Music Album Review: 'Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire - Original Music Soundtrack'

Cover art by Drew Struzan. (C) 1996 Varese Sarabande Records and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)
In 1996, Lucasfilm gathered several authors, artists, and representatives from Hasbro and other licensees to discuss a huge multimedia project that was, in short, everything but the full-fledged filmed version of a Star Wars movie. To kick this ambitious campaign, writer Steve Perry was hired to write an original novel for Bantam Spectra that would be the core of the project called Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire.
The novel. Photo Credit: (C) 1996 Bantam Spectra and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The novel would be a stand-alone Expanded Universe novel, the first of the Bantam Spectra series to depict event between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. All the other products, ranging from Hasbro's Kenner action figures to Nintendo 64 cartridges, would use Perry's novel as a starting point and expand the story, sticking to the essentials of the central plotline about Falleen crime lord Prince Xizor's scheme to avenge his family's death at the hands of Darth Vader. Xizor’s plan: to kill a young Jedi Knight-in-training named Luke Skywalker, the most dangerous threat to Emperor Palpatine...and Vader's son.

Because Lucasfilm's directive was "Everything but the movie," one of the more experimental aspects of the Shadows of the Empire project was the hiring of composer Joel McNeely, who had already worked for Lucasfilm as the composer for the wonderful but short-lived  The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a stint that earned McNeely an Emmy for the score of "Young Indiana Jones and the Scandal of 1920." (McNeely has also written music for many feature films, including 1994's Terminal Velocity and 1996's Flipper)

McNeely's task to compose music for a Star Wars adventure was daunting. John Williams' scores for the existing Trilogy are masterpieces of symphonic music and are immediately recognizable. How could McNeely compose a score of his own that would build upon Williams' material yet be able to stand on its own?

McNeely's approach was simple. Instead of following slavishly in Williams' footsteps, he'd use a few existing motifs to set the scene by borrowing the Main Theme from Star Wars and grafting it to Carbon Freeze from The Empire Strikes Back for the book’s opening sequence (track 1, Main Theme and Leia's Nightmare). McNeely would then break away on his own as much as possible. And this he accomplished brilliantly, as listeners of this album will discover when they hear The Battle of Gall (track 2), Beggar's Canyon Chase (track 4), Xizor's Theme (track 6), or The Seduction of Princess Leia (track 7). This cue is a wonderful piece that starts out with sensual undertones in a waltz-like movement with almost Max Steiner-like romantic phrasings that end abruptly with a shift to dark thematic material.

Obviously, this being a Star Wars story that is set while Vader is still alive and still in the thrall of the Dark Side, McNeely can't totally leave out existing material by Maestro John Williams. In addition to the mood-setting first track, McNeely borrows two key Star Wars motifs in track 8, Night Skies, which features both The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) and Ben's/The Force Theme, for a scene set on Coruscant's Imperial City as the Dark Lord senses his son's presence somewhere in the sprawling city-planet.

For the Varese Sarabande recording of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire McNeely teamed up with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus, an acclaimed ensemble of over 150 musicians. In addition, veteran record producer Robert Townson, a fan of film scores and John Williams' Star Wars scores, helmed the project.
Though Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire was relegated to Legends status in 2014, the novel is still in print and remains popular with both casual fans and EU devotees.
The album, which was released on April 23, 1996 and was the first major source of new Star Wars music until Maestro Williams returned in 1997 with new music for the finale of Return of the Jedi’s Special Edition re-release, is no longer in print as a compact disc. Per Amazon, some third-party sellers still offer it online, and it might still be available on eBay and other Internet auction sites.
However, the digital MP3 audio edition is still sold on Amazon; Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers can listen to Shadows of the Empire as part of their subscription or buy the digital tracks directly from Amazon.
While Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire is not an essential album in the Star Wars musical canon in the same way that the scores for Rogue One and Solo, it is still an enjoyable recording. McNeely is a fine composer in his own right, and his music rises to the same levels of musical inventiveness and sheer fun as the scores composed by his friend and mentor John Williams. I heartily recommend this album to any fan of Star Wars or incidental music in general.  
  1. "Main Theme from Star Wars and Leia's Nightmare" – 3:41
  2. "The Battle of Gall" – 7:59
  3. "Imperial City" – 8:02
  4. "Beggar's Canyon Chase" – 2:56
  5. "The Southern Underground" – 1:48
  6. "Xizor's Theme" – 4:35
  7. "The Seduction of Princess Leia" – 3:38
  8. "Night Skies" – 4:17
  9. "Into the Sewers" – 2:55
  10. "The Destruction of Xizor's Palace" – 10:44