Part 2 of my countdown of my favourite music from the video game series Halo. If you are not familiar with Halo and haven’t visited Part 1 first, then I have the following to say to you:
- How did you even find this blog post?
- Go read Part 1. It elucidates any story elements and character relationships I refer to that would trip up someone who’s never touched a Halo game before.
- Ignore the previous point and live your life as you see fit.
Back To Business
10. The Trials (Halo 5: Guardians)
“Is this a losing battle?”
“Only if we intend on losing it.”
— Spartan Kelly-087, followed by Master Chief
Many fans (including me) were disappointed with the lack of musical nods in the Halo 4 soundtrack. We get that the point of a new soundtrack is to have new music, but it’s important to honour those that came before as well. Kazuma Jinnouchi was promoted to sole composer for Halo 5’s OST after being a minor contributor in H4’s, and this was one of Halo developer 343 Industries’ smartest decisions. Jinnouchi understood this music composition tenet with Halo 4 and continued by it with 5.
The Trials plays at numerous parts in the campaign in which you play as the Master Chief (John) and his friends, Fred, Linda and Kelly (these four comprise Spartan Blue Team, the only remaining Spartan-II fireteam) and is a clear remake of the classic Halo theme. Of course, Jinnouchi adds his spin by combining it with his own composed theme from Halo 4, and the result is an unexpected delight. He proves with The Trials that the two major Halo themes — the one from Bungie’s original trilogy and the one from 343’s so-called “Reclaimer” saga — not only can coexist, but are seamlessly marriageable.
9. Farthest Outpost (Halo 3)
“Brute ships, staggered line! Shipmaster, they outnumber us three to one!”
“Then it is an even fight.”
— brief exchange between an Elite and Shipmaster Rtas ‘Vadum
This piece opens with a distant, enigmatic-sounding choral section. After a fade-out, a steady rock beat commences alongside some low winds. There’s a drum fill, and the choir part repeats with the winds section, now joined by the rest of the orchestra, playing a melody underneath. This plays during a cinematic in which humans and Covenant separatists (who have allied with each other to stop the Covenant from activating the Halo array, a series of enormous ringworlds scattered throughout the Milky Way and designed to kill all sentient life in the galaxy) deploy dropships from orbit onto the Ark (basically the control centre for the Halo array).
The Ark is a world of its own, and the music as you descend onto it beautifully captures the wonder it imposes on you. There is a brief bass guitar interlude that plays during a fight with two hunters (giant, heavily-armoured Covenant ground troops) — sometimes called the “hunter theme” because the same bass part was used during a hunter fight in Halo 2. The third and final section is a remake of the bright and adventurous Perilous Journey from the first Halo.
(I don’t know why it is that all the Halo tracks with “peril” in the title don’t sound very perilous.)
8. Follow Our Brothers (Halo 3)
“Our fight is through the portal, with the Brutes and the bastard Truth!”
— Shipmaster Rtas ‘Vadum to all
Chronologically and on the soundtrack, this one comes just before Farthest Outpost. This is roughly halfway through the campaign, and a LOT of stuff is going on in this long cinematic. The Covenant have just bailed from Earth and entered a slipspace portal toward the Ark. The Flood, an ancient, deadly parasitic species (which you fight throughout Halos 1-3), landed on Earth and infected a great portion of Africa within an hour. Humans and the Elites have teamed up and sterilised the local infestation and now need to decide how to deal with the Covenant at the Ark. After much bickering between the leaders of the two factions aboard a ship in a scene whose dialogue I consider to be some of the best in the series, they resolve to divide up forces — you (the Master Chief), the Arbiter and numerous other key characters take a few ships through the portal while the rest stays back to hold out on Earth as long as possible.
The music, which begins with a string revisit of a melody from the first Halo, comes in once all the decisions have been made. Around two minutes in, we have a remake of the fan-favourite Brothers In Arms, also from the first game. While isolated parts of this piece are heard at various moments earlier in the H3 campaign, this patriotic anthem about loyalty and courage and banding together is finally whole, just in time for us to see humans and Elites, bitter enemies merely weeks ago, preparing for combat together as allies. The string coda plays as Lord Hood, commander of the Earth forces, takes one last look at the Master Chief before the door on his transport ship closes.
7. Walk Softly (Halo 5: Guardians)
“Your Commander Palmer thought you would find these useful.”
Elite commander Mahkee ‘Chava to Spartan Fireteam Osiris
So, there’s a track from Halo 4 called Mantis. It’s named after the large, bipedal mech vehicle that is part of the human arsenal. It has a machine gun in the left “arm” and missiles in the right. It’s pretty boss, and its theme music is just as boss. But, just when we all thought the track couldn’t get more boss, Kazuma Jinnouchi comes along and says, “Hold onto your dicks, boys, because I just remade it for Halo 5 and it’s gonna blow your fucking minds.”
