The Oscillations And Pulses Behind “The Andromeda Strain”

andybeta | December 14, 2007 1:30 am

Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he listens to the long-out-of-print–yet oddly of the moment–score for the 1971 bioterror thriller The Andromeda Strain.

I’m not one to linger on being burned by record deals, but it still stings to think that I allowed my copy of the soundtrack for The Andromeda Strain to be taken by a record-collector-scum “friend” of mine back in the mid-’90s. (It’s so bad, I can no longer recall what I even received in trade, only lament what was lost.) To this day, I have never seen another copy of its shiny silver sleeve, much less the arduously assembled hexagonal edition that came out around the same time as this 1971 bioterror flick. That version of the soundtrack, released by Kapp Records, only had 10,000 copies produced; the records and their sleeves, which were produced under the supervision of Andromeda director Robert Wise, were hexagonal. The album was released as a conventional LP the following year.

But it’s never been re-released since then, which is infuriating, as it’s a landmark of electronically composed soundtracks. Based on a pre-Jurassic Park book by Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain details an Area 51-esque stretch of American desert and a town that has been wiped out by some mysterious virus that dropped from outer space. For all of the film’s doomsday dread and very real scenario of a supervirus scything the human populace, the movie was rated G, and I recall watching it in junior high. Screening it again so as to hear the electronic score (composed by the forgotten Gil Mellé), I’m actually appalled by the amount of animal vivisection that takes place in the film. There are some cruel shots of monkeys in death throes that still make me squeamish. That said, I also reverted back to my 13-year-old self, tittering at the one scene when a contamination suit-clad scientist yanks down a dead man’s trousers, bends him over a desk and shouts to his partner: “Have a look at his buttocks!” Comedy gold.

That snippet of dialogue, alas, isn’t heard on the soundtrack; instead, a dizzying array of electronic oddities prevails. Mellé is a curious cat: he not only designed the cover art for records by jazz men like Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, but blew horn alongside the likes of Max Roach and Zoot Sims. There’s an early record he did with Verve merging jazz and electronics, but as the sixties wore on, Mellé started exclusively composing the latter, composing the first electronic theme for TV show (Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone show, Night Gallery).

His score for The Andromeda Strain is by turns haunting and gnarly, and it sounds right at home in the 21st century, whether alongside the similarly handmade malevolence of Wolf Eyes or the drugged dronescapes of Tim Hecker. For the film, Mellé built his own electronic studio on the Universal lot and a slew of one-of-a-kind electronic devices. He re-processed the recorded sounds of buzzsaws, bowling alleys, and orchestral instruments for the film, creating a remarkable score that anticipates future electronic music. Mellé captures the sound of booping radar, red light-triggered epileptic seizures, satellite transmissions, weather pattern feedback, scanning microscope whirrs, and mutating super-germs. The ever-pressurizing pulses and oscillations only heighten the film’s biological warfare anxieties and–much like the noisy music itself–such fear continues to riddle us in the present.