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September 21, 2012

Review: War of the Worlds - The New Generation

I've always been a massive fan of Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds, thanks to my older brother owning it it was probably one of the pieces I listened to most in my formative years and likely explains my modern day love of prog.  It is one of those albums where, should any of the songs from it come up when skipping randomly through my music collection, I will then be compelled to listen to the whole thing from the start and all the way through.  With that in mind, I will obviously, and necessarily, be comparing this to the original.  I know it too well to be able to evaluate this as an entirely new piece of music.
A few days ago I heard there was a new version in the works with Gary Barlow taking Justin Hayward's role, with Ricky WilsonJoss Stone and Maverick Sabre.  No mention of who would be the narrator, easily the most important role, and I feared Joss Stone would bring her bizarre anglo-american accent to the recording.

I had the opportunity to listen to it through and discovered Liam Neeson is the narrator.  He provides a generally good performance, but doesn't seem like he's acting it as much as Richard Burton did on the original.  I feel he could have put a little more into the performance in places and made us feel the shift from inquisitive, to concerned, to fearful and then resigned much better, there is much less variation in the emotions presented than Burton provides.

Gary Barlow shows up in the first track, his voice mostly hidden in multi-tracking but an unsurprisingly excellent performance.  He really shines on Forever Autumn, one of the biggest singles from the original, and shows he was the right choice for this role.

"Thunder Child" is my favourite track on the original, in terms of music, performance and the images it invokes when you listen to it.  Alex Clare, someone I have not had the pleasure of hearing before, and his voice is just perfect for this piece, whoever did that bit of casting deserves a raise.  Athough whoever allowed Wayne to put the dubstep sounds into this track should be fired, I may just be an old codger, but I don't think they fit where they are wedged in, and come across as just an attempt to squeeze in something very of the moment.  One of the strengths of the original is it's lack of anything particularly dating, the synths are bout the only thing, I worry that forcing in these dubstep bars will just make this rendition very much of its time.  That said, this is a minor slip in an otherwise extremely well executed song.

As mentioned above, I was fearing the worst when I saw that Beth, the parson's wife, was being played by Joss Stone and when it came to the track "Parson Nathaniel", I was expecting to hate it.  In reality, she gives a great performance in both the acted and the sung parts and compliments Maverick Sabre's astounding performance as the Parson perfectly.  Stone sings with a sweet, soft voice against Sabre's raving madness and powerful voice, the acting isn't perfect but is, thankfully, entirely in a British accent. Admittedly Sabre's spoken voice ends up sounding a touch Jamaican at times, but this ends up enhancing the effect of the madness he is trying to convey.

I loved David Essex's cheery optimist Artilleryman and had hoped that, of the people I knew to be involved, it would be Ricky Wilson that took on this role.  Wilson tries to hide his slight Yorkshire accent in a subtle cockney whilst managing to convey the delusional plans of the Artilleryman to move everyone underground.  As with the original, his optimism is contagious and you start to feel it could be possible, that this could be their way out, he's just so damned sure of himself, how can he be wrong?  Neeson quite rightly brings the Artilleryman and the listener down to earth, but it's a brief moment of positivity in a story full of tension, danger and tragedy up to that point.

Neeson's voice acting does improve towards the end of the album, "Dead London" showing that he can nearly get to the level of Burton.  He needed to, as so much of the end of the story relies on this performance, and the re-appearance of Barlow.  Whilst Barlow is probably going to be the reason a lot of people who have never heard the original will buy this version, he doesn't get too much of a role in reality.  The refrain "the chances of anything coming from Mars" is always the one that sticks in your head the most once you've finished listening, but it's not actually in there an awful lot, so Gary's fans may be somewhat disappointed by this.

Musically, I'm not 100% happy with production of the drums on some of the tracks and there's the odd hint at dubstep and even a short "trancey" section, but it's all much like the original.  Wayne has clearly lost none of his skill in the last 34 years and the minor changes he felt were required in this new rendition, exemplify the quality and timelessness of the original.  The addition of the weird Martian voices at various points adds to the imagery and is a really neat effect.

Overall, I feel this new version can sit side-by-side with the original and hope it brings a new audience to this wonderful work and if one of the tracks from it comes up on my shuffle, I won't be switching to the original, I'll be playing this one back in full.

"Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds - The New Generation" is released November 12th 2012 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.