Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)

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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

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

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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)

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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

Halo Wars (Stephen Rippy)

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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: * *

Halo (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

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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.

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