December 9, 2019
Released On February 3, 2017
Released By Rise Records
The Star Wars franchise is inherently silly. It’s ridiculous, it’s absurd, it’s ludicrous. It’s also its own pop culture world (galaxy?) where millions (billions?) congregate. It’s beloved in spite of being preposterous. To that end, it’s rife with possibility for satire: Lightsaber sounds replaced with Michael Jackson vocalization, Darth Vader voiced by Ahhnold, Vader screwing with a general, the Red Letter Media feature-length takedowns of the Prequels, the list goes on.
Yet, this isn’t to say that I’ll be discussing the film series in a critical manner or ranking them by some subjective set of criteria. It’s just not a productive use of the space with which I’m generously afforded. I have my opinions on the trilogy of trilogies, but that’s as close as I’m willing to get to this particular puddle of digital quicksand. Off Your Radar, after all, is about music. It’s about other things that can be tangentially related to it, granted, but we gather here primarily for discussions of audio.
So let’s do that. John Williams, probably the greatest film composer in the medium’s history, has scored all nine films in the main series (and Solo), making him as essential to the franchise as Luke Skywalker. Indeed, his work on the original trilogy is so iconic, you probably hear one of its compositions as soon as you read the words “Star Wars.”
Enter Galactic Empire. Three guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer transcribed Williams’ music to rock instrumentation and then decided that it needed to be metal. Sure, why not? I was hooked instantly, both because I love Star Wars and I love metal. To the latter point, when I listen to Galactic Empire’s self-titled debut, I hear bits of several sub-genres including: groove metal, djent, power metal, tech-death, thrash, and symphonic metal. If you’ve never really “gotten” metal but wanted to give it a try, this might be the place to start. If nothing else, it’s almost entirely instrumental and none of the (few) vocals on the record are unclean, making it easier for non-metalheads to digest.
And oh yeah, the band cosplays as various Star Wars characters in music videos and for live performances. (I’ve wondered on more than one occasion how much harder it is to play drums while dressed as Boba Fett.) They’re all in on this stuff—the lore, the world-building, the insanity of it all—because they’re fans just like the rest of us. Better still, they have a sense of humor about it: When asked in 2016 where they got the material for their costumes, they replied, “Our armor is forged by a master craftsman with only the galaxy’s finest materials. Also Amazon.”
Which brings me back to the silliness of it all. Galactic Empire might appear to be goofy or stupid to an outsider, and there’s probably some truth to that. Hell, it might even be the point. But within that frame of reference lies the real reason we all love Star Wars so much: unmitigated joy. It crosses every boundary humans have — religion, politics, gender, race, whatever — in order to bring pure happiness to a multitude of people in a way few other things can to a degree few other ideas are capable of. The members of Galactic Empire must understand this on some level because they’ve chosen this music from this series to play. They want to deliver some awe and wonder to the world just like John Williams. More importantly, though, they want to do the same thing that a dude named George did four decades ago: bring a little light into this world in a unique way.
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Iconic music shredded with astounding musical expertise, providing a new spin on a still thriving classic.
The force is strong with this one. I can’t believe how cosmically connected I felt listening to Galactic Empire over the weekend — how high the midi-chlorian count seemed to be as I drove around blasting more frequent kick drumming than my Subaru Outback’s speakers have ever produced. It first hit me when my daughter and I were driving home from our visit to the Science Museum of Virginia, which was insanely fun. Learning about the effects of extreme speeds on the passage of time. Playing air hockey against a robot. Lifting objects using only brain waves. What more fitting epilogue could there possibly have been than “The Force Theme?” It was glorious. And how about firing up the leaf blower and shooting an invisible beam of wind power while pummeling my ear drums with “Ben’s Death / Tie Fighter Attack?” The mighty musical accompaniment made it seem like I was wielding an instrument of the distant future, while leaves flew around as helplessly as a gaggle of stormtroopers under a hail of blaster fire. I also felt an unexpected sense of harmony around the fact that the holidays are approaching. Maybe it’s the sonic similarities with Mannheim Steamroller, or maybe it’s a vague association between the music of John Williams and Christmas (not to restart the argument about whether Home Alone is a Christmas movie), but engaging with the Star Wars universe during the month of December just feels right. It makes me nostalgic for growing up in a family that prioritized watching movies, and it makes me feel thankful for the way cold weather encourages us to connect around shared comforts. (Did I mention that I wore my Star Wars-themed Brew Thru shirt while wrangling leaves?)
There something about a good cover that makes us lose our minds. Maybe it’s our familiarity melted and molded through the mind and ears of another person? Maybe it’s the realization that although you’re hearing something new, you know what you’re hearing already? A great cover, or collection of covers like Galactic Empire, takes into account all the little intricacies of the original material, yet somehow adds new elements to it. I remember the last time I truly lost it while hearing a cover was at mu buddy’s bachelor weekend in Charleston in 2011. We were at a bar that featured an extremely talented band, performing both covers and original material. I was even told by one of the locals that the lead singer made it relatively far on a recent season of American Idol. So me and my boys are good and liquored up, enjoying the music, and then it happened. This band launches into the most epic cover of “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony! Totally unexpected. The roof came off the place, and a group of dudes in their late twenties all sang along to the only words we could decipher from Bone’s verses. You see, part of the genius was that the lead singer didn’t even attempt to recite the rhymes, only the chorus. The lead guitar player put on a staccato performance in place of the lyrics. They let the crowd try and fill in for Bone. Dope. I’ll remember that for the rest of life. And I imagine many Star Wars fanatics will remember the first time they heard Galactic Empire. There are so many memorable, innovative moments on this project; I’m most partial to the use of the 8-bit video game sounds on “Duel Of The Fates.” Very cool. And how appropriate for OYR to present this album the week before the release of the final Star Wars installment? It is our destiny.
Boba Fett on the drumset. Because of course.
I have a dubious relationship with the world of motion picture soundtracks. It’s actually fairly rare that I hear a soundtrack which stands out enough that I am compelled to follow up on it in some kind of active way. Off the top of my head: Tom Cruise’s sci-fi epic, Oblivion (M83); Run Lola Run (Underworld); Lost In Translation (The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine etc). There are others, of course, but the one thing that stands out to me is that in most cases, what I enjoy are curated selections of music, perhaps with a common theme, used in a film. This is very different than an original score and when I hear an original score in a film, it has a tendency to fade into the background. For me, it’s more a part of the film than a form of music which can exist separate from the film. This is the primary reason that I tend to deliberately overlook original motion picture soundtracks. Even if I enjoy the music within the context of the film, I am arguably never going to be in a position where I am driving, walking down the street, or drinking in the pub and wishing that I was listening to the brash or melancholy strings that signal some significant moment of drama. In fact, I’d prefer to think of my life as being as drama free as possible, save for those moments, where a pop song or something moving but brief enters, and ideally, leaves just as quickly. What I mean to say is, when it was suggested that there existed a band whose sole purpose was to recreate the incredible and memorable, but very specifically movie-linked, work of John Williams, I wasn’t exactly pumped.
I do love metal, however. I especially love good metal. From the opening of the Star Wars theme to the recreation of the monumental jazz groove of “The Cantina,” Galactic Empire are nailing it, not just making a gimmicky run at exploiting the popularity of a favourite series. The song arrangements are spotless. The production quality is not just good but excellent in terms of the musical canon of metal. Their playing is tight, despite performing in full imperial armour and the arrangements are some of the most technical, thoughtfully written interpretations of orchestral scores ever translated to head-banging ragers. Remarkably, it all works. More remarkably, I found myself listening to the whole record over and over. There is absolutely nothing meaningful enough in my life that warrants “The Force Theme” to amplify it to my imaginary audience — but I’ll be damned if I didn’t find myself rocking out to it repeatedly, and feeling the excitement and swell of the Star Wars universe born anew.
This is indeed an amazing record that stands on its own as a work of art in as much as one work of art can be an homage to another. Galactic Empire is big, powerful, and threatening enough to justify its name and to be considered not just as a cover band but as having contributed something significant and memorable to the world of metal.
No spoilers on their true identities, but fans of Century and Unparalleled Height will be proud.
Thank you for this. I was in shock when I realized what I was getting into with Galactic Empire, and then felt quite embarrassed when I thought about it a bit more. Galactic Empire… by Galactic Empire. There are no surprises here. With that being said, the electric, heavy metal guitar playing on this record is no laughing matter. The guitar tones are fantastic and the playing does justice to the original score. Honestly, if I were to put on the Star Wars soundtrack, I would probably put Galactic Empire on before I’d play the original. The act of playing the Star Wars soundtrack would, in and of itself, be a meme, so you may as well go for the more ridiculous option. And “ridiculous” is no slight here, because what could the intention in recording this music have been other than to present an overwrought interpretation? I’m not certain if this is the sort of project you can really afford to under-do. Then again, there are beautiful classical guitar interpretations of film scores, so honestly, what do I know? My favorite song was definitely “Cantina Band.” In fact, now that I think about it, if I were to throw a party and put on the Star Wars soundtrack, I would probably just play that on repeat. I must be the one to admit that that particular track doesn’t quite live up to the original, but how could it? Overall, this is a beautiful and well-executed interpretation of a few cultural classics.
Here in Richmond, VA, we have a strong & thriving Tacky Light tradition for the holiday season. Each November, dozens of houses in and around the Richmond area spend weeks lighting their houses with traditional lights and decorations as well as mish-mashed knick-knacks and homemade contraptions. The end result is a wonderful way to enjoy the holidays every December: taking a night or two in the car (or rented limo/bus) and trying to see how many houses you can visit. I’ve been visiting some houses — like the premier Phifer House — longer than I have actual memories, while others, like Venetian Way, I enjoyed making new memories with my wife and friends. (RIP Venetian Way.) There’s even a big display that we can walk to from our house, packed to the brim with all sorts of hand-made wooden decorations. Now, I don’t know if it’s because it’s December and we saw our first house as a family last night, or because one staple on my route for several years was a moving light display on a tiny street that was set to holiday music primarily of a metal-ish style, but I’m reminded so much of the Tacky Lights when I listen to Galactic Empire. Maybe it’s because they commit so hard to something so silly — cosplaying as members of the Empire while playing their own “this-one-goes-to-eleven” version of an iconic score — just like some Tacky Light houses that have Pokémon decorations right next to Baby Jesus in a Manager. Maybe it’s because like the Star Wars community, the Tacky Lights tour has its own fandom that feverishly debate things from rankings to specific scenes/decorations. Or maybe it’s because, no matter the merits or origins, at the end of the day, it’s utterly impressive. Listening to this record — all that really needs to be said is “wow.” Hats off to them for reframing John Williams iconic work in an original style, especially during slower moments like in “Main Theme” or the opening of “Across The Stars.” Hats off to them for committing so hard to the gimmick, so hard in fact that it makes you wonder if it would be worth covering Star Wars music without dressing up. I’m still not sure if the connection between Galactic Empire and the Tacky Light tour is anything more than just faint memories and recency bias, but I’m fairly sure that when I head to the Phifer House, put my daughter on my shoulders, and point out their Star Wars knick-knacks on their overcrowded lawn, I’ll definitely be humming “Cantina Band” in my mind. In between sips of hot chocolate of course.