5.1

REVIEW: Rush – A Farewell to Kings (2017 super deluxe edition)

RUSH – A Farewell to Kings (2017 Anthem 3CD/1 Blu-ray/4 LP super deluxe edition, originally 1977)

And the men who hold high places,
Must be the ones who start,
To mold a new reality,
Closer to the heart,
Closer to the heart.

Today’s rock fans have a new reality of their own:  a market flood of “anniversary” or “deluxe” reissues far and wide.  The floodwaters are murkier when multiple editions of the same reissue are available, or when reissues are deleted in favour of new reissues!

2017 represents 40 years of Rush’s fine sixth album A Farewell to Kings.  An anniversary edition was guaranteed, but choose wisely.  For those who need the brilliant new 5.1 mix by Steven Wilson, you will have to save up for the 3CD/1 Blu-ray/4 LP super deluxe edition.  Only that massive box set contains the Blu-ray disc with Wilson’s mix.

To frustrate fans even further, A Farewell to Kings had a 5.1 reissue back in 2011, as part of the Sector 2 box set.  That 5.1 mix (by Andy VanDette) has received heavy scrutiny from audiophiles.  Steven Wilson, however, is well known for his work in the 5.1 field, and his work on the 40th anniversary mix lives up to his reputation.  His crisp mix is deep but unobtrusive.  It is occasionally surprising but always stunning, and over seemingly way too soon.  The separation of instruments is done with care, and without robbing the music of its power.  Rush albums were fairly sparse back then but Wilson managed to make a full-sounding mix out of it.

Powerful is A Farewell to Kings indeed.  Though the title track opens with gentle classical picking, before long you’re in the craggy peaks of Mount Lifeson, with heavy shards of guitar coming down.  Young Geddy’s range and vibrato are remarkable, though for some this is the peak of Geddy’s “nails on a chalkboard” period.

11 minutes of “Xanadu” follows the trail of Kublai Khan.  “For I have dined on honeydew, and drunk the milk of paradise!”  Neil Peart’s lyrics rarely go down typical roads, and “Xanadu” surely must be listed with Rush’s most cherished epics.  Volume swells of guitar soon break into new sections unfolding as the minutes tick by.

“Closer to the Heart” is the most commercial track, never dull, never getting old, never ceasing to amaze.  “Woah-oh!  You can be the captain and I will draw the chart!”  Poetry in motion.  “Closer to the Heart” may be the most timeless of all Rush songs.

“Cinderella Man” and “Madrigal” live in the shadow of “Closer to the Heart”, always there but not always remembered.  (Ironically enough, both these tracks were covered by other artists in the bonus tracks.)  “Madrigal” acts as a calm before the storm:  a cosmic tempest called “Cygnus X-1”.  Another great space epic by Rush cannot be quantified in language.  As it swirls around (even better in 5.1), you’re transported across the universe by the black hole Cygnus X-1.  Peart hammers away as Lifeson and Geddy riff you senseless.


The blacksmith and the artist,
Reflect it in their art,
They forge their creativity,
Closer to the heart,
Yes closer to the heart.

Next, Rush forged their creativity on the road.  They recorded their London show on February 20, 1978 at the Hammersmith Odeon.  Previously, 11 songs from this show were released as a bonus CD on the live Rush album Different Stages.  This newly mixed version adds intro music, the missing three songs and the drum solo.  (The missing songs were “Lakeside Park”, “Closer to the Heart”, and all 20 minutes of “2112”.)  Because this set has all the songs in the correct order, the old Different Stages version is obsolete.

Opening with “Bastille Day”, the London crowd is into the show from the start.  They cheer for the familiar “Lakeside Park”, which is followed by “By-Tor & the Snow Dog”.  This early Rush material is as squealy as Geddy has ever sounded.  He’s pretty shrill but Rush are tight.  It gets more adventurous when “Xanadu” begins, and from there into “A Farewell to Kings”.  Hearing Rush do all this live helps drive home just how talented they are.  The powerful set rarely lets up, as it relentlessly works its way through early Rush cornerstones.  “Working Man”, “Fly By Night” and “In the Mood” are played in quick succession, but is “2112” that is the real treasure here.  Anthems of the heart and anthems of the mind; classics all.


Philosophers and plowmen,
Each must know his part,
To sow a new mentality,
Closer to the heart,
Yes, closer to the heart.

What about bonus tracks?  You got ’em.  As they did for 2112, Rush invited guests to contribute bonus covers, and each does their part.  Headlining these are progressive metal heroes Dream Theater with their own version of “Xanadu”.  Dream Theater really don’t do anything small, so why not an 11 minute cover?  Mike Mangini is one of the few drummers who could do justice to such a song — well done!  Big Wreck do a surprisingly decent take on “Closer to the Heart”.  Not “surprisingly” because of Big Wreck, but “surprisingly” because you don’t associate Big Wreck with a sound like that.  Ian Thornley ads a little banjo and heavy guitars to “Wreck” it up a bit.  His guitar solo is shredder’s heaven.  The Trews’ take on “Cinderella Man” is pretty authentic.  Did you know singer Colin MacDonald could hit those high notes?  He does!  Alain Johannes goes last with “Madrigal”, rendering it as a somber tribute to the kings.

The last of the bonus tracks is a snippet of sound called “Cygnus X-2 Eh”.  This is an extended and isolated track of the ambient space sounds in “Cygnus X-1”.  Steven Wilson speculated it might have been intended for a longer version of the song.


Whoa-oh!
You can be the captain,
And I will draw the chart,
Sailing into destiny,
Closer to the heart.

Box sets like this always come with bonus goodies.  The three CDs are packaged in a standard digipack with extensive liner notes and photos.  Four 180 gram LPs are housed in an upsized version of this, with the same booklet in massive 12″ x 12″ glory.  The LP package alone is 3/4″ thick!

A reproduction of the 1977 tour program is here in full glossy glory.  This contains an essay called “A Condensed Rush Primer” by Neil.  Additionally, all three members have their own autobiographical essay and equipment breakdown.  Alex Lifeson’s is, not surprisingly, pretty funny.  Things like this make a tour program more valuable and as a bonus, this is a great addition to a box set.  Digging further, there are two prints of Hugh Syme pencil sketches.  These works in progress are interesting but it’s unlikely you’ll look at them often.  The turntable mat is also just a novelty.  Perhaps the goofiest inclusion is a little black bag containing a necklace with a Rush “king’s ring” attached to it.  Wear it to work next casual Friday!


Whatever edition of A Farewell to Kings you decide to own (the most logical is the simple 3 CD anniversary set), you can rest assured you are buying one of the finest early Rush albums.  If you have the wherewithall to own the super deluxe with 5.1 Steven Wilson mix, then let the photo gallery below tempt you.

4.5/5 stars

#645: Catching Up

GETTING MORE TALE #645: Catching Up

The last couple months were pretty crazy.  I was clocked out.  My wife’s cancer diagnosis and surgery really took their toll on me.  This resulted in me getting very sick right during Christmas holidays.  There has been so much chaos that I really haven’t paid attention to music.  I neglected my reading, I didn’t buy anything, and I didn’t listen to much either.  I’m just starting to get caught up now that Jen’s surgery seems to have gone so well.  She’s getting a little more independence back, and I’m able to take a little time to listen to music and write about it again.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my history with the band Queen.  I am on a Queen kick, but until recently I was missing two of Queen’s discs in the 2 CD format:  Hot Space and A Kind of Magic.  Eager to get back into the game, I ordered both from Amazon on a whim.  I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying Hot Space.  You wouldn’t think those synths and I would get along, but I’m digging the soul!  I already owned one version of A Kind of Magic, the 1991 Hollywood CD, but the extra disc has seven bonus tracks.

