New Musical Horizons Rise Over Halo 2 Soundtrack

At least a third of what made Halo such a great game was its original soundtrack, which combined good ol’rock’n’roll with synthesized orchestras and erie discordant notes to perfectly complement the action happening on screen.

The music is just as important to its sequel, but just as Halo 2 is has a certain over-the-top, Hollywoodish feel to it, so does its soundtrack. Indeed, where as the original soundtrack was focused entirely on the game’s music, seven of the sequel’s 21 tracks are music by popular artists “inspired by” the game.

Can you say Young Guns II?

Instrumental Power

Instrumentally, the music of Halo 2 packs an even more powerful punch than the first album, though it loses some of its tonal diversity in the process. The rock’n’roll vibe of “Rock Anthem for Saving the World” — the track that transformed Halo into something more than just another FPS for me — has infected the entire album.

In Halo 2, Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori have morphed this song into the opening “Halo Theme Mjolnir Mix” mix, and it’s the sort of piece you’d want blaring out of the speakers on your Warthog when charging into to battle against the vile Blue team. Oh, and it’s pretty damn good for listening to while burning down I-78 as well. The hard rock chords strike home with the same power of “Rock Anthem”, occasionally breaking out with choral surges that make you want to shout “Hell yeah!”. And it’s four times as long as its inspiration, clocking in at a heft 4:11 minutes. Once again, it’s easily the best track on the disk.

The second track, “Peril”, switches things up a bit, with a more subdued tone. Sonorous strings play in the background, as [those things you rattle in your hands] beat out a rhythm and a subtle chorus rises and falls.

“Ghosts of Reach” evokes the slowly panning ring of Halo from the opening of the original game. An ethereal chorus slowly rises until drums start beating out a martial theme, ending with a

“Heretic Hero” gets us back in a Covenant state of mind with a low-key, percussion driven track vaugely reminiscent of the “Covenant Dance” from the original Halo soundtrack.

“In Amber Clad” — named for the ship of the same name that carries our hero into battle — is an excellent electric guitar-driven track that manages to be forceful, without being overpowering. Unfortunately, like the original “Rock Anthem for Saving the World”, this track is just too short, clocking in at only 1:39 minutes.

The disturbing, eye-twitch-causing Flood-inspired tracks from the original Halo soundtrack are absent from this volume save for a handful of short segments. That’s disappointing — while I rarely listened to those tracks casually, they were great fodder for pen-and-paper sci-fi RPG sessions.

Any and all of these instrumental tracks are perfect for use as background for a science fiction role-playing game, particularly those that share Halo’s military SF flavor. Actually, these tracks are probably even better for a pen-and-paper RPG than the original, because they’re so low-key. The tracks tend toward the dramatic and militant — it’s all about build up and atmosphere, and less about thunderous action and explosive manuevers.

The “Mjolnir Mix” is the only track that truly gets the blood pounding, but that doesn’t mean the others aren’t any good. They are — they’re just not the sort of thing you’ll be drumming along to at your desk. For that, you need to turn to the “pop” tracks.

The Good, the Bad and Incubus

Unfortunately, the instrumental songs represent only about half of the soundtrack. The rest of the CD is given over to songs by popular artists, and it’s safe to say that the “Young Guns II” syndrome is in full effect.

The first of these, Breaking Benjamin’s “Blow Me Away” is probably the best. The rock track that evokes the opening battles of Halo 2, as Master Chief is fighting his way past orbiting Covenant fleets and overwhelming ground forces. It’s easy to visualize Master Chief blasting away at the alien fanatics as lines like “only the strongest will survive” and “fire your guns, it’s time to roll, blow me away” unfold against thunderous rock riffs. That said, there’s nothing particularly stunning or exceptional about this song; listening to it on the soundtrack it comes across as the obligatory hard rock song necessitated by a big-budget Hollywood movie.

Incubus contributes four songs to the album, comprising an ongoing thematic arc called “The Odyssey”. Divided into four “movements”, the Odyssey is a rock’n’roll sympathy with lots of guitars, drums, and a certain creativity and willingness to experiment that isn’t found in the other “pop” tracks on the album. The music runs from the straight forward rock-inspired “First Movement”, to the almost techno-jazzy “Third Movement”, which brings in horns and some nice, mellow percussions.

That having been said, with the exception of the 1st Movement (called “Follow”) which leads off with a reinterpretation of the Halo theme, there’s not a heck of a lot that ties these tracks into Halo’s existing musical themes.

The Hoobastank song “Connected” is simply lame. It’s a Green Dayish, pop-rock song that shares no instrumental themes with the rest of the track, and generic lyrics that could apply to thousand different movies. Now a good soundtrack song doesn’t have to directly reference the source material, but it should at least share some concepts. This one’s just another forgettable radio cut.

“Never Surrender” is the Halo soundtrack remixed to a techno beat. Throw Master Chief into a white polyester jump suit, and you get a pretty good idea of the feel of this track. The track’s permanently unchecked in my iTunes playlist; it might have had a chance if they’d supplemented the song’s Catana samples with more clips of Halo 2 dialogue.

Many of these tracks (particularly those by Incubus) find their way into Halo 2 as instrumental tracks, and within the confines of the game, they work pretty well. I would have loved to have seen a two-disc version of this album, with one disk nothing but instrumentals, and the other collecting the popular “interpretations.”

Final Analysis

Halo 2 went Hollywood with its blockbuster-style game play, and it took its soundtrack with it. Overall, I’m not as happy with this soundtrack as I was with the first one; subtracting out pop songs, the soundtrack’s instrumentals are about 38 minutes long, as opposed to a little over an hour for the first soundtrack. Granted, some of the tracks from the first album — namely the ones dealing with the Flood — weren’t the sort of thing you’d listen to repeatedly, but I’d still rather have a straightforward instrumental soundtrack, and leave the “re-imaginings” to a second volume.

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