pre-orders – remasters – alternative mixes – a boon or a curse?

Now that the good Steven Wilson has succumbed to the temptation to remix almost every important pop, rock or prog band that ever existed, in glorious 5.1 surround sound, with instrumental mixes, and extra tracks galore, I am afraid that I have succumbed to a new technological phenomena – the “pre-order”.

It was probably Amazon, bless their cotton socks, that started this trend (with my personal new favourite CD Store, Burning Shed, also well onto the pre-order bandwagon): order your favourite re-master or 5.1 expanded version of your favourite re-master, or an exciting new release, ahead of time, and you have the advantage of receiving it on the release date. That’s definitely a positive, it means you can get to the important bit all that much sooner: listening.

I mostly consider this concept a boon, my pocketbook, however, views it as a curse, especially since the advent of Burning Shed here in Europe, a specialist shop featuring all of the music candy that I cannot, cannot stay away from – so now, it’s a double curse – if Burning Shed don’t have it, Amazon probably do.

This is the problem though, another part of the curse, which might be labelled as “The Curse Of The Crimson King” because King Crimson (or rather, Robert Fripp) is guilty of this as much or more than many bands, as time goes on, they re-release their classic 60s or 70s music catalogue over and over and over again; on the one hand, taking advantage of the leaps and bounds of technological advance, so we can get ever-cleaner, ever more amazing-sounding renditions of our favourite music, on the other…making us buy it over and over and over again… Sigh.

At first, it made sense – so, using King Crimson as an example – I totally understood why: in the earliest days of the compact disc era, Fripp’s record company produced CDs of the original 10 King Crimson albums on CD when CDs came out, and they did a pretty poor job of transferring this very important music – so, Robert Fripp invented “The Definitive Editions” which were the first truly good-sounding versions of King Crimson CDs, and I had no issue at all with paying again, for something I had bought multiple times on vinyl, and then, on cassette, and then, on bad transfer CD, and finally, on Definitive Editions.

The problem is, more time passes, more technological leaps and bounds occur, and it’s that time again; time to remaster every King Crimson album yet again. Until finally, in 2014, we get what really is the definitive edition: the Steven Wilson remasters, in normal or deluxe versions. We get to hear the original multitrack tapes rendered into state of the art 5.1 surround sound, by someone who if he wasn’t already, is fast becoming the guru, the master, of the arcane science of 5.1 mixing, the remarkable Steven Wilson – who started out tackling one of the most difficult catalogues of all, the King Crimson catalogue; everyone held their collective breath, but, Steven was sensitive, understanding and very kind to these songs that we all grew so attached to in the early 1970s or even, the late 1960s.

This, begins to cost some serious money, and, I am not complaining, no one held a gun against my temple, but…if I had known, I would have just kept my chrome cassette tape of my import Crimson vinyl, until such time as the Steven Wilson expanded box 5.1 surround sound sets became available; if I had skipped the first three CD generations I would have saved, literally, hundreds of dollars / pounds i.e. a shed load of MONEY, on King Crimson alone :-(. I shudder to think how much money I lost across the entire Prog genre over the years :-).

But that brings me from one of the worst curses, which is not in any way limited to King Crimson, almost every prog band in the universe has immediately jumped on this same cash cow bandwagon, from Jethro Tull to Gentle Giant to Caravan, to one of the best boons – and that is the 5.1 experience itself. Now, when I was in my 30s, I decided to invest in a 5.1 system, mostly so I could watch films with their proper sound tracks, in theatre style. Audio 5.1 was a rarity for a long, long time, I was always interested in it, but, there really wasn’t much to buy for the longest time – so we had to be content with our wonderful sounding movies…

Of course, change is good, and the change came – now, 5.1 surround sound audio is becoming as common as nails, on both DVD and even nicer, on Blu-Ray (my personal favourite format) and I for one welcome it, and I say “boon”, it’s a good, good thing, it allows you to hear your favourite music in startling new ways, ways that can make you jump out of your seat they are so surprising and revelatory, ways that I cannot really describe using words – you have to hear it. I started getting into this seriously when the King Crimson 40th Anniversary / Steven Wilson editions albums started coming out, I got my 5.1 surround sound system back out of the box and set it up, because at last, I had something to actually LISTEN to on it….

