Halo: Reach (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

Cover

By 2007, Bungie was beginning to tire of their Halo franchise. The first three games had been incredible successes, killer apps for the Xbox platforms that catapulted the former indie developer into the triple-A realm. After Halo 3, though, Bungie seceded from onetime parent Microsoft and began to plan for a post-Halo future, with a prequel called Halo: Reach as their final game in the series. Set during the planetary battle that the starship in Halo was fleeing from, Reach attempted a more character-based story along the lines of ODST by following a squad of enhanced supersoldiers as they were picked off one by one. It’s hard not to see Bungie’s fatigue with the series seeping through every pore; no one in Reach seems surprised by a massive alien invasion, and they seem resigned to their fates in the way of most lackluster prequel stories, which treats events as grand and predestined rather than compelling stories in their own right. But with a massive retcon to an important character’s origin story, and $200 million in the bank the day it was launched in 2010, the way was paved for Microsoft to crank out future Halo sequels in-house.

Between Myth: The Fallen Lords in 1997 and the acrimonious disintegration of their partnership after Destiny in 2014, a Bungie title meant music by the TotalAudio duo of Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Since their enormously innovative score for the original Halo, the series’ trademark mix of choral voices and electronic beats with orchestral music had been enormously influential. O’Donnell and Salvatori hadn’t been afraid to experiment within the context of the series; the fantastic neo-noir elements of ODST the year before Reach being perhaps the best example. For Reach, O’Donnell and Salvatori would follow the template of ODST: a near-total absence of themes that had appeared in the first three Halo games in favor of new and grittier material, and an album structured largely as a “frozen playthrough” arranged into lengthy suites rather than individual tracks.

O’Donnell and Salvatori’s new theme appears in the opening “Overture” as a deep and portentous fanfare for brass. It’s a foreboding, gloomy piece that, like the game’s cardboard characters, seems to be resigned to a smashing defeat from square one. It’s effective as a motif, a guise in which it appears across the album, but as a thematic construct in and of itself it’s not up to the standards of Halo‘s Gregorian chant (which is included as extremely subtle snippets here and there within it) or ODST‘s jazzy piano and saxophone. Much was made in pre-release interviews of the game’s use of the Phrygian mode and 6/8 time, and both do contribute to the music’s generally unsettled sound but non-musicologists aren’t likely to notice other than to note that the music, like the characters, seems to know ahead of time that Reach is foredoomed.

There’s plenty of percussive action music to be found as well, as befits a game that is at its core a mindless shooter, with tracks like “Tip of the Spear” and “ONI: Sword Base” providing their fair share of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s trademark action. The music leans a bit harder on its rock elements rather than the more innovative dance-infused mix that was the most prominent in earlier Halo titles by the duo, though there is some of the latter to be found as well. But as competent as the music is, it’s tough to shake the feeling that you’ve heard it all before, and with better integration of the ingredients that make Halo music so distinctive (or, in the case of ODST, a departure from that sound in key areas). The irony is that what should be the most evolved form of Halo: Combat Evolved instead sounds like it was handicapped by conflicting demands to be true to the series while at the same time not relying too heavily on its thematic material, an approach which has bedeviled prequel scores from Casino Royale to Star Trek.

Overt references to the previous games’ themes, rather than snippets or allusions to their general sound and ambience, are largely confined to the bonus tracks at the end of Disc 2. One of the less distinctive tracks from ODST, “Uphill Both Ways” is given a rather unpleasant bass-heavy remix, for instance. The terrific “A Walk in the Woods” theme, one of the only themes to appear in each of the original Halo trilogy games, is given a fine outing in “Walking Away,” one that’s militaristic but still true to the original’s cooing vocals and synths. These and the other bonus track arrangements are nice, but one wishes that the themes could have been integrated into the main body of the score, as none would return in Halo 4.

Like the game itself, it’s hard not to get the impression that O’Donnell and Salvatori were tiring of the concept when they wrote the score. The orchestral/electronic/choral fusion is still there, as is a decently strong thematic emphasis and some powerful set-pieces. The atrocious album situation returns as well, with much of the best music mixed in the interior of bloated suites and some very questionable mixing decisions that show off the jagged edges of the fusion approach much more than its strengths. But for all that, the foundation of the music is solid and the problems with Reach as an album are the same as the problems with Reach as a game: it is more-of-the-same that nobody except Microsoft’s bean counters was enthusiastic about making. Afterwards, the Halo series would continue with Halo 4, but without O’Donnell or Salvatori; their next effort, and their last for Bungie, would come with 2014’s Destiny.

