Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - Porcupine Tree's Lightbulb Sun DVD-A 5.1 Review

I've already reviewed one of Steven Wilson's 5.1 mixes in the form of King Crimson's Lizard. There is little doubt that Steven is the king of Surround Sound. If my glowing recommendation of Lizard wasn't enough to prove this, I'm going to take a look at one of his own band's albums in the form of Lightbulb Sun. This album has already been hailed as a modern masterpiece by many Progressive fans out there, so I'll assume that this material needs no introduction. If you've only heard this album on regular CD or as a digital download (or even vinyl for that matter), you really haven't heard it to its full potential. Mr. Wilson has been a huge fan of 5.1 since the release of Porcupine Tree's In Absentia in 2003 on the DVD-Audio format. For a true artist like Wilson, the idea of a format that required the listener to sit down and really take in the full breadth of an album was an ideal platform for his music.

There is usually a confusion whenever I mention the idea of surround sound music. For those who have never experienced an album in this fashion, it may be difficult to imagine what it sounds like. The point of this series is to attempt to explain why I think this is the way for serious music listeners to experience their favourite recordings. The real key in understanding why this is, simply go step outside of your house for a moment. Focus on what you are hearing. Close your eyes. While it is true that we only have two ears, you should quickly realize that you are very able to hear sounds coming from all directions. 360 degrees of sounds. If someone were to snap their fingers behind your head, you wouldn't say that the sound is coming from your left or right. Our brains are able to quickly take the information coming from our ears and process it in a way that can help us locate the sounds very precisely.

There really are no rules when it comes to how one might use the extra speakers in a 5.1 setup. If you've ever had the pleasure of watching a concert DVD in surround sound, you might have noticed how well those speakers behind you help create the ambiance of the venue where the show is taking place. You hear the roar of the crowd and the sound of the instruments echoing off the back wall. A good concert mix can really make the effect of 'being there'. Some studio album recordings in 5.1 use this approach, putting you in the recording studio with the band. Steven Wilson, however, takes a more creative style to his 5.1 mixes. What I believe he does is create a 3D sound painting.

Sounds pretentious? Nah... I think that this idea comes from the notion that music can really transcend from being just simply background noise or, as I like to call it, aural wallpaper. Music can, and should be as immersive, as gripping and as emotionally engaging as a movie. By using the home theatre systems that are increasingly common these days, artists like Steven Wilson are creating audio entertainment that parallels movie soundtracks in quality of sound. Lightbulb Sun, which in fact can only be purchased at this time in a set that features the CD along with a DVD-A, is one of the best examples of how effective a 5.1 mix can be.

Take, for example, the album's second track: How Is Your Life Today. This simple little track, clocking in at under three minutes, is a true example of a 3D sound painting. Picture a dark shadowy chamber, a piano in front of you and the longing lyrics of Steven Wilson front and centre, reverberating off the walls of the chamber all around you. Then the first line of the chorus "How is your life today?" fades in from a disembodied voice over your right shoulder. The next line "How is your life?" emerges from a second voice over your left shoulder. The two voices sing the final "How is your life tooooday?" in harmony and fade to darkness. The spotlight focuses again on the echoey vocals front and centre for the second verse. "And the cat its been staring at me, all this time" is heard as the last word, "time", whooshes away as the protagonist disappears, leaving just the piano in the dark chamber. Then suddenly the room is full of harmonizing Wilsons "la la la"-ing from all directions. Things seem to be getting a bit brighter as the harpsichord joins the piano and the chorus repeats again with lush warm voices surrounding you. The light takes a sinister colour, as an evil circus-like sound takes over the chamber. As the last chord decays, everything fades to black. The pianist takes his foot off the pedal and disappears into the darkness.

Despite the flowery language, none of this at any point seems gimmicky. None of the effects scream out "look at me! I'm in surround sound! Whoosh Bang ain't that neat?". Instead one gets a real sense that there is an increased meaning and purpose in the sound placement to help tell the story of the song. This description is naturally just one man's interpretation. I implore you to seek yourself out a copy of this disc and draw your own conclusions. While this one track is definitely a standout, the entire disc is just as engaging and imaginative. I should also add that this DVD-A is a sonic masterpiece. On first listen you may find it to be on the quiet side, but that is simply a sign of excellent mastering. Use your volume knob and turn it as loud as you desire. Unlike the majority of modern CD releases, Lightbulb Sun sounds better the louder you make it. Simply put, this is audio perfection.

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