NMA are well revered among their diehard fans. They continue to make music that is essential, are picking up new fans from a new generation, and have managed to side step any box that would try and lock them down. With a long and varied back-catalogue, it must have been an interesting discussion deciding which songs should be chosen. And out of the ones eventually decided upon for this collaborative, there were some to be expected alongside a few surprises.
Lead singer and founding member of the band Justin Sullivan stated: “There have been many examples of rock bands playing with orchestras but not many good ones. We felt that the most important thing was that it must not sound or appear like a band with an added orchestra but had to be a unified 40-piece band.” Getting that right – getting that balance and connection between the band, conductor, and the orchestra – would take some discernment and understanding of NMA’s music. Long-time friend to the band and guest violinist Shir-Ran Yinon, took on the weighty responsibility of arranging the orchestration and the integration with the band, and Cornelius During stepped up to conduct the Leipzig Sinfonia.
The recorded event starts with a 4-minute overture that introduces what follows. Book-ended with the opening intro melody from one of NMAs most beloved songs, Green & Grey, the gentle strings and oboe poignantly set the scene, much to the audience’s delight. The setlist then starts proper with Devil’s Bargain, the first of a 20-song set judiciously picked from across the band’s 15 albums and long and varied career.
So, did they accomplish what they set out to do? Overall, yes. As a recorded album, the quality of the mix is excellent. Sullivan’s vocals and his all-important lyrics are clear, the balance between the live band – drums, electric guitar, and bass – and the orchestra has been achieved; and the expected whoops and applause of the audience are well balanced, and not too intrusive.
Most importantly of course, the arrangements work and work well, capturing the energy and the emotion that is the essence of New Model Army. Innocence, a song from the late 80s, is one example that showcases this balance, with a perfect blend of energy intertwined between band, strings and brass, pushing forward like a runaway train. Following is Winter, one of several beautifully moving highlights where the orchestration takes the lead – showcasing both the emotively powerful lyric and melody that is such a hallmark of NMA, and how good a job Shir-Ran Yinon and Cornelius During have done in interpreting this in a way that so captures the spirt of the songwriting.
As promised, there are a few surprises. Lullaby, a beautiful ballad sort of lost at the end of NMAs Strange Brotherhood album (potentially one of their least consistent albums) at last is able to soar, elegantly wrapped in stirring strings and Sullivan’s yearning chorus. Whereas, Shot 18, not performed live for 35 years, feels fresh and renewed. Similarly, the orchestral arrangement weaved into the song 1984, a B-side to a single from their very first album 40 years ago, is transformative. The collaboration between orchestra and band possibly enabling main song-writer Sullivan to get closer than ever to fulfilling his original vision for these songs.
Most true fans could have predicted what the last few numbers would be. Sullivan announces the first, Purity, as possibly the ‘truest song we ever wrote’. I gave this album a few listens before sitting down to write this review, first time was in the car. When I got to Purity, I had to pull over before the second verse to soak it in. What a song, what a chorus, and here the energy and emotion is perfectly encapsulated.
NMA simply could not have done an event like this without including Vagabonds, with its iconic violin introduction augmented by the orchestrated string section, this could possibly be the definitive recorded version. The third expected song, Green and Grey, Sullivan dedicates to his late collaborative partner, Robert Heaton, who wrote the original music. The band take a back seat, and what follows is akin to a musical elegy, discerningly composed and emotionally measured, and possibly not without a dry eye in the house.
The band climb back into the front seat for the last song, Wonderful Way To Go, another fan favourite and often played live. Everything is thrown in for this one and It makes for a grand finale.
Live albums can succeed or fail to capture the heart and soul of a live performance and are often made up of a compilation of different takes across a band’s tour carefully mixed in the studio. On this occasion, the band and the orchestra only had the one shot to get it right. It was an ambitious and bold venture, and they nailed it.
The album and accompanying DVD can be preordered in several formats via their website: www.newmodelarmy.org
Overture (LP side A)
Devil’s Bargain (Orchestral Version)
Devil (Orchestral Version)
Innocence (Orchestral Version)
Winter (Orchestral Version) (LP side B)
March In September (Orchestral Version)
1984 (Orchestral Version)
Orange Tree Roads (Orchestral Version)
Marry The Sea (Orchestral Version) (LP side C)
Ocean Rising (Orchestral Version)
Ballad (Orchestral Version)
Passing Through (Orchestral Version)
Guessing (Orchestral Version) (LP side D)
Too Close to the Sun (Orchestral Version)
Lullaby (Orchestral Version)
Did You Make It Safe? (Orchestral Version)
Shot 18 (Orchestral Version) (LP side E)
Purity (Orchestral Version)
Vagabonds (Orchestral Version)
Green and Grey (Orchestral Version) (LP Side F)
Wonderful Way To Go (Orchestral Version)