"New Blood" is the unexpected, but perfectly natural 'spin-off' of Peter Gabriel's previous recording "Scratch My Back", a 'covers' album of newer and older artists that the singer-songwriter respects. In addition to his covering of other artists' work, he also made a point of setting the songs to orchestral arrangements - to great effect. The original intention was to have "SMB" followed by a return gesture by the various artists he covered, whereon they would send back versions of his music, done by them. It was intended to be called "And I'll Scratch Yours". However, as Gabriel was touring with "The New Blood Orchestra" extra songs were needed to fill out an evening's program and so they, naturally, transcribed some of his own music to orchestral settings. Gabriel was so satisfied with the results and intrigued at the possibilities potentially offered by setting more of his music to orchestral arrangements that he initiated yet another project while he awaited the 'return' of his music done by others. "And I'll Scratch Yours" is due sometime in the near future and Gabriel indicates in his sleeve notes that it is about half complete.
In the meantime we have an eye-opening, heart-stirring album of Peter Gabriel music without guitars, electronic keyboards or drum kits, all of it played by a full orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and piano. The arrangements vary from full symphonic treatments to chamber arrangements of strings only. So there is a wide range of orchestral scales and formats. The 'bigger' songs like "Intruder" and "Red Rain" utilize the full orchestral compliment, while quieter gems like "Downside Up" and "Wallflower" are played by smaller sections. "In Your Eyes" while still uptempo is scored entirely for strings. These variations in orchestral scale give a nice dynamic contouring for the album's overall programme. "New Blood" is immaculately put together as a playlist so it flows naturally and effortlessly from song to song. The playlist itself was chosen from songs that Gabriel felt would make for more interesting orchestral arrangements. He was dead on with the list. He did not go for the 'hits' like "Sledgehammer" or "Steam" but picked songs that he thought had the most potent potential in their melodic lines and harmonic movements.
"The Rythm of the Heat", one of his erstwhile, grand opening numbers, is spectacular and a powerful way to launch the program. It is both BIG and fascinatingly intimate in turns. It sets the bar very high for the rest of the program and that standard is maintained perfectly right to the end. Gabriel's voice is supreme. He is in TOP form here, sounding every bit as powerful and acrobatic as he did in the 80's. It's so great to hear a major artist like this, in his 60's, sounding every bit as good as he did in his 20's and 30's. He is far from being done. "Intruder", a song originally made creepy with studio edits and eerie electronics, is even more chilling and frightening when done by an orchestra. Gabriel's 'close to the mic" singing at points gives you gooseflesh as it sounds like he's right behind your ear. "Wallflower" is heart-breakingly moving, an intimate piece that requires the deftest touch. The beautifully sad and moving lyrics come through clearly and distinctively. "Mercy Street", probably the most hauntingly beautiful of all of Peter Gabriel's many songs, is given the royal treatment here. It's aching and serpentine melodic shapes and simple genius in harmony are every bit as stirring as the original, perhaps even more so. This is indeed what strikes you as you listen to this magnificent collection, just how truly GREAT these songs are when they are set to a symphonic treatment. Without all the idiosyncratic, distinctly "Rock" sounds and timbres, there is much LESS to distract or titillate with novelty. Either a piece has the great melodic flow, contouring and the harmonic wherewithall to withstand the clear, bright light of acoustic instruments or it doesn't ... and it shows. So, in a way, it is the litmus test for the skill of the composer. And here, on "New Blood" Peter Gabriel's music not only stands up, it positively SHINES - from great beams across the sky to the sacred hush of a single candle in the dark.
Make no mistake ... this is NOT "Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops do Peter Gabriel"! John Metcalfe returns from "Scratch My Back" to once again provide the orchestral scoring and collaborating with Gabriel himself on the arrangements. They have done an elegant job of it. Nothing is excessive or bombastic. Each piece receiving a perfectly appropriate setting, whether that be the 'Full' treatment, like "Red Rain", "The Rhythm of the Heat and "Darkness", or the extremely tasteful restraint of songs like "Downside Up' and "The Nest that Sailed the Sky" - the only instrumental on the 'regular' disc. Another subtle, but definitely enriching touch is the 3-4 second silence between each piece. It gives each song space to 'breathe' and the listener a perfect moment to reflect, absorb then anticipate. It's as if as you were at the symphony hall and waiting while manuscripts are shifted and the orchestra prepares for the next piece. An interesting use of a kind of silence puts a distance between "The Nest that Sailed the Sky" and "Solsbury Hill", something Gabriel indicates in the notes that he wanted. Instead of pure silence though, he inserts an ambient outdoor recording of birds and wind in the trees, done on site, at the top of the famed hill where he got the inspiration for the song. If there's a lot of noise in the room you listen to things in, you may mistake "A Quiet Moment" as several minutes of pure, unmodulated silence. It isn't.
The Special Edition comes with a second disc that repeats almost the entire playlist without a single note of singing. It works, perfectly. One might think that with the main melody line missing, the music might sound incomplete or hobbled - it doesn't. And perhaps even more so, you really get to see the full naked artistry of Gabriel's writing and co-arranging, unclouded even by his instantly recognizable singing. Here is where you REALLY get so see how his music functions entirely on it's own merits. The result is arrestingly impressive. Those who've followed Peter Gabriel's long and illustrious career come to see with crystalline clarity, on "New Blood", just what we've felt and claimed all along - he is an extremely talented and very moving writer-composer. Beyond Sublime.
PLAYLIST - Disc 1.
1. The Rhythm of the Heat
2. Downside Up
3. San Jacinto
6. In Your Eyes
7. Mercy Street
8. Red Rain
10. Don't Give Up
11. Digging in the Dirt
12. The Nest that Sailed the Sky
13. A Quiet Moment
14. Solsbury Hill
Disc 2. Is exactly the same up to and including "The Nest that Sailed the Sky",
after that, instead, there is a quietly beautiful vocal version of "Blood of Eden", also set to orchestra, to bring you back full circle.