And listen I did, and I do – and the Crimson catalogue is while an early triumph for Wilson –it’s still one of the very, very best jobs he ever did of re-configuring a strange and wonderful catalogue, into the 5.1 surround sound format, and of course, at the same time, unearthing all manner of remarkable rarities, from outtakes to alternate versions to previously unearthed live versions to, in one case, on Starless (either version, either the 2-disc Starless & Bible Black 5.1 package, 2 discs, or the new 27 disc version – yes, I said 27!) unearthing a live track that no one into the band could remember. Luckily, their lyricist did remember, so now we have the piece of Prog delight that is King Crimson’s “Guts On Our Side” – a remarkable track, rehearsed for a few days, performed once, dropped from the set, forgotten for 27 years, and now – it’s back!! You want to talk about bonus material – you need to see the new giant Starless box set, it is simply amazing.

But – also – see this brand new disc, just released on October 27, 2014, and arriving on that day via of course, my Burning Shed pre-order – the 1979 classic album “Drums And Wires” by XTC. Wilson already had one XTC disc under his belt, the most excellent 1992 album “Nonsuch”, but he was just using that to warm up, and now, in 2014, he has delivered what may be his master work – “Drums And Wires”. I sat down last night, and listened to the entire album in 5.1, plus, a generous helping of B-sides in 5.1 surround sound, and then, taking up over two hours of my evening, from the Blu-Ray edition, a massive number of “bonus tracks” – sessions, live tracks, and a full rehearsal session that is every XTC fan’s dream – including discussions, instrumental run-throughs, and a remarkable timeline of music that leads up to the recording of the actual album.

In the case of XTC, that series of sessions and rehearsals was really the sound of the band transforming, butterfly-like, from the “old” XTC of the madcap organ and piano of the ever so slightly deranged Barry Andrews, to the beautiful, all guitars attack of “Drums And Wires” – with new member Dave Gregory undergoing trial by fire, learning a massive number of songs – including some, from an early session, that sound very much like the “old” XTC, and it’s a wonderful thing indeed, to hear the band evolving at speed, and to hear Dave’s contributions to the songs – and, the leap of confidence that Colin Moulding underwent, with his song writing and performance “double whammy” of “Making Plans For Nigel” and “Life Begins At The Hop” – fronting the band, and changing the dynamic once again – his songs, of which there are several, suddenly leaping ahead into a new maturity that no one really expected, while Andy Partridge, as always, up his own song-writing game by several thousand percent – as always.

But if I leave aside the glorious batch of extra songs, including several I’ve never heard, and, including two wonderful promo videos that I’d never seen – and I just concentrate on the album itself – oh my. It’s a real beauty, it really is. Everything about this already amazing sounding record is amplified, enhanced, emboldened, and I nearly did jump out of my chair at several points, surprised, because I was for one thing, hearing this music in a way I never had done before, and, at the same time, Steven Wilson had pushed certain elements to the fore in the mix, making a lot of great choices on instrument placement in the 5.1 surround sound field – an amazing job this time, maybe his best (excepting the King Crimson catalogue possibly) – a lone tom-tom hit from Terry Chambers, bounces off of the rear right speaker, into a huge cloud of reverb that then pours across to another speaker…two astonishing, unexpected cymbal crashes during the first few notes of one of the songs, scared the life out of me – I swear I have never heard those in any other version of this album I’ve owned, or rather, I’d never heard them so well.

Then there was the instrumental version, and that’s something that over time, I’ve gotten really, really interested in, and I am so glad that apparently, Steven Wilson feels the same way – for example, the instrumental version of Gentle Giant’s “The Power And The Glory” is absolutely mind-blowing, it is so powerful, so precise, and yet, so full of the joy of music – Kerry Minnear is an incredibly joyful player – and that is the sound of a band at the height of their powers, captured perfectly across five speakers by the very talented Mr. Wilson.

Of course, there are others out there, re-mastering and re-mixing prog, pop and rock classics into 5.1 surround sound, including such luminaries as Jakko Jakszyk of King Crimson, but right now, it’s all about Steven Wilson – and who knows where he will turn his ‘magic 5.1 wand’ next?

Some bands don’t seem to want to go down the 5.1 road, at least, not yet, but, they are interested in re-masters, sometimes, re-masters that we the listeners have waited for, for a long, long time – and this time, it’s Mr. James Patrick Page that I need to wag my finger at, for making us wait until 2014 to hear the re-mastered Led Zeppelin catalogue! Torture. But, worth waiting for.

