Review Summary: These are no 8-bit Mario tunes
One of the most spectacular things about Bungie’s Halo series is the way it immerses you in its universe. Alongside an engrossing storyline and some great gameplay, the sound track for the series has always been critically acclaimed. Written and composed by Martin O’ Donell, this space opera set list follows in similar footsteps to the soundtrack of Star Wars; it combines epic orchestral pieces with sci-fi synths to create a bombastic space theatric. The soundtrack alone has sold over 100,000 copies and was one of the first major video game contributions to the music industry. The recording of the music for Halo was taken very seriously by Microsoft, involving an entire (and very respectable) orchestra, big names like Incubus and Steve Vai, and a budget larger than most movies would ever hope to receive for their scores. Halo 2 Original Soundtrack, Volume 2
is what Microsoft calls “The true Halo soundtrack”, as Volume 1
featured namely mixes and songs that were merely sampled in the actual game.
Anyone one who has ever booted up Halo 2 will immediately recognize the first track “Prologue”, as an electric guitar lick backed by thunderous drum beats play over a short-but-sweet ambient build up. Everything eventually reaches a climax and fades out along with the final guitar strum only to be replaced by the franchise’s trademark monk choir. The chilling female harmony paints a gorgeous picture of both loss and desperation, and this tone is continued by solemn synthesizers and a series of strings (most notably a handful of violinists). As its name suggests, “Prologue” does an excellent job at preparing the listener for how the album will carry out: various elements are entwined together, and often times juxtaposed, to further drive the concept of the Halo universe.
In fact, the entire album is composed as a suite akin to many orchestral pieces. It is actually reflective to the game itself by following its chapters mostly in chronological order. This doesn’t mean there are obvious dog-eared scores waiting for their in game cues. Instead the entire album works as one massive orchestration that fluidly transitions between its songs. You feel the rise and release of tension while these dramatic suites run their play time. Songs match their respective level’s tone appropriately. Take “Sacred Icon Suite” for instance, as its unnerving screech like synths and desolate emptiness brings back horrific memories of what’s happening in the game. O’ Donell considers this to be a concept album because of this, and it’s very easy to see why; listening through is essentially following the game’s engrossing plotline and story arch.
That being said, while having played the game does help one to better appreciate these lush and spacey soundscapes, you don’t need to be familiar with it at all. The music itself is astonishingly layered and massive, holding its own without ever needing to rely on its ties to the game. “Mombasa Suite”, for example, relies on creative tribal rhythms that reflect the game’s earlier levels set in poverty-stricken African city. As the song progresses, these beats are constantly evolving and are backed by various ambient synths and interesting guitar feedback. “Delta Halo Suite” however takes things to a more theatric approach, mirroring a pivotal discovery in Halo 2’s plotline. The song is heavily based on military-like marching beats played over some beautifully textured keys. As the track builds momentum, the orchestra is reintroduced and is remarkably well utilized. Everything seems to be working cohesively to create a large sense of drama.
It is worth noting how accomplished the instrumentation is on the album. The orchestra is often times phenomenal and is used to its full advantage. Much like the classic orchestral pieces of Star Wars, these tracks boast goldmines of epic theatrics that fit the game’s universe perfectly. However while the meatier moments of the record can hold their own, the album is still a soundtrack. This means it was ultimately composed to support rather than to fill in. As such, there are often times endless seas of tranquil ambience or repetitious beats that may have you winding up lost in the music; you may feel there is no “reference” to follow as some of the longer suites interlude between their stronger parts. This never carries out too ridiculously though, and really just helps the pacing of the album even further. Listeners of instrumental or ambient music will definitely appreciate the atmosphere and variety this provides.
Even a track like “Reclaimer”, a straight up progressive metal wet dream, is streamlined into the album snuggly. While it may initially come off as a silly attempt from the composer to keep things a mixed bag, the song is actually very well written. The guitar playing, courtesy of triple Grammy winning Steve Vai, is absolutely insane and well supported by a backing orchestra. He does some serious shredding that blows most metal instrumentals out of the water. “Epilogue” closes the album nicely with a beautiful string and synth solo that is played behind the credits of Halo 2. It works perfectly as a bookend to the massive journey.
This isn’t your typical 8-bit Mario soundtrack. Microsoft clearly understood the importance a musical score can have on the theatrics of any form of entertainment. In doing so, it help create a remarkably lush and appealing ambient suite that is great for both hardcore fans and music aficionados. It truly is a unique and anthemic adventure through space worth taking.