Lucasfilm

REVIEW – Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire soundtrack (1996)

STAR WARS: Shadows of the Empire soundtrack (1996 Varese Sarabande)

by Joel McNeely

Things were starting to heat up!  As Lucasfilm toiled away at the Star Wars special editions behind the scenes (and Episode I even further behind the scenes), they also launched a huge new multi-media story.  It was called Shadows of the Empire, and it was meant to represent a movie between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  Just as Star Wars was re-entering the public consciousness again, out came this massive, sprawling thing that was meant to make you feel like you did when a new Star Wars movie was released.  It included:

  • A comic miniseries by Dark Horse
  • A novel by Steve Perry (not the singer)
  • A new Kenner toyline
  • Topps trading cards
  • Nintendo 64 first-person shooter game
  • A soundtrack composed by Joel McNeely

The catch?  You had to get everything in order to get the complete story of Shadows of the Empire.  Scenes in the game were not in the comics or novel, scenes from the comics were not in the game, and so on.

McNeely had done a bit of soundtrack work, but had also crossed paths with Lucasfilm when he scored The Young Indiana Jones chronicles for television.  He was facing a losing battle by being the first composer besides John Williams to score a Star Wars soundtrack.  McNeely provides ample liner notes for each track of his score, explaining the scenes they represent from the fiction and how it translates into music.  These valuable notes are a terrific example of why listening to physical product is always the best way to listen to music.

The audio journey begins with the Star Wars theme, as if it were a full-fledged film score.  Differences can be heard, but not deviating far from course.  “Leia’s Nightmare” begins quiet and prequel-esque, with hints of “The Imperial March” and other classic Williams themes.  And even in retrospect, it is thrilling hearing them in the context of something new.

“The Battle of Gall” is an early attempt to rescue Han Solo from Boba Fett.  Fett has stopped at the Imperial moon of Gall on his way to Jabba the Hutt, with Solo frozen in carbonite.  Why?  No reason, except to milk the Boba Fett character even further.  Military drums can be heard as Luke and friends prepare their daring mission…doomed to fail, of course, since we have all seen Return of the Jedi.  A bouncy new theme in this piece sounds out of character, but memorable.  “Imperial City” is our first glimpse of the Galactic capitol world of Coruscant.  Much like it is described in The Phantom Menace, it is a planetary city.  Ideally, you’d be leafing through the Ralph MacQuarrie paintings of the planet while listening to the imposing horns and drums.  A  choir welcomes you to the city amidst fanfares and trumpets.  None of this sounds like Star Wars, but much of it is good.

An action scene on Tattooine follows, as Luke is chased by goons on speeder bikes.  He is rescued by new character Dash Rendar, a poor man’s Han Solo.  Dash has his own swashbuckling theme.  He was a huge part of the Shadows of the Empire campaign.  His ship, the Outrider, was saucer shaped with a side cockpit like the Millenium Falcon.  Lucas added it to the Star Wars special edition in ’97, making it screen canon forever.

Leia’s mission follows, as she searches the lowest levels of Coruscant looking for a crime organisation known as Black Sun.  She wishes to forge an alliance.  Their leader, the tall green Prince Xizor (shee-zor), is the main villain of Shadows.  Not nearly as terrifying as Vader or the Emperor, but he has his own scary theme.  The music paints a picture of an evil entity with refined, extravagant tastes.  He has one advantage over Leia when they meet:  alien pheromones that make him irresistible to women.  But Leia loves Han.  This battle of wills is composed as a dramatic ballet called “The Seduction of Princess Leia”.

We learn Xizor failed to seduce Leia on “Night Skies”, a piece of music he shares with Darth Vader, as he attempts to contact Luke through the Force.  The dark side of the Force is palpable in the air, then Vader’s theme returns.  Next, Luke rescues Leia from Xizor’s palace on “Into the Sewers”, which are the only way to sneak in undetected.  Xizor is defeated on “The Destruction of Xizor’s Palace”, when a massive space battle ensues.  A choir heightens the tension while exciting action music animates what’s happening.  Grab your action figures and play along.

The only serious flaw is that the soundtrack should really end like a Star Wars movie ends — with the credits theme music.  That aside, Shadows of the Empire is an enjoyable piece of music when you want to hear something just a little different and contemplative in the galaxy far, far away.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Raiders of the Lost Ark – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2008 CD reissue)

scan_20170116RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Originally 1981, 2008 CD reissue)

When it comes to sci-fi nerds, movie geeks, and Speilberg buffs, there is one name that we all salute:  composer John Williams.

In 1981, Williams was given the task of composing yet another soundtrack for his buddy Steven:  Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back before it, it needed identifiable themes to accompany our characters:  the heroic school teacher (!) Indiana Jones, his one true love Marion, and a whole slew of evil Nazis.  This time Williams needed to come up with appropriate music not for epic space battles, but to inspire awe in the wrath of God and the Ark of the Covenant.

