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Halo 4 by Neil Davidge (Review)

posted Jul 24, 2013, 1:55 PM by julius@filmmusicmedia.com

The Halo franchise is one of the best known, and most celebrated games in the industry. Spanning eight different games, dozens of comic books and novels, and a recently announced T.V. show, Halo will certainly continue to be a relevant part of gaming for years to come. Halo has also been incredibly well known for its scores, typically helmed by Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori, who have brought memorable and epic songs to the franchise, and an extraordinary main theme, which remains a musical milestone in the gaming industry. However, with the change in developer, from Bungie to 343 Industry, came a massive change in focus and direction, including a change in music production. Now, Halo 4 brings us composer Neil Davidge (best known for his work on Massive Attack) to the helm of the franchise. Surprisingly, this new direction works increasingly well and at times is an improvement to Halo’s soundtracks, but this also comes with some production setbacks as well.

Although Halo always possessed an electronic sound, Davidge expands on it, giving us more bombastic sounding pieces, but at the same time underlies them with a more romantic feel. In short, Halo 4 sounds more larger-than-life than its predecessors, and sometimes with very impressive results. Themes such as “Awakening” and “To Galaxy,” not only sound adventurous and heroic, but also evoke a romanticism that was mostly absent to the series. There is a sense of weight to these tracks, even if they occasionally sound a tad bit overproduced. The romanticism comes at full blast on such tracks as “Solace” and “Green and Blue,” and are beautiful and quite moving. Davidge is also quite successful at adapting the “ancient” sounds of the Halo universe, frequently using female vocals, in a synthetic way to merge the sights and sounds of this universe together. 

Unfortunately the soundtrack starts to fall apart a bit due to a lack of thematic cohesiveness, something which previous Halo soundtracks did quite well. Battle tracks, for instance, while fun to listen to, are somewhat forgettable because they don’t employ any of Davidge’s, rather excellent, new themes. Even the main villain pieces, especially the big “climax” of the album, “Revival,” are simply too repetitive to leave any real lasting impression, despite the obligatory use of the male vocal chants. In fact, many would argue that the album does not even contain a single callback to the original Halo theme, which is indeed as much a staple to the series as Master Chief himself… 

…except that Halo 4 does in fact contain the Halo theme, in a cleverly hidden way. “117” is, by all intents and purposes, the new “Halo theme,” and what a theme it is. For starters, it is the only track that actually does get some thematic variation and development (though not on this album), and it is also the only track that tells a story. Beginning with a brassy and militaristic statement of the new theme, soon the music launches straight into the theme in all its orchestral glory. “117” is at once heroic, but melancholy, dramatic, but adventurous, and is one of the greatest modern themes I’ve heard from any form of media recently. After descending into a solemn quietness, which evokes some of the piano notes from Halo 3’s “Finish the Fight,” the music begins ascending in a determined yet saddened way. Soon the theme returns, in a seemingly final, and desperate hour. Trumpet blasts echo and resound, and yes, here is the main statement of the “Halo Theme” brought back in its legacy as the orchestra descends into a heart-stopping and breathless climax, ending on “Finish the Fight’s” opening note. It is truly an incredible piece of work, that strangely enough, was not composed by Davidge, but rather by music supervisor Kazuma Jinnouchi, who has also worked on the Metal Gear Solid franchise. 

Unfortunately, despite the Halo 4 Soundtrack being largely a success, some production decisions impede it from being a masterful work. For starters, the soundtrack was largely incomplete, and does not contain important themes from both Davidge and Jinnouchi, which was mostly rectified with a digital only Volume 2. Instead, a rather pricy “Limited Edition,” set was released which included a, pretty forgettable, remix album. Later on the “Limited Edition’s” price was cut down, and continues to sell. But despite these nitpicks, Halo 4 is a worthy successor to this venerable franchise’s musical history, and delivers some incredible songs and a great new main theme, despite not having its predecessors’ overall cohesiveness. Either way, it is still a great ride and completely deserves a listen.