Rating: starstarstar

Advertisements

Final Fantasy VII (Nobuo Uematsu)

Cover

Developer Squaresoft had earned a following with their Final Fantasy series of role-playing games for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems, but it took their defection to Nintendo rival Sony to take them into the stratosphere. The company’s first Playstation effort, Final Fantasy VII, was like nothing gamers had ever seen: movie-style FMV cutscenes, pre-rendered backgrounds, and fully 3D character models and battles. The game’s plot, an epic spread over three CDs and stuffed with endearingly goofy characters alongside dark and mature themes, earned it an instant following. Virtually every plot-driven RPG to follow owes something to the title, and it was a massive sales success both in Japan and abroad, fondly remembered today even as its presentation and aesthetic seem increasingly quaint. As later entries in the series became increasingly cinematic and driven by the need for spectacle over character, Final Fantasy VII is arguable the pinnacle of what the late developer had to offer.

Even as several key members of the Final Fantasy team swapped out for the project–Tetsuya Nomura’s leather and belt-crazy character designs supplanting Yoshitaka Amano’s wispy ukiyo-e ones, for instance–director Yoshinori Kitase and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi brought composer Nobuo Uematsu back to the franchise. The self-taught musician Uematsu had been with Squaresoft since 1985, and had written the scores for every one of the previous six Final Fantasies as well as contributing to side projects like Chrono Trigger. His previous score for the series, Final Fantasy VI, had been extremely well received for its integration of elements as diverse as classical opera, Wagnerian leitmotif, and progressive rock, and Uematsu was to build on this sequel score using many of the same pieces. Indeed, Uematsu’s approach is very similar in terms of construction, with the score built around a main theme with individual themes and variations for each major playable character (aside from, oddly, the main one) and prominent villains. He built on the operatic elements of the previous title by utilizing live voices for the first time in the series in one pivotal sequence, though overall the Wagnerian rock-opera sound that distinguished Final Fantasy VI is toned down in favor of a more eclectic approach.

Uematsu’s main theme, not associated with any one character, appears in the eponymous track as the world map music, and is surprisingly lengthy and ambitious: unlike his map themes past and present, with a loop of 1-2 minutes, a single loop of Uematsu’s main theme takes six and a half minutes (!). Its opening phrase, especially the first five notes, are reused and referenced across many other tracks, while the extensive variations in the map theme itself run the gamut from pastoral to triumphant to darkly troubled. It’s a very symphonic and ambitious piece, something Uematsu would not attempt again for future main or map themes. He adapts his “Main Theme” into a number of other tracks befitting its place: the beautiful “Holding My Thoughts into my Heart” gives the melody to an oboe set against scintillating harps and mallet percussion, while the game’s airship theme “Highwind Takes to the Skies” gives the theme a resounding, triumphant, yet bittersweet outing. It’s a sign of the theme’s strength that nearly all its adaptations are album highlights.

For the game’s characters, Uematsu returns to the leitmotif structure that he first used in Final Fantasy VI, giving the major characters and major villains each a theme and variations thereof (aside from the main character, who might be more associated with the “Main Theme”). The busty heroine and possible love interest Tifa is given a surprisingly sensitive theme that belies her status as a bruiser, a tune based on one of Uematsu’s lovliest early compositions, “Town of Alm” from Final Fantasy III. Oddly, the theme isn’t adapted until it forms a resounding part of the final cutscene track, “World Crisis.” Barret, the hotheaded Mr. T wannabe rebel leader with a robotic gun-arm, gets a delightfully pompous but optimistic military march in “Barret’s Theme,” one that is interpreted in a far more morose vein for “Mining Town” and “Mark of the Traitor” for scenes detailing the character’s tragic backstory. The Final Fantasy VII incarnation of Cid gets a soaring march of his own in “Cid’s Theme,” with elements thereof appearing in “Highwind Takes to the Skies” and “Stealing the Tiny Bronco” with a full-on morose adaptation for the character’s dashed dreams of spaceflight in “Launching a Dream into Space.” The bizarre and mysterious Red XII’s theme is an arrangement of “Cosmo Canyon” set against quizzical synths; both tracks have a very energetic tribal feel to them, reflecting the location’s status as close to nature and a nexus for hippies. The optional character Yuffie gets a surprisingly sunny theme that’s twisted into the mischievous “Stolen Materia” and subtly into the pan-Asian “Wutai.” The other optional character, Vincent, gets a baroque nightmare of a theme in the aptly-named “The Nightmare Begins” while the bizarre Cait Sith is given an upbeat leitmotif full of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, Hammond organ fun; neither theme gets any variations at all. And, of course, much ink has been spilled over the character Aeris’s theme, both in its original warm and uplifting form in “Flowers Blooming in the Church” and in its tragic, heartbreaking outing as “Aeris’s Theme.”

