For the 42 years Star Wars has been a pop cultural force, musical oddities have followed in the wake of its starship engines. Sure, legendary composer John Williams put an interstellar jazz number in the middle of his almost operatic score to the original 1977 film, but that didn’t predict a chart-topping disco song, or Christmas albums, or quirky EDM, or various other ephemera in the ensuing decades.
When Star Wars: Shadows Of The Empire was released in 1996, amid a major comeback for that galaxy far, far away (eventually culminating in a successful theatrical reissue and a trilogy of prequel films written and directed by series creator George Lucas), the ephemera almost threatened to become the point. Shadows, set between the original film’s two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983), had all the trappings of a modern blockbuster film without the film itself; the story was told across a novel, a multi-part comic book, a game for the new Nintendo 64 system, various toys and collectibles – and even, like the best Star Wars tales, a soundtrack album, newly reissued on CD and vinyl by Varese Sarabande (VSD-00251).
To capture the intended scope of the project, Lucasfilm hired Joel McNeely, a composer who’d captured the magic of another Lucas creation for a spin-off project: the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. With only the sprawling story of Shadows and the towering influence of Williams as his guides, McNeely and The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus delivered a 51-minute album worthy of The Maestro’s work on the sci-fi epic. “Unlike with film music, I have been allowed to let my imagination run free with the images, characters and events from this story,” McNeely wrote in the album’s liner notes. “I have also had the luxury to loiter as long as I like with a character or scene.”
The music of Shadows indeed doesn’t strictly hew to any visuals or pacing (unless, of course, you count the few minutes excerpted in the video game, alongside vintage Williams pieces) – but it deftly fools you into thinking it could. On compact cues like “Beggars Canyon Chase” (evoking a moment in the story Luke Skywalker lures a cadre of assassins into the treacherous Tatooine wastelands he navigated with ease as a pilot prodigy) or “Into The Sewers” (a lumbering adventure into the catacombs of Coruscant, the Empire’s capital planet), McNeely recalls the best of Williams’ action cues for the trilogy: brassy, eminently hummable motifs. He also forges his own unique territory, as on the delirious waltz of “The Seduction of Princess Leia,” where Star Wars‘ main heroine is menaced by a new, charismatic enemy.
McNeely’s Williams homages continue on the album’s arguable centerpiece and the musical representation of that new foe: “Xizor’s Theme.” Written for a charming crime syndicate leader guarding a secret vendetta against the Skywalker bloodline, the first half of the arrangement is twisty sinew and leaping trumpets that give way to a cascading horn fanfare and driving percussion. In classic Williams fashion, it’s one of a handful of thematic ideas that repeat throughout the album, including the sparkling string slides and low brass of “Imperial City” and the alien chorus of “Dha Werda Verda,” written by Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt.
It wouldn’t be a true Star Wars experience without references to The Maestro’s incredible catalog of themes, which would only grow in the near 25 years since Shadows was recorded. McNeely’s quotations start strong – an opening cue that states the immortal title theme and recounts one of Empire‘s most nightmarish sequences, when Han Solo is frozen in carbonite – but go into hiding until the track “Night Skies,” which offers Darth Vader’s haunting “Imperial March” and the heroic Force theme within its musical borders. New and old coalesce once more in the closing “The Destruction Of Xizor’s Palace,” which intertwines Xizor and Vader’s theme with militaristic action flourishes and more choral urgency.
The reissued Shadows – making its debut on vinyl as well as back on CD – features the same album presentation as in 1996, along with the original release’s copious liner notes, including a composer’s note, biography of McNeely, track-by-track notes by McNeely and Robert Townson, plus Burtt’s text and “historical notes” on “Dha Werda Verda,” which references some deep cut Star Wars lore (specifically, characters from the obscure animated series Droids). Legendary artist Drew Struzan, who painted the cover for the Shadows album, has some additional Star Wars book art of his featured in the booklet and inner sleeve. (Sadly missing, at least on vinyl, is Townson’s original foreword in the liner notes, plus the list of instrumentalists present on an enhanced CD multimedia file back in 1996.)
As Star Wars fans continue waiting for more definitive presentations of Williams’ scores – the music under Disney’s control has gone “back to formula” with new mixes of the original album presentations available on CD and digitally – McNeely’s Shadows Of The Empire reissue is a salve for people looking to expand their Star Wars musical library, and a reminder of the series’ flights of fancy in the years before the prequels (or even the Special Edition).