Soon after, the new CD by Mike Slayen called DUDE came by the post.  That enjoyed a couple spins, but I really wanted to go shopping again.  I haven’t been to a record store since the stress kicked in.  I had no idea what I was going in for, but I wanted to leave with a purchase.  There have been plenty of new releases that I missed, and reissues too.  The problem with new releases is, I don’t like to buy anything until I know what is on the Japanese version.  I want the maximum amount of bonus music.  So I decided to look at reissues instead and skip new releases.  Fortunately for me there was plenty going on in reissues.

Big Wreck’s 20th Anniversary edition of their debut In Loving Memory Of… was my first grab.  I didn’t think it was going to have bonus tracks on it, but it does:  “Ill Advice” and “Still Holding”.  I used to love that album, and I don’t know those two songs, so that was an easy buy.  For those who don’t know this band, check out the big single “That Song”.  Other hits you may know from this album are “The Oaf (My Luck is Wasted)” and “Under the Lighthouse”.

I then spied the recent 40th Anniversary edition of Rush’s classic A Farewell to Kings.  The 3 CD set was $30, so I tucked it under my arm.  Then I thought to myself, “You know what, I’d better check to make sure there isn’t another edition with more songs.”  Good thing I did.  Blabbermouth told me that there was a version with a brand new 5.1 surround mix by Steven Wilson on a blu-ray.  OK, then.  That had to be the one I get.  Via the Sectors box sets and other super deluxe editions, I already had every other Rush 5.1 mix.

How much?

$149.99.

Ahh, fuck it.  I earned this.

3 CDs, 1 blu-ray, and 4 LPs of vinyl, plus assorted goodies like a Rush turntable mat, a tour program and lithographs.  The CDs and vinyl include an unreleased (in full) concert, Live at Hammersmith Odeon – February 20, 1978.  A portion of this concert (11 tracks) was released in 1998 on a bonus CD to Rush’s live Different Stages.  This box set has the full 14 song (plus drum solo) performance, newly mixed by Terry Brown himself.  On blu-ray you will find the 5.1 and the stereo mix of the album A Farewell to Kings, in studio-quality clarity, plus three music videos.  Mixer Steven Wilson is generally considered one of the great masters of the 5.1 art.  The Sector 2 mix by Richard Chycki received a mixed to negative reception from fans, so I look forward to comparing.

And there’s still more:  new Rush covers by Dream Theater, Big Wreck (hey, Big Wreck again!), The Trews and Alain Johannes.  Plus a final mystery bonus track called “Cygnus X-2 Eh!”

It’s going to be fun digging into the Rush over  the next week or so.  But I wasn’t done catching up.  Because of all the shit that happened, I didn’t get to see Star Wars in the theatres.  Yes, I’m sorry folks, I’ll admit it:  Until now I only saw The Last Jedi online.  This, of course, could not stand.  I must see every Star Wars Saga film in the theatre three times, minimum.  For The Force Awakens, it was four.  Fortunately the Waterloo Galaxy still had a 3D screening, which has disappeared elsewhere in town.  Now I just have to see it two more times (2D will do fine).

I still have quite a few issues with The Last Jedi.  The slow motion is annoying as hell, and the Finn/Rose side story is still just a side story.  The ending is still at odds with set style of the saga Saga, and the movie could have used some editing.  In general I enjoyed the film more this time.  The Last Jedi is more poem than plot, but it has many rhymes.  I think it’s a fine Star Wars movie, and the fanboy overreaction is ridiculous.

Catching up feels great.  Music and movies still work as the best kind of escape.  I highly recommend both.

 

 

 

REVIEW: Jethro Tull – Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (TV special edition – 2CD/2DVD set)

JETHRO TULL – Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! (1976, 2015 Chrysalis TV Special edition 2CD/2DVD)

I foresee a future time, when every man woman and child will be able to buy deluxe multi-disc box sets of just about every album ever made.  While old geezers with greying beards will sit back in a rocking chair (a hovering one, no doubt) listening to multi-track backing tapes for every single Poison CD, our children will be able to do the same with a comprehensive book-box version of the NSync debut album.  It’s going to happen eventually, so we may as well get good albums like Tull’s Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! in box set form while the concept still has validity.

Of course this isn’t the first Jethro Tull album to get this kind of treatment.  A super deluxe Aqualung was a fairly recent release, and I received Benefit myself for Christmas last year.  The bold four-colour album cover for Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll makes for a splendid book-form box with plastic CD trays inside.  An absolutely massive (80 page) full colour booklet awaits you inside.  Rare photos are the norm of course, but a features such as “From Carmen to Tullman” about the late John Glascock are valuable reads.  Detailed liner notes will help you make sense of the track listing, and the multiple versions of each song included.  Almost all of this material is rare, previously unreleased, or newly mixed material by studio wizard Steve Wilson.

IMG_20151227_162750

Scan_20151229First of all, I was not aware that all of Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll was re-recorded for a UK television special, included here on DVD.  Anderson had a theatrical presentation in mind, so playing live wasn’t of interest to him.  But, apparently due to British law, the LP Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll could not be used for backing music on a “live” TV special.  Anderson’s vision seemed to involve the band miming to the album while pulling amusing faces and occasionally acting out the lyrics.  In order to mime and do it legally, brand new recordings of every song had to be made!  In fact the band painstakingly took great care in recreating the album, although there are also obvious differences.  For the DVD and CD, these tracks been newly mixed and are available for the first time.  CD 1 contains the standard stereo mix of the re-recorded album.  DVD 1 has the special in both stereo and 5.1 surround.

The original album was also meant to be remixed top to bottom in 5.1 by Wilson.   This was not possible, because the original multi-track tapes survived for only five songs, almost the whole second side:  “From a Dead Beat to an Old Greaser”, “Bad Eyed and Loveless”, “Big Dipper”, “Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll”, and “The Chequered Flag”.  Tull’s semi-acoustic nature lends itself well to a good 5.1 mix.  The audio field is filled out, but not to excess.  It’s a good balance and the tracks included in 5.1 shine with fresh light.  Do not be surprised to hear parts you didn’t hear before.

The bonus associated tracks are a light collection of rare Tull.  The two bonus tracks from the prior 2002 remaster, “One Brown Mouse” and “A Small Cigar” are included here unaltered on CD 2, or on lossless 96/24 stereo PCM on DVD 2.  The unreleased tracks are excellent.  “Salamander’s Rag Time” sounds like the Jethro Tull collaborating with the Beatles via “A Day in the Life”.  Meanwhile, “Commercial Traveller” is a lushly arranged and recorded ode to the road with full strings and Martin Barre guitar blazes.  “Strip Cartoon” also has quaint Beatles-isms though it is really just a bright Tull acoustic jaunt.  An incredible instrumental take of “Salamander” is pure delight, hearing it ring in live perfection.  There is also a bare acoustic version of “A Small Cigar”, and earlier versions of “Quiz Kid” and the title track.  As always, these are available on both the CDs and DVDs.  Four of these (“Salamander’s Rag Time”, “Commercial Traveller”, “Strip Cartoon” and the acoustic “Small Cigar”) can be heard in 5.1, again mixed by Wilson.  Expect the same level of lushness and quality as the album tracks, although with the acoustic arrangements, it’s more about the spaces between.

