On paper, New Blood -- which features orchestral versions of Peter Gabriel’s best-known songs – simply shouldn’t work. There are just so many ways for something like this to go wrong: sacrificing percussive momentum for grand pseudo-classical ambitions, smothering the material’s original intensity in a blanket of billowing strings, pushing already expansive compositions over the line into pomposity... you name it. The album’s predecessor, 2010’s Scratch My Back, is a different story; while it also found Gabriel swapping drums and guitars for strings, horns, and woodwinds, it contained covers of tunes by a wide variety of other artists, and few of the songs were as well known as the Gabriel hits rearranged for New Blood. And then, of course, there are the natural concerns that a man who has released only one proper album of new material since 1992 might be sifting the silt from the bottom of the riverbed.
In case you haven’t yet guessed where this is going, look out for that other shoe on its way to the floor – against the aforementioned odds, New Blood works strikingly well. For one thing, Gabriel has largely avoided sourcing his first two albums, which contain his most overtly rock-oriented songs and would have proven toughest to translate into this context. Similarly, he has shied away from the most intensely groove-based of his hits, like “Shock The Monkey,” “I Have the Touch,” “Sledgehammer,” and “Big Time.” Instead, he has wisely focused on his more cinematic material; from the mystical desert landscapes of “Rhythm of the Heat” to the creepy psychodrama of “Intruder” and the metaphysical mojo of “In Your Eyes,” these are songs rife with impressionistic atmosphere. Given the opportunity, they can blossom beautifully in orchestral settings, and with the help of arranger John Metcalfe, they realize that potential here.
Also, in case anyone has forgotten, the 61-year-old singer/songwriter fronted Genesis in the band's proggy prime. He pretty much wrote the book on art-rock, so if anybody has a clue about how to reinvent ideas born under the pop umbrella in a more ambitious context, it’s Gabriel. If anything, these tracks are the purest possible representation of Gabriel’s aesthetic – New Blood is what you get if you drain off the R&B, New Wave, and pop influences and boil the PG sound down to its most essential elements. Sure, the albums is filled with grand, sweeping sonic statements, but they seem to come from a place in extremely close proximity to the art-rock icon’s heart. That’s why it works.
How do you record two new albums in a row without writing any new songs? If you're Peter Gabriel, you start with Scratch My Back, covering tunes from disparate sources, from Talking Heads to Arcade Fire, and then you follow it up with New Blood, where you pull off the additional trick of covering yourself. New Blood shares Scratch My Back's orchestral, willfully non-rock approach, but this time it's applied to old Gabriel tunes, including "Digging in the Dirt," "Solsbury Hill," and "In Your Eyes."
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