Uematsu’s approach to the game’s villains is more subtle than the rock-opera theatrics of the previous game. The game’s primary villain, Sephiroth, is given a dirge-like motif in “Those Chosen by the Planet” full of moaning synth voices, roiling percussion, and tolling bells. It’s a menacing piece primarily played for atmosphere in some of the game’s most pivotal and disturbing moments, and Uematsu occasionally breaks the piece apart into solo drums and chimes in-game (though not on the soundtrack). For the secondary antagonist, the ineptly brutal megacorporation Shinra, Uematsu uses many of the same pieces–heavy percussion and synth choir–hinting at the deep connection between the two villains. “Shinra Company” has more layers and more synth, though, with its shuffling two-step and moaning voices deftly capturing both its evil and its ineptitude. The theme gets a Muzak interpolation in “Infiltrating Shinra” for their corporate headquarters and its own delightfully pompous and quirky military march in “Shinra’s Full-Scale Assault” with further references in the dire “Mako Reactor.”

The battle themes on display in Final Fantasy VII also have important differences from those in Final Fantasy VI. Uematsu’s normal battle theme, “Let the Battles Begin!,” abandons his usual battle ostinato with its characteristic ascending arpeggios for a much more modernistic sound driven by synth brass and strings with pounded tambourine and metal hits to provide rhythm and a whirling woodwind interlude. Notably, Uematsu also abandons all but the opening notes of his 6-game-old victory fanfare, replacing it with a driving percussive piece (though the full fanfare is heard during the game’s chocobo races elsewhere). The boss battle theme, “Fight On,” combines the electric guitar from the previous game with the same metallic percussion as “Let the Battles Begin!” with a healthy dose of Hammond organ (Uematsu’s first use of the instrument, which would come to dominate his battle themes for the game’s sequel) and only a modest synth orchestra presence. The music for the game’s special event battles is among its most notable innovations: the synthy and pulse-pounding “J-E-N-O-V-A” uses descending electronic pulses set against brass and off-kilter melodies to suggest science gone horribly awry, while the later “JENOVA Absolute” rearranges “Let the Battles Begin!” into an even more percussive and hard-edged form, with a desperate piano and brass interlude that’s not to be missed. Uematsu arranges the villain’s theme into the final two battles; for the penultimate “Birth of a God” he returns to his usual battle ostinato with Hammond organ and a powerful interlude consisting of “Those Chosen by the Planet” over a bed of synths. The game’s final battle takes that even further, rearranging “Those Chosen” into a slashing percussive aria set against Latin lyrics sung by a live choir of Squaresoft employees (including future Dirge of Cerberus composer Masashi Hamauzu) in both an echo and expansion of “Dancing Mad” from the previous game.

Aside from one or two dud tracks (“Trail of Blood,” “The North Cave”), the score’s overriding weakness in the face of all its melodic strength and instrumental creativity is its use of MIDI. The Playstation platform offered the opportunity for a greatly improved, even CD-quality sound or even a greatly enhanced synthesizer sound–as would be shown by Uematsu’s own later efforts. Other Square projects that came out the same year, like Sakimoto and Iwata’s Final Fantasy Tactics (which came out less than six months after Final Fantasy VII) showed the possibilities inherent in evolving synthesizer technology, making Uematsu’s decision to use MIDI seem even worse in retrospect. The MIDI sounds are competent for electronic effects and percussion, but wind up making Uematsu’s brass sound incredibly tinny–at times, the music’s sound quality is audibly inferior even to that of Final Fantasy VI‘s SPC hardware-based sound despite the quantum leap in technology between the two titles. This primitive MIDI sound will serve as an insurmountable barrier to many listeners, and it’s unfortunate that Uematsu’s brilliant melodies and groundbreaking fusion of disparate elements often winds up sounding so muffled and tinny. Some key tracks wound up being arranged and upgraded later, but sound quality remains the single greatest bugaboo for Final Fantasy VII.

