National Philharmonic Orchestra ‎– Music Excerpts From “The Exorcist” (Waxwork Records Remaster)

4 out of 5

Label: Waxwork Records

Produced by: Thomas Dimuzio (pre-master), George Horn

Back in the good ol’ days when I worked at a music store, we had the requisite old, hippie dude who worked there, and we all tried to give each other space on the rotation of albums we forced the store to listen to, so every now and then you’d get your Jethro Tull from hippie dude, and… Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.  I’d worked in music shops long enough by that point to associate that album with a certain type of grey-haired, stinky shopper (sorry, folks), so I’d already built up quite a bias before even hearing it.

And now, listening to Waxwork’s representation of the excerpts from The Exorcist soundtrack, I’m wondering if I ever actually did hear it.  I had no idea the film’s use of its opening theme was what shot it to initial fame, nor did I realize how recognizable that theme is…  How hauntingly appropriate it is; and how influential, given that it certainly informed a John Carpenter’s Halloween theme, and thus a million horror flicks thereafter…

The liner notes from director William Friedkin really explain what makes this score so brilliant: he temp-tracked his film with experimental, dissonant compositions from Krzysztof Penderecki, Jack Nitzsche, George Crumb, all of which synced with Friedkin’s sound design and vision for his classic, harrowing film.  He went to Bernard Hermann and Lalo Schiffrin with his temp music and movie, and got completely the wrong feedback from them – go with Church music; go with big, jazzy bombast – and then eventually went with his temp selections, re-recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra.  The Exorcist is a manipulative bit of Hollywood frightdom, but it’s also a key piece of cinema from an era that allowed for some experimentation; Friedkin directed it from his gut, and guided it to completion – music included – in the same way, and just as images and scenes from the movie are still effective nowadays, listening to the score in isolation is quite an experience.

Besides the ominous, creeping nature of the start of Tubular Bells, the tracks here are a collection of minimalist strings and chants and sudden clatters of outright noise, the combination of which makes for something that does not seem like it came out of the 70s; it’s challenging music to listen to today, and can go head-to-head with current avant-garde clatter.  Krzysztof Penderecki’s work here is the most stunning – assaults of string after slow, nerve-wracking buildups – with George Crumb’s Night Of The Electric Insects a pitch perfect minute and a half attack of menacing noise the pinnacle of the album’s B-side. 

A lot of horror films – and their accompanying scores – have a fake sense of peace at points, and The Exorcist never really plays at that, maintaining its dreadful sensibilities and tone throughout, allowing Friedkin to really dive in with his chosen music and keep the tension tight.  That the music is still impressively experimental even by today’s standards makes it a fresh and engaging listen that’s near impossible to background.  …Eeexcepting… the mastering.  I do not have a great system, and I was not listening to this on headphones, and it’s getting warmer outside, so fans are running, but still – when I turn the volume up, I can normally hear things.  However, I had to resort to youtube rips of earlier releases of the score for some of the quietest moments of these tracks, as compared to the loud bursts of noise, the Waxwork edition I have – and maybe it’s just my copy, and maybe it’s just my ears, and etc. – is ridiculously quiet and undefined during the buildups, regardless of how high I turned the thing up.  It creates the vibe of long stretches of silence instead of the tension-inducing minimlist itching of strings and whatnot.

So consider my rating mostly for the score itself, with the knock related to this specific edition of it.  That said, the paraphrased liner notes are exclusive to the Waxwork release, and the artwork, though pretty simple, is effective.