Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)

Cover

Even though developer Bungie had departed from the Halo series with 2010’s rather tired prequel Halo: Reach, Microsoft was unable to put its killer app cash cow franchise to rest. Forming 343 Studios as a subsidiary–and thereby assuring that, unlike Bungie, it could not leave for greener pastures–Microsoft had Halo 4 in development as soon as Reach shipped. Returning to the only real dangling plot thread from the third game and the massive character origin retcon from Reach, Halo 4 attempted to build a more emotional story around the series’ characters in addition to a threatening race of conveniently undiscovered aliens. The story’s attempts at emotional resonance were undercut by the emotionlessness of the main character, who has never cared a whit for the massive and detailed background mythology built up around him (being more concerned with where and when to give out free bullet samples when ordered to), but Halo 4 was a predictable sales success, and sequels will probably follow on a biennial basis until the heat-death of the universe.

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori had scored the first five Halo titles with a distinctive blend of choral voices, dance-influenced electronica, and orchestral music. But they had departed with Bungie to work on the disappointing Destiny–an assignment that would ultimately be the end of their tenure at that developer. 343 Studios brought on an interesting replacement in their stead: Neil Davidge, a songwriter, producer, and musician, though Halo 4 would be his first video game score. While Davidge’s name might be unfamiliar to listeners, the name of the group with which he is most associated, Massive Attack, is most likely not. As part of the group, Davidge had been involved with several bestselling albums as well as Massive Attack’s first forays into film scoring, Unleashed (AKA Danny the Dog) and Bullet Boy. As a solo artist, Davidge’s most high-profile score was probably the psychic actioner Push; it was therefore an open question how he would respond to a high-profile assignment like Halo 4 with its own preexisting fanbase and sonic world. Perhaps as a response to this, 343 Studios paired Davidge with additional music composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, an experienced video game musician with a track record in the Metal Gear Solid series.

First, and perhaps most controversially, Davidge completely dismissed all of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes for the Halo series in favor of his own original compositions. The decision wasn’t as unprecedented as it seemed, with O’Donnell and Salvatori themselves largely avoiding any references to iconic Halo themes in their scores for ODST and Reach. But while the overall style of those scores was still suffused with O’Donnell and Salvatori’s musical personalities, Davidge didn’t attempt to outright ape his predecessors. His score was built from similar building blocks–the Chamber Orchestra of London, the RSVP Voices and London Bulgarian Choir, as well as an array of synthesizers and electronics. The overall bent of the score, interestingly, is far more organic than what O’Donnell and Salvatori come up with despite Davidge’s own background, with far subtler synths and relatively few instances of them taking center stage. When tracks like “Awakening” do bring electronics to the forefront, the pulses and tones used are quite distinct from the dance-inflected beats for which the series was known.

Obviously, Halo 4 should be judged on its own merits in addition to its place within the wider series. So what does Davidge come up with of his own in terms of thematic material to replace O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes? The answer is, sadly, not much: Davidge’s score has very little in the way of themes, and certainly nothing approaching the memorability of the previous scores. To borrow a metaphor from a concurrent media property, the composer had the opportunity to do a Patrick Doyle, whose Goblet of Fire also largely discarded series themes but came up with blisteringly good new ones that inhabited a similar sonic world. Instead, with Halo 4, Davidge and his team pulled a Nicholas Hooper, a score with definite strengths produced by someone with real talent but which fails to weave highlights into a cohesive and thematic whole. A villainous theme of sorts does appear in “Nemesis” with a reprise in part in “Revival,” but it doesn’t make much of an impact. “117” is the closest the score comes to the broad heroics of the previous games in the series, albeit again not at the same level of prominence or memorability, but that track was actually written by co-composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, not Davidge.

As with the other Halo soundtracks, album production is a sore spot as well. The most common complaint leveled against the disc was that several of the most prominent cues in the game did not appear on it, despite a 77-minute length and six downloadable tracks. Fans particularly coveted the opening menu music, “Atonement,” which offered a mournful Arabic vocal as a replacement for the earlier Gregorian chant, and the end credits music, “Never Forget (Midnight Version),” the only remix of a O’Donnell/Salvatori theme in the game. With the later release of Halo 4 Volume 2, it was revealed that these were also Kazuma Jinnouchi compositions, explaining but not excusing their absence from the physical disc. It’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least, to omit the best-loved music from a game simply because it wasn’t written by the primary credited composer, and the original album suffers for its lack of Jinnouchi’s music, which is generally more thematic, more memorable, and a better sonic fit for Halo. The same “frozen playthrough” philosophy that dogged earlier albums returns as well, with some of the album’s better material buried in suites. Worse, the six downloadable tracks are all nauseatingly bad “remixes” instead of music that might have been composed too late in production to meet the CD’s street date.