Squaresoft, through its ill-fated DigiCube subsidiary, gave Final Fantasy VII a full 4-disc soundtrack release a month after the game bowed in 1997. While the physical version was a Japanese exclusive, its ubiquity makes it relatively affordable for Western fans; a later iTunes release made it digitally accessible to American audiences for a first time (albeit at a premium price). While several tracks from Final Fantasy VII would be arranged by Uematsu and others for future projects, the composer had no hand in the game’s sequel titles, which received better-synthesized but extremely disappointing scores from Masashi Hamauzu and Takeharu Ishimoto. Uematsu’s own follow-up, the animated Advent Children, was also a disappointment, squandering its resources on a lazy combination of reused music from other albums and limp new music with very few of the original’s themes adapted or expanded in a satisfying way. The lack of a proper full arrangement, recreating Uematsu’s innovating combination of orchestra, electronic, and progressive rock elements in crystal-clear and (where appropriate) acoustic elements still galls even after almost two decades. Still, the music’s creative and melodic strength and its undeniable influence on later composers and compositions make it an essential listen for fans of the medium and a key part of the game’s astonishing success.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Shopgirl (Barrington Pheloung)

Cover

Most people know Steve Martin for his comedic roles in classic and not-so-classic comedies, but fewer know that he has also amassed a reputation as a skilled writer. While one might expect and actor and comedian to only write screenplays, Martin has written plays, essays, screenplays, and novels since the 1990s; these include pieces for the New Yorker and the screenplay for the thriller Traitor. In 2000, Martin wrote his first novel: Shopgirl, the tale of a lonely and isolated twentysomething named Mirabelle who is torn between an affair with an older businessman and a liaison with an affable slacker. The novel attracted favorable notices, and Martin was able to shepherd it into a film in 2006, writing the screenplay from his novel and starring. Shopgirl the film was received as favorably as Shopgirl the novel, and remains well-regarded if a bit obscure years later.

In his role as producer, Steve Martin retained director Anand Tucker to make Shopgirl; for the film’s score, Tucker turned to his usual collaborator Barrington Pheloung with whom he’d worked on his previous two films, 1996’s Saint-Ex and 1998’s Hilary and Jackie. The Australian composer had worked steadily in television and film over the course of his career, and is probably best known to score fans for his title theme and background music to the long-running British TV series Inspector Morse.

True to his roots in classical music, Pheloung devises a score that is part stately minuet and part Thomas Newman quirk with a hint of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman minimalism, reflecting the film’s dramatic portions as well as its quirkier material. The main thematic material is debuted in “Meeting Mirabelle,” with a full-orchestral classical sound playing a layered string theme that’s full of delicate beauty. The progressions of that theme are woven throughout the remainder of the score, often on piano or mallet percussion with the overall effect being magical, slightly otherworldly, and sad. The theme gets an extended outing in the final track, the six-minute “Main Titles,” which mixes the minuet, the quirky “La Ronde” material, and the album’s strongest brass (it being predominantly strings, mallets, and piano elsewhere).

The quirkier parts of the score are less original; Pheloung’s use of mallet rhythms makes it clear that Newman’s seminal American Beauty was on the temp track. Nevertheless, tracks like the four-part “La Ronde” have a definite energy to them, and they are suffused with enough of the score’s overall personality that they avoid falling into the a simple temp rehash territory that so many scores inspired by Beauty have. The rambling piano rhythms and minuet feel are always there to tie the various pieces together into a cohesive package.

When Pheloung turns to full-on tragedy for the film’s scenes of sadness and loss, he leans heavily on undulating piano figures and high strings to move the score’s sound and theme into heartache. “A Broken Trust” uses a solo violin over a solo piano playing fragments of the main theme to devastating effect, “Mirabelle’s Story” inverts the title minuet into something painfully sad, but Pheloung saves his heaviest emotional punch for “Breaking Up.” For the scenes of Martin’s character being spurned by the woman he has grown to love, the composer sets loose his full string section and pianos in a morose, interrupted melody that’s the high point of the album.

Shopgirl won’t wow listeners with its creativity or in-your-face personality; instead, it is a masterclass in using existing musical pieces in an effective way, with Pheloung’s musical personality deftly bringing together comedy, tragedy, and tragicomedy for an effective, low-key, and moving musical experience. Director Tucker would re-team with Pheloung for his next few projects, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Red Riding:1983 but Shopgirl could wind up being the pair’s biggest hit together and Pheloung’s most high-profile film score of his career thus far (Tucker’s 2010 modest hit, Leap Year, was scored by Randy Edelman). Accordingly, Filter Records put out an album with Pheloung’s full score around the time of Shopgirl‘s release; the album was not widely distributed and has become rather uncommon in the years since, but is not extremely difficult to obtain albeit at a premium price. Shopgirl is definitely worth seeking out if you can find it, though, and it may leave listeners hungry for more from Pheloung’s sparse discography.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Marco Beltrami)

