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


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


Halo 3: ODST (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)


Halo 3, one of the earlier games on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, took the Halo series into a world of greater online connectivity and HD video. It had been a massive hit, comparable in scope to a major blockbuster, and there was no doubt that Microsoft and developer Bungie would continue the series. But rather than seizing on Halo 3‘s deliberately ambiguous ending, the quasi-expansion pack Halo 3: ODST was released instead. Set during the events of Halo 2 in the besieged Earth city of New Mombasa, the game is a quieter and more thoughtful affair (at least by Halo standards) made up of character-based vignettes involving a squadron of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Critics and gamers responded favorably, making the experimental, story-based ODST yet another success for Bungie.

By 2009, Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori were well-established as Bungie’s house composers, with their genre-defying fusion of orchestral and choral colors with dance-influenced electronica winning admiration and imitation across the industry. Their return was a given in the years before Bungie and O’Donnell’s bitter 2014 split, but like the rest of the game’s development team, O’Donnell and Salvatori chose to take a more experimental approach to their music by incorporating a variety of more intimate instrumental colors and techniques. In particular, the game’s hub levels, which took place at night and in the rain as a character looked for clues to his teammates’ wherebouts, had a deliberately neo-noir look to them–a look that O’Donnell and Salvatori matched by adding a strong film noir fusion element to their score for the game.

The primary means by which O’Donnell and Salvatori add flashes of film noir color to the score is through smokey saxophone performances by Steve Griggs and Dewey Marler. From the first mournful pulls of the sax set against the sound of rain in “Overture,” the instrument comes to define the best and most unique parts of the ODST score. In “Rain,” the saxophone mingles with traditional strings and piano with only the barest hint of the Halo sound in a cue that could have almost come from a neo-noir film like Body Heat or Chinatown. Other pieces take a more experimental jazz fusion approach, marrying thumping off-kilter percussion and bass with sax blasts and soft keyboarding in “Something Like Sorrow,” and a mix of synth percussion and piano in “Hardoiled” that is perhaps the score’s most brilliantly original two minutes of detective music. All told, O’Donnell and Salvatori assemble about 30 minutes of similar material.

Unfortunately, like Halo 3 and Halo 2: Volume 2 before it, though, Halo 3: ODST suffers from significant album production problems. Once again, the album consists of a “frozen playthrough” in which O’Donnell and Salvatori’s tracks are mixed into lengthy 5-10 minute suites, and there is simply no way to skip to the album’s most original parts without wading through less-inspired material that is more typical of the “Halo sound” one might expect (though the game never actually quotes any themes from the original or its sequels). For instance, the gentle “Rain” is chained to the much more aggressive and electronic “Trailhead” and “Guiding Hand” to form the “Deference for Darkness” suite.

Without gameplay and the game’s audio engine to blend the songs smoothly into one another, the transition simply doesn’t work. Indexing each part of each suite to a separate track would have fit on the same album, but instead listeners are forced to break out an audio editor if they want to pick and choose their tracks. That’s not to say that the remaining 90 minutes of music is bad; O’Donnell and Salvatori’s fusions of orchestral and electronica, its the organic parts performed with the full backing of the Northwest Sinfonia, are often as fun as ever. They just don’t fit well with the new and most interesting film noir material save for a few places, most notably “Overture” and “Finale.”

O’Donnell and Salvatori were able to match the creativity of Halo 3: ODST (within the constraints of its genre) with creativity of their own (within the constraints of what was expected of a Halo score), even if their best material has a sometimes uneasy relationship with the rest on album. Sumthing Else Music Works released a 2-CD set alongside the game’s debut in late 2009 that was readily available in major retailers; with the declining interest in ODST since, the set it easy to find at a reasonable price. Even with the stylistic clash and terrible suite-based production, it remains a worthy listen. O’Donnell and Salvatori would go on to pen music for Bungie’s next two games, Halo: Reach and Destiny, though O’Donnell would part ways with the company after that in a bitter lawsuit.

Rating: starstarstar

Halo 2 Volume 2 (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)


Nearly 18 months after the release of Halo 2 and its accompanying Volume 1 soundtrack, Sumthing Else Music Works quietly issued the long-awaited Volume 2. Gone were the obnoxious marketing tie-ins and rock songs that — whatever their appeal may have been — didn’t fit in with the series’ established musical sound. In its place: a full 70 minutes of uninterrupted score from the game.

It goes without saying that the music by Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori is true to their contributions to Volume 1; after all the music was composed and recorded simultaneously. There is little overlap between the two volumes aside from a few passages in the “Cairo Suite” and “High Charity Suite” tracks, and the focus is more even, with equal time given to more traditional orchestral music as well as the series’ trademark electronica fusion pieces.