One of the great advantages of the DVD format is the ability to re-release classic Quadrophonic mixes for modern audio systems.  Like many rock bands (and especially progressive rock bands) of the early 1970’s, Jethro Tull released Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll in Quad.  That long unavailable version is right here in 4.0, on DVD 2.  It’s certainly an interesting animal.  Where Steven Wilson’s 5.1 mixes envelope the listener in clouds of Tull music, the Quad mixes things hard into individual channels.  It’s an interesting experience.  The vocals are mostly on the right, the flute behind, and the other instruments tucked into their corners.  If you want to hear it as if the music is coming from four separate corners of the room, then this Quad mix is that exactly.  There is something to be said for this, because you can clearly hear each instrument isolated, and easy to study.  You can easily lose yourself in a particular part of the mix, which is the benefit and weakness of the format.  Regardless, the classic 1976 Quad mix has parts you won’t hear elsewhere, and it’s available again, and that is a good thing.

With all this talk of extras and remixes and surround sound, the original album is almost overlooked!  Fear not.  A bit like an afterthought, the original, stereo, classic Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! is here, as the final 11 songs on CD 2.  Even the Benefit super deluxe box set didn’t include the original album on CD.  If you prefer lossless stereo, it’s there on DVD, too.

What of the original album, then?  Well, I reviewed that in 2012, and you can read all about it here.   A brief summary:


 

SAM_1882Like many Tull albums from the mid-70’s, there’s plenty of acoustics to go around accompanied by lovely flute passages and complex drum patterns.  There’s also some horns and orchestration courtesy of David Palmer (not yet a full member of the band).  Personal highlights:

  • “Salamander”, a folksy number with intricate acoustics.
  • The harmonica riffing of “Taxi Grab”, reminiscent of an earlier bluesier Jethro Tull.  The guitar soloing (both electric and acoustic) is also divine.
  • “Big Dipper”, a playful yet complex number with plenty of flute and a fun chorus.
  • The masterpiece title track (obviously), lush with ochestration.
  • “Pied Piper”, one of the most obviously catchy songs on the whole album, albeit still complex with multiple parts and section.
  • The final track of the album, a slow but dramatic grandiose number called “The Chequered Flag (Dead or Alive)”.

 

Too old to rock ‘n’ roll?  Never.  Buy this for the grandpa on your lists.

4/5 stars

DVD REVIEW: AC/DC – No Bull: The Director’s Cut (1996)


Scan_20150926AC/DC – No Bull: The Director’s Cut (originally 1996, DVD 2008 Sony)

The Plaza de Toro in Madrid is an incredible looking venue.  “Nice place you got here!” understates Brian Johnson.  To film a concert video here seems an easy decision.  A crane and giant wrecking ball dominate the scene.  The ball swings and bowls over the backdrop!  Enter:  Angus Young!

“Back in Black”* is a natural opener:  Everybody knows it, and the groove is impossible to ignore. Johnson’s voice is ragged and weak compared to the old days, although I think Brian sounds better in general today.  A pre-crystal meth Phil Rudd dons spectacles, and hammers out the beat that, truthfully, he invented and does best.  Having Phil back for that period of the band was a coup.  It’s back to the Bon Scott years then, with “Shot Down in Flames”.  Now Brian sounds more in his element, somehow seeming more in control on a Bon song.  As if it took them one song to warm up, everything feels in gear now.  Then, “Thunderstruck” is an interesting take, because Phil didn’t play this song before.  Chris Slade was in the band at that time, and Phil doesn’t even try to imitate his style.  He plays “Thunderstruck” his own way, which is fine.  There’s a live version, with Slade, on AC/DC Live.  With Phil on the kit, “Thunderstruck” is no longer filled with nervous energy, but is more in the pocket.  It’s an interesting evolution.  Contrast this with any live video of the current lineup playing the song with Slade today.

“Girls Got Rhythm” is an easy classic, which warms the crowd up with a newbie:  “Hard as a Rock”*, the single from Ballbreaker.  All but instantly, it sounds like a familiar classic.  This is high quality rock, with Johnson’s voice in full shred.  Colourful lights illuminate the stage, but only Brian and Angus are really mobile.  Cliff Williams and Malcolm Young rock steadily, sticking to their respective sides, and stepping up to the mic for the big chorus.  The crowd goes nuts when Angus himself speaks.  The stage is huge, but Brian Johnson runs across every inch, interacting with the massive crowd as a veteran frontman can.  Then AC/DC knock ’em down (down down) easily on “Shoot to Thrill”.  There is a rock and roll purity to this show:  A bunch of guys in jeans (Angus excepted), playing hard rock and roll, but contrasted with that is the massive stage.  AC/DC can do it because people love the personalities of the band.  Angus doesn’t miss a note, no matter where he’s running off to next.

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Phil smokes a cigarette during the blues number “Boogie Man”. Starting sluggishly, “Boogie Man” nails it as soon as Brian gets screaming.  I’m sure AC/DC can play this kind of thing in their sleep!  Angus has an extended solo during which he gets the crowd riled up and ready with his strip-tease moment.  When he finally drops his drawers, his undies have the Spanish flag on them.  Madrid eats every bit of it up.  AC/DC clustered a bunch of new songs close to each other at this point, and “Hail Caesar”** is next.  It’s time for a heavy prowler, and Caesar brings it on.

When the bell tolls, you know what’s happening. “Hell’s Bells”!  Songs like this, “Dog Eat Dog”** and “The Jack” require no commentary.  The sight of Johnson descending from a giant iron bell is pretty cool.

Last newbie of the night is “Ballbreaker”* itself, a blast of “shut the fuck up and listen t0 this” right in the face.  This time, Brian is swinging from the wrecking ball, singing the whole time, kicking his feet in the air.  AC/DC have crushed it…but there’s still lots more to go.  “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”, “Dirty Deeds”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”**, “Rosie”*, “T.N.T.”…it’s all a good time, and you know them all.  The only real critique is there is a gap in the setlist, with no songs from 1983-1988 appearing anywhere.

“Let There Be Rock” is, as usual, extended to epic length with Angus’ brilliant solo.  First of all, it’s incredible that Angus still has this much energy after playing and stomping through a show this long.  What’s really amazing is that everybody in the band is fully fueled for this full-speed song.  Malcolm sips from a water bottle — that’s the key, folks.  Hydration.

The cool part here is when Angus departs the stage (band playing on), to re-emerge atop the massive shoulders of a bodyguard and taken to a flying platform in the middle of the crowd!  Many thrills later, Brian says goodnight, but you know he’s teasing.  “Highway to Hell” commences with explosions, flames and Angus’ devil horns.  And then, finally,the cannons”  “For Those About to Rock” is the salute to Madrid , who witnessed an absolutely incredible AC/DC concert.

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The DVD bonus features are cool, as you should expect.  The “Angus Cam” versions of four songs is plenty fun, by focusing solely on Angus in the edit.  It’s quite incredible to just watch the man play, because it seems as if he is entranced, on auto-pilot, but totally in command.  If there wasn’t a guitar around his neck you might think he’s having a seizure!  Then come the moments when he looks the crowd in the eye, and the playing only gets more intense!  Like I said: this is plenty fun.

