Classic Synth Album Review: Blade Runner Soundtrack by Vangelis

There’s few synth-based musical endeavours that can compete with Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack in terms of impact or the way in which it elevated synth-based music as an art form. I couldn’t help but choose it as one of the classic synth albums that I wanted to review.

Vangelis wove together synthesizers and other instruments into a complex, nuanced and varied score for the futuristic dystopia portrayed in Blade Runner. It’s music that is layered, lush and full of ear candy. More than that, it helps to deepen the narrative of the movie by providing a sonic narrative of its own that meshes with the cinematic storytelling.

Central to the music of Blade Runner is one major synthesizer: the Yamaha CS-80. This is a rare synth that has tremendous range and the ability to create complex sounds and combine them in many permutations and combinations. The flexibility and range of the Yamaha CS-80 adds to the sheer richness of the music that Vangelis was able to compose for the film.

Along with the powerhouse main synth, Vangelis also used a range of Roland synth instruments, a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10, a Yamaha GS1 FM synthesizer and an E-mu Emulator sampler. There was also a modified Fender Rhodes, a Steinway grand piano and a Yamaha CP-80 electric grand piano. On top of the synths, he also used glockenspiel, gamelan, tubular bells and various percussion instruments.

“Main Titles” comes to life as portentous, trembling synths flow beneath the audio of Deckard analyzing Rachel’s data. A well of resonant bass washes beneath the dialogue in a ghostly motion. The music’s sonic layers are detailed and complex. Rushing strings flash and dangerous sounding bass growls, building tension in the music.

Elevated, bright notes flow in majestic lines, drums clash and hard-edged sounds tremble. String-like synth rises while flashing chimes sparkle and dense, rumbling bass supports the shimmering flash above it as reverent, round synth swells in triumphant lines. There’s an orchestral substance to this music along with powerful bass weight while undulating, crystalline notes sparkle and trickle for texture.

Beneath it all there is a hint of more troubling feelings and chords that move between darkness and shine lift the trumpeting, floating synths that have a rising glow tempered by minor key shadows and a steady ringing pulse guides the music out. There’s foreshadowing in this music, speaking of both triumph and tragedy to come,

Shimmering chimes, distant hollow percussion and soft breathing bring “Wait For Me” into life. Glittering chimes flash through the smoothly gliding background as Rachel’s voice flows in the midst of it. Twanging guitar, solid bass and pulsing drums flow into a misty sonic blend, full of tranquility.

The drumbeat becomes steadier along with a bass oscillation that guides the music. The sax’s reedy, rich voice carries a wistful melodic pattern over the solidity of the percussion in a masterful evocation of intense emotion. Chimes flicker and the angular, underlying string-like sound shapes the music.

Bell-like notes sweep and a nasal, round synth sound adds a mournful quality to the music as the sax howls in passionate expression once again. The bright xylophone contrasts with the darker elements while the harmonica adds a bluesy feeling. The unrelenting drumbeat adds power to the music along with the flowing bass while muted trumpet adds a nasal tremble before the music fades.

“Rachel’s Song” commences as sweeping wind howls desolately as isolated, elevated xylophone notes move along with echoing chimes. A bass flow lifts the music as an ethereal voice carries the elegiac, melancholy melody that is accented by the brighter xylophone and sparkling chimes.

The wandering vocal melody mingles hurting and hope. A violin cries out in a fragile, emotive version of the melody that’s imbued with a deep pain. There’s a majestic feeling to the vocal sounds as they flow through the music balanced a sense of need and a fear of loss.

Strings and a choir add a secondary level of shadowed and threatened feeling and the xylophone spills out its light. Sparkling chimes flutter and flicker as the track ends.

A delicate chiming sound along with rich bass and warmly rising chords open “Love Theme.” A trembling, heartfelt sax carries the expressive and passionate melody, full of tender emotion over the steady bass flow that buoys it up. Fragile chimes softly touch the ears as the incredibly moving melody is carried on the rich, reedy and impassioned sax.

Chiming notes flow in another tremulous, heartbreaking melodic segment out over the full, rising chords that lift it and carry it along. The synth’s subtle glow suffuses the music in a sunlit haze, while the twinkling touch of the chiming notes caress one’s ears.