Given more room to breathe, the music is notable for how much fuller it is. The Northwest Sinfonia’s contributions can’t be overstated, especially when compared with the synthesized orchestra used in the original game. With a live orchestra, a live choir, and much-improved electronics, the three central features that made the sound of the original Halo so unique are used to great effect.

The biggest problem that Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 2 presents is its arrangement. The composers designed each album as a “frozen” playthrough — an approximation of the music that a player would hear during a completion of the game. The problem is that, unlike the original Halo, most of the tracks are suites 6 to 12 minutes long when many would have been far better broken up into shorter tracks. This is especially notable when fine material appears near the end of a suite or there’s a sudden change in tone. “High Charity Suite” features an energetic remix of “Covenant Dance” at its conclusion, for example, which is rather at odds with the rest of the quiet, reverential music in the suite. Fade-ins and fade-outs make it impossible to pry the suites apart even with an audio editor.

As with the original Halo disc, Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 2 is at times too complete. There are swaths of material in the “Mausoleum Suite” and elsewhere that could have easily been cut. If some of the album’s dead weight had been cut, the producers could have included the Volume 1 tracks as well, meaning that listeners wouldn’t have to pick around obnoxious and out-of-place rock songs to get a full Halo 2 listening experience. It’s doubly disappointing because the selections for Volume 1 generally represented the very best O’Donnell and Salvatori had to offer for the game; the “frozen playthrough” the disc offers is thereby one that skips the score’s most moving moments.

These issues aside, Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 2 is a good effort, featuring much of what made the previous two albums so compelling. It’s a necessary buy for fans of the series, and probably better suited to hardcore VGM fans than the inconsistent and overmarketed Volume 1. Sadly, the only real way to assemble a decent Halo 2 album is with both volumes, an audio editor, rolled-up sleeves, and patience.

* * *

Halo 2 Volume 1 (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)


The massive success of the original Halo not only guaranteed a sequel but threw Microsoft’s marketing machine into full gear. In retrospect, the launch of Halo 2 felt more like the premiere of a summer blockbuster than a game, with marketing tie-ins aplenty. Returning for the second installment were composers Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori, whose elegant combination of orchestral and electronic sounds had defined the first game.

The sequel’s mantra of “bigger and better” applied to the music as well; rather than a single album, Halo 2 would see two volumes of music released. Major bands were signed up to provide original songs for the albums, while O’Donnell and Salvatori were able to power up their music with better synths and live instruments recorded by the Northwest Sinfonia, resulting in a noticeably deeper, fuller sound. Volume 1 features 30 minutes of music from O’Donnell and Salvatori alongside 40 minutes of music from then-popular rock acts like Incubus, Breaking Benjamin, and Hoobastank.

Of the album’s seven songs, only “Follow” by Incubus really fits in with the sound of the game’s score (and, unlike many of the others, actually features in gameplay). The other three Incubus tracks are more like extended jam sessions than anything else, and while good enough in their own way, they are far too mellow and grungy to fit in with the other instrumental tracks. The less said about the songs by the other artists, the better — they don’t fit the style or tone of the game or its music at all, and are really nothing more than shameless marketing tie-ins and cash-grabs. Their inclusion is the biggest misstep in Volume 1; they break up O’Donnell and Salvatori’s music into two and three track chunks leading to a very inconsistent listening experience as the music seesaws between genres.

The original score material is very strong in general, weighted toward the lively electronic fusion elements of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s music. Most of the tracks are rather short, especially when compared with the mammoth 10-minute Incubus songs, but in general maintain a high standard of quality. A “Mjolnir Mix” (really just an electric guitar overlay) of the original Halo theme opens the album on a pleasing note; several other rearrangements of themes from the original are sprinkled throughout the music, notably a very nice version of “Walk in the Woods” in “Heretic, Hero.”

Triumphant but troubled music from the game’s trailer is present in “The Last Spartan,” which features a more faithful presentation of the original game’s theme as its coda. But it’s “Earth City,” the lengthiest score cue on the album, that’s the real standout. Swaying piano set against jagged strings creates a contentious mood (and subtly reprises fragments of the main theme) while a soft chorus adds weight at key moments. It sets a soaring yet tragic mood that’s very compelling, and, interestingly, features no obvious synth parts or electronic overlays.

The Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 1 is a wash, a mixture of some very good O’Donnell/Salvatori material (including the absolutely essential “Earth City”) and songs that just don’t fit in with them. It’s an album any Halo fan should have on their shelf, but as a listening experience it falls flat considerably.

Score: * * * *
Songs: *
Overall: * *