Sure enough, Walk Softly outdoes Mantis on every front. It’s as if Mantis had steroid injections in every part of its body and started hitting the gym. It’s bigger and badder. The most obvious difference is that, in Walk Softly, the recurring funky synth riff from the original (that sounds like something ripped from a Stevie Wonder record) has been amplified and is now used as filler between the heavier sections. Then, the exciting, fast string melody at around 1:00 in has been extended four phrases longer than it was in the H4 predecessor — and it has been reinforced with electric guitar to punctuate the “double punches” at the end of each phrase. The guitar is used in a similar capacity for the rest of the track — never the lead (and just power chords), but this minimalist use of the instrument is surprisingly effective in that it gives each chord that extra oomph as you beast-mode your way through waves and waves of Covenant in your unstoppable mantis.
Also, Kazuma Jinnouchi didn’t actually say that.
6. Winter Contingency (Reach)
“You picked a hell of a day to join up.”
— Spartan Jun-A266 to Spartan-B312, the new recruit to Noble Team, 2009 game reveal trailer
If the first side of Halo: Reach’s soundtrack is a symphony, then each track (which is named after its corresponding campaign mission) is its own movement. After the Overture, the first mission is “Winter Contingency,” and the track of the same name is number six on my list because I feel it is the strongest and most diverse suite of mission music in the campaign, and most of its eight distinct sections are memorable. It is also the longest Halo track to date, clocking in at just over twelve minutes.
The first couple minutes are devoted to the game’s signature majestic, foreboding string-choral theme, which evokes awe and sympathy for the doomed planet, just as the Gregorian chants of the earlier Halos solicited wonder about the mysterious Halo ringworlds. The next section is one of Reach’s orchestral action themes, titled “Lone Wolf.” These first two sections both make frequent appearances throughout the rest of the campaign. A later bit in this track is an isolated, booming electric guitar riff (at 9:40) that plays as you and another Spartan enter a dark corridor to flush out any remaining Covies, making for a sequence tastefully reminiscent of the video game DOOM. A quiet, intimate piano outro is the last thing you hear on this track, and — you guessed it — it comes back later.
5. The Menagerie/Skyline (ODST)
“Pick a turret, Romeo. Conserve your ammo — this is gonna get hot.”
— Buck to Romeo as shit gets real
Atop a skyscraper in the warzone of New Mombasa, you (Romeo, the ODST squad’s sniper) and Buck (the former leader of the squad — Nathan Fillion provided his voice and likeness, by the way) fight through Covenant as you make your way toward the rendezvous point — a crashed police pelican atop an adjacent skyscraper, where your heavy weapons specialist and demolitions expert, Dutch and Mickey, respectively, await your arrival.
The low-key, tense, ambient music that underscores your covert sniping soon yields to fast, complex percussive beats with rhythmic winds playing over them as you engage in more up-close-and-personal firefights. Finally, you cross a makeshift bridge to meet up with the other two ODSTs, thinking the mission is over, but then you hear a rock drum beat with brass horns start playing. Covenant dropships, loaded with infantry, are inbound. Nobody’s going anywhere till the airspace is clear. The string-drums melody from an earlier mission (that track is The Menagerie) is now playing again, but now topped with a killer electric guitar solo that seems to duel with the strings and brass for the lead as you and your three ODST comrades, armed to the teeth with anti-air and other heavy weaponry, proceed to hold off wave after wave of Covenant air vehicles. Get to work.
The genius of Skyline is the way it is divided into sections, with each part louder and more instrumentally diverse than the previous, making the piece one big crescendo toward the guitar solo climax. The mounting tension and volume of the music mirror the action of the mission. I compare this protracted, gradual crescendo technique to the structure of Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece Stairway to Heaven, another piece I adore.
The Menagerie is really just the base track for Skyline, but I actually prefer the stripped-down Menagerie ending section (which starts at the 4:00 mark) — without the embellishment of Skyline’s horns or guitar solo. It still has guitar and bass and drums, but they take a back seat to the dirty cello section. It altogether sounds rawer and grittier. I have joked with friends that, if I were a professional wrestler with WWE, this part of The Menagerie would be my entrance music. The same music even made a return in Halo: Reach during the mission, “New Alexandria,” when you provide air support for Buck, the aforementioned ODST.
