Yesterday, we finally found out the identity of Halo's new composer—Neil Davidge, best known for his work with Massive Attack, will be filling original Halo composer Martin O'Donnell's shoes for the upcoming game.
They're big shoes to fill.
If you had told me back when I played the first Halo that the soundtrack for that game's musical score would wind up going down as one of the most iconic modern-day video game soundtracks, I wouldn't have believed you. It didn't grab me immediately. And yet years later, I have so many fond memories of the game, its characters and its worlds… which is a bit strange, when you think about it!
The Halo stories are dense and borderline incoherent, their characters are either militaristic clichés or weird babbling aliens. Their hero is a helmeted guy who speaks in terse, emotionless grunts. And yet they inspire so many emotions, so much feeling.
I'll tell you how Bungie pulled it off—with music. O'Donnell's soaring, melancholy melodies and spacious harmonic ideas are so flat-out good that they provide the heart of the entire Halo series. Without that music, Halo would be a fun sci-fi shooter, but it wouldn't feel half as vital, resonant, or alive. Listen, in case you've forgotten what I'm talking about:
Every time I hear the Halo music, it conjures some sweeping vista or massive battlefield. I feel a stirring inside. Vague feelings of heroism and sacrifice, of noble action in the face of impossible odds. This is some really good stuff!
It was with some trepidation that I listened to the clip of the new music that was released yesterday, titled "Halo 4 Soundtrack Samples." It is described as a combination of two different tracks from the game, mixed together to give us a sense of the new musical direction of the series.
Give it a listen. Hmm. I have to wonder, was this track really the best choice? It's flat, there's no melody—just a series of driving rhythms pushing a chord progression up and outwards. Nothing resembling the layered composition that gets going in the original Halo music… it's all a bit bland, isn't it? Where's the fire, where's the drama? Where's the melody?
Some variation comes in towards the end, when the piano (ever the iconic Halo instrument) makes an appearance. It's a welcome textural change. But I can't help but feel a bit like my ear is latching on to it in an effort to find some purchase, any purchase, amidst the flat textures and chords of the rest of the piece.
I don't want to jump to any conclusions, and I'm keeping an open mind about the soundtrack. Davidge is a talented guy, and a self-professed fan of the series; I do think he knows what he's doing. And of course, he's not working alone—he's heading up a large team of talented folks, many of whom are interviewed in this promotional video that was also released yesterday:
It's nice that they've got so many people paying so much attention to the music. O'Donnell has always struck me as a very traditional composer, and it'll be interesting to hear where someone with a background in sonic exploration and electronic music will take things. Note that orchestrator Matt Dunkley was a conductor on Inception, a soundtrack which, among other things, pulled a trick similar to some of the techniques they're discussing by slowing down Edith Piaf music and re-recording it.
Speaking with Edge, Davidge says, "It's a new journey, it's a new story, it's a new arc, and so I feel like my job is not to revolutionise or reinvent but to continue the evolution."
"We respect absolutely what [O'Donnell] did, and obviously these iconic themes are very close to gamers' hearts," he tells us. "So we all listened to what he'd done, and I think you'll always be on a hiding to nothing if you're trying to pastiche that. Instead, we wanted to take that to another level.
"Hopefully the Halo fans will see that we're being respectful," he says, "but we've also taken it somewhere else, and maybe onto a higher plane. If you're always trying to reference back, you're not creating new things."
For now, I'm going to chalk up that weirdly flat demo track to an overly safe choice by whomever was deciding what to share, rather than a sign that the soundtrack will itself be safe and predictable.
I'll be chatting with Davidge next week about how one approaches such a monumental task as crafting a new Halo soundtrack. I'm looking forward to it.
In the meantime, here are some favorite tracks from past Halo games. It may be time to move on to something new, but these compositions will stick around for a good long while still:
Nice. A reprisal of the famous Halo introduction, with a more funereal tone to the following music.
A fantastic track from Halo 2, a good example of how a simple melody can open up into something noble and beautiful. And aah, that piano. Nice epic skyline additions from YouTuber BensoftMedia, as well!
Halo 3: ODST was probably the least-loved Halo game, but its soundtrack was the most interesting of all of the games. It was a mixture of the open chords and driving rhythms of Halo sprinkled with a dusting of jazz, of all things (as pointed out by Chris in his awesome mixtape about jazz in games). Big suspended piano voicings, melancholy string lines, flatted fifths and even a soprano sax solo! Distinctive and lovely.
Man. That open piano chord. That, to me, says "It is Halo time" like no other single instrument. Holy hell, this is some triumphant music, is what this is.