Heavier sounds descend while the elevated chimes sweep upwards. Darkness settles in as the music returns to the sax’s sobbing emotion as it sings out a melody mingling loss, need and abiding gentleness. The synth chords underneath the melody add a shadowed warning to end the track.

“Memories Of Green” starts with far off, frail piano and a steady digital “beep.” Piano notes grow in strength and emotion, forming a melody that is tremulous and tender. The openness of the auditory space adds to the track’s airiness. I am compelled by the melody’s emotive and tragic feeling. The steady digital beeping adds a synthetic element and the piano is deeply melancholy.

The music expresses a yearning for lost times as it flourishes and sings. As the track evolves, it grow richer in feeling and more complex with incredibly pleasing chords and expressive melodic writing. The relative ease of the music is contrasted by metallic rattling and a lost, howling sound that swirls up through it.

This piece showcases Vangelis’ ability as a composer as its relatively sparse, but coruscates with emotion. Sweeping distant sound adds a vaguely ominous note and the piano fills me with an intense feeling of tenderness, loss and mourning.

Wriggling synth noises move into an open sonic space to add a digitized quality as “Tales Of The Future” starts off. A gruff swell of ultra-low synth moves with trembling violin-like sounds and echoing bells. Expressive, raw Arabic vocals move in and the violin-like sound is distant and wandering.

The power and harshness of the vocals is cut by brightly flaring synth while metallic chimes ring out. The sheer emotion of the singer is spine-tingling above the upwelling of shadowy bass and sparkling chimes that deepen the atmosphere. The contrasting chimes are like tiny sparks of light but the star of this song is the sobbing, lived-in sound of the singer’s voice.

Nasal-sounding, mournful violin is joined by tense, slow-moving higher synth that adds to a feeling of coiled energy. The violin-like sound complements the reaching, pained singer as a surging tide of nervous tension and rising darkness is joined by an eerie synth carrying a writhing minor key line. Chimes and bells echo as we fade on a flow of wind.

“Damask Rose” opens on rushing, airy sounds and an expressive violin. The violin’s rough-edged tone carries a melody redolent with ancient power expressed in Middle Eastern modal scales.

There’s a visceral ache in the violin’s sound as it moves over a shifting, shadowed terrain while shimmering sounds flutter. The strings have a lush depth and a heart-wrenching emotional feeling as they ache.

More delicate, warmer sounds rise along with a low bass drone before sparkling chimes fade into the background with a haunted sonic swirl and the rumbling depths further below still.

Steadily flowing dark sound is cut by a rough-edged, descending synth and digital chimes to bring “End Titles” to life. Deep synth oscillates in a growling line as timpani batter and mournfully aching strings descend subtly over the massive shadow and drive beneath them, forming a tender contrast.

Gigantic drums hit hard and orchestral brass sweeps in portentous notes over dense synth chords to add a sense of grandeur. Laser-like sounds burst and ominous chords drop far below as a harp glissando flicks through. There’s heaving power and depth in the brass and the timpani emphasize that power.

Strings sing out in pained, intense notes descending over the colossal power that surges deep underneath. High synth notes add tension to the track as well. Brass and strings carry a descending melody full of elegiac emotion, a sense of foreboding and a premonition of continuing danger.

Flickering sounds leap and the bass interlocks in threatening lines as deep synth trembles and quick orchestral hits burst and fade. The drums throb before silence fall as rain trickles.

“Tears In Rain” begins with Rutger Hauer’s famous “tears in the rain” monologue as fragile synth trails tendril of light behind it along with fragile motes of synth. A swirling flow of feathery, misty sounds entwines as deep, solid drums briefly pulse and fade.

The tremulous notes and shimmering chimes form a enfolding motion. Bright, expanding synth chords feel majestic and tragic all at once as the flaring lead synth bends as it floats out over the depths below before all falls silent.

The sheer scope, majesty and emotional depth of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack makes it one of the most powerful expressions of synth-based music’s ability to rival orchestral scores. After having listened to it in detail, my admiration for what a talented composer can do with synthesized music has only grown.

Written by Karl Magi.

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