Usually, I am a proponent of the idea of adding an orchestra into a rock song when the time is right. It can make a song sound very filmic in a good way, it adds atmosphere and a great feel of the epic. Metal and orchestras always go well together, but then, I’ve always had the theory that metal is the closest popular genre to classical (but that’s a whole other article). Take Dimmu Borgir for example.
Sounds just like something out of Lord Of The Rings in the background doesn’t it? Imagine that song without the orchestra, it would sound a lot blander. To change direction slightly, bands such as Aerosmith can use orchestras brilliantly too. Though, with them, rather than sounding like film sountracks, their songs end up getting chosen as theme songs when they use orchestras (I’m looking at you “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”), but that may be just because they are a bigger and more radio friendly band than Dimmu Borgir.
I’m giving the impression that you need a really thickly produced song already to make an orchestra fit in, but you really don’t. Many a heartfelt acoustic song has moved its way into the category of heartwrenching with the addition of a swelling string section over the top. The classic example of this would be Green Day’s classic “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”, but here’s a unique version of The Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the Love show too, just to show you how strings can be used brilliantly.
A little note on The Beatles here; they are the only popular band I can think of who have made popular rock songs with only an orchestra for backing. I think that’s an achievement not as much for the band, but for the arrangements of George Martin, in his ability to get hit songs for The Beatles without them using their own instruments for a single note. This loops round nicely to the beginning actually, as I had always thought that “Eleanor Rigby” would make a great metal song, but I am yet to hear someone pull it off successfully. Oh well, here’s “She’s Leaving Home” just for argument’s sake too.
Considering all I have just said, how the hell did Ben Folds manage to ruin the single version of his song “Landed” by adding an orchestra? By all rights, this should have made it even more heartfelt and powerful but no, the strings feel tacked on and in the way. The original is bordering on a perfect piano led pop song, why did he feel he had to add strings to the single, the version most people are going to hear, if it ends up sounding like that and turning from heartfelt and charming to overwrought and sappy. Just listen for yourself and form your own opinions on it, I’m going to go back and compare two different versions of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” to see whether my theories work there.