Then we have two bonus tracks not included in the Madrid set:  “Cover You in Oil” (Sweden) and “Down Payment Blues” (Florida).   “Cover You in Oil” is raw and sweaty.  I don’t think the song is particularly strong, sounding a bit like a Blow Up Your Video outtake.  Still, it’s always nice to get another new song on the DVD, since it’s doubtful a track like this will ever re-enter the setlists.  The stupid music video footage that is editing into the tracks is annoying, however.  Instead of watching Angus take a solo live, I’m watching him doing it in a music video.  Bad editing decision.  I like how Brian introduces “Down Payment Blues”:  “This is from one of the albums…back in the 70’s…”  Shit, he doesn’t know, he wasn’t there!  But he gets the job done anyhow.  And guess what?  Brian Johnson is wearing the same damn blue shirt and hat at every show!  His snarl adds to this version of the song.

What’s with the “Director’s Cut”?  It seems the original 1996 VHS release (which I never saw) was rushed out for the Christmas season to the dissatisfaction of award winning director David Mallet.  He did a new edit, and new stereo and 5.1 mixes for the DVD release.

4/5 stars

*Indicates this version is available in audio form on the 2 CD edition of Stiff Upper Lip.

**Indicates this version is available in audio form on the deluxe Backtracks box set.

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#393: Format of Choice

RECORD STORE TALES MkII: Getting More Tale
#393: Format of Choice

What is your audio format of choice?  Which is the one that makes up the majority of your collection?

In addition to occasionally speaking in the third person, LeBrain has specific wants and needs in his music collection.  I have a fast and loose set of rules when it comes to choosing the format on which I buy new music.  Some, like Deke from Arena Rock – Thunder Bay and Beyond, prefer the ease and speed of downloading from iTunes.  Others, like 1537, prefer vinyl.  How do you decide what formats to buy your music on?

Here are my collection priorities:

#1.  Compact Disc

99% of my collection is on CD.  I have many reasons for this.  One is the superior sound quality:  a CD just sounds better than an mp3.  A CD won’t crash like a hard drive.  The oldest CDs in my collection are over 25 years old, and still look and play perfect.  They have always been stored in their CD cases after use, in a cool dry place.  They do not suffer from CD rot, which is a deterioration of the aluminum layer inside a CD due to oxidation.  The discs may not last 100 years, but I am confident that most if not all will be enjoyed through my lifetime.  CD rot can be minimized or prevented just by handling your CDs correctly.

I have chosen CD as my #1 format for other reasons other than longevity.  They are easily transferred to mp3 for better portability (they are already easily portable).  Playing mp3 files in a mobile environment like my car can only extend the life of the source CD.  Also, compact discs are easy to store and just look cool when all lined up in my collection!

I buy almost all my CDs online now, and they ship fast and easy.  Most of the time the packages will even fit in my mailbox, saving me a trip to the post office!  For these simple reasons, CDs are the lion’s share of the LeBrain Library.

#2. Vinyl

IMG_20150420_174459Today’s vinyl LP has been around since 1948, and even then the technology wasn’t new.  It merely updated and standardized something that had been playing on gramophones for a couple decades.  They used to be made out of substances such as hard rubber and shellac, but vinyl proved to be versatile and enduring.

Since vinyl has been around so long, and couldn’t even be killed off by the cassette or compact disc, it is safe to say you should always be able to buy something to play an LP.  However, an LP doesn’t have the longevity of a CD in terms of a long playing life.  Your CD laser never makes contact with the plastic, but your stylus does contact the surface of the vinyl.  The force of friction means that every play will wear down your LP, even if it’s only microscopically.  The key is to use good clean equipment and records.  If you do, a record will outlast a temporary format such as VHS or cassette tape.  Minimizing friction-causing dust particles extends the life of both LP and needle.

For all these reasons, vinyl is my second priority in format collecting.  They are bigger and take up more room, but when I want the warmth of an LP or just bigger cover art, there is only one way to go.  180 gram vinyl is especially nice to hold and listen to.  For buying old albums affordably, vinyl is a great alternative to CD.  Some old metal albums have had limited CD releases in other territories, making them expensive and hard to get once they go out of print.  Vinyl can be a cheaper alternative for your collection.

Vinyl bonus tracks are a slam-dunk reason to buy an LP.  Alice Cooper’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare is a great example of an LP that has a track unavailable on any other format (“Flatline”).  And of course Jack White took the idea of LP bonuses to the ultimate level with his “Ultra LP” version of Lazaretto.

#3.  Digital download (mp3)

I hate paying money for something that does not physically exist.  If I have to, I will, but I only “have to” when there are bonus tracks unavailable on any physical format.  Given the choice and the money, I will always buy the physical version, not just 1’s and 0’s floating around on a magnetic hard drive.  I hate that you (usually) don’t get any info or liner notes with an mp3.  I hate that your hard drive just needs to have a nice crash for you to lose this music that you paid for.  I understand the convenience, but digital downloads do not service my needs.

I know there are high quality download formats such as FLAC, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of not being on a physical format that won’t crash, and my issue of paying for a non-physical entity. I also know that a lot of people don’t care about these things, and I wanted to understand why. I asked Deke over at Arena Rock why he loves his iTunes:

“Here’s my deal: At the time when iTunes first came out, I had three young daughters. Getting to the record store (when there were record stores) was tuff to say the least, let alone the cost as well! I just couldn’t drop $20 all the time. Sure, I made exceptions and I bought actual product like Maiden and Rush, but iTunes became my way of music buying. Especially re-buying albums I had owned on cassette or vinyl. I just re-buy them on iTunes and download straight to my iPod! Now that my daughters are teens, I have just stayed the course with iTunes. I pre-order product from them, like the latest Priest, and the Van Halen live album. Convenience is just the way of life for me now! Don’t get me wrong though, I would still enjoy buying the actual product, but man it does boil down to affordability! iTunes delivers that and I can stay current with adding to my dinosaur rock collection! Ha!”

#4.  Cassette

IMG_20150420_174810Once the mighty majority of my collection, cassettes have been reduced to a mere novelty.  I treasured them for portability and convenience, but now I loathe them.  I debated putting mp3 last on my formats of choice, but the truth is, cassette is far worse.

Cassettes have several things going against them.  The first is moving parts.  A CD or LP requires no moving parts, but a cassette has spindles and rollers that rub against and wear the magnetic tape.  Sometimes a cassette’s parts can be too tight inside, causing it to warble when you play it.  But it’s the analog tape itself that is the real problem.  Even brand new, a cassette will not sound as rich as an LP because it’s not capable of reproducing the same range of frequencies.  A cassette has a built-in high level of static noise.  Then once you start playing it, magnetic particles begin to wear off.  In fact over time, tapes will degrade to be unlistenable, no matter how well you take care of them.  Even worse, record companies used the worst quality tape for their releases.  If you bought a cheap blank Sony tape, you would have better quality than a store-bought record label’s cassette.

The poor sound and lack of longevity are the two main reasons I’m still replacing all of my old tapes with CDs and LPs.  Anybody got a copy of Bonham’s Mat Hatter on CD for me to upgrade to?  How about Wolfsbane’s first?  Still looking for those!

#5. Miscellaneous

Not really ranked last, I just wanted to mention other formats that I own music on.

5.1 surround sound can’t be encoded on a standard CD, so DVD and Blu-ray have to step up to the plate.  I have several Rush, Queen, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple albums (among many others) that have been given official Quadrophonic or 5.1 surround mixes.  Often, these mixes include bits of music that are not in the stereo versions, such as guitar solos and fills.