4. In Amber Clad/Trapped In Amber (Halo 2/Halo 2 Anniversary)
“Off the Rock, Through the Bush, Nothing But Jackal”
— chapter title of corresponding segment of mission “Delta Halo”
I have a love/hate relationship with this pair of tracks. How can a piece of music I hold so dear bring me such great frustration? In Amber Clad is the quintessential Halo 2 track. It has one of the most pleasing overall sounds of any Halo track on record, incorporating thick, brooding orchestral blankets of sound, dreamy choral parts, stark percussive beats and a distant-sounding electric guitar melody with electric bass playing parallel beneath it. But it’s so damn short. Clocking in at a mere 1:39, In Amber Clad is one of the briefest tracks in Halo music. When I found out that 343 was re-recording all of Halo 2’s music for the 2014 Anniversary release, I was giddier than a schoolgirl. Did Trapped In Amber live up to expectations?
Well… yes and no. It was so close, too. I find the mix to be superior to the original’s; I like that the new version puts more emphasis on the percussion and vocals and less on the guitar. I think it fits better the atmosphere of the particular area of the campaign — sniping jackals (Covenant tactical ranged units) and Elites in a vast gorge with lush, green vegetation and with waterfalls and streams running through it within the tropical paradise region of Delta Halo. Moreover, the arrangers were kind enough to extend the track, so the female vocal solo is absent the first time through but comes in for the repeat — and, man, is her voice enrapturing here. And the chorus’ descant is radiant and glorious, seemingly sung by angels themselves. All these arresting vocals were barely audible in the original mix, smothered by guitar and orchestra. So, where did the remake fall short?
The strings and the ending. The strings in the beginning are the first instruments you hear, and, despite having a full orchestra with which to record this time around instead of having to record them with a synthesiser, they actually sound worse. Where, in the original, the chords seemed to flow into each other, in the remake, the chords sound disjointed and deliberate — it’s almost as if I can see the violinists and cellists sitting down, hesitating with each next chord as they struggle through a cold read of their sheet music in front of them.
Even more unforgivable, though, is the ending. The original ended with a cessation of all instruments, save for guitar, bass and percussion. It was a mini-outro that concluded with one final guitar lick. In the remake, it just kinda… fizzes out. It still ends with only guitar, bass and drums, but it is abrupt and lacklustre and does not match the spirit of the rest of the piece — a disappointment only magnified when I consider how much of a net improvement the majority is. Imagine shaking a bottle of soda for two and a half minutes, and then you start to twist the cap off, expecting a huge explosion, but all you get is a pathetic puff of air. That was the remastered ending to one of my favourite Halo tracks.
Fortunately, a crafty YouTuber has combined both versions into a new one, which takes the best elements from the original and the remake and creates the ultimate edition (which, because it is fan-made and therefore not on any official soundtrack, cannot fairly be included in my list). Really, though, I wouldn’t have ranked In Amber Clad/Trapped In Amber number four in my countdown if I didn’t think they were worthy. I suppose I complain about them so much because they’re so damn near perfection, but a few nit-picking-y things hold them back. Needless to say, they have enough good things going for them that their faults can, at the end of the day, be overlooked.
3. 117 (Halo 4)
“Before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.”
— Cortana to Master Chief
I think I speak for most, if not all, long-time Halo fans when I say that, in general, the music that Martin O’Donnell (and his partner, Michael Salvatori) created for Halo is vastly superior to the music of newer Halo games. Before I get to talking about 117, though, let me take a minute to explain my hypothesis as to why so many people prefer Marty’s music over the music from 4 and 5.
***Feel free to skip the next three paragraphs if you’re concerned only with details immediately pertinent to the track on the list.***
I believe that this phenomenon can be attributed in part to the nostalgia blindfold. But I knew that there had to be something else. Something out of our control that made the newer stuff pale in comparison to Marty’s work. Then, one day, as I was humming a classic Halo tune in the shower, it dawned on me. I could sing it.
I then realised that the most important things lacking in the H4 and H5 soundtracks are singable melodies. With Halos 1-3, ODST and Reach, I would wager that one could sing along to at least 90% of their tracks, whether the melody be from voice, strings, piano or guitar. Being able to sing/hum along to a piece fosters a deeper connection between listener and music. It’s what makes so many tracks in those games timeless and memorable. In Halo 4, these kinds of tracks are few, and even more so in Halo 5. My main problem with Halo 5’s OST is that too often I feel like I’m being attacked by the music instead of being allowed to participate in it. It’s basically an action movie soundtrack; it’s all so fast-paced and intense and gives you very little time to breathe (to be fair, though, it’s actually quite appropriate for the campaign).
