A live album by New Model Army was not expected, but I’ll take it. They have pushed the boundaries of punk since 1980, and this album is another example of how they outgrew the punk label. How many punk bands bring an orchestra with them? New Model Army was never just a three-chord band bashing things out with youthful recklessness; thoughtful songwriting and darker dynamics have always been a part of who they are. This album makes perfect sense given the breadth of their work, as it’s not the first time strings have played a role in their songs.
After an overture, they open with “Devil’s Bargain” from their 2014 album Between Wine and Blood which found the band moving into gritty folk in Nick Cave‘s zip code. The urgency in Justin Sullivan‘s vulnerable baritone is the emotional heart beat of their music, and the swell of strings shines a sonic spotlight on that fact. They keep to the theme by going into “Devil” from the Winter album. This song carries more of a rock drive to it. The interplay of the orchestra works well on this song. They go back to 1990 with “Innocence” from the iconic Impurity album. The symphonic elements add lushness to the robust attack of the song, finding the backbone of the arrangement intact. Then it’s back to Winter when they dive into the title track. The nuances of Sullivan’s voice can be heard on this one.
NMA lean into their more recent work with “March in September” from Between Dog and Wolf. The band has always maintained creative integrity by ensuring their newer songs measured up against their legacy. You can hear this when they go into a more classic song like “1984” and it feels like a seamless transition, rather than a jerk back in time. They pick up the pace with “Orange Tree Roads” which has more of a punk skip in its step. The addition of deeper cuts into the set like “Marry the Sea” works well to paint a better picture of what they band has done over the years. “Ocean Rising” finds the strings adding more tension to what was originally a rather stripped-down song, though vocal performance matches up well to the studio version.
They go back to 1986 with “Ballad” and invoke a different feel to the neo-folk original. The live version of “Passing Through” surpasses what they did on the From Here album. “Guessing” finds them returning to the Between Wine and Blood album. It carries the same amount of rock drive with this arrangement. They touch on the Carnival album with a version of “Too Close to the Sun” that aligns closely to the studio version – the strings just give a more resonant layer of gothic foreboding. Justin’s voice has held up really well over the years, settling into a more weathered baritone that is not really given perspective unless you compare this version of “Lullaby” to one that appeared on Strange Brotherhood twenty-five years ago, which is to be expected, and his voice adds a more reflective feeling to this version. He does nail the higher “You make me remember” parts of the climax, which is what I listen for as a long-time fan.
They retain most of their edge even with the lush ambiance of strings draping songs like “Did You Make it Safe”. When they reach back into their past to play “Shot 18” it is clear the punk attitude has been shed for something more thundering with age. Thunder and Consolation is my favorite album by these guys , so while it’s not surprising they include “Vagabonds” in the set, I will take whatever I can get from the album. This is where the band began perking up the ears of the clove-smoking crowd I hung out with, so takes me back in time to what I think of as the band ‘s golden dark years. I think this being sung from his baritone register makes the song a little darker than the original. The songs from this period keep coming with “Green and Gray”, which is a classic that is woven into the soundtrack of fans’ lives over the years, and this version stays true to your memories attached to the song while bringing new sounds to the table.
They close out with “Wonderful Way to Go” from 1998’s Strange Brotherhood album. The studio version has strings in it, so it’s not much of a departure from the album version. It packs the punch you want it to, and serves as a fitting “Good night” from the band. New Model Army sits alongside Killing Joke and Fields of the Nephilim as my three favorite bands that I have yet to see live, so this album caters to that fact and given the nature of international touring in a changing unsettled world, the chances of seeing them might be more compressed, making this live album even more essential listening. I think it gives fans a new angle with which to hear their work and a great entry point for those who are less versed in their work.
Buy the album here:
9 / 10