The problem with DVD and Blu-ray is that I only have one home theater system.  I only have one place, one room in the house, where I can listen to these special albums.  I can’t play them in the car, on a walk, or at the cottage.  As such, a Quad or 5.1 release gets limited listens at Chez LeBrain.

How many people are there like me?  Let me know your favourite formats in the comments section!

REVIEW: Alice Cooper – Raise the Dead: Live from Wacken (2 CD/1 Blu-ray)

NEW-ish RELEASE

Epic review time.

ALICE COOPER – Raise the Dead: Live from Wacken (2CD/1 Blu-ray, 2014 UDR)

This beast of a set was a gift from the ever-faithful Aaron, and I do thank you so much for it.  Alice Cooper in 1080i hi-def, 5.1 surround sound.  The CD has more songs than the Blu-ray, so I’m going to review both simultaneously, but let you know when it’s a track that’s exclusive to CD.  Let’s give’r!

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“Hello Hooray”!  It’s still daylight in Wacken, when Alice proclaims to “let the show begin, I’ve been ready”.  Alice is resplendent in his sharp red and black stripped tux.  Australian beauty Orianthi has a drip of blood in the corner her mouth, and smears of it on her guitar and arms.  “Hello Hooray” leads directly into a modern version of 1989’s “House of Fire”.  With the three guitars live, it has a lot more bite to it, and neat six-string twists.  (“House of Fire” briefly segues into the riff from “With a Little Help From My Friends”.  Remember that.  That’s important.)  Not letting up for a second, it’s into “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and then immediately “Under My Wheels”!  There’s simply no let up as the crowd starts surfing.  Alice’s six piece band are visual and boast three lead soloists.

IMG_20150102_104812Newer song “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” is one of only two songs from Welcome 2 My Nightmare.  The cool thing is how easily Orianthi digs into the vintage guitar stylings of it.  She is an absolute natural.  Even though there are four other talented musicians on stage, she commands attention without even trying.  Alice chases her around the stage, as she casually throws down classic guitar licks.  He has changed into a black leather jacket.

“Billion Dollars Babies” takes the focus temporarily back to the oldies.  Alice wields a sword impaled with money, taunting the crowd.  The wheels temporarily come off with “Caffeine”.  I always welcome newer material, but I’d prefer just about any other song from Welcome 2.  Alice has traded the sword for a giant coffee mug that he holds dear like his “precious”.  Thankfully Orianthi lays down a blazing solo (actually two) , because otherwise I’d say this is my song on which to pee.  But, I wouldn’t want to miss the classic “Department of Youth” from the original Welcome to my Nightmare, one of my top 10 Alice tracks of all time.

I like a rock show with variety, so I’m glad Alice pulled “Hey Stoopid” out of his 1991 hat.  In the 5.1 mix, I don’t like the way some of the guitars just kind of drop out in the verses of this arrangement.  I’ll have to listen to that again.  It didn’t sound right.  Otherwise it’s great with plenty of shredding.  “Dirty Diamonds” was another surprise.  I saw Alice play that one here in Kitchener on the Dirty Diamonds tour.  That whole album is excellent, but the title track has a smoking riff.   Drummer Glen Sobol gets a moment in the spotlight, accompanied by bassist Chuck Garric.  A drum solo in the middle of an Alice Cooper show is not always a good thing, but this is actually a cool, worthwhile solo.  There’s some crazy hand-over-hand stuff, tricks with sticks, and interesting cymbal work.  Then it’s Orianthi’s turn.  She is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the best guitar players out there today.  Every note is worth something.  The whole band come together at the front line, and the crowd goes nuts!  Meanwhile….

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As good as the solos are, in the context of the Alice Cooper show, they were merely a distraction.  Where did Alice go?  The opening strains of “Welcome to My Nightmare” indicate Act II has begun.  He has emerged as the Showman.  Weilding a dagger in one hand, he leads the charge into 1976’s “Go to Hell”.  The two songs serve as a wicked intro to the theatrical part of the show.  Alice attacks lead soloist Ryan Roxie with a whip, but it doesn’t phase the guitarist who safely evades him.

IMG_20150102_120925Out of Alice’s trick bag comes “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)” the legendary campy 80’s theme from Friday the 13th Part III.  Stripped of the keyboards and drum machines, it functions as a living, rocking entity.  The three guitars enable the band to fill the spaces previously played by synths in the studio.  Orianthi’s guitar solo just leaves my jaw on the floor.   Keeping with the monster theme is “Feed My Frankenstein” from Hey Stoopid and Wayne’s World.  Alice has changed into a blood smeared smock.  He is strapped to an evil looking device by “Igor” and electrocuted!  Then a monster-sized Franken-Alice appears to finish the song!  The real Alice returns in a straight jacket for the still haunting “Dwight Fry”.  This most intense Cooper classic is well served by three guitarists, loaning a “Freebird” epic quality to it live.  “I’ve gotta get out of here!” screams Alice with the agony he manages to muster for every performance.  Breaking free of his bonds, he attacks Nurse Sheryl, only be executed to the tune of the exit music from “Killer”.  It’s the guillotine again for Alice Cooper.  His head is hoisted into the air by a black-clad executioner to a chorus of “I Love the Dead” (Alice singing off-stage).  Act II is over.  Act III is beginning.

Though uncredited, the opening music for “DaDa” (from 1983’s DaDa, a cool cameo) plays as Alice is surgically resurrected in the graveyard of the Hollywood Vampires. The Hollywood Vampires were the drinking club down at the Rainbow…the teachers and the students.  Lennon and Keith Moon passed down the ways of drinking to the likes of Vincent Furnier and Marc Bolan. A voice booms to Alice, “What are you going to do?  Raise the dead?”  So that’s what Alice does….

RAISE THE DEAD 2_0001First it’s Morrison.  The Doors’ “Break on Through” finally has balls to it!  I never liked the Doors.  I like Alice doing the Doors, so they can’t be all that bad.  What’s interesting is how Alice can morph his voice to suit these covers.  He uses a lower, howling early Alice voice to do the Doors.  For the next track, “Revolution” (exclusive to CD) he uses his nasal Cooper voice, to cop that Beatles feel.  He also does the opening McCartney scream…of course.  You have to have that.  The band hit the high backing notes perfectly too.  The classic riff to “Foxy Lady”(exclusive to CD) indicates that Jimi Hendrix is the next Hollywood Vampire to be honored.  Another cool connection is that both Alice and Jimi were important musical icons honored in the movie Wayne’s World.  And the song was “Foxy Lady”.  Next it’s Keith Moon and “My Generation”.  Chuck Garric gets a moment to shine on those glorious Entwistle bass licks.  It’s quite a bit more modern and slick than the Who’s, but the backing vocals are remarkably authentic.

Thematically “My Generation” connects to “I’m Eighteen”.  Ryan Roxie and Orianthi both play solos on “Eighteen”, and smoke each one.  Then, “Poison” is the final song of the set, a slick reminder that Alice Cooper survived the 1970’s only to become more popular than ever in the 80’s, 90’s and present.  “Poison” has stood the test of time.  It’s not a particularly simple song; just listen to those backing vocals.  They have to be right, they can’t be off.  Although I hadn’t really thought of “Poison” as a set closer, it does work in that slot and ends the show on a celebratory note.

