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

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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