Orchestras and Rock- Will It Blend?

"Not Exactly What I Mean, But Appropriate Nonetheless"

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.

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Wolfmother- Cosmic Egg

"Is that him trying to grow a moustache for Movember?"

It seems like all bands go through a few basic stages of their careers. There’s the early stage, usually before they make it big, where their entire repertoire is filled with covers of their favourite songs, and songs very much inspired by the songs they’ve covered. Then they hit on something reasonably original and run with it, which it what will get them really noticed. Then in the later stages, they run out of original ideas, and end up repeating what they’ve done before, or go back to the early stage of riffing on other bands’ ideas.

With Wolfmother’s first album, they didn’t seem to need to any further than the first stage to get noticed. They didn’t do anything particularly interesting with it, but they did what they did do very well. They sounded like teenage boys messing about in a garage, working out how they could rip off classic rock gods such as Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and most notably, fellow Australians AC/DC. But you didn’t mind, because it was all done with a sense of fun, almost ironically, and rather than feeling unoriginal, it felt like a massive tribute to the work of rock gods of yesteryear.

Sadly, Cosmic Egg just doesn’t feel the same. Wolfmother have moved out of the first stage of being a band that they fit in so comfortably. But in doing this, they’ve missed the second stage originality completely and gone straight to the slight staleness of stage three, obviously trying to recapture what they had with their self-titled debut release. I don’t want to be too harsh though; Cosmic Egg has been (to use a reviewer cliché) a difficult second album for the band. Two of the three original members left the band, leaving only the lead singer. This may actually explain for the lack of ideas, or at very least where the new inspiration came from for Cosmic Egg.

Here’s the thing, where their fist album reeked of classic rock, this one actually seems to borrow heavily from grunge rockers Audioslave. Oh, the Wolfmother sound is still there, and there are still nods to some classic bands like The Rolling Stones and again Led Zeppelin, but they no longer are the only influence. Distorted Bass leads the charge on this impression, but it’s also a case of the vocal styling on a lot of the songs. At times vocalist Stockdale drops his classic rock wail, and takes on more of a grunge sensibility, which just seems out of place with the Wolfmother image.

Cosmic Egg is a pretty average album. It’s not bad by any stretch of the word, but you feel it has shown you all it’s got by track 5, and the rest of it just feels dull and not as worth your time. If you are a Wolfmother fan, you should still enjoy it, just don’t expect it to have the same youthful exuberance as their first album did. Sadly, these mediums of the rock world seem to have chosen the wrong bands to channel this time.

6.5/10

Standout Tracks:

Sundial

New Moon Rising

California Queen

Them Crooked Vultures- [Self Titled]

"Them Sweaty Vultures"

Superbands are an interesting concept. Members from successful bands getting together and writing new songs, which would in theory sound like a mix of the styles of the bands involved. From a marketing standpoint, it’s great. Bringing the fans of the component members together, all buying one album. It’s probably a load of fun for the band members too, as they get to step out of the shadow of fan expectations and have a glorified jam with other great musicians doing the same.

When it comes to ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ and their self -titled debut, they do sound like they are having a hell of a lot of fun, and you can definitely hear each member’s influence. ‘Them Crooked Vultures’ comes out of the confluence of Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. The root of the band’s sound comes from Homme’s gritty lead vocals and distorted guitar work, Grohl’s tight drumming and John Paul Jones’s melodic basslines. However, because of Josh Homme taking lead vocal duties, and the fact that both Grohl and himself have played on Queens of the Stone Age albums, “Them Crooked Vultures’ do have more than a hint of Homme’s influence in their sound. If you can imagine Queens of the Stone Age, filtered through bluesy classic rock and with a little sprinkle of playful avant-garde, then you’d be somewhere close to imagining the sound of ‘Them Crooked Vultures’

At first, I felt sorry for John Paul Jones, being the old classic rocker in with these 2 younger kings of alternative rock. Even more when I heard his bass being put through distortion effects on a few of the tracks. Then I realised that he probably had much more influence on the sound of the band that I had originally given him credit. After all, he’s the one in this group with nothing to lose. He was a part of one of the most iconic rock bands of all time! He wouldn’t have agreed to join if he didn’t like Homme’s dissonant leaning sound, and to add in those basslines underneath just give the songs an extra sparkle of classic rock energy.

For the Foo Fighters fans out there, don’t worry, you can hear Dave’s voice in there in places, harmonising with Homme and occasionally getting little moments to sing on his own. It’s incredibly likely that many of the guitars were recorded by him too, the multi-instrumentalist that he is. It does make me wonder though, what my impression of this album would be if it was Grohl taking lead vocal duties rather than Homme. On first listens, my dominant thought was “This is very QotSA”, but while the overall sound of the band is reminiscent of Josh Homme’s band, the fact that he is also the singer plays a big part in this impression. This said, the influence the other band members have on the sound make me prefer this album to Queens of the Stone Age’s last effort, ‘Era Vulgaris’.

This is quite a strange album, but a very good one. Sweeping pianos mix with out of time guitar distortion, some songs end with sound-a-likes of old movie soundtracks, and bluesy guitar riffs trade off with ones that border on the dissonant. What’s amazing is that it all works, and is a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. For Queens of the Stone Age fans, this album should be an instant purchase, and Foo Fighters fans won’t have much to complain about either. If any Zeppelin fans are on the fence about it, by the time you hear the bass in Scumbag Blues, you won’t be, I promise.

8.5/10

Standout Tracks:

Scumbag Blues

Reptiles

Gunman