FIVE YEARS, FIVE LONG YEARS…
That ominous date, November 6th 2012, draws ever closer. We all know what it will bring, the return of the Master Chief and his trusty AI Cortana in Halo 4 along with a completely new campaign experience picking up right where Halo 3 left off. It’s a time of great anticipation and excitement for the Halo community, the culmination of half-a-decade’s worth of fiction through games, comics, novels, anime and even a live action series – to put it in Layman’s terms, it’s a damn good time to be a Halo fan!
The build-up to the release of Halo 4 has been… tantalising, to say at the least. This has been both heightened and alleviated with the recent release of the Halo 4 OST, composed by Massive Attack‘s own Neil Davidge, and he most certainly does have big shoes to fill after Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori confirmed they were sticking with Bungie. So here’s our topic for the day, how do I think Davidge has done with the newest installment in Halo’s legendary musical legacy?
THE MAN BEHIND THE MUSIC
Let’s talk briefly about Neil first. He’s a long-time Halo fan, as he states in the Composing Worlds ViDoc he has been playing since 2001, which immediately tells us he’s got that intimate understanding of Halo’s atmospheric and thematic musical importance which is critical for anyone looking to follow-up on what has already been established. Neil has had a huge role as a producer and composer for the group Massive Attack since 1995, I wasn’t even aware he was involved in their album Heligoland until I looked it up – which just so happens to be my favourite MA album, but I digress. He’s very well-known in the industry having worked with people like David Bowie and Snoop Dogg, and also provided musical scores for films like Clash of the Titans (2010) and The Hulk (2008). The pressure is on for Neil to produce a musical score to go alongside Microsoft’s biggest game release, not just of this year, but of all time.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW!
Marty and Michael created music that was evocative on an emotional level and dynamic, it holds great sentimental value in the minds of Halo players and the main theme has become nothing short of iconic across the world. Everyone is familiar with the ethereal chanting of the Gregorian monks, everyone remembers that moment in Halo: Combat Evolved where you’re speeding through the Pillar of Autumn in the Warthog to escape before it destroys Halo and you’re bombarded by the monk chant at the final stretch. While the Halo theme itself will not be present in Halo 4, Neil has confirmed that a number of musical cues will be present from the previous soundtracks.
Halo 4’s OST comes complete with 15 tracks:
- Belly of the Beast
- To Galaxy
- Green and Blue
Each track is captivating in its own way. Davidge has gone for a more cinematic approach with the OST to match the thematic and atmospheric changes to 343 Industries’ Reclaimer Trilogy. Davidge shows off a very diverse amount of musical styles, from the ethereal female choir of Legacy to the heavy-hitting beats of Belly of the Beast.
I’ve always thought that Halo’s soundtracks have been relatively restricted in the past as they generally followed a single theme throughout each game, but Davidge does away with that convention and injects a fresh new feeling into each track – though there are some recurring cues and motifs in tracks like Revival and Nemesis. There are both epic set-pieces with a full orchestra and chorus, but there is also an interesting mix of electronic and synthesized effects. There’s definitely a sense of progression as you listen through the Halo 4 OST, it begins on a more familiar note and eventually makes its way into uncharted territory which is sure to reflect the progression of the campaign – moving from the familiar experiences of Covenant boarding crafts and the glorious battle cries of “WORT WORT WORT!” to a more alien and mysterious tone.
Awakening immediately throws the player into familiar waters. The piano is featured heavily along with electronic beats and strings that sound very much like Halo music from the past, which is a great start to the album and indeed the game. But once you travel through the Belly of the Beast and get to Requiem you’ll start to notice subtle changes – starting out sombre and slow, it builds up to a spectacular electronic feel of discovery. The choir in it gives a feeling of elation, it’s a truly beautiful piece which is sure to recapture that kind of feeling you got back in Halo CE when you first set foot on Installation 04. Requiem is a track that would feel out-of-place in any other game – it really shows how significant and full of purpose Halo has become through the music.
