Upon approach, Peter Gabriel's album New Blood seems like a rehash of some very old music — songs that defined the artist's post-Genesis career during the past 35 years. But Gabriel's new visitation is a considered and innovative one, a revision that tosses out the initial prog-flavored band arrangements in favor of new, purely symphonic face lifts.
That idea in itself might make longtime Gabriel fans wince, as all of his previous recordings, save for the recent Scratch My Back covers project, which began Gabriel's orchestral obsession, sported extraordinary ensemble support — a mix of prog mysticism and world music earthiness. Such designs also sported the support of several veteran Gabriel allies, including bassist Tony Levin and guitarist Michael Rhodes.
So the question persists: a Gabriel album without any of that or any of them? Luckily, Gabriel finds remarkable reinvention in this material — a mix of familiar hits (In Your Eyes, Solsbury Hill and Digging in the Dirt), longtime concert favorites (San Jacinto, Mercy Street and Red Rain) and comparative obscurities (Wallflower, Downside Up and Intruder). The most obvious blast from the past, Sledgehammer, is not included.
San Jacinto, one of the more fascinating revisions, becomes a ballet of wintry piano, percussion and staccato strings that makes the song, as the album title suggests, new. Similarly, Digging in the Dirt sheds the dark, reflective skin of its original version to become a more mischievous merger of winds and brass that eases into wonderful orchestral warmth during its chorus. The results recall some of Paul Buckmaster's majestic string arrangements for Elton John's early '70s recordings.
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Another fine reinvention is Intruder, one of Gabriel's coarser works, which now fits into a Kronos Quartet-like string setting before broader orchestral colors, Gabriel's whispery singing and even some distant whistling take over. Still, it sounds every bit as menacing as when Gabriel first recorded it in 1980 — so much so that when he works his way to one of the more revealing verses ("this sense of isolation inspires me"), the effect remains efficiently chilling.
Wallflower, on the other hand, allows the orchestration to embellish a mood of affirmation inherent in the song's original version. The same holds true for Mercy Street, which still uses a chiming triangle as its heartbeat, although the song is now colored with more glowing mallet percussion. It's also one of the few instances on New Blood when the vocal melody line of the original version is left almost entirely intact.
Less enchanting is Solsbury Hill, a song Gabriel himself seemed reticent to include judging by the liner notes — hence its designation as a "bonus track." Still, it serves as an encore — a merry blast of familiarity, complete with a bow to The Beatles' Penny Lane, that caps off a brave, bloody fine serving of orchestral pop invention.