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.
Of course a Gabriel show is more than just the music, and the DVD does a fine job of capturing the visual presentations that accompany the songs. A series of screens and scrims for rear projection are hoisted in and out, some even dropping down in front of the performers, with various images being broadcast. Initially these consist of primarily abstract visualizations relating to either a song’s theme or its musical content. However as the concert progresses they start to include film being shot live on stage by a variety of cameras. Some are in the hands of crew members scrambling around the stage, but others are hung from the grid above, offering the show’s floor director what must be a confusing array of shots to pick from for broadcast. One of the cameras is given enough slack that Gabriel is able to swing it in gentle arcs out over the audience and the orchestra. As I would find that sort of thing paling quickly, they thankfully only use that technique sparingly, primarily for “Solsbury Hill.”
The special feature included with the DVD package is a roughly 20 minute documentary about putting the show together called “Blood Donors,” and features interviews with Gabriel, Metcalf, conductor Ben Foster, and Blue Leach, who directed the filming of the concert. The talk is primarily focused on the process of adopting the music, and how their goal all along was to avoid as much as possible slapping an orchestra on top of popular music. It was fun to hear Gabriel talk about the project, because at no point does he ever take himself too seriously. I’ve found in the past that nothing guarantees pomposity among pop musicians quicker than an orchestra. So it was a delight to hear Gabriel freely admitting to going slightly over the top when they adapted “Solsbury Hill,” including throwing in a few bars of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” as a tip of the hat to the old Beatles tunes which would sometimes fade out on classical tunes (think “All You Need Is Love”).
The documentary also reveals that the 3D effects in the film were not shot during the live performance but the rehearsals, with Gabriel wearing a metal harness upon which the camera was mounted. The framework extended in front of him what looked to be about six feet, and the camera was focused directly on his head. The resulting shots would obviously be of his head suspended in front of the rest of the performers. During the concert itself Gabriel would augment those shots with ones he filmed while holding onto the camera suspended from the lighting grid that I mentioned earlier. Without a 3D television, and not watching the official 3D release, I can’t tell you exactly how the effect worked out. What I can tell you is on my regular television it looked like Gabriel’s head and upper torso were distinct from the background and floating around like a balloon. The only thing that saved it from being cheesy was the fact Gabriel was having so much fun with it, making it obvious that he considered it a toy.
Aside from “Solsbury Hill,” the set list for the DVD includes favourites like “Biko,” “Single To Noise,” “Red Rain,” “Don’t Give Up,” “The Rhythm Of The Heat,” and 16 more tunes. Like most of Gabriel’s work, it’s neither an easy listen nor is it the type of thing you can throw on in the background. While there will probably be some dissatisfaction from fans over the way tunes have been changed and how what was once familiar is no longer, I think anyone who genuinely appreciates Gabriel’s music can’t help but be impressed. The orchestral interpretations bring another dimension to each of the tunes and reveal just how sophisticated the material was in the first place. I’ve always thought acoustic instruments have a far greater emotional depth than any electric or electronic instruments, and hearing these reinterpretations only confirmed that belief.
“Biko,” the song in honour of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who was killed in police custody in 1976, has always moved me. Yet it was like I had never heard it before. A bass and floor drum establish the rhythm to start the piece then are joined by bassoon and clarinet which begin to play the melody. Then, as the song progresses, new layers are added to the rhythm as the string sections begin to play the melody in time to the cadence established by the drums. Gradually the volume increases until by the time Gabriel turns the singing over to the audience–the chant which ends the song–it’s built to a spine-tingling crescendo. Then, everything stops save for the two drums which started the song in first place, until they too come to a rest like a heart that’s stopped beating.
As you would expect, the sound quality on the DVD is superb, with the option to choose from regular Dolby Stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Digital for the concert footage. The picture quality is fantastic; I can only imagine what it would be like in High Definition for those with Blu-ray capability. The DVD comes with a booklet containing complete credits, track listings, and includes some nice still shots from the concert. However, it’s the contents of the DVD which really matter, and in this case they are spectacular.
In his interview during the documentary, Gabriel said he’s already moving on to something else and won’t be doing any more orchestrated versions of his material. So this will be the only time he’ll be releasing these interpretations of his songs. Don’t miss this opportunity to see and hear what happens when somebody carefully takes finely crafted pop music and turns it into equally finely crafted pieces of orchestrated music. The results are as truly unique as Gabriel, and prove once again that unlike many of his contemporaries, he is deserving of being referred to as an artist.