I have to admit that I've never liked orchestrated versions of pop songs. As far as I'm concerned it's usually one step removed from Muzak--pop music for people who don't like pop music. Even worse, as far as I'm concerned, are those times when some performer starts taking themselves way too seriously and decides to use orchestral elements in their music. The results are usually god-awful as they simply don't have the talent to make it work, The smarter ones will hire somebody else to do the arrangements, but there's very little modern rock and roll that works orchestrated. One of the worst experiences I ever had in my life was sitting in an all night restaurant at 3:00 AM and hearing an orchestrated version of "Light My Fire" by the Doors.
After a scarring experience like that, you'd think I'd swear off orchestrated pop music for the rest of my life. However, I'm a firm believer in the maxim that it's the exceptions that prove the rule. If there's one performer of popular music around today who has always been an exception to most rules it's Peter Gabriel. So when I first heard about his deciding to orchestrate a selection of music spanning his career, I was intrigued. Last year he released a CD and toured with the equivalent of a chamber orchestra--a forty-six piece ensemble he called The New Blood Orchestra. Now, for those of us who weren't able to attend one of those concerts, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and special edition four-disc digital CD versions of New Blood Live In London, recorded over two nights at London England's Hammersmith Apollo concert hall in March 2011.
As I had hoped, Gabriel has not just pasted an orchestra over top of his more popular songs by having them play the tunes instead of the usual mix of guitars, electric bass, drums and keyboard. Instead he and arranger John Metcalfe set out to reinterpret the material, making use of the diversity of sound available with the instruments at their disposal. The name New Blood Orchestra proved very apt, as they have indeed injected new blood into the material in question. Right from the opening number on the DVD, "Intruder," you realize that once again Gabriel has pushed his music in a direction few others would either dare to attempt or have the talent to carry off.
Instead of simply transposing the music to suit the range of the instruments in the orchestra, Gabriel and Metcalfe have broken the songs down into their component parts of rhythm and melody. Then they designated individual sections within their orchestra to bring them to life. The result is that on some songs, instruments like violins normally associated with melody are playing sequences of notes representing one rhythmic element while the brass section plays another. The overall effect is stunning; normally hear these parts being played by two or three instruments at most and not notice the number of elements going into the rhythm. In this case you not only hear the overall pattern, you also hear each of its distinct components. At first it might feel a little chaotic as your mind tries to sort out and separate the sounds from each other, because that's how we are used to listening to music. However, in the space of only a few minutes you find yourself starting to listen to the whole, including Gabriel's vocals, and the impact is as strong (if not stronger) as anything you'll have heard produced by amplified instruments.