"Halo is a very iconic game, so composing the score for Halo 4 is a dream gig for me. I've got a huge amount of respect for what Martin O'Donnell did in the past, and I suppose there's a subtle homage to his music in my own indirect way. I've tried to keep things sounding like Halo, but we're in a different galaxy now!" Neil Davidge, April 2012. As co-writer and key sonic facilitator on the lauded Massive Attack albums Mezzanine, 100th Window and Heligoland, Bristol, England's Neil Davidge helped birth some of the most arresting and innovative sounds of the Nineties and Noughties. He has also enjoyed a parallel career composing for prestigious film and TV ventures. To date, feathers in his cap have included "The Storm That Brought You To Me ", from Louis Leterrier's 2010 fantasy film Clash Of the Titans, and his co-write score for Trouble The Water, a moving study of Hurricane Katrina victims that won the ‘Best Documentary’ gong at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.
Now, though, Neil's star is rising in a different field, for Microsoft / 343 Industries - the company behind famed multi-million-selling franchise Halo - has commissioned him to write the score for the quantum leap in fun-filled alien slaughter that is Halo 4. As Neil explains, a certain hands-on experience was as vital as his musical credentials when securing the gig: "I don't really play a lot of video games, but I've always played Halo. I started when I was making 100th Window with Massive Attack; it was how I entertained myself while I was waiting for the band to show up. Even later on if I was in the studio and feeling frustrated, Halo was one of the first things I'd turn to to get my head straight."
Naturally, Neil visited 343 Industries' development HQ in the Seattle, Washington suburb of Kirkland prior to starting work on the new music. The company's vast, open-plan, airport-hangar-like premises were an inspirational sight, and their workforce's energy and appetite for excellence soon rubbed off. "I came back to Bristol on a high and immediately starting writing", says the composer. "I wasn't even officially engaged yet, but that period generated a number of major themes that we've ended up keeping."
Halo 4 is due for release in Holiday 2012. Neil says his soundtrack is a fairly even split between orchestral and electronic elements, this a tailor-made match for he and his co-arranger Andrew Morgan since both men are well versed in both fields. The orchestral elements were recorded at Abbey Road, and the electronic ones were hatched at Neil's mysterious and moniker-less studio complex in "an apartment building somewhere in Bristol."
"The music is very cinematic and atmospheric", he says. "At times it can be textural while at the same time being quite grim - when someone's running around shooting aliens you have to know that shit's going to happen! I was working from artists' impressions of various scenes rather than video footage. That left things quite open, but as a former graphic designer and graphic novels fan it fired my imagination as well."
Neil Davidge was born in Bristol, England in 1962. As a teenager he loved to paint, creating both fine-art works and more abstract pieces. Prior to studying graphic design at Brunel Technical College, he was enamoured with the late 1970’s UK punk / reggae scene and began painting likenesses of the Banshees’ Siouxie Sioux and the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.
Having learned guitar thanks to punk's DIY ethic, Neil later embarked upon long hours of alchemical, suck-it-and-see experimentation as he learned the complex but rewarding art of sound recording. Happily, he was in situ at Bristol’s Coach House Studios when famed trip-hop act Portishead recorded parts of their debut album Dummy there between 1991-1994, and in 1996, he hooked-up with Massive Attack on "The Hunter", a song for the Batman Forever soundtrack that featured Everything But The Girl vocalist Tracey Thorn. That same year, Massive Attack won a Brit Award for ‘Best Dance Act’, this cementing a working relationship with Neil Davidge that would continue for some 17 years.
It was Massive Attack’s stately, cinematic sound - together with Neil’s longstanding affinity with visual mediums, of course - that lent his scoring for film, TV and advertising an air of inevitability. After auteur Luc Besson came to Neil and Robert Del Naja of Massive to commission music for his 2005 martial arts thriller Unleashed, a swathe of other, attractively varied coups followed. Among them were scores for the films Bullet Boy and Battle In Seattle, advertising campaigns for Jaguar and Adidas, and Neil's collaboration with Snoop Dogg while scoring music for In Prison My Whole Life, a documentary about US death-row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. It's an impressive résumé all right, but it's Halo 4, understandably, that Neil Davidge is most excited about right now. This, after all, is the video game franchise that has already sold over 40 million copies and generated some $2 billion of merchandising revenue. The game whose worldwide community of fans is known as the 'Halo Nation. The game that is also a series of comic books, and a series of short anime films. The game that spawns its own soundtrack albums. The Game.
"To be honest, I can't think about all that", laughs Neil. "If I did I might go mad! I just have to concentrate on the music and hope that, if it moves me, the fans and the people at 343 Industries will get a similar feeling. If they do, I'll have done my job."