Soundtrack Review: Shadows of the Empire

Composed and conducted by: Joel McNeely

In the mid-1990s, Star Wars fandom was experiencing a large revival, with hundreds of new action figures, many new video games, and a whole new expanded universe in the form of novels and comics. George Lucas, who by now had become the marketing-obsessed man who would torment us with an inferior prequel trilogy, decided to pick a book and treat it like a movie. This would mean for a written novel there would be toys, a video game, a comic book adaptation, a making-of book, and, most unusually, a soundtrack!

That’s right. A soundtrack would be created for a movie that didn’t exist. Unfortunately, instead of choosing the superb Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Lucas picked Shadows of the Empire, which takes place between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I guess the the fact that Darth Vader was still alive in said novel probably helped it. The multimedia event would ensure that this book became one of the most highly praised among fans, particularly nostalgic ones that played the video game. Actually, the novel is pretty decent, with a good story, but some issues when it comes to how it is written.

Joel McNeely, who had scored the Young Indiana Jones series, was chosen to do the soundtrack. He found himself with virtually no limitations, other than the amount of music he could create (around fifty minutes). The result is a surprisingly eclectic, although fairly thematically driven score.

John Williams’ themes would only grace three of the tracks, but new ones would be created. The first track is completely credited to John Williams, as it is the famous Main Title and a re-orchestrated section of the carbon-freezing music from Empire Strikes Back. The only original material here is a slowly descending motif that bridges these two pieces together. The same motif crops up in a couple of other places.

The new material goes full force with “The Battle of Gall”. The first half features the descending motif in its longest appearance, followed by a brief action outburst, some jaunty battle preparation music, and a Rebel hymn. The second half is exciting, but doesn’t match up to Williams, especially since it lacks the battling themes of the maestro’s cinematic scores.

“Imperial City” is one of the best tracks on the whole album. The cue is for a scene that would never be put into a movie due to its length. As we approach the city planet of Coruscant, things start off quietly with light piano music, the planet just a tiny speck. As we start to get into the clouds, some fanfares break out, and when the city is revealed in all its glory the music becomes an Olympic-style fanfare. The music somewhat subsides for a bit, but breaks out into more fanfares at the end before trailing off the way it began. This is a fantastic cue, although it is very hard to hear the opening notes.

“Beggar Canyon Chase” is more Indiana Jonesesque than Star Wars, but does end heroically with what is, according to the liner notes, supposed to be a “brief iteration of Dash’s theme”.  As far as I can tell, no such theme exists anywhere else on the album. “Southern Underground” gives us a new recurring theme, but what it is for I have no idea.

McNeely’s crowning achievement is his new master villain theme for the horny, reptilian Prince Xizor, showcased in track six. There’s a lot of dissonance here to represent his criminal and two-sided character, but it’s all worth it for the last minute and a half, a full percussion-backed march of evil which presents his theme three times. This is the most obvious and popular of McNeely’s Star Wars themes, in large part thanks to its presence in the video game’s final levels.

“The Seduction of Princess Leia” is an interesting waltz that I think deviates a little too much from the Star Wars style. “Night Skies” is a dramatic cue that obviously deserves a spot among my highlight cues. It features Xizor and Vader’s themes as they contemplate their schemes. The best moment however is supposed to occur when Vader reaches out to Luke Skywalker, prompting a grand version of the Force theme which surpasses even Williams’ “Light of the Force”.

After the underwhelming “Into the Sewers”, McNeely lets loose with a ten-minute finale which features most of his new themes. It’s full of choral crescendos, which seems to give a hint at the more prevalent use of choir in the prequel trilogy, and some bold statements of Xizor’s theme. The most interesting part is when Xizor and Vader’s themes actually weave around each other, with the dark lord’s fanfare winning out in the end. The Rebel hymn and a brief reiteration of “The Imperial City” give the album a grand satisfactory closing.

Personally, I would have liked it if more money was invested into this project, if only to create an actual end credits suite which is customary for Star Wars films. Some editing software could create such a track using the usual closing credits opening, “Southern Underground”, and the finale of “Xizor’s Theme”.

Shadows of the Empire is a unique soundtrack, and is actually quite good although McNeely really should have used his themes more often. I actually find this album almost as good as the prequel scores, which likewise could have used some of their new themes more. Surprisingly, this soundtrack is still easily available online, so listen to the music samples to make sure you want it and then buy it.

Rating: 7/10

Track Listing

  1. Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia’s Nightmare (3:41) 6/10
  2. The Battle of Gall (7:59) 7/10
  3. Imperial City (8:02) 8/10
  4. Beggar’s Canyon Chase (2:56) 6/10
  5. The Southern Underground (1:48) 6/10
  6. Xizor’s Theme (4:35) 8/10
  7. The Seduction of Princess Leia (3:38) 7/10
  8. Night Skies (4:17) 10/10
  9. Into the Sewers (2:55) 5/10
  10. The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace (10:44) 8/10
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