In Praise of: Joel McNeely’s ‘Shadows of the Empire’

Through Spotify, I have recently re-discovered an album that I have had different degrees of familiarity with. That album being Joel McNeely’s ‘Shadows of the Empire’. How can I explain what this album is? In the mid 90s there was a revival of interest in Star Wars in the lead up to the period of time that led to the prequel trilogies. There was a project based on multiple media around a brand new story explaining the events between Episode V and VI of the Star Wars saga (saga as it is now called). This story was a novel by Steve Perry, which was then made into a money making machine – there was a Nintendo 64 game based on the novel; later on some comics; action figures; trading cards and was even referred to in later Star Wars franchise type things.


I used to have a big thing about Star Wars and back when Shadows came out it was a big deal for me. I came to know the soundtrack through the game, which played it at a really low volume compared to the rest of the audio tracks. I then discovered it years later in the Napster age. When I recently rediscovered it I had a whole new layer of appreciation for it.


I’ve written in the past about a reading of Adorno’s Wagner. In a way this soundtrack is a similar culmination of all those ideas about Wagner’s music. The leitmotif applied to indicate characters Xizor, the motifs that reflect certain kinds of plot moods in a sound world already created by John William’s soundtrack, and let’s not of course forget the interesting scoring and instrumental part writing of the composer.


The beauty of this soundtrack is manifold. I thought I might make a list:


  • The soundtrack works as something independent from the Star Wars films if you want it to be so, and can also be seen in continuum with it (although more as a fork in the road).
  • McNeely’s piece is said to be an interpretation of a series of events, that sense of interpretation allows for a different kind of emotional narrative different to the medium of the story through the video game and the novel.
  • McNeely’s soundtrack is evocative of the programme music composers and intentionally so. This is the ultimate modern programme score as it is not a soundtrack to a film but a sonic narrative.
  • The motifs applied repeat through the piece and give a sense of internal unity to both the narrative of the novel and the music as a piece of music. Such as the repetition of the ‘Xizor’ motif, the established ‘Imperial March’ (Vader’s theme) invented by John Williams, and the unique Shadows’ motif. There are points where the motifs fight for dominance in a similar way to the three-parties of the Rebels, Imperials and the Black Sun are fighting against each other.


I am such a fan of this work. What makes it particularly interesting for me is how the album works in the commercial and modern confines of soundtracks, film franchises and other money making machinery, yet works successfully as a piece of music. I would hardly consider it anodyne either. There are subtle dissonant and modernist cues to the soundtrack. I later found out that McNeely was involved with re-recording scores from Bernard Herrmann films (a composer with deeply modernist idioms). Perhaps it is my personal favouring bias that sees this work in a positive light. Or it could be that the message of modernism was historically situated to a degree that using modernist techniques today do not communicate its political significance. Either way, I am greatly taken by the soundtrack as a musical medium, as well as the ways that it allows different aesthetic standards to it that ‘absolute music’ might.

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