Soundtrack fans can be a cynical bunch. Before The Phantom Menace came out, large amounts of idle speculation was bandied around as to who George Lucas might ask to score the new Trilogy if John Williams was, for some reason, unable to do so. The Star Wars scores are such an iconic set of scores, that the idea of anyone but John Williams doing it seems almost laughable. However, the one name that many people put forward was that of Joel McNeely who did, after all, score half (the other half by the wonderful Laurence Rosenthal) of Lucas' Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. For some reason, it struck someone up at the Lucas ranch to commission a tone poem based on one of the zillion Star Wars books and the book that was picked was Shadows of the Empire and this album is the result.
Without wishing to succumb to the aforementioned cynicism, if any proof was needed that Joel McNeely has what it takes to write for a Star Wars film then I think this album provides it. Admittedly it's going to be easier to write a perfectly rounded album without any pictures to fit to plus the bonus of not having to give into the wishes of a director. Williams' themes do make a few appearances, but these are more token ones - in fact the quantity of original Trilogy themes is probably comparable to The Phantom Menace and McNeely has mostly written the score around his own inventions. The opening track is credited as being by John Williams, although McNeely provides a bridging passage, using a slurred string motif that recurs throughout the album, to connect the classic main theme to the music that covers the carbon freeze sequence (imagined as a nightmare Leia has) from The Empire Strikes Back. It should be noted that the book takes places between that and Return of the Jedi.
McNeely's music starts off with the imposing Battle of Gall which starts with another appearance of the slurred motif mentioned earlier, but turns quickly into a large scale battle cue. This is not subtle music, but then Star Wars never was about subtle music and in pure thrill factor, is an impressively sustained eight minutes. A battle march starts from quite low key beginnings to build into a rousing call to arms. Like most of McNeely's new melodies, this is quite a long line one and not as instantly memorable as the original Star Wars themes, but still extremely good. One of the luxuries of writing for scenes of a book is that even brief ideas that conjure up great images, but aren't crucial to the narrative can be expanded musically. So it is with the superb Imperial City which - as the liner notes point out - starts as a speck in space to become an imposing, glistening city and McNeely's music follows this journey. No film would contain such a sequence, but the slow build up towards the choir and chattering fanfares as the listener arrives is quite spectacular.
One of the most important new characters in the book is Xizor, who is provided with his own theme and concert arrangement thereof. This is somewhat more exotic than the rest of the score with a spectacularly twisting melody and some Stravinsky-esque orchestral writing. The twists and turns render it a fraction disjointed perhaps, but it makes a more than worthy addition to the paean of Star Wars themes. The choir is the one addition that makes this seem on an even larger scale than Williams' writing. There is nothing so athletic as Duel of the Fates, but McNeely does make exceptionally good and fairly sparing use to heighten every appearance.
Although the battle sequences are perhaps the most memorable parts, the quieter moments are just as appealing. One particularly enjoyable sequence is the Seduction of Princess Leia which uses a dance that goes through ever more extreme contortions, together with resurgences of Xizor's theme. Unfortunately, McNeely didn't include even a hint of Leia's theme which could have been interpolated to interesting effect. Night Skies offers some more of Williams' music with a burst of The Imperial March and an particularly nice arrangement of the Force Theme (which is curiously not credited as such). The album concludes with another rousing battle cue, The Destruction of Xizor's Palace that ends with a spectacular hymn for orchestra and chorus ending in as fine a style as any of the movies (and some might say better than the ever so slightly annoying finales to Jedi or The Phantom Menace).
It is somewhat ironic that, given the criticism levelled at Joel McNeely for aping John Williams too closely, too often, that Shadows of the Empire does not - apart from where intended and credited - rely too heavily on Williams' style of material. It does of course echo classical works in style, but then so does Williams' music, but this is perhaps one of the finest realisations of McNeely's potential as a composer. If he ever were to score a Star Wars film and it was even half as good as this, we'd be in for a treat. The detailed liner notes giving descriptions of what the scene for each cue represents are a bonus, although with a rough idea of the story, McNeely's music is more than enough to transport the listener. The performance by the RSNO and Chorus is particularly good. Superb, in every respect highly recommended.