Halo 3 Soundtrack Adds Epic Sound To Epic Scenes: Part One
First and foremost I must admit that I am not a professional music writer or reviewer and I do not habitually review music. As such I may have misused key pieces of musical vocabulary or even misidentified instruments. I hope the audience will bear with me and that in those cases my descriptions are specific enough, if misguided, to get my meaning across.
Secondly, as the Halo 3 OST itself is arranged in such a way as to replicate the sonic experience of playing the game, I have made no effort whatsoever to separate in my mind, or in this review, the experience of playing the game from the experience of hearing the soundtrack. I feel the two are designed to reinforce each other, and this article is, as much as a review, an attempt to examine some of the ways in which it does this.
Lastly, if you haven't finished the Halo 3 campaign, don't read the below-- it contains spoilers!
It's hard not to be effusive about the soundtrack for the Halo series of games, composed and arranged by Marty O'Donnell and Mike Salvatori. As games become larger and larger projects, involving not just a handful of people but dozens upon dozens of artists, programmers, designers, writers, and testers, audio and music stand alone as areas that involve relatively few people, and hinge on the efforts of very few, in an area that still has a huge effect.
Bungie made very, very good games before they were able to add O'Donnell/Salvatori music and sound. I think it's safe to say that the addition of that element is a major ingredient in what elevates them to the level of great games.
Halo 3 is no exception in this regard. While some may scoff at the familiarity of some of the material, I think the primary challenge in scoring the last segment of a sequel is blending the new with the old. Everything needs to sound like one part of a seamless whole, the new and the old, the familiar with the reinvented. For me, at least, the Halo 3 soundtrack is a triumphant success in this regard, and is in a heavy rotation on my playlist to make up for the Halo 3 I'm not playing while my 360 is broken.
With the packaging of the Halo 3 soundtrack, the approach of the second volume of the Halo 2 soundtrack was extended over both discs of a two disc set that attempts to duplicate the sonic experience of playing the game, running through the major themes and the dynamic music triggered by certain gameplay areas, from the first cutscene of the first level right through to the bitter end, with some of the music that accompanies the main menu to round out the collection.
Luck, with its gentle flutes and choral strains, is just familiar enough to let you know you're playing Halo, and just new enough to let you know something different is going on. It meshes nicely with the first time we've heard a Cortana voiceover when Cortana is not present, underscoring the separation of hero and heroine that becomes one of the plot's major driving points.
The melancholy sound goes right through the opening cutscene as marines crowd around the Chief's fallen form in the jungle, which is the perfect setup for the rising violin notes that became his signature heroic theme. More than any other element of the game, the music here is what makes an emotional connection between the Chief and Cortana a real and believable thing.
This track also signals a continuation of a trend that began in Halo 2: the addition of piano to a soundtrack that had been heavily orchestral to that point.
Released introduces another new element to the sound of the series, one referred to as "microglue" by O'Donnell. You'll hear a lot less of this in the soundtrack than you do in playing the game, because when playing the game these parts are small loops, a lot of them heavy on percussion, with a pulse-like rhythm and very little melody, which allows it to be played repeatedly for long periods without sounding too repetetive. These sections link the major themes that are triggered when the player does something.
This track's rhythmic introduction fits the jungle atmosphere perfectly, and again the voices are there to hold the whole thing together. They don't force their way to the forefront, but almost sound like they are floating in the sky above you, above the canopy.
Halfway through the track what was mysterious becomes foreboding as well; the rumbling drums become a pounding, but at the same time a triangle chimes in-- I think the first I remember hearing in Halo. The sound is tribal, which is appropriate since the enemies you face in this first level are the apelike Brutes.
The track takes a second shift into a third form with a decidedly more techno feel to it. Suddenly it sounds as if the jungle drums have evolved into something much higher tech-- again an excellent fit for the primitive-looking, but technology-using Brutes. The choral voices pick up another variation of the Halo melody, this one that may sound familiar-- it's the one from Walk in the Woods in Halo 1 and Heretic, Hero in Halo 2, but arranged in a very different way. Those two were among my favorites in the previous two games, and this movement of Released takes its rightful place beside them. This part of the track also starts what is another theme in the soundtrack, which is the use of a drum kit that sounds much more like a mainstream pop act and a bit less like the martial arrangements of pieces like Brothers In Arms, although those are still present.
Infiltrate starts with another section of microglue, this one a simple set of repeating chords, with the percussion dialed back to set of echoing taps that sound like someone banging on rocks or ceramic plates. That gives way to a synthesizer-heavy piece that sets up the final encounter of the first level, and will return again in the game's final level, when the stakes are even higher. Here it sets the stage for your rescue of Sergeant Johnson. When you're near to achieving that, an interactive sequence is triggered-- Pelicans fly in and the violins return to let you know. The melody changes from something dark and foreboding to one that hints at hope even though dark clouds are gathering.