The first three albums arrived a couple of months ago, but, Led Zeppelin IV (an absolute classic rock album) and Houses Of The Holy (Led Zeppelin does prog – or something akin to it, anyway) – arrived as part of the October 27, 2014 pre-order event, this time, from Amazon, and while there are no 5.1 mixes to drool over, the re-masters themselves are absolutely pristine and exquisite, done only in the incredibly perfectionist / with painstaking attention to detail, and – lots of guitars – that Jimmy Page can.

Each re-mastered Zeppelin disc comes with a second disc full of out takes, alternate takes, and various other musical delights, and as the albums have been arriving, the quality of those bonus tracks has just improved and improved, with these two – “Led Zeppelin IV”, and “Houses Of The Holy” feature the most amazing bonus material of all, from gentle acoustic guitar and mandolin tracks for songs like “The Battle Of Evermore” and “Going To California”, to instrumental versions of “The Song Remains The Same” (replete with lots of extra lead guitar – as if the song didn’t have enough lead guitar in it already!) and “Over The Hills And Far Away” – a song I used to play in Pyramid, the band I was in when I was about 20 years old – hearing just the instruments, reminds me of the hours we spent learning the song, I had to do the solo, so I spent hours and hours with this track – and I know it backwards and forwards – so it’s great to hear it, with Robert Plant set to “mute”, and just the band, and of course, Jimmy’s many, many overdubbed guitars – the master of the overdubbed guitars if anyone is.

OK, I can forgive how long it took, regardless if this was due to a small, or even medium-sized monkey on Jimmy Page’s back, or just his loose, lackadaisical way of working – but I have to smile, when I hear the alternate version of the strange, disco-funk track that is “The Crunge”, the guitar part just cracks me up, it’s so unlike anything Page played before or since – and the rhythm section rocks, as Plant moans over the top of this funky mess – and then there are those amazing John Paul Jones synthesizers, sounding absolutely astonishing in this alternate version of the song – we all used to argue about this song, was it rubbish, was it great – I would tend to vote for great, myself, and it’s fantastic to hear alternate versions of all of these songs.

Hearing the multi-tracked lead solo of “Dancing Days”, the band are just kicking it, and such an unusual rhythm, too – I’ve always loved the odd “meter” of this track, and it sounds absolutely wonderful in this “new” version, in the vocal-less “No Quarter”, John Paul Jones’ keyboard masterwork, is brilliantly renewed in this alternate mix, I’ve always loved this song, I’ve played it on the piano or on electric piano or synth, for many, many years – another very, very progressive track – and Page’s sinister guitar riff is fantastic, while Jones plays wah-wah electric piano – fantastic, and, with the vocal focal point taken away, sounding absolutely remarkable.

I can still remember the day the original vinyl Houses Of The Holy was released, in 1973 – I went to the store, which was just a department store, that had a records section, that was nearest to my house, I was still in school at the time – the store was a White Front (because, the front was white) and I was there when the opened, had to wait while the staff un-boxed the album – and, there were a LOT of boxes – and a lot of us waiting to buy the album – this would be the per-cursor to the pre-order, back in the vinyl days – going to the store on release day, to get the record within the first five minutes of it being available. Fantastic. The strange Hipgnosis artwork fascinated me, it’s a truly beautiful record visually, too – and I took it home, and played it and played it, and then – played it some more.

What had happened to Robert’s voice? In the two years since Led Zeppelin IV, something happened, it just sounded so weird, until you got used to it. Pagey and the rhythm section, as always, made up admirably for any inconsistencies in Plant’s vocal performance, but in hindsight, I think he did a great job of the vocals on this record – they are excellent, especially on the rockers – like the wonderful “The Ocean”, another one that Pyramid learned and played, an absolute BLAST to play on guitar – what a rocker. “Got no time to pack my bags, my foot’s outside the door….”

The outro of the alternate UK mix in progress of “The Ocean” is absolutely amazing, with Plant singing in a very high register indeed – vocals that do NOT appear on the original album, but that are quite brilliant – so singing live, in this mix in progress, we catch a glimpse of the erratic vocal genius of Robert Plant – a great set of extra material this time, on both of these new Zeppelin re-master releases – they just get better and better and better. I am really amazed, and I really give Page a lot of credit for taking the time to produce this catalogue, and, to do such a meticulous, pristine, careful job of it – Jimmy Page is probably / possibly the 1960s equivalent to today’s Steven Wilson, maybe.  Or maybe, Steven Wilson is the 2010’s Jimmy Page – who knows?

I don’t know about you, but personally, I can’t wait for the re-master of Physical Graffiti – that should be another event entirely – and, for me, it’s the last “good” Led Zeppelin album – after that, they were never the same. But this period – 1971 to 1973 was awesome, two of their very best records, while really, from 1970 to 1974, was ALL sheer genius, on the road, and in the studio – well, really, starting with Led Zeppelin III – for me, this is the Holy Trinity of Led Zeppelin albums:

This is the 1970 – 1975 version, which does give a good overview of the changes the band went through…

1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Houses Of The Holy
3) Physical Graffiti

Or, the “Super-Purist” Led Zeppelin Fan version which covers the timespan 1971 – 1973, and this was an amazing short period of sheer creativity, on a scale that they never really got back to after delivering these three amazing records:

1) Led Zeppelin III
2) Led Zeppelin IV
3) Houses Of The Holy

It was at the end of this period, in 1973, that I saw the mighty Zeppelin, live at the San Diego Sports Arena, getting to delight in a tour that was half a tour in support of “Led Zeppelin IV” and half, the tour that saw some of the tunes from Houses Of The Holy being previewed for the first time ever. I then saw them again, twice in one week, remarkably (due to insane levels of ticket demand – on a Tuesday night, and then, on the Friday night of the same week – in 1975, which gave me the view from Physical Graffiti looking back). Both tours were amazing, and unforgettable, and the 1973 concert, also happened to be the very first rock concert I had ever attended, at the tender age of 15, but I was already rocking then, and starting out with Led Zeppelin live is not a bad way to start at all – it has stayed with me, and I try to remember that youthful energy now when I play the guitar – a few years on.  🙂

But, whether I like it or not, whether it is a boon, or a curse, or both (probably both, I am betting) the pre-order is here to stay, at first, I did tend to resist it, but now, I take advantage of it every time, so I can get that “waiting for the store to open to pick up my new album, by my very favourite band at the time” feeling again. Wonderful days, when I just had The Beatles, and then Led Zeppelin, and not a whole lot else, to listen to.

Starting out as a lead guitarist, for me, Led Zeppelin was a great grounding for the aspiring rock lead guitarist, learning all of those songs – some, simple enough, sometimes, it’s quite easy to imitate Jimmy Page (say, on “Tangerine” or “The Ocean”) – including some really difficult ones, like “Ten Years Gone” from Physical Graffiti, in trying to learn that bastard of a song, my respect for Jimmy Page went through the roof – he was really a very, very serious guitarist capable of a huge range of expression, and he wrote some cracking good songs, too!

Will we ever see or rather, hear, Led Zeppelin on 5.1? I don’t know. But I do know, now that I have a collection of 5.1 audio discs started, that I would probably be the first 15 year old kid, in line at a digital “White Front” called “Amazon”, no longer in 1973, to get my brand new shiny 5.1 version of “Houses Of The Holy”. I will be there.

Please.

 

Meanwhile, I would have to agree that pre-orders; re-masters with expanded bonus tracks, sessions, mixes, takes – are both boon and curse, the curse being, I haven’t really got the kind of money to buy all the AMAZING stuff that is coming out on CD – for example, I have my eye on the new five CD box from original Genesis guitarist Ant Phillips – but I don’t know if I can afford it, so I have not yet ordered it. I can’t decide, I know I would like it, that’s not an issue, it’s just the cost. So the curse, which started with having to buy multiple versions of the same King Crimson albums, over and over again, year after year – now continues with a positive river of reissues, re-masters, 5.1 expanded editions, box sets and rarities collections – and my mind says “I want it all, all of it” but my pocketbook does not agree with me, it does not automatically say “yes” to every new release.

Would that it would or could. But hey – if I skip one five CD set, maybe then I can afford a nice affordable 2 disc set? Or, I can save up to buy REV, the latest software instrument for Komplete / Kontakt, that I have had my eyes on for several months – I really should just lay off of CD buying for a while.

But – I probably won’t, because invariably, burning shed will send me an email, with just ONE thing I want, I will go to the website, and find another four or ten things that I really, really want – and I try to compromise, maybe buy two, or three, but not eight, or ten or 12.

