“An infusion of New Blood” - Peter Gabriel’s new album reviewed by Alan Hewitt.

So, here we have the next instalment in the Scratch My Back project. As I may have mentioned before, I had certain reservations about this entire project when it was first mentioned several years ago. The Scratch My Back album itself did allay some of those reservations although it was still a case of hit or miss in some parts and Peter’s track selection in places struck me as being deliberately perverse.

However, here we have the album of orchestral arrangements of Peter’s own back catalogue and as such, the resulting album should make for fascinating listening. Did Peter achieve his goal or not? We shall see….

For those of you who, like me eschewed the expensive pleasures of the recent extravaganza at Hammersmith, or the shows elsewhere in Europe and further afield, the album I think will come as a great surprise.

Once again, Peter has not chosen the obvious tracks for the orchestral treatment although opening the album with The Rhythm Of The Heat was an inspired choice. Always a live favourite, the orchestration here remains faithful to the oppressive sense of tension of the original whilst Peter’s vocal can still send shivers up your spine, a great start. Downside Up too, retains the integrity of the original while the splendid job done by the orchestra gives a relatively new classic slice of Gabriel a fresh lick of paint.

San Jacinto, as some of you may have seen on the recent broadcast of the Jools Holland show, continues to be as vibrant as it ever was. Intruder has always been a firm favourite of mine from Peter’s work and here I was expecting something a bit special. The drawn out introduction eventually leads to a string performance which echoes the soundtrack to The Birds. Peter’s vocal has lost none of its power, and being higher in the mix this time round, the effect is simply amazing!

Wallflower too has always held a special place in my affections. Always an underrated (and underperformed) song, this has all the passion and drama of Biko and its message is made all the more impassioned by the stripped down version on show here. The same can be said for the new version of In Your Eyes, jaunty strings introduce the track which is as joyful a celebration of love as it ever was.

Mercy Street opens with what to my ears sounds like a marimba and other tuned percussion before the strings take up the slack. An automatic atmosphere of suspense and tension is generated into which Ane Brun and Peter perform a graceful vocal duet which still has the power to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

Red Rain was another of the tracks which impressed me on its performance on the Jools Holland show recently, and on the album it loses none of that impact. Strident strings and piano herald this one in suitably dramatic fashion into which Peter’s vocal edginess creates every bit as much drama as the original. The album is worth its price for this one alone.

I freely admit that Peter’s last album left me cold for quite a while but I got there in the end. Darkness was a track which I really struggled with at the time. Not any more, from the awesome “Psycho” style string intro onwards, this is a classic slice of Gabriel. I am not too sure about the brass section which sound a little bit too much like something from a Wallis & Gromit film for me but hey, you can’t have everything!

Don’t Give Up, has always enjoyed a special place in the canon of Peter’s work and deservedly so. This amazing plea for social justice has lost none of its power or majesty and the stripped down string/piano version here still works. However, Ane Brun’s vocals are irritating in the extreme here. Don’t get me wrong, she has a fine voice, but here you need someone with the vocal dexterity of Kate Bush to really get to grips with the passion and emotion the song is trying to convey and as a result much of its power is lost.

Digging In The Dirt was for me a strange choice for a project such as this. Such an emphatically “rock” song, I wondered how it would fare given this treatment. I admit the woodwind introduction didn’t really do it for me but by the time the vocals kicked in and the strings augmented an increasingly dissonant musical performance, the track had regained its edginess and the drama and sheer paranoia of the original are here in spades - marvellous stuff!

As many of you may remember, I was firmly critical of the Ovo project and the whole Millennium Dome extravaganza at the time. Time has not really altered my perception of this project and so The Nest That Sailed Away doesn’t cut the mustard with me, I’m afraid - nuff said.

A Quiet Moment too with its use of ambient sounds from Solsbury Hill itself leading us, funnily enough into that classic Gabriel track really detracts from the flow of the album which up until this point had been extremely good. The balance is restored however by a truly glorious rendering of Solsbury Hill in which the orchestra take this old favourite and spruce it up beyond measure making it a truly glorious way to conclude the album.

The second disc comprising the instrumental versions of these tracks plus a new recording of Blood Of Eden, make for fascinating listening too, probably as close to hearing a selection of Peter’s demos as the ordinary fan is ever likely to get. I have to admit that my initial cynicism about this entire project has been blown away by the finished result. Peter still has enough imagination and panache to catch us, his fans by surprise and make us re-assess our own preconceptions and if that isn’t the mark of a master musician then I don’t know what is!