But going back a minute, I really want to give Belly of the Beast the attention it deserves. It’s the first ‘epic’ track in Halo 4 to pop up and it really packs a punch. The strings are amazing, there’s no doubt it’ll play as the Dawn gets drawn into Requiem as John desperately tries to escape, navigating through tight corridors as Covenant Grunts run around aimlessly unaware of where they’re going while explosions bombard the senses.
Legacy is… well… I honestly can’t articulate words into any coherent form that will be able to justify how good I think it is. In my opinion, it’s the best track in the Halo series – a grand statement indeed, but when you listen to it, you’re sure to understand why. The female choir is ethereal, beautiful and sad all at the same time. It conveys a true sense of tragedy, but also an uplifting sense of hope. This is the kind of track I imagine will appear in a vast, empty Forerunner cathedral. Even without the actual context, Davidge has managed to convincingly pull off tracks which really do manage to connote scenarios in the listener’s head. I think this speaks volumes about the quality, especially since I’m able to apply it to a scenario within the Halo universe so easily.
Faithless kicks the soundtrack back into gear though, bringing in lots of heavy percussion elements and alien electronics. It conveys feelings of some kind of high-speed pursuit scene, then it slows down half way through and ushers in a sinister action sequence as you plough through legions of Covenant forces. It doesn’t feel disjointed at all, it really does manage to flow naturally.
I cannot wait to hear Nemesis in-context. The low electronic and mysterious strings allude to something sinister as the music constantly rises in tone and peaks with the first use of a chanting chorus, which is later featured in Revival. Davidge really shines here as he brings home the fact that Halo 4 will be focusing on a more personal conflict with an ‘ancient evil’, the latter half of the song really creates a sense of impact when the heavy beats kick in. Revival seems to go hand-in-hand with this track, it constantly builds and rises to an all-out electronic pulse of aggressive beats and chants. No doubt this will be Halo 4’s signature thematic track for John’s conflict with the ancient evil. Ascendancy and Immaterial also sound like a sort of middle ground for Nemesis and Revival, bridging the two as it delivers the same kind of thematic punch.
Haven and Solace sound like something out of Journey, a PS3 game released earlier this year which has you cast into an unfamiliar and ancient environment with a single goal – get to the top of the mountain. That’s what these tracks convey, John being cast into this mysterious Forerunner world with only Cortana to help him as he struggles to overcome the obstacles he encounters. The light notes of the piano and drawn-out strings convey the sense of scale and emotion beautifully.
To Galaxy, 117 and Arrival stand out as ‘classic’ Halo tracks. They’re epic, action-oriented, upbeat and just ooze sheer badass. Fans hoping to hear influences and cues from Marty’s scores will surely be very satisfied with these.
And last, but certainly not least – Green and Blue. Wow! That was my first reaction to hearing it. Halo 4 has a lot of emotional tracks, but Green and Blue absolutely nails it as soon as the sobering notes of the violin come in supported by the absolutely tragic choir and strings. I have no doubt some great emotional twist will take place when this track plays in the game, because that’s what it conveys and there’s no better word for it. Tragedy. The name implies it’s something to do with John and Cortana, so it only makes sense that this will be a pivotal part in their ‘relationship’ and I actually hope it will move me to tears.
Davidge, you have done the Halo series proud. You’ve taken Halo in a completely new direction, one that feels like a natural evolution – where the story, characters and themes were all heading. The attention to detail Davidge and the rest of the music team have put into Halo 4’s soundtrack is phenomenal, it retains the heart of previous Halo scores but transforms it into something I never expected.
The future of Halo’s music is in good hands, hands which I hope will be returning to compose the scores for Halo 5 and 6. To be completely honest with you all, I believe that Halo 4’s OST rivals that of Halo 2 and ODST for the top spot. Davidge takes us on an odyssey of orchestral brilliance, and despite the range of musical emotion from electronic alien to bitter-sweet violins and choirs, the Halo 4 OST feels like one solid, living, breathing, entity.
I found the music tapped into a deeper, contrasting set of emotions, filled with dread, and the far off sense of hope. And that is what Halo 4 is set to deliver. An exhilarating orchestra score rivaling these big budget flicks of today. If there were to be a Mozart, or Beethoven, of gaming, then the Halo franchise is the closest we’ve come and Davidge has managed to do a lot more than just live up to that legacy.