RAISE THE DEAD 2_0003The encore of “School’s Out” is the real celebration of course; the stage ablaze with lights and Alice clad in gold.  It’s a mash-up with “Another Brick in the Wall”, proving again that mash-ups can sometimes produce fascinating results.   I love Alice’s stage introductions for the musicians.  “In a world where evil has a name, and that name is…Orianthi!  And playing the part of Alice Cooper tonight…me!”

But Nurse Sheryl returns to the stage one last time and stabs Alice!  I have a feeling our anti-hero will be back to terrorize us again on another tour….

There is only one Blu-ray bonus feature.  The pre-Wacken interview with Alice is cool because it’s completely uncut.  It’s only 20 minutes, but it’s insightful. Cooper is always a pleasure to listen to.  The concept behind Raise the Dead revolves around his old, long gone buddies from the Hollywood Vampire.  With this show, Cooper is paying tribute back to those guys, his idols and friends.  The show has some history to it, he says.  A little bit of a lesson.  But the kids already know the songs, says Alice.  The tunes like “Foxy Lady” and “Break on Through” are already familiar to them.  Every kid seems to own a classic rock T-shirt.

Cooper muses that his live show is probably as close to Broadway as many of his new young fans will ever see.  He reminds us that he has his own Broadway influences — “Gutter Cat vs. the Jets” from West Side Story, for example.  His own solo band is so tight now that he doesn’t have to worry about the music part.  Alice can get on with the show and performance, because the music is in good hands.  He has particular praise for the stage presence and chops of Orianthi.  As for the show, It’s no longer about shock, says Alice.  You can’t shock the audience anymore.  Now, it’s about entertainment.  Give them something entertaining and of good value.

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The hidden theme in the show is that everything is connected.  The kids pick up on the connections behind the music.  “School’s Out” and “Another Brick in the Wall” are presented as a medley.  Who produced both songs? Whose kids are on both songs? Bob Ezrin.  Connections!

The Blu-ray also has a substantial booklet included, the kind of thing that people who buy physical product still care about.  I’d rather have this than a crappy photo slide show or text on a DVD.  My only quibble is that I was underwhelmed by the 5.1 mix.  I may have had my setting messed up, and I will have to try again.  It was “Hey Stoopid” where this was particularly unpleasant to me.  I’ll have to check that and try again.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the CDs, which sound friggin’ great.

4.5/5 stars

This product is…

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REVIEW: Rush – 2112 (deluxe with 5.1 Blu-ray)

RUSH – 2112 (2012 Universal CD/Blu-ray 5.1 deluxe edition)

I received this deluxe CD/Blu-ray edition of Rush’s immortal 2112 for Christmas two years ago.  I meant to review it back then, but it slipped between the cracks.  Apologies.

The set includes: the entire album on Blu-ray in 5.1 surround sound, the entire album on CD, three live CD-only bonus tracks, hardcover packaging including a comic book, a new essay by David Fricke, and more.  Not to mention that the Blu-ray is a motion comic that combines the album with the included comic, seamlessly.

IMG_20141216_1454372112 was Rush’s fourth album.  It was make or break for Rush, and they went ahead and made an album with six songs, one of them being a side-long 20 minute epic!  That side would go on to be Rush’s best known epic, “2112”, which itself is subdivided into seven chapters (but not tracks).

Any truly epic album should open with an instrumental, and “Overture” is one of the best you’re likely to find north of the 49th parallel.  This regal anthem of guitars, bass and drums quickly leaps into action as an Iron Maiden gallop, long before Iron Maiden did gallop.  In this one brief intro, there are as many as four great timeless riffs.  It’s guitar riff nirvana.  All these musical themes will re-emerge later on in the “2112” story, but here they are condensed into one maelstrom of awesome.

The story is pretty simple, and is also nicely laid forth in the comic.  Our protagonist, who lives in the oppressive Solar Federation, has found an ancient guitar in a cave behind a waterfall.  He brings it to the Priests (of the Temples of Syrinx), to show them this wonderful discovery and the sounds it brings forth.  He is crushed to find that the Priests do not approve of this “music”!

Pretty highschool, right?  Maybe, but certainly no worse than what passes for Hollywood fodder today!

IMG_20141216_145411“The Temples of Syrinx” is chapter II of the story.  This is a ferocious metal assault, with Geddy in full-on scream mode, introducing the titular Priests.  They are the law, on this planet.  In my opinion, this is one of Rush’s finest musical achievements.  It’s heavy, concise and blazing fast.  In surround sound, I will admit I was expecting more.  The music fills the room in 5.1, but it’s not as enveloping as I had hoped.  It’s hard to specifically describe what’s missing.  Whatever it is, chapter III “Discovery” works better.  This takes place in the cave behind the aforementioned waterfall, and the water sounds have some depth to them.

“Presentation”, chapter IV, is when it all goes to shit for our protagonist.  It is here that he brings his newly discovered guitar to the Priests.  The motion comic makes it quite clear that the Priests do not approve!  “Yes we know, it’s nothing new.  It’s just a waste of time!”  The hero pleads with them, and tries to convince them that the world could use the music as a positive force!  But the Priest smashes the guitar on the ground and has no more to do with this nonsense.  “Another toy that helped destroy the elder race of man!” he claims of the guitar’s history.

“Oracle: the Dream” is chapter V, a mellow moment at first.  Then the character’s dream begins, and Geddy returns in full voice.  He dreams of change.  Alex’s guitars have a nice shimmer, as they fill the field directly in front and to the sides.   Waking from his dream, chapter VI is “Soliloquy”.  Like “The Dream”, guitars dominate.  Geddy’s pleading lead vocal is an album highlight, as is Lifeson’s Sabbath-y guitar solo.  It all ends in chapter VII: “Grand Finale”.  In a nice twist to the motion comic, Geddy Neil and Alex appear as characters from the invading and returned elder race of man!  The era of dominance of the Priests is over, as is side one.

“ATTENTION ALL PLANETS OF THE SOLAR FEDERATION!  WE HAVE ASSUMED CONTROL.”

The motion comic does not end here.  Each song from side two of 2112 receives its own panels, and the band appear in each one — a very cool touch that I did not expect.  “A Passage to Bangkok” was the lead track from side two.  This crushing anthem with an Oriental feel is one of Rush’s few drug songs.  In fact it’s the only one I can think of right now.  “Sweet Jamaican pipe dreams, golden Acapulco nights…”  Rush somehow had a way of making this all sound classy and cultured, and perhaps from their perspective it was.  In the comic appearance, the Professor has his nose buried in a book on a train, as he often did.  Once again I’m underwhelmed by the 5.1 mix.  I want to feel enveloped by the music, but I don’t get that as much as I’d like.  I do hear more of Geddy’s bass, and that’s never a bad thing.  I’m noticing licks I never picked up on before.

“The Twilight Zone” is a different song for Rush, as it has a slower sway to it.  Lyrically, I can identify several of the old Twilight Zone episodes that Geddy is singing about.  Can you?  I don’t think this will top anybody’s charts of Rush’s best lyrics, but it’s goofy fun and sometimes that’s enough.  A Zeppelin flavour inhabits “Lessons” which has the acoustic-electric mix that Zep mastered.  Likewise, the backing mellotron in “Tears” reminds me of John Paul Jones.  This is a mournful slow song, not at all what many people expect from Rush.

