Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt chats to Alex Bhore about what it takes to make a Halo soundtrack in 2021, and why you need to find inspirations in the biggest albums of the year if you want to really stick in people’s heads.
2021 was a killer year for music. The best in over a decade, if you ask me. No matter what genre you’re into, there’s something special out there for you – from the unsettling post-punk of Squid’s ‘Bright Green Field’ to Bicep’s moody dance across ‘Isles’; the industrial, glitchy pop of Halsey’s ‘If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power ‘to emo revival/indie-rock stylings of Foxing’s ‘Draw Down the Moon’, pretty much all the musical bases were covered. We even had Mogwai setting our souls on fire with the sublime ‘As The Love Continues’.
But it wasn’t just your traditional music that was having a blinder of a year. On the gaming side, we saw some remarkable releases, matching (and often beating) anything you’d see in film or TV; the historical authenticity in Far Cry 6’s music was a standout, and the dreamy glam-rock fantasy of The Artful Escape won its fair share of fans, too. But none of these games even came close to the level of popularity that Halo Infinite’s multiplayer soundtrack enjoyed. Not by a long way. And it all came from someone that has “no experience whatsoever” in the games music field.
“You know what, if the people that I had worked with had sucked, this would have been a totally different experience,” laughs Alex Bhore, the main composer behind the multiplayer music suite. “But they did not; everyone at 343 and Microsoft was great – and working with people with a lot of experience and that really know what they’re doing… there’s a definite level of maturity and professionalism here that helped make [the soundtrack] what it was.“
A cursory look at the game’s subreddit, or a quick search on Twitter, will show you that Bhore made waves with Halo Infinite’s surprising new post-rock direction. And rightly so; the music is a perfect fit for the game – coming off the back of a doomed firefight, you sit in the swelling ambiance of the music, basking in the size of it all, and lick your wounds ahead of the next engagement. Or you can jump into the lobby, pulse racing with another victory under your belt, and ride that adrenaline on the backs of the drums and bass, fingers restless on the Xbox pad and drumming along in rhythm with it all.
It’s Halo. It’s unmistakably Halo, in fact, despite the series’ previous obsession with music that falls much more in the ‘edgelord metal’ sphere (sorry, Incubus). Thanks to a developer diary that was shared by the studio behind the game, 343 Industries, before launch, we knew that 343 Industries’ multiplayer director Tom French had wanted Halo to have a post-rock inflection since Halo 4 (three games ago, now). Why was Infinite the right time to deploy this admittedly underground genre?
“I think the people making Halo and the people working at 343 just wanted to do something fresh,” says Bhore. “There was this unspoken thing whilst making it that told everyone involved to try and respect what was done in the past to let those melodies and themes through clearly. But I intentionally didn’t over-expose myself to the old [Halo] material because I wanted this shit to have its own identity as much as possible, and I didn’t want the songs to come across as covers from past games. I listen to some post-rock here and there, but I didn’t have to get into a whole new genre to really make [this project work]; it was just adjacent enough to my natural place when it comes to generally guitar-focused ambient, emotional, or cinematic music.”
Bhore notes that making the Halo Infinite multiplayer suite of music was a balancing act, more than anything else – a balance of pushing the series’ original music forward whilst not creating something that felt massively out of place. This is a new generation of Halo, after all, and the music needs to match the gameplay in the way it’s striking out and evolving as the series matures.
“I love all the melodies from the [Martin O’Donnell] and [Michael Salvatori] era of Halo games; they’re memorable and timeless and endlessly impressive to me. But with Infinite, I felt like this post-rock type stuff we were working on needed to have consistency, but also range. So I think a lot of what we did with the music – with arrangement and tempo and dynamics – was really interesting.”
And it works. It works really well. There’s something about all the big, sweeping sounds and reflective, ambient arrangements that marries with Halo’s lush, galactic world – just as Steve Vai’s shredding worked so well with the more apocalyptic context of Halo 2. And the connection between this kind of music and this kind of fiction is not lost on Bhore. “They go hand-in-hand, based on the likes of Mogwai, and then further back looking at John Carpenter and Goblin… all of these amazing artists have done so much in terms of leading up to the music that post-rock is.”
Bhore goes on to say that sci-fi has always had this association with cool synthesizer music and cool ambient music that, in more recent times, gave way to more modern guitar-heavy music. For him, then, the marriage of the two for Halo Infinite seemed almost inevitable.
But that’s not to say his only inspirations came from the likes of Boards Of Canada, Mogwai, GodSpeed You! and artists within the genre. Not by a long shot. In the week of the interview, Bhore and I had chatted briefly about Baltimore post-hardcore band, Turnstile, and the impeccable, compelling production on what I think may be 2021’s best album, ‘GLOW ON‘.
But then a Reddit Q&A I dug up with Bhore revealed that he takes inspiration from genres that cover the breadth (and depth) of any proper music lover’s field of vision. Dua Lipa, Charli XCX, Silk Sonic and SZA all make the cut for Bhore – but it’s perhaps Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia‘ that left the most fingerprints on Bhore’s psyche when he was working on Halo.
“I have a lot of respect for Dua Lipa”, Bhore reflects. “When you’re willing to do the whole thing [as a pop star] and be so good as a live act – take to the stage and kill it like that – you can’t help but be really impressed. That Turnstile record and that Dua Lipa record, for me, are both incredibly good examples of these huge sounding recordings that you listen to and think ‘how did they do that?’
“It’s crazily explosive and bright, but still compressed and… you can have it non-stop and say ‘I still want to listen to this, I can’t say I’m fatigued. And maybe there’s something emotionally thematic in the Halo soundtrack coming off these records, because I like to cherry-pick records and artists I like… so perhaps there is some emotional quality that rubs off on me, that then rubs off on the work I do.”
So will Bhore do this again? “Yes, absolutely yes.” It’s telling that, by his own admission, Bhore is “addicted to doing as much stuff in music as possible”. Bhore lists a suite of names he’s had the pleasure to work with whilst learning from mega-producer John Congleton – Goldfrapp, Wild Beasts, John Grant, and so on – and explains that all this professional breadth has given him is the desire for more. More opportunities in more fields. And gaming is certainly a part of that vision for the future. “I will do anything in music that I fuck with, end of story: work with anything or anyone you think you can help. That’s a lesson I learned in part in working with John.”
I, for one, am actively encouraging Bhore to return to game music should the opportunity arise. Because 2021 was a great year for music, and the Halo Infinite multiplayer suite makes up a big part of why I think that. There’s no question about it.