Neil Davidge gave us a few good ones to hum with (like Arrival from earlier), but they still didn’t quite sound like Halo. Kazuma Jinnouchi, on the other hand, managed to nail both criteria with his 117.
***pertinent track information resumes here***
This track, named for our hero, the Master Chief (his Spartan designation is John-117), plays during the final mission of the game (funny how Halo 4’s best music came at the end). Piloting a Broadsword (agile spacecraft fighter), MC is racing through tunnels within the Didact’s personal spaceship (this spaceship is bloody huge) to deliver a nuclear device and blow everything up and save the day. The whole set piece is strikingly reminiscent of the Death Star assault sequence from the original Star Wars.
The track begins with horns playing what is now referred to simply as the “117 theme,” a melody that we hear reprised in Halo 5’s Blue Team, #20 in my countdown. The original is in C-sharp minor. It is a melody of passion and conviction. There is also a sense of urgency when the strings come in with the rapid secondary melody (the same one used to counter the classic Halo theme in The Trials); Jinnouchi sure loves his polyphony. This mixture of moods could not be more fitting for this part of the campaign — in a race against time, the machine soldier in Chief is set about completing the mission (to stop the Didact and save humanity), while the human side of Chief is desperate to save his deteriorating A.I. companion, Cortana, who is easily his closest friend. This human-machine dichotomy is a major theme in Halo 4. Finally, a choir adds substantial depth and power to the sound to this section of the piece.
At the 6:10 mark, we hear one of the very few vestiges of the original Halo theme in the game with the horns and male voices doing the classic, recognisable rising “dun dun dun DUNNN” motif (just listen to it to know what I mean). At 6:27, the high strings begin to frantically play a prolonged series of rapid-fire pitches while the low strings and voices and percussion punctuate beneath them. It’s the grand finale of this wonderful piece, and it never fails to give me goosebumps.
The last thing we hear, once all the instruments have given one final jab, is the sound of a lone wolf howling — the ensign of the nature of John-117.
2. Under Cover of Night/Cloaked In Blackness (Halo: Combat Evolved/Halo: CE Anniversary)
“Hit it, Marines — go, go, go! The Corps ain’t payin’ us by the hour!”
— Sgt. Maj. Johnson
For number two in my countdown, we’re going all the way back to the very beginning. One of the most iconic tracks in all of Halo happens to come from one of the most iconic missions in the series, “The Truth and Reconciliation,” the third from Halo: CE‘s campaign. The objective: Rescue Captain Keyes, who has been captured and imprisoned aboard the Covenant’s stationary battlecruiser, Truth and Reconciliation. You (Master Chief) and a squad of marines are deployed into a grassy, mountainous region on Alpha Halo in the middle of the night. Armed with the advantage of surprise, night vision and a sniper rifle with enough ammunition to last you through two apocalypses, you quietly eliminate any Covies patrolling between you and the ship.
The gaseous melody has been recycled numerous times throughout Halos 1-3 (it was that string melody I hinted at in my description of Follow Our Brothers from #8 above), but none compares with the original track (and the remastered Anniversary version). Under Cover of Night is a prime example of when the music suits the action. Its instantly recognisable melody, the female vocalist’s mystifying wails and the mean bass guitar line over a smooth, simple drum beat — that’s it — that’s all you need.
1. Never Forget (Halo 3)
Many classic Halo fans know this one simply as “the relaxing menu music.” Halo 2’s Unforgotten was so well-crafted, Marty O’Donnell decided to bring it back for Halo 3. Never Forget is astonishing. It’s beautiful. It’s soothing. It’s evocative. The tender strings slowly ebb and flow like the tide on a beach. It’s utterly peaceful.
Never Forget differs from the original in that there is a piano-choral interlude between the string-only first verse and the string-piano second verse. The voices are divine, and the piano is touching. Additionally, the first verse has been lowered a half step in pitch and sounds more hopeful; the original, more solemn and thoughtful key of F minor is restored for the second verse. And, of course, having a full orchestra certainly improves the sound quality.
If you happen to have a choral background and/or are familiar with the gentle piece, The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre, its piano accompaniment and overall tone sounds remarkably similar to Never Forget. If you’re not familiar with it and are curious, I won’t embed the music here, but a quick search of “the seal lullaby eric whitacre” on YouTube will yield the results you need.
Never Forget is my number one because you don’t have to be a Halo fan or even play video games to appreciate it. It never plays during any Halo campaign, and its title doesn’t necessarily refer to any character or event in the Halo universe. There’s no context. It’s meant to be subjective. We all have memories that we don’t ever want to lose, whether they’re of a passed loved one or of the innocent days of our youth. Never Forget puts you on that figurative beach and allows you to take a moment and look back.