“Something for Nothing” ends the album on a solid hard rock note.  Thematically, it is full circle, as the character in this song also seeks answers in life.  Rush close the album on a furiously jamming note, ending with a song that has all the Rush trademarks rolled into one short ride.  If the last couple songs just didn’t have enough juice, then “Something for Nothing” ends it right.  Side 2 of 2112 isn’t perfect, it has its ups and downs, but this is an “up”.

The vintage live CD bonus tracks are all unreleased.  They include the first two parts of “2112”, and “A Passage to Bangkok”.  Geddy coyly says that this song “deals with foreign matter”.  I’ve no doubt!  Incidentally I’m of the belief that “Bangkok” is better live than on album. Having said that, the Exit…Stage Left version remains definitive.  Blu-ray bonus features include a goofy photo gallery of blow-dried haircuts, kimono, mustaches and concert shots.  Looking at these photos, I’m reminded that Rush were for all intents and purposes, just kids when they created 2112.  With that in mind, it’s pretty impressive.

As for this reissue, I’m not very blown away by the forgettable 5.1 mix.  Too bad.  It’s a blown opportunity.  On the other hand, I very much enjoyed the included comic.  I think it’s excellent, and geared straight to Rush fans.  So:

For the album: 4.5/5 stars
For the reissue:  3.5/5 stars
Average rating:  4/5 stars

REVIEW: Pink Floyd – The Endless River (2014 CD/Blu-ray)

NEW RELEASE

PINK FLOYD – The Endless River (2014 Columbia CD/Blu-ray deluxe edition)

Sometimes you just have to take a chance.

Perhaps that’s the theme of The Endless River, but I’ll warn you in advance that it’s the theme of this review.  Sometimes, you have to take a chance, and buy an album on pure faith.  Sometimes you want something to be good, just because you liked the idea of it.  I took a chance on it, not really expecting too much, but liking the concept enough to try.

IMG_20141123_171023The Endless River is an intriguing idea with successful execution.  Even though these recordings were made 20 years ago during The Division Bell sessions, David Gilmour gambled that there might be something worth salvaging here in memory of late keyboardist Rick Wright.  When they recorded Division Bell, they actually thought they might have two albums’ worth of material.  The second album, which they never finished, would have been more instrumental and ambient in nature.  Less song-oriented, more meandering and scenic.  Not too far off from what The Endless River is, perhaps.

Unafraid of a little work, Gilmour and Nick Mason got back together and finished what they had started with Rick.  According to David, “We listened to over 20 hours of the three of us playing together and selected the music we wanted to work on for the new album. Over the last year we’ve added new parts, re-recorded others and generally harnessed studio technology to make a 21st century Pink Floyd album. With Rick gone, and with him the chance of ever doing it again, it feels right that these revisited and reworked tracks should be made available as part of our repertoire.”

I will state for the record that there is no comparison between the CD and 5.1 surround Blu-ray listening experiences.  The Blu-ray enveloped me in electronic warmth from the start, occasionally startling me with an unexpected bit of guitar here, or sax there.  By comparison to the 3D experience of 5.1 surround sound, CD is flat and tinny.  Having said that, the CD is one of the best sounding CDs out there right now.  Sonically, this is absolutely flawless.  The keys, organ, and drums are warm and genuine, sometimes wrapped up in dreamy synth.

The Endless River is divided up into four sides, but is best experienced in one sitting.  The four sides have distinct “song” sections within them, but everything flows with a purpose.  Some of the more composed sections really stand out as potential fully-fledged songs:  The chugging “Allons-y (1) & (2)” for example, or the guitar showcase of “It’s What We Do”.   A track like “Sum” takes a while to build, but when it does, it’s into another impressive Gilmour show piece.  (Then on the same side, Nick Mason gets his own moment on the percussive “Skins”.)

Other memorable moments include “Talkin’ Hawkin'” which reprises the Stephen Hawking voice from The Division Bell‘s “Keep Talking”.  I love the haunting church organ on “Autumn ’68”.  There is also one vocal song, “Louder Than Words”, which was chosen as a single.  It’s not a particularly special Pink Floyd song; I think the instrumental pieces are far more interesting than “Louder Than Words”.

A number of bonus tracks are included on the DVD and Blu-ray deluxe editions.  These include unreleased studio jams and unfinished tracks, as well as a couple rough album tracks.  “Anisina” and “Evrika (a) & (b)” are cool, relaxed jams.  “Evrika” is similar in nature to parts that made it to the finished album.  The most interesting unreleased song is easily “Nervana”, a basic guitar riff jam that doesn’t sound anything like Pink Floyd at all.  It does sound cool though, a detour into what might have been…if only Gilmore had taken a chance.  Some of these bonus tracks are accompanied by 1994 black and white behind the scenes footage and stills.  Very cool stuff, if you’re into watching the best musicians in the world getting the job done.

The deluxe comes in a box with some post cards (one with lenticular art), a hardcover booklet with more photos, credits and lyrics, and individual sleeves for the discs.  Nothing overly fancy, it’s the Blu-ray disc itself that is the selling feature of this set.  Some of the bonus tracks are cool and worth having, but it’s that awesome dreamlike 5.1 surround mix that is the clincher.  If you’ve ever wondered, “What’s the big fuss about surround sound anyway?” then see if you have a buddy who can demonstrate this album to you in surround, on a good system with a decent subwoofer.  Strap yourself in.

I think Rick Wright would have been very happy and proud of the finished product, all these years later.  Take a chance on The Endless River and see if you too will be swept away.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Rush – Snakes & Arrows (2007 MVI 5.1 version)

You’ve heard of Epic Meal Time?  They should call me Epic Review Time.  Here’s a couple hours of music, text and video distilled down and covered in detail.  This is a double-sized review for the price of one.  Dive in and engorge!

RUSH – Snakes & Arrows (2007 Warner Music Interactive DVD album)

Rush’s Snakes & Arrows album was considered a progression from the previous record, Vapor Trails. The pummeling of Vapor Trails has been tempered with light and shade, bringing a more balanced Rush.  It was also mixed in 5.1 for a special “Music Video Interactive” DVD by Richard Chycki and Alex Lifeson, who oversee most of Rush’s 5.1 mixes.  I haven’t listened to any version of Snakes & Arrows for many moons, so this is a review from fresh ears.

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First though, there is a 40+ minute documentary video called “The Game of Snakes & Arrows” so we can learn a bit about how the album came to be.  Geddy Lee says that their priority for choosing a recording studio was that they wanted the best drum sound imaginable.  They chose an old mansion out in the Adironacks.  47 individual microphones were used to record the entire drum kit.  Neil Peart says that the isolation of the studio led to the three guys reconnecting as musicians and friends like the old days at Le Studio.   According to Alex Lifeson, the plan for writing this time was to take it easy, working on the writing part only part time.  Later on, more time was spent on just rehearsing and playing the new songs, which transformed them along them way.  The documentary contains snippets of some intricate Lifeson acoustic 12-string, in the studio, where Alex makes it look easy.

Producer Nick Raskulinecz was not a passive participant; indeed there was give and take with the band in order to make the best out of each song. It was a process that worked well according to Alex.  I enjoyed hearing Alex explain the suspended F chord in “Far Cry” — there’s a story behind it. There is some great footage of Geddy playing Mellotron on “Good News First” too.  I also love a fly on the wall scene of Geddy jamming a bass lick on his brand-new-out-of-the-box Jaco Pastorius bass.  The lick sounded good and Geddy says, “We’ll jam to it later.  We’ll get the Big Guy on drums.”  Chills up my spine.   Raskulinecz  asks, “Would it be bad if we had two instrumentals on the record?”  Geddy immediately responds, “No, it’ll be a first.”  Peart shows up and they start to jam, and when Alex arrives it only takes him a day to come up with his guitar part to the Grammy-nominated Rush bass-drum jam called “Malignant Narcissism”.  Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.  This is how the big boys play.

