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