A 77-minute disc was pressed for the game’s 2012 debut, with the aforementioned remixes as downloadable “bonuses.” Perhaps as a response to customer complaints, a additional download-only album would follow in 2013, featuring more music from Davidge and especially Jinnouchi, whose single track on the initial album is joined by nine others including the O’Donnell/Salvatori remix. It’s clear that the powers-that-be felt the same way about Davidge and Jinnouchi as listeners did; the inevitable Halo 5 follow-up has Jinnouchi listed as sole composer in early reports. One has to agree with the decision, as Davidge’s music, while serviceable and with an impressive orchestral/electronic pedigree, simply did not live up to the spirit of the games in the way that Jinnouchi’s compositions did. The available Halo 4 album suffers as a result, sinking into blandness with a few flashes of color thanks to Davidge’s inability to provide something to replace the dismissed O’Donnell/Salvatori themes and the marginalization on album of Jinnouchi’s attempts to fill that gap. One wonders what the latter will do with a solo Halo to his credit, or if 343 studios will simply hire the now-available O’Donnell for their future efforts. Halo 4 may be worth a bargain purchase, but is sure to disappoint in many areas all the same.

Rating: starstar

Advertisements

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

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

Cover

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 Wars (Stephen Rippy)

Cover

Halo was originally conceived as a real-time strategy game before switching to a first-person shooter, so it’s fitting that the first in an inevitable flurry of Halo spinoffs would venture into RTS territory. Halo Wars would be the final game from Ensemble Studios, which had produced the lauded “Age of” series for Microsoft. Rather than hiring Bungie’s Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori for the project, Ensemble turned to their leading employee Stephen Rippy, who handled scoring duties for Age of Empires and Age of Mythology.

While Rippy’s eclectic “Age of…” series has endeared him to game music fans, many were curious how the composer planned to create music to follow O’Donnell and Salvatori’s hugely popular and influential “Halo sound.” Rippy began with the same basic building blocks: quality synths, the FILMharmonic orchestra in Prague, and a choir. He was given permission to use the series’ distinctive theme, which is arranged into the opening “Spirit of Fire,” and even consulted directly with O’Donnell and Salvatori. The title theme’s influence can be felt throughout, with fragments of its choral work interspersed throughout the music.

In all, Rippy is true to the soundscape established in previous games. His work is generally more ambient and electronic in nature, with the orchestra (pianos and strings especially) and choir used primarily as accents. This lends the music a more New Age feeling than O’Donnell and Salvatori’s work. It generally works, with some strong highlights such as “Money or Meteors” — which adds an electric guitar to the mix, something often done in the original Halos as well. Strangely, Rippy is far more loyal to the series’ original sound and themes than were the composers of Halo 4: that title’s score by Neil Davidge and Kazuma Jinnouchi completely ignored the O’Donnell/Salvatori themes save for a single reference in the end credits.

Interestingly, the most enjoyable high-octane tracks are all rather short and accompany cutscenes. “De Facto De Matter,” “Part of the Pan,” and especially “Just Ad Nauseum” bristle with energy and excitement, which makes for a slightly disappointing listening experience. While Rippy’s more subdued compositions are generally good, a little more of the fire from the cutscene tracks could have been mixed in for some truly spectacular results (a la StarCraft, which featured slower and more ambient passages alongside more energetic ones).

Rippy’s fans will be delighted to see he’s maintained his affinity for odd track names, with most of the songs Sumthing Else’s hour-long album featuring odd and esoteric puns. The composer has generally succeeded in creating a work that is firmly within the Halo music universe yet carries many of his own distinctive touches; in fact, many of his musical ideas seem more at home in the sci-fi Halo Wars than the medieval “Age of…” games. Halo Wars therefore earns a hearty recommendation to fans of the previous installments and those of the composer. Sadly, Rippy’s efforts have so far not lead to additional major assignments in the wake of Ensemble’s closing.

* * * *

Halo (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

Cover

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.

* * * *