Honorable Intentions and Last of the Brave form a set of martial themes that continue the thread from Halo 1's Brothers in Arms and portions of Halo 2's Cairo Suite. It's fitting that they are here for the Crow's Nest mission, where you repel Brute invaders into a hidden UNSC base before eventually evacuating. Honorable Intentions covers the cutscene where Commander Keyes updates the Chief on the situation on Earth, while Last of the Brave follows you as you fight Brutes and Drones who are attacking the base.
Trumpets and snare drums are the primary participants here; if there's an improvement over the previous games it's that everything sounds like a real instrument, where at times in Halo 2 and especially in Halo 1 it was very apparent that MIDI synthesizers were being used instead. O'Donnell gets the resources to work here and these reworked themes get new life.
Halfway through Last of the Brave, as the tide of battle turns against the marines, who are forced to destroy the base and flee, the music changes, too. The martial drums stop, replaced by the tribal drums now familiar from the tracks that accompanied the first level. Sentimental strings replace the triumphant trumpets.
The next track, Brutes, immediately brings back another martial theme from Halo 1: in this case, Enough Dead Heroes, which accompanies your dive into the escape pod at the end of Pillar of Autumn. Here again it signals the need to escape-- although not quite yet, you're not done.
A synthesizer interlude connects that theme with another returner from the previous games. Perchance to Dream, a playful piece that accompanied portions of levels in Halo 1 where you were given a chance to whack sleeping grunts, most notably during Assault on the Control Room, gets the Halo 3 treatment in the final third of Brutes. It also survived into Halo 2 as Flawed Legacy-- also played during a grunt encounter. It's appropriate that this comes on during an encounter that involves quite a number of grunts, although these suckers are wide awake this time. The lighter piece takes the dramatic pressure off for a bit, which is necessary. If the game, and the soundtrack, were constantly moving at a high speed and attempting to scare or intimidate the player, eventually it would stop working. Without a light moment like this to catch your breath and feel safe (or at least more safe) the monotony would eventually get to you.
This is a haunting and atmospheric piece, another of my favorites from the entire series.
The last movement in Brutes sounds like mostly a new piece, but it's comparatively weak compared to the others. It sounds like a techno track one would expect to hear at a rave. One can almost hear Frankie and Luke Smith going "unce unce unce" as this one plays. This is probably the only piece that I'll skip when it comes up.
Halo 3's plot still has three more levels before it kicks in, but the soundtrack isn't waiting for it. Out of Shadow is going to do just that, bring you out of the darkness from deep under the demolished UNSC base and into the harsh light of the African savvannah. Before it does that, it'll give you a little dose of the haunting choral and string combinations, as well as some "the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys" percussion elements that you heard during the first level. About a minute in you'll start to recognize the rhythm-- this is a reworking of part of the Mombasa Suite from Halo 2, which is appropriate for the locale. In Halo 2 it appears first when the Hunters burst through the gate, and again during some of the later driving sequences. Here it's much more minimalist than in the previous game, much more agreeable when repeated. The guitars are toned down a bit more.
When you emerge into the light, though, all bets are off and we get what can probably be described as the Halo series' first traditional drum solo. It produces a great emotional high as you burst out of the tunnel, into the light, ready to cut down the fleeing Brutes and Grunts.
The piece ends with a much more restrained bit of techno microglue as you approach a set encounter in the game, one of the shield walls that impede your progress. The electrical sounds seem a perfect complement to this high tech barrier you must breach.
To Kill A Demon starts on that note, with the violins layering on top of the synthesizer sounds from the previous track. They're harbingers of the melody that we'll see later in the second part of This Is Our Land in the next level, The Storm.
Halfway through this track, though, we get our first major dose of the traditional Halo theme, arranged for Halo 3 and played by a full orchestra. Here it accompanies a seminal Halo moment: a large vehicle encounter. That leads into a pitched battle in front of another energy shield-- and the atmospheric techno returns with it. Just as in the first level, when the objective is accomplished the UNSC music returns to let you know you've done it. This time it's a sneak preview of another bit of music from Halo 2 retooled for Halo 3: the guitar-heavy In Amber Clad. While one of my least favorite tracks from Halo 2 (perhaps because of bad associations with the Nothing But Jackal encounter it accompanies) this bass guitar and drum arrangement, heard first as To Kill A Demon closes out, ranks amongst my favorites in Halo 3, and we'll hear more of it later.
Next time, I'll pick up with This Is Our Land, the track that begins level four, The Storm.