Thursday, December 03, 2009

Surrounded By Prog - Genesis' Selling England By The Pound SACD DTS 5.1

I hate the Grammys. What a load of baloney. If you happen to frequent this blog I'm sure you'd have no difficulty imagining my reasoning behind this. I'd rather get whacked in the face with Chris Squire's triple necked bass that he uses during Awaken then get a dirty little Grammy award. That being said, I do tend to get minutely interested when the list of nominations comes around every year for the Surround Sound category. Mainly because this is a category that Porcupine Tree usually has a chance at winning. I know for a fact that Deadwing won in 2005 and Fear Of A Blank Planet was nominated, among a few others, I believe. I was quite disappointed when Mr. Wilson's solo album Insurgentes was not on this year's list of nominations. What were they thinking? I think that it might be one of the most amazing 5.1 presentations I've ever heard. Fools! Not 'mainstream' enough for the narrow-minded jerks, I suppose. (cynical cynical cynical I am)

What has been nominated this year, however, are the new surround sound mixes of the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis albums. In honour of this fact I'm going to take a look at one of those mixes: Selling England By The Pound. I'm sure this album needs no introduction as it is synonymous with Progressive Rock. It's usually battling it out for top spot on Prog Archives' top album of all time charts, and rightfully so. A well deserved classic by all accounts. Yadda yadda yadda... Despite my praise for the album itself, I just can't give the same glowing review of these new mixes. Genesis' sound engineer of choice, (at least since We Can't Dance in the early 90s) Nick Davis, and Tony Banks himself were mostly involved with this project and quite frankly what they churned out is very disappointing on many fronts. The notion of going back to the original recordings and remixing old albums of this nature is a dicey proposition. In an ideal situation, running the old multi-track tapes through modern digital mixing equipment should provide the opportunity to bring enhanced sound quality. Despite this, there is always a danger of making too many changes to the album and as a result rewrite history (in a George Lucas and Star Wars kind of way). The approach that Nick Davis took on these Genesis reissues is pretty upsetting.

This album, Selling England By The Pound, was a warm and lush sounding record. On the new 5.1 mix (and new stereo as well) things sound significantly louder and much harsher. The more I listen to these DVDs (I don't have the SACD version, which was only released in Europe and Japan and was outside of my budget to order as imports) the more I think this is a huge wasted opportunity. In comparison with Steven Wilson's treatment of the King Crimson catalogue so far, these discs are a sonic mess. I find it hard to crank these albums to a level of loudness that I'm accustomed to with the original vinyl version without having my ears start to bleed. To use audiophile terminology, these are harsh and bright sounding discs. The low end (the bass effects) are severely lacking. Where Mike Rutherford's bass used to shake the room, it now sounds as though its been castrated. It's wimpy sounding in 5.1. Us Prog fans should be thankful though, the Phil Collins era albums are treated far worse. In fact, I never listen to the new mixes of Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering anymore simply because they sound terrible. The original vinyl versions beat the snot out of them every time. Just compare the new Foxtrot with Wilson's treatment of Lizard and see what I mean. No comparison.

It's not all doom and gloom however. The use of surround sound and its additional speakers is very entertaining. The added separation does give additional insight into just how all the individual elements come together to make this album what it is. There are many instances of discrete sounds coming from the rear of the sound stage. During moments like in Cinema Show, the acoustic guitars are spread around the room in a way that lets you hear how all those weaving 12-strings come together. Backup vocals usually stand near the rear to counterpoint the leads in the front. The marching band at the beginning of The Battle Of Epping Forest marches around the room. The mellotrons, while having lost some of its majesty due to the sound quality remarks in the previous paragraph, are easy to hear coming from the rear. Going to the original recordings brings out many new details such as the sound of Peter Gabriel pressing the buttons on the flute during the solo in Firth Of Fifth. There also seems to be some different vocal takes used in comparison to the original, such as the "here comes the cavalry" cry during Epping Forest. All these aspects should appeal to all fans of Gabriel-era Genesis so these will probably be of interest despite the sound quality criticisms.

To be fair to Nick Davis and Tony Banks, the use of compression and equalization on the Genesis remixes are very much in step with current trends in music mastering. Personally the constant loud volume detracts from the dynamic nature of these recordings. If you aren't particular about such things then I have no doubt that the Selling England By The Pound 5.1 remix will entertain and amuse. If I'm in the mood to really listen to this album at a loud volume, I tend to reach for my vinyl copy. That being said (I love saying that), I do hope the box-set takes home the Grammy award for no other reason than having more Progressive Rock albums recognized by the mainstream (for what it's worth). If I had the choice, however, I'd easily pick Steven Wilson's Insurgentes to be nominated and win this year's award. It may be the best of its kind, ever. Hmmm, perhaps the next instalment of this column should explain exactly why I think this. How's that for a teaser?

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