This is so complicated. Almost like a Complicated Game. And then, you get pre-orders. Sure, they are handy; they mean you get the disc quickly, you can also get special promotional items if you are one of the first to order, I have both a beautiful “The Power And The Glory” postcard from the Gentle Giant set, and, a beautiful “Drums And Wires” postcard, personally autographed by the good Andy Partridge. That can go with my full set of autographed 2009 XTC re-masters, I suppose. Except…they are re-mastering them again. With the right music, with more of the music, much more, with the right artwork – I am so, so glad that Andy Partridge created APE records, and has put right the many questionable activities of his former record company Who Shall Remain Nameless.

And perhaps the one thing that APE records and Andy Partridge have “put right”, is in creating this absolutely powerful new version of “Drums And Wires”, which is visceral as all hell, and so powerful when rendered into 5.1 surround sound by the good Mr. Steven Wilson, I was truly riveted throughout both the 5.1 album version, and the 5.1 instrumental mix – utterly fascinating, and it really does give you an absolutely new appreciation for the songs, you really do “hear things you’ve never heard” when you hear a good Steven Wilson 5.1 mix.
In my humble opinion, not speaking as a musician now, but just as a fan of music, and a fan of the band XTC for many years – I was so, so lucky, to see the very last live show the original quartet (the one with Dave Gregory, so not the original, the almost-original, quartet) in San Diego, before Andy packed it in for touring – that this 5.1 version of “Drums And Wires”, is, to date, the BEST of the Steven Wilson 5.1 mixes.

He takes a great, well-made album, and turns it on its head, making you hear things that were there all along, but, that you never quite appreciated because you were too busy listening to Andy sing or listening to one of Dave’s incredible solos…but, the amazing musical touches of the original production team, and in particular, the power and majesty of the now long-departed Terry Chambers on drums, coupled with the rapidly becoming-McCartney bass playing of Colin Moulding, well, those two are an INSPIRED rhythm section, and you don’t realise just how good they are, until you hear this in 5.1 – providing the perfect rhythmic bass and drums “bed” for the two guitarists to work over – and, work they do.

A supreme effort for Mr. Wilson, then, (and a proud rendering of what is almost certainly the band’s masterpiece) and I for one, offer a tip of the hat for his amazing work on this disc, it floored me, I am so, so glad I opted for the Blu-Ray, it just sounds SO incredibly good – it really does.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming:

October 27, 2014

Three Pre-Orders Arrive in One Day:

1) XTC / “Drums And Wires” – The Surround Sound Series – Steven Wilson 5.1 Mix
2) Led Zeppelin / Led Zeppelin IV – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.
3) Led Zeppelin / Houses Of The Holy – Re-mastered by Jimmy Page and expanded with a full second CD full of alternate mixes and bonus tracks.

CDs for the collection, or rather, four Led Zeppelin CDs and one XTC Blu-Ray full of 5.1 mixes and bonus tracks, and one XTC CD – so, five CDs and a beautiful Blu-ray – not a bad evening at all, a very nice thing to come home to, I should say!

And I do say.

Let’s have then, next, along with the obviously-hopefully-forthcoming Physical Graffiti from Mr. Page, how about XTC – The Big Express – followed by XTC – English Settlement – two of my personal favourites, from Mr. Wilson?

This would be a boon to my ears, and a curse to my pocketbook – but never mind, it is all about the music – and it is the music that matters, as you will know, if you regularly hang around in the land of pureambient as I do.

I guess I will continue to do pre-orders; which means that more and more, I will be expecting x number of items to arrive on a certain date, which will mean then, an evening of listening, learning and exploring – for example, I saw two videos that I’d never seen, and I heard several XTC songs that I had never heard before, when I sat down to explore the “Drums And Wires” Blu-ray at some length – and that was a wonderful experience, the videos were hilarious, with our heroes goofing around in classic style, but again, it was hearing all that music, music I’d never heard, early sessions, a rehearsal – so much effort going into the preparation of the album – and finally, making the album, with a long series of abandoned tracks and ideas scattered in their wake – but, still ending up with a couple of dozen truly excellent, and often startlingly innovative, tracks, enough for the album and for any number of B sides as well – plenty of songs to go around.

Well – when you put it like that…OK, dammit, boon. Not curse, boon. Sigh.

 

[expensive boon?] 🙂