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

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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

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Halo 3 (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

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The third part of the highly influential series of first-person shooters, Halo 3 was every bit the blockbuster its two predecessors had been. Largely an evolution of the previous games kicked up to high definition on a next generation systems, the game broke sales records on its release, though the hype machine wasn’t quite as overblown as it had been with Halo 2. Considering the sales success of Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 1, the best-selling video game soundtrack of all time on its release, it was a given that composers Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori would return.

As with Halo 2, Halo 3 is an extension of the series’ trademark sound: high energy electronic music, orchestral contributions from the Northwest Sinfonia, and a choir, mixed together in varying proportions. This mix is as potent as ever, and the opening “Sierra-117,” “Crow’s Nest,” and “Tsavo Highway” are perhaps the strongest example yet of the Halo sound. The Earth-bound tracks are accentuated with a light African flavor, and they offer several strong restatements of series themes (such as a magnificent “Walk in the Woods” rearrangement in “Another Walk”).

The music becomes a bit more diffuse in the middle with lengthy sections of ambient dissonance in the “Floodgate” section and, to a lesser extent, “The Covenant” and “Cortana.” This mirrors the weaker parts of Halo and Halo 2, as the Flood material is largely a reprise and rearrangement from the earlier scores. There is enough interesting material included in each suite to allow listeners to slough through, generally speaking — a sign of a better-produced album than its immediate forebear.

Sumthing Else Music Works issued Halo 3 as a single two-disc set, dropping the split albums and most of the superfluous rock songs that had muddied the Halo 2 release. Like Halo 2 Original Soundtrack Vol. 2, the music is arranged into “frozen playthrough” suites, approximating what a player would hear when beating the game. While it’s still somewhat frustrating to have to skip forward for material at the end of a suite, they are better-produced than the suites from Halo 2: shorter, more consistent, and fully labeled for anyone who wants to break them up with an audio editor. The selection of music is also extremely comprehensive, with two hours on disc representing every major cue (and even a few unreleased tracks). Only one short rock song (conveniently located at the end of disc two) is included.

While the original Halo represents the best album presentation of the music (as suites mixed with individual tracks), and Halo 2‘s expanded sound is offset by a difficult album situation, Halo 3 offers the best of both worlds: generally good arrangements of the ultimate evolution of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s sound. If fans were to limit themselves to a single Halo album, Halo 3 is the best candidate.

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