Shaw Bros. (Various Artists) – Kung Fu Super Sounds

De Wolfe Recordings (2008)

Personal preference for 1960s Mancini aside, it’s hard to go wrong with 70s soundtracks. Ennio Morricone, while always great, put out some brilliant stuff in that decade. And then you have Nino Rota’s Godfather soundtracks, Shire’s Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Oh, and Lalo Schifrin, of course. His Dirty Harry series stood out, as did Enter the Dragon.

Kung fu film soundtracks had to fulfil certain criteria to work, back in the 1970s. I love the modern films as much as the next man, from the grand Romeo and Juliet statement of Hero to the surreal superhero slapstick of Stephen Chow’s films. I even like the odd Yo-Yo Ma/Tan Dun tandem.

But the old-school kung fu films had to hit various spots: they had to be funky in the right places, ominous when the occasion demanded, and energising when there was a scrap going on. Which was a lot of the time. Shaw Bros. were synonymous with a certain kind of kung fu. The outlandish Flying Guillotine is a personal favourite, and the impact of the 36th Chamber of Shaolin in the music world goes without saying.

So fans of soundtracks, kung fu films, and great music should be intrigued by this collection of music from Shaw Bros. films between the years of 1976 and 1984.

Opening with the sonic Shaw Bros. signature that should be familiar to anyone who’s seen Kill Bill, Kung Fu Super Sounds is a sprawling selection of aural snapshots from the era. Tunes like ‘Waiting for the Man’ (from Shaolin Mantis, 1978), are truly awesome. As it’s the longest song in the collection, it has time to build mood; that sense of looming threat. Brass flares a warning while the whole orchestra crashes in to punctuate. It even has something of an instrumental chorus.

But no other song has such time in which to luxuriate. ‘Fast Moving Stranger (from Dirty Ho, which must be one of the most unintentionally wonderful film titles ever) is a pre-Fantômas blast of walking basslines rushed into an agitated run, chased down dark alleys by clipped guitar slashes and organ lurk.

‘Old Dark House’, from Heaven and Hell, delights with its howling ambient darkness, and makes its point in a tenth of the time it would take many modern doom bands to do the same. ‘Horror House’, from three years earlier, is equally malevolent. ‘Spin Out’, also from Heaven and Hell, is another memorable piece. It’s almost like a precursor to the more effective material on Ghost’s occasionally masterful 2004 Hypnotic Underworld.

Interestingly, rather than one person composing each soundtrack, the films represented have been composed by numerous individuals. I suppose it’s a farming-out process one might expect from such a large company.

As with any compilation as chronologically wide as this, there are songs that drop the ball. These pieces can loosely be categorised as ‘the 1980s’. While there are some bright moments from the decade, such as the epic ‘Manoeuvres’, there was an ill-advised period of electronic experimentation.

This in itself would not be such a bad thing, but the result here is a small collection of bleeps and squawks that sound dated next to what Perrey and Kingsley were doing fifteen years earlier. While the ‘Electro’ pieces are an interesting example of the variety that was on show during this era, the compilation could really have done without ‘Duck and Blacker’. That said, Ronald Marquisee’s ‘Electro Link 18’ is a lot of fun for those who dug on Plone or Broadcast.

Overall, Kung Fu Super Sounds offers soundtrack action of a sufficiently high quality to make it a worthy purchase. While not all the songs on here are gold, anyone who got Morricone’s Crime and Dissonance should make space on their shelf for another CD.

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