Although this doc is only 40 minutes in length it’s well worth having.  This is great stuff.   Neil Peart crafting drum parts in front of our very eyes is a treat that few other DVDs deliver.  Seeing Geddy applauding his bandmate shouting, “He’s killing it, woo!” is glorious.

As if all this isn’t enough, there is a many-paged (I lost count) essay by Peart called “The Game of Snakes & Arrows: Prize Every Time”.  My favourite detail is what producer Nick Raskulinecz was nicknamed:  “Boujze”, based on the sound he’d make when trying to convey to Peart a drum fill suggestion.  “Bappitty-bap-bap-booooujze!”

The DVD photo gallery is a total joke:  FIVE pictures.  At least the package comes with an expanded booklet with lots of Hugh Syme’s surreal artwork.  Since the photo gallery on the DVD was just shite photies, I’ll give you some shots from the documentary that are loads better.


So, let’s get on with the album then.  Pushing play

Delicacy and aggression describe album opener (and first single) “Far Cry”.  The acoustics of Lifeson are easily overwhelmed by the pummeling band.  “Far Cry” boasts one of those powerful 90’s-style Rush riffs that groove rather than exercise the brain.  Immediately I am overwhelmed by a dense 5.1 riff.  I do not know how many guitars I am hearing, but Alex has unique parts coming in from all sides, including an acoustic on the left that I never noticed before.  I have loved “Far Cry” since its triumphant release in 2007; it is just as powerful and engaging today.  New appreciation for Lifeson will be had on this mix.

“Armor & Sword” was a standout then and now, just as “Far Cry” before.  The song has always shimmered, but more so in 5.1.  This track has much more of Alex’s acoustic guitars, and more texture.  It has a regal 80’s Rush-like quality without the keyboards.  In fact there are no keyboards on Snakes & Arrows, only the Mellotron.  The 5.1 mix becomes a little dense at times, and the layers of guitars oppressive, but it is indeed a massive song.  Then, you can audibly hear the Mellotron on “Workin’ Them Angels”, a phrase taken from one of Peart’s books.  It is a brighter song than either of the first two, and I like the reference to the “moving picture”.  “Workin’ Them Angels” is an album highlight, particularly the mandolin near the end.

SNAKES AND ARROWS_0007Somber moods inhabit “The Larger Bowl”, with Alex’s acoustics again giving it mood and texture.  The hippy-ish chorus sounds like the 1960’s to me, and with the acoustics it paints a picture in my mind.  This is a very good song, but Alex’s well composed guitar solo is the focal point for me.  His tone is very different on the solo, very warm.  It’s an excellent song.  “Spindrift” is less overwhelming to me.  There is nothing wrong with it; it is simply less enchanting than its predecessors since they set the bar quite high.  The song was, however, performed on the Snakes & Arrows tour and kicks of CD 2 of the album Snakes & Arrows Live and there is no denying it is powerful.

“The Main Monkey Business” is the first instrumental, again featuring Geddy on Mellotron.  The main melodic element to this song feels familiar to me — it reminds me of one of Ace Frehley’s “Fractured” instrumentals in terms of melody.  In terms of playing and structure, it is nothing like Frehley.  The 5.1 mix here is nicely balanced.  I’m getting plenty of distinct acoustic parts, with Geddy and Neil front and center.  The chiming guitars behind me envelope the listener in warmth.  Then, suddenly during a solo guitar section, the mix retreats almost all way to stereo before returning again on all 5.1.  Things bounce back and forth between intensely heavy and intensely heady.  This is a masterpiece of instrumental craft.

SNAKES AND ARROWS_0005“We can only go the way the wind blows,” claims Peart on the next song.  “The Way the Wind Blows” has two distinct sections:one heavy and one with layered acoustics. I prefer the acoustic section and I’m not too much into the heavy parts which sounds a bit same-y to 90’s Rush stuff.  Then, “Hope” is a short Lifeson acoustic showcase.  This might be the point at which some Rush fans started to doze a bit.  Admittedly Snakes & Arrows is the most acoustic-based Rush album I can think of. I just don’t think that’s a bad thing.  Not when you have Alex Lifeson in your band.  “Hope” leads into “Faithless”, a strong Rush composition.  There seems to be some sort continuity of theme here, or perhaps it is all in my head?  First Neil says we can only go the way the wind blows.  Then we go from “Hope”, to a discussion of faith.  On “Faithless”, Neil says that like the willow, he will quietly resist.  Seems like a total 180 from going where the wind blows to me, and I don’t care if it’s not intentional because I think it’s cool.  On the guitar end, Alex plays a cool bluesy solo, once again classing up the song several notches.  What a player.

The song that doesn’t work for me is “Bravest Face”.  I find the verses annoying.  “Good News First” is better, returning us to the regal Rush territory I prefer.  Alex’s magnificent chords are enhanced by the Mellotron.  Weak verses are compensated for here by other elements.  It sounds like an incomplete song to me, but better than “Bravest Face”.  The aforementioned “Malignant Narcissism” is a mind-tornado as opposed to a mind-blow.  But it’s actually a distraction; you’re about to be blown away by the sheer power of closer “We Hold On”.  Rush closers usually just bowl me over, and “We Hold On” is one of those.  Fucking awesome.  This time, Alex concentrates on the electric guitar and comes up with numerous unique and enhancing licks.  This is a complete Rush triumph.  Neil is absolutely relentless.  It leaves the album on an exhausted, satisfied note.

And a good thing, too — I was starting to worry as the song quality was dipping towards the end there.  I’m happy Rush redeemed it with a stunner like “We Hold On”.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Rush – Fly By Night (including 5.1 mix)

Click here for Aaron’s loving review of this album, from his Rush “Partial Series”.  

RUSH – Fly By Night (1975 Anthem, reissued 2011 in the Sector 1 box set)

Gotta love this album cover.  It is classic.  Always has been.

This, the first album ever to feature “The Professor” Neil Peart on drums and lyrics, is the birth of the new Rush, the Rush we know today. Slowly shedded were the straight-ahead rock sounds, although their shadows remain (“Best I Can”, for example). In the stead were acoustic guitars, songs about Elvish cities, and much more complex arrangements. Fly By Night remains today a beloved and important slab o’ wax in the mighty Rush canon.

For the most part Fly By Night remains heavy although the rawk groove is gone, replaced by…well, I don’t know what to call it. In it’s place is sheer ability, filtered through the Canadian lens; the snow-white brilliant abilities of Lifeson, Lee and Peart, barreling straight through the winter night, determined to just frickin’ play their tails off. (How did ya like that run-on sentence?) To listen to this monster is to listen to three kids who knew they were better than the other kids on the block. Maybe the songwriting wasn’t entirely there yet but the pieces were falling into place.

You can’t beat “By-Tor” for its piercing vocal and metallic romp, yet it bends and slithers through a lengthy instrumental section. “Anthem” harkens back to the groove of album #1, yet foreshadows the heaviness of album #3. It remains one of Rush’s most identifiable rampages. The title track reveals hippy-like happiness sheathed within the band’s monstrous technical abilities.  “