Me, I remember playing Halo 3 with my buddies from high school and staying up well past midnight. You know, back when the people I played with on Xbox Live were actually people I knew. And we’d talk about it the next day during school before going home and playing some more. No college or careers to think about — just the typical school stuff like classes, music and concerts, plays and athletics before goofing around on Xbox.
Who put these chopped onions here?
This one probably would have made the list were it not for the whiny childlike vocals. Otherwise, nothing short of beautiful.
Behold a Pale Horse (Halo 3)
A remake of On a Pale Horse from the first Halo, plus part of the Truth and Reconciliation Suite, also from Halo: CE.
Broken Gates (from “Mombasa Suite”) (Halo 2)
Broken Gates is the “hunter theme” I mentioned earlier in my #9, but with the whole rock ensemble. It was remade as Out of Shadow for Halo 3 and once again for the Anniversary re-release.
Cast Aside (from “No Stone Unturned”) (ODST)
The first part of another wonderful, ambient track from The Rookie’s harrowing night of investigation through the streets of New Mombasa.
Delta Halo Suite (Halo 2)
A bunch of cool pieces in this lengthy collection of music from Chief’s wacky adventures on Delta Halo, including the original Leonidas and a heartwrenching, string-only version of Heavy Price Paid, the #14 in my countdown. Lots of sentimental value in this one for me, as Halo 2 was the first Halo campaign I ever played.
Earth City (Halo 2)
One of my favourite piano tracks in the series. Just an all-around great sound combination in this one.
Opening Suite (Halo: CE)
The first thing you ever heard when you fired up Halo: CE on the original Xbox. The string refrain at 2:39 is the only bit of music in the entire series that can be heard in every campaign, from Halos 1-5. It’s the only musical link between the five main games, a distinction earning the piece immeasurable value.
Push Through (Halo 4)
Halo 4‘s heaviest and most badass track. This one accompanies you as you do some tank trail-blazing through debris and Covenant encampments on your way to the downed and invaded UNSC Infinity, humanity’s largest and most ambitious space ship.
Roll Call (Halo 3)
This excellent track begins with a brighter take on the classic Halo Gregorian chant theme and transitions to the opening to Farthest Outpost, which, in turn, transitions to another Under Cover of Night revisit, but now with the bass line to In Amber Clad. The last couple minutes are a gentle piano-string tune.
This track played during the end credits for Halo 3, and part of it was used in the menu music for the multiplayer-only Halo 3 Mythic disc, which shipped with ODST in 2009.
Unyielding (Halo 2)
Sorry, Reclaimer fanboys. As much as I love Steve Vai’s face-melting guitar solo in that particular track, I much prefer the vanilla version, Unyielding. This piano-guitar rocker plays in the mission, “Uprising,” once you (Arbiter) get in a Ghost (Covenant light hovering land speeder with twin front plasma cannons) and rush through a gorge, slaying any Brutes who stand in your way.
This track has elements of the Halo theme in it, and the main piano riff was repurposed for Halo 3’s Three Gates and One Final Effort.
Warrior World (Halo 5: Guardians)
Finally, some love for the acoustic guitar. This track is about as close as Halo 5 gets to rock. Good theme for the Elites’ homeworld.
Final Thoughts And Acknowledgements
So much for keeping things brief here. If you made it through the whole post (both parts) and read every single word I wrote, consider me in your debt. I love Halo and its music, and it’s easy for me to ramble on about them. If you’re a fan of the series, then I hope that this list made you look back fondly on the times you’ve had with its games. If you’ve never touched a Halo game in your life and just felt like indulging me and my writing, then I hope that I was able to expose you to some quality music! If you like what you heard, you can find PLENTY more Halo music on YouTube (this post contains but a fraction of what the franchise offers), and every soundtrack is available for purchase on iTunes.
Speaking of which, I need to take this time to acknowledge YouTube and all its users who have uploaded all the music I unabashedly embedded in this blog post. I didn’t ask for their permission, but I don’t believe I’m doing anything wrong, as the music isn’t their work, either, and I’m not making money with this blog. I have bought most of the soundtracks myself, but I couldn’t upload any of the music to this post because I do not have a WordPress Pro or WordPress Business plan (mine is the free basic plan for peasants). Otherwise, I would have. That being said, you’re more than welcome to visit any of the users’ YouTube pages by clicking on the titles of each embedded video, which double as links.
Finally, no matter your experience with Halo, feel free to let me know what you thought! Any tracks you thought missing from my list? Give me your top ten! Or twenty-five, or whatever.
Till next time.