Despite the somewhat bad reputation American game music has received in some parts of the game music community, there can be no denying that there has been a substantial amount of memorable soundtracks produced for games in the US. One of the better among these to come along in recent days is the soundtrack produced for Bungie's XBox shooter "Halo". The game itself is hailed as probably the best game exclusive to the XBox, and although I've never played it (or any other XBox game, for that matter), I can say that the score holds its own well.
"Halo Original Soundtrack", composed and produced by Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori, is one CD comprised of 26 tracks, most of which range from good to outstanding. I'm told most of the music from the game is present on the CD, although it is remixed and some tracks are intermixed with others in medley form. According to the information found in the CD booklet, Halo's in-game music is very dynamic and changes fast as situations change during gameplay. O'Donnell writes, "Themes, moods and even the duration of these pieces will change and adapt with each player's Halo experience. I took the liberty of remixing and rearranging all the music in order to make listening to the soundtrack more enjoyable." Although I'm not familiar with the original music, I'd venture to guess that it was probably a wise decision. And indeed, the whole album retains a dynamic, fluid feel.
The album opens with the aptly named "Opening Suite". The Gregorian-like chanting was quite a surprise, and a very good one, too. One reviewer said that it induced the sensation of "relaxing in space", which I'd say is a pretty accurate description. A cool thing to note is that the two composers are actually listed among the singers! The track that follows ("Truth and Reconciliation Suite") is an orchestral epic clocking in at 8:25, delivering a generous helping of great themes, even mixing in the chanting from the first track at some occasions. Already in this track, the skillful drumming and symphonic tone that will follow in the rest of the album is apparent. "Perilous Journey" sounds like typical Halo mixed with Metal Gear Solid - both funky and suspenseful sneak-around music. This track really impressed me with its splendid mixture of electronic and symphonic elements. Most of the music on the Halo soundtrack resembles these tracks - either professional symphonic music (that sounds like cinematic scores), or electronic pieces with notably cool drumming. There is also some very good ambience here, like "Ambient Wonder" and "Trace Amounts". And then there are some funkier pieces like the very cool "The Gun Pointed at the Head of the Universe" and "Under Cover of Night". There are even a couple of short compositions using electric guitars - "Shadows" and the cheesy "Rock Anthem for Saving the World". They aren't especially noteworthy, but they hint at talent that should have been explored further.
My favourites on the CD are, together with the above mentioned "Perilous Journey", "Covenant Dance" and "Halo". "Covenant Dance" is a slightly experimental piece that does just about everything right. The first half consists solely of that skillful percussion that will be remembered long by all those who listen to this CD. Then the drums halt and an electronic, synthpop-like dark chorus comes in. After a while the drumming returns again and slowly increases in strength to accompany the chorus. It sounds so cool that it's hard to explain. The only thing wrong with this composition is that at 1:56, the length leaves something to be desired (especially when considering that the chorus is only heard about half of that time). Oh, how I wish that they had extended this piece, and maybe added some elaborated parts! But still, it's very good. "Halo", the last track on the CD, is a sort of remix of tracks 1 and 2, beginning with the Gregorian chants of the first track and morphing into the best, most furious parts of track 2. This track is awe-inspiring, and would fit like a glove in any great movie score. The science fiction setting of the game is apparent in this composition. And when you think it's over, after a few seconds a mellow, soothing piano solo calms you down and wraps the album up very nicely.
There are, like many other fine soundtracks, some stinkers here. Most of the soundtrack does after all sound like a movie-score, and since I'm not too partial to most movie-scores, there are just some tracks I find too boring and "anonymous". I usually skip tracks 21-25 when listening to the CD. Of course, people who like cinematic music will probably like these compositions more than I do. And to the favour of the soundtrack, you can say that the fact that I liked every track but five or six of them despite not usually liking cinematic music is a very good overall grade. Much of the cinematic music in Halo retains the expected atmospheric values, but also manages to have good melodic qualities, like the tracks mentioned above and other tracks like the stunning "On a Pale Horse". Other negative words you could direct towards the Halo OST is that sometimes it just lacks the feeling of action you'd like to hear, what with all the mellow tracks and all. It strikes me as a little too "soft" for being the score to a shooter. But then again, I don't know how much of the music is used in the actual action parts, and action is not all there is to good music. Despite some faults and a few lackluster tracks, the overall impression is very good.
Given a fair chance, the Halo OST should be able to convince a lot of people that there are very talented and soulful game music composers in the US, too. I know that some people are hesitant to get it as it comes from an XBox game. That is, in my opinion, just ridiculous. Even if you happen to dislike most XBox games, that's still no reason to overlook great music. Of course, those who have played Halo will know what to expect. To conclude, it has a cheap price tag, it's easy to find, the music is very good... It gets, if not my highest, then at least a very high recommendation.