangelis.

Sadly, like so many fans of the film and its groundbreaking score, my desperate quest to collect enough cash and race to the record store to purchase the promised soundtrack album (available, as the movie's end credits assured me, on Polydor Records) was utterly dashed when I realized that the ?official? soundtrack release was what amounted to a ?Musak? version of the original score performed by the New American Orchestra. Not wishing to disparage any musician for doing an honest day's work, I'll at least admit that the performers involved were quite talented, and at least managed to capture some of the mood of the original tracks, but it was not even close to the same experience, and could never have been.

I was too young and na?ve to the fickle ways of the music industry back then to realize why I had been lied to, and why I was being denied the amazing sounds that accompanied the greatest cinematic experience of my lifetime. Didn't they understand how important it was for this music to be heard?

Well, yes and no... apparently Ridley Scott's re-editing and alteration of Vangelis's score cues (something he also did to Jerry Goldsmith's music for Alien, which I'll discuss in detail in another review) sufficiently irked the composer that he cried foul, claiming a breach of contract, and withdrew distribution of his version of the score entirely ? much to the pain of Blade Runner fans and electronic music lovers everywhere. It seemed there was sufficient animosity from this dispute to keep the original music away from the public forever... but music fans are nothing if not resourceful.

Nevertheless, the years marched on, other concerns intervened, and in time my disappointment was pushed to a back room of my mind. The music still lived on in my dreams, though, and it led me down some amazing paths of sonic discovery that would ultimately shape my career as a musician. The virtually limitless possibilities that electronic music presented became more and more clear as I began to understand how composers like Vangelis and his peers created their works, and the veil lifted from a world of electronic alchemy that I was determined to master at any cost.

But that's another story. Maybe I'll tell it here someday.

So anyway... during and after college, my association with fellow musicians and independent filmmakers in the early '90s led me to the next piece of the puzzle, in the form of an elusive unofficial release of the actual Blade Runner score from a small outfit dubbing themselves Off World Music (in homage to the film). It was expensive, but I managed to nab myself a copy, and I was in a state of temporary nirvana... I say temporary, because upon listening to the recording I realized it sounded like it had been mastered on strips of greasy paper bag using a Fisher Price kid's tape recorder. I was torn between the bliss of hearing that music in its unadulterated form for the first time (including some alternate cues used only in Scott's workprint) and the heartbreak of experiencing it in a muddy, rumbly, incoherent mix that sounded like a C-grade high school radio project.

Another ?unofficial? release also began to circulate via Science Fiction & comic conventions known as the ?Esper Edition? ? a well-produced 2-disc set which contained several new and unused cues, dialogue excerpts and sound effects used in the film. Sadly, I never managed to get a hold of this version. A couple of years later, another, the ?official? release finally surfaced: though not quite as comprehensive as the previous fan CDs, the Atlantic 1994 soundtrack (overseen by the composer this time) was mastered with superior skill and contained some new material (?Rachel's Theme,? ?Wait For Me? and ?Damask Rose?) that complemented it nicely, but I could have done without some of the dialogue excerpts imposed on some otherwise pristine and beautiful cues. Seriously, if I want to hear the characters, I'll just watch the DVD for the 347th time.

So again, take a deep breath and jump ahead an even longer period of nearly 13 years... which brings us to the newly liberated, legally unbound releases of Blade Runner the film (a truly awesome ?Final Cut? and deluxe set that has to be one of the decade's coolest DVD packages), and Blade Runner the music... which brings us to today, with your humble reviewer considerably older and more cynical, but nevertheless rejuvenated beyond belief by the arrival of a massive 25th Anniversary Edition soundtrack collection. This set is divided into three CDs according to their content: Disc 1 contains the aforementioned 1994 album ? nothing new added, but with improved mastering technique. Disc 2 is comprised of cues not included in the '94 release, and Disc 3 contains entirely new material which Vangelis composed exclusively for this collection.

Those familiar with the 1994 version will be relieved to know that much of the heretofore missing material has been restored in the second disc (for the most part ? I'll get to that), but the initial frustration remains of having some of iconic cues ? including the Main Title music which opens the film ? are intruded upon by soundbites. This technique was not new to soundtrack albums, but I've never counted myself among one of its fans: it presupposes that listeners cannot integrate the sounds and images from the film in their minds independently, which is a bit insulting, I think. It's also a cheap way of padding an album's runtime.

Nevertheless, between the first two discs is roughly an 80% complete collection of cues used in the film, most in their uncut versions and therefore much longer and fully defined than their edited theatrical forms. The full arc of many of the pieces is finally realized here (for example, ?Memories Of Green? is captured nearly whole from the album See You Later) featuring the dark ambient layers so expertly crafted by the composer ? most of which were improvised on the spot during recording sessions at his Marble Arch Studios in London. In addition we get some unused cues ? mostly ambient material, but of the same vintage and production quality as the other tracks. These additions may not recall specific moments from the film, but they do complement the feel of the music as a whole, and are a must for Vangelis fans and electronic music completists.

This is, however, not the be-all, end-all collection fans were anticipating, as there are still some glaring oversights: large chunks of several themes are missing, and some are gone altogether. I was particularly disappointed by the absence of the ethereal music which signals Deckard's first meeting with Rachel, and of the eerie cue which accompanies Deckard's arrival at the Bradbury building, just prior to his battle with Pris in Sebatian's toy-filled apartment. The source music cues are absent also, including those accompanying the animal market and Taffy's Bar scenes, the dreamlike ?Harps Of The Ancient Temples? cue that accompanies the bicycle riders, and the Japanese chanting coming from the blimp ads over the Bradbury.

All of these omissions are baffling, as this collection is purported to contain all previously-unreleased material and eclipse all previous bootleg versions, but not entirely unexpected given the composer's reputation for selectivity when re-releasing his material. I guess beggars can't be choosers, but this set does cost over 25 dollars, after all. Whatever you do, don't ditch that Esper set.

Disc 3 is also bound to have both fans and detractors. The ?BR 25? cuts here take many forms ? audio collages, trance and world beats, electro-jazz compositions and up-tempo styles reminiscent of latter-day Vangelis releases ? and is therefore a sufficiently mixed bag to contain some winners, some failures, and a few ?what the hell? items too. The overall mood of this material ? which is interspersed with spoken-word material from Ridley Scott, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos and others ? is more upbeat than I expected in a Blade Runner package, but as stand-alone tracks, most are very entertaining.

Sure, die-hard fans of everything Blade Runner (of which I am one) are going to feel a twinge of letdown upon learning that some of their favorite music passages are yet to be fully validated by the artist who rendered them so eloquently in the first place. Always an enigma, Vangelis may never make this material officially available, nor divulge his reasons for same. But I won't dwell on that, and neither should you; you need this for many good reasons beyond simply filling holes in your collection. This score represents the peak achievement of one of the world's most celebrated electronic artists, who has decided to view his work from a fresh perspective. It's a part of music and film history, totally inseparable from my own creative life... and if you grew up with this movie and this music, very likely yours as well.