Cover

If star Arnold Schwarzenegger was in something of a career doldrums in 1999 when he took on End of Days, he was even more so in 2003. His attempt to return to the thoughtful sci-fi of Total Recall with The 6th Day in 2000 had failed, and his attempt at a gritty contemporary geopolitical thriller with Collateral Damage had fallen victim to the post-9/11 film release shuffle with a poor showing on its eventual 2002 release. As so many other action stars have done, Schwarzenegger then returned to the role that had made him a star for 2003’s Terminator 3. Unable to lure back any of the cast or crew from the previous two films (aside from Earl Boen), the star engaged director Jonathan Mostow, fresh off of the white-knuckle sub thriller U-571 to direct. T3 turned out to be a success with audiences if not critics and it stands as the actor’s last summer blockbuster before his move to politics: four months after its premiere, Schwarzenegger was sworn in as governor of California.

James Cameron had worked with the innovative Brad Fiedel on the first two Terminator films, with the latter creating one of the most iconic motifs in cinema history in his five-note staggered Terminator theme. Fiedel had lost interest in film scoring and Hollywood after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, though, and Mostow made no effort to secure his services. Rather than securing Richard Marvin, who had scored U-571 and would later score Surrogates for Mostow, the director hired Jerry Goldsmith protege Marco Beltrami. Beltrami was on the rise at the time, having secured high-profile work after his first major scoring work with Mimic in 1997, and he had just come off an impressive action score for Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II the previous summer.

Beltrami’s approach seems to have been to attempt to beef up the overall sound of Fiedel’s Terminator work–harsh, driving, percussive–into a fully symphonic environment. While Fiedel’s scores had relegated his (mostly synthetic) orchestra to a supporting role while foregrounding the electronics, Beltrami promotes his orchestra to the lead with synths in a supporting position of musical color. The result is a sound that is dark and brutal, as Terminator 3‘s lengthy scenes of chases and violence required, though without the harsh, purely synth edge of the earlier works.

Thematically, Beltrami caused some controversy early in the film’s publicity cycle by noting that he wouldn’t attempt to adapt Fiedel’s themes in his score, and he sticks to that outside of an orchestral re-recording of the theme for the film’s credits. In its place, Beltrami offers his own “JC Theme” and a quieter, string-led piece for the film’s quieter scenes with its love interest. These hold up well enough, particularly in the penultimate “Radio” cue for the film’s shocking ending (Terminator 3’s only idea that wasn’t a regurgitation of something done better in Terminator 2) and Beltrami’s suite treatment of the two themes intertwined in “T3.” The themes are a bit on the mundane side, and certainly have none of the iconic catchiness of Fiedel’s admittedly simpler compositions, but they suffice.

The real problem that Beltrami comes up against is that he is unable to integrate the mass of action, shootout, and chase music with his themes. Cue after cue provides functional percussive music that is well-enhanced by electronics and well-performed by the orchestra, but without integrating his own themes or Fiedel’s outside of a few cues, ultimately Terminator 3 winds up being sound and fury signifying little. Many of the motifs and techniques, in retrospect, seem like prototypes for the action music Beltrami would write a year later for I, Robot and parts of Hellboy, both of which do a far more complete job of integrating thematic material with orchestral ruckus and making the less thematic parts of the work more engaging.

One gets the feeling that, if Beltrami had chosen to supplement Fiedel’s themes with his own, rather than replacing them, that the work could have been much fuller and more engaging. The refusal to use existing themes is a longstanding sore point for many film score fans: rights issues and re-use fees often preclude it, and too much reuse of thematic material can make a work seem like cheap pastiche rather than a genuine creative work in its own right–and no one can fault an artist for wanting to put their own stamp on something. But whatever the reason, T3 just doesn’t work well on its own, and it works even less well with only a single token performance of the original theme.

Varèse Sarabande put out Beltrami’s score to Terminator 3 a few weeks before the film’s release, with two songs (one of which was actually penned by Beltrami) tacked unsatisfyingly at the end. Despite the score’s failure, Beltrami would go on to have an extremely impressive 2004 and would round out the decade with a pair of Oscar nominations. The Terminator franchise would limp on, with the 2009 McG-helmed Terminator: Salvation receiving a Danny Elfman score that made many of the same mistakes as Beltrami’s, and Christophe Beck scheduled to take on Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys in 2015. Whatever the film and composer, though, it seems that future works are unlikely to capture the same zeitgeist as James Cameron and Brad Fiedel did with their original entries over two decades ago.

Rating: starstar