To go with the 2008 theatrical release of (the atrocious) Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Lucasfilm remixed and reissued the original Raiders soundtrack with 30 minutes of bonus tracks.  (Unfortunately, both the LP and box set have music not on this CD, but we don’t get this stuff for free, so a review of this CD is all you get.)  Virtually every note will be familiar to fans both casual and die-hard.

Indy begins his adventure “In the Jungle” and immediately you can picture the spiders and creepy-crawlies that Indy had to step through.  “The Idol Temple” has even more creepy-crawlies, and Williams expertly finds the musical effects to go with the eight-legged chills.  Just like the movie, be ready to jump startled at certain cues.  Serious action begins on “Escape from the Temple”, the kind of track that is a benchmark for such scenes.  The “Flight From Peru” is the very first appearance of the famous Indiana Jones theme, as he escapes death…barely!

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In America, Indy is paid a visit at the school by two “Washington Men” who want him to find something.  This is the eerie, understated debut of the Ark’s theme, though Indy’s own theme plays around with it, indicating the two will eventually collide.  “A Thought for Marion” introduces her theme, and then back to the Ark’s music once again.  The ominous overtones indicate that Indy’s mission to find the Ark will not be easy.  He is then off to Nepal with music that hints at the dangers ahead.  In Nepal he finds both Marion and the medallion, which has its own dark music.  The military drums foreshadow the involvement of the Nazi forces also searching for the Ark.

The score takes a slight middle eastern turn with “Flight to Cairo”, also augmented with Indy and Marion’s themes.  The two must find the Ark before the Nazis do with the help of Indy’s old Egyptian friend Sallah.  Marion finds herself in trouble almost immediately.  “The Basket Game” is one of the most memorable cues from the movie, though it ended badly for Marion and Indy.  Williams uses articulate melodies in a cartoon-like style to hint at the motion happening on screen.  With Marion gone, Indy must continue his quest with Sallah.  Together they visit a wise man, and discover that someone is trying to poison them with “Bad Dates”.

“The Map Room” is the setting for the next piece, building tension back with the Ark theme.  This incredible cue ends with Indy discovering the location of the Well of the Souls.   What I always assumed were sound effects in the scene is actually music (chimes).  Soon he finds Marion alive and well.  Her theme and that of the Ark return for another go-round as the heroes finally find the treasure.  The music when the Ark is found is similar to that in the Star Wars scene where the first Death Star explodes.   More creepy-crawlies (“Snakes…why’d it have to be snakes?”) infest “The Well of the Souls”, surely the creepiest scene in the movie.

Another great Indy action cue is “Indy Rides the Statue”, a piece of music that recurs when our hero is in great danger.  Escaping the Well of the Souls, Indy must battle a massive German henchman in “The Fist Fight”.  The tension is turned up again, and fans will recall this piece from one of the most punishing action scenes in the film.  “The Desert Chase” is the longest piece on the album, to suit a roller-coaster scene of thrills and chills.  The music delivers the same thrills, as you can picture Indy on that horse chasing down those Nazis.  It’s among Williams’ finest music.

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A tender moment (“Marion’s Theme”) is short lived as the Nazis return.  The action-packed music takes Indy to a secret Nazi island in the Mediterranean (“The German Sub” and “Ride to the Nazi Hideout”).  The horrifying finale reveals “The Miracle of the Ark”, and again some of Williams’ best music.  The end credits music “Raiders March” is some of most memorable music in film history.  It revisits the most exciting music from the score.  It is similar in style and equal in quality to what John Williams did with the Star Wars saga end credits.  This single track should be in any serious music lover’s collection.

For a more knowledgeable take on the Raiders soundtrack, we spoke to Rob Daniels from the Visions In Sound radio programme.  He had this to add:

When I first heard John Williams’ score to Raiders I immediately fell in love with the theme. In fact it has been my ring tone on my phone for several years over at least three phones. That being said the score to Raiders is much more than its theme. By the way, the theme is actually two separate pieces that Williams had written to be the title theme for the film.  Speilberg loved them both and asked them to be combined.

John Williams is the master of memorable themes and Raiders is no exception. There are several wonderful themes such as the aforementioned “Raiders March” but also to be commended is “Marion’s Theme” and the “Ark Theme”. Though I have to admit that my favourite comes in the cue “Desert Chase” as Indy is going after the Ark as it is on its way to Cairo. As the cues play you can see the Nazi soldiers being thrown from the truck and Indy’s fight in the cab with one of them as he eventually gets dragged behind the truck to his final victory and escape. It’s an amazing piece of audio gymnastics in an 8:18 cue.

Williams is known for his broad themes (See Star Wars & Superman) but he also plays the smaller moments just as well. (See “The Medallion” & “To Cairo” cue). In the hands of another composer this could have been just another score but Williams elevated the film to a fun and epic adventure that can be playful, sad and triumphant, sometimes all in the same cue.

The remixing renders an awesome sounding CD with the depth and clarity you expect.  A nice looking booklet has the images to go with it.  Remember listening to a soundtrack while leafing through the photos in the LP?  Relive that with the reissued Raiders of the Lost Ark.

5/5 stars