Monday, November 02, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - King Crimson's Lizard DVD-A 5.1 Review

When choosing how to commence this series examining how 5.1 Surround Sound has affected the scope and sound of classic Progressive Rock albums, I decided to start with something that is currently available for purchase. You see, the heyday for 5.1 music releases was all the way back in 2003/2004. This was the era that the record labels put out the competing formats DVD-Audio and Super Audio CDs. Since that time almost all the releases have gone out of print. As I explained previously, the consumer confusion as to what exactly these formats were in tandem with the fact that most were moving their music listening away from the home stereo and onto iPods created essentially what amounted to a flop. Neither format sold well and have since disappeared off the shelves. I could go on as to why exactly this is one of the great tragedies in the history of recorded music, but I'll save that for another post on another day.

Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree saw through the market confusion and continued to release DVD-Audios of his own material. I'm not sure exactly how it came to pass, but eventually Robert Fripp enlisted Wilson's expertise in Surround Sound to remix the entire King Crimson catalog. Now, in 2009, almost six years after the major labels chose to can the format, we are finally seeing the first of these Crimson remixes. The results? Simply outstanding! The added depth of sound provided by remixing these albums from the original recorded multi-tracks has given new life to these compositions, the oldest of which is now 40 years old.

Lizard has always been a difficult album for even some of the most dedicated King Crimson fans. It has always fallen into the "love it or hate it" category. Those who couldn't grasp it have always cited its leanings of free-jazz as well as just the sheer amount of musical ideas crammed into each track. Dense is too light a word to describe the aural layering involved in its creation. As Steven Wilson remarks in the new liner notes:

"One of the first things I said to Robert when we started talking about the 5.1 mixes was that I wanted to do Lizard because for me, that’s always been an album that was too big for stereo to contain. There’s so much going on in that record. I’ve always felt that if presented in the right way, I could make a case for this being the most experimental rock record ever made. It’s extraordinary what they’re doing on this album. In terms of fusing free-jazz with progressive rock for me there’s almost no parallel and yet it seems to (be) an album that is overlooked by jazz fans and progressive rock fans alike."

He hits the nail on the Lizard's head. Listening to this surround sound mix is a revelation. I'm going to go through the album now, track-by-track, and attempt to describe some of the ways the mix is presented. If you feel that the idea of describing music in such ways a bit silly, then by all means go out and purchase this album for yourself. Since it contains a DTS encoded version of the surround mix, essentially any surround sound home system should be able to play back this DVD. If you already have a surround sound-compatible DVD player at home you have no excuse not to buy this. Unlike many of the albums I will eventually cover in the column, this has just been released and shouldn't be too hard to find either online or in-store.

Let us begin.

Cirkus: Amazingly, the album begins with the vocals starting out behind you and slowly make its way towards the front centre channel of the mix. When the rest of the band joins in, the full power of the bass is felt as Robert Fripp's acoustic guitar has never sounded quite so clear. This is what I would call an extremely active mix with whirling melotron and organs surrounding you. The song no longer has that cluttered feeling that marred the original mix. The spacing around the sound field really is well done and allows you to hear each instrument clearly. At this volume, the melotron is really something other-worldly. Shiver inducing stuff. The dynamics during the quiet section allow the return of the powerful riff with Robert's frantic acoustic playing to make you jump out of your seat. Like an explosion almost in terms of how it hits you. This has never sounded so good.

Indoor Games: Brass spread before you in the front, keyboards in the rear and vocals locked right in the centre speaker. The strumming acoustic guitar coming at once from the front right and rear left punctuating the "Indoor Games" chorus. Again, the clarity of individual instruments is a revelation to anyone familiar with this album. In the quiet bridge section fuzzy low moog (i think) sweeps around the room. The sax solo is in the centre as the electric guitar answers in the rear. The effect is startling. I'm hearing details that I never thought I would, and I claim to know this album inside and out. The moog effects surround the room in a rousing example of the warmth of analog synthesizers. I might consider this song an excellent candidate for a 'demo' track to show off the power of 5.1 mixing. Simply as masterpiece!

Happy Family: I never really liked the way the vocal effects distorted the lyrics in this song originally. Wilson, while keeping the same 'feel' on the vocals, mixed them in a much clearer fashion here. The first instrumental break features keys in the front left, guitar front right and flute behind you. It has the effect of being in the middle of the room as the musicians play. The increased fidelity provided by the DVD-Audio format and the fact that Wilson was able to use the original source recordings to mix this is really 'ear opening'. If you thought this song sounded too 'busy' during its instrumental sections before, this new presentation may be a revelation.

Lady of the Dancing Water: After the aural assault of the previous tracks, this track remains a calming peaceful interlude before the epic. The opening electric piano opens the song in front as the flute fills in the rest of the room. The vocals have never sounded so clear. The trumpet (or trombone) during the chorus whispers over your left shoulder. Again, another shiver inducing moment. Fripp's acoustic guitar sounds fantastic. So warm and lush.

Lizard: Attempting to go into too much detail to describe this epic-length track is impossible, but I'll highlight a few of my favorite moments. Jon Anderson sounds purer here then ever before. The harsh melotron swells haunt you from behind as the gorgeous piano stays to the front. The vocal harmonies during the chorus are now much more apparent as they have been spread into the rear speakers. Prince Rupert's Awakening has been given a new lease on life. There is no doubt that Mr. Wilson has a great understanding of this music as his presentation is true to the original yet so much bigger and clearer than before. The Bolero section's trumpet solo is anchored dead centre and sounds magnificent. The swingy jazzy section is a sonic wonder, with brass instruments seemingly coming from right across the front of the sound stage. Like a jazz band performing right in front of you. This is a smart and intelligent mix that is guaranteed to satisfy both long time fans of this track and those who were skeptical initially as well.

If there was an award for "Album most improved by Surround Sound mix" this would win it hands down. In fact this may be one of the best DVD-Audio discs in my collection. This on a brand new disc on a format that was long thought as "dead". I can't recommend it enough. It gives a troubled album a new lease on life and is without a doubt the new definite version. Get it now while you still can. Even if you don't own a Surround System (what are you waiting for?) then Steven Wilson's new stereo mix may also interest you as it does indeed go to great extent to 'clean' up the messy original. The real attraction here, however, is the new 5.1 mix. Believe me when I say that even if you were not a fan of this one originally, this new release may change your opinion on this forgotten masterpiece of Progressive Rock.

Although not indicated, this is indeed the new two-disc DVD-Audio version. Order it from this link and help support the Prog Rock Blog!

No comments: