Halo (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

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The original Halo took the gaming world by surprise. While produced by an established studio, its gameplay and narrative were so revolutionary that they spawned a new subset of the industry, replete with sequels, knockoffs, and even machinima. The choice of Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori for Halo’s music wasn’t a surprising one; the composers and their TotalAudio studio had written music for other Bungie games such as Myth and Oni. However, nothing in the composers’ back catalog suggested the sound they would unleash for Bungie’s most successful game to date.

Looking for something “big, exciting, and unusual” yet with a classic orchestral touch for “weight and stature,” O’Donnell and Salvatori hit on a fusion of acoustic instruments, electronica, and choral vocals based on Gregorian chant (perhaps suggested by the titular halo). As expressed in “Halo,” the piece that closes the album, it’s a potent combination, moving from angelic chants to full-on orchestral action backed by electronic beats.

O’Donnell and Salvatori succeeded in creating a wildly original sound for the game around those three pillars — orchestra, synths, and choir — and subsequent tracks feature each in different measure with some very entertaining fusions as the result. “A Walk in the Woods,” for example, combines the faintest hint of choir with a prominent drum machine and small acoustic accompaniment, while “Covenant Dance” melds a dance beat with sweeping choral work. The various elements come together best in the “Truth and Reconciliation Suite,” the longest song on the album, which alternates more contemplative music with high-octane variations of the title theme.

On album, the only real flaws of the music are its completeness and its sequels. Tracks like “Trace Amounts” and “Alien Corridors” pale in the face of the more energetic tracks, offering little more than bare ambiance for completeness’ sake; luckily, most such themes are short. Halo‘s two sequels offered an expansion of the same basic sound, but with a much broader canvas: better synths, more live instruments, and therefore a much deeper and more detailed sound. Many tracks from the original were reprised in its sequels, and sound rather tinny in comparison to their reprises; compare “A Walk in the Woods” to “Heretic, Hero” or “Another Walk.”

Sumthing Else Music Works issued a disc with about 70 minutes of music around the time of the game’s release, and it’s probably the best produced album in the series with a smart mixture of shorter tracks and longer suites that was sorely missed for the later sequels. Despite some weaknesses, Halo is nevertheless an essential purchase for fans of the series and game music in general, highly effective both in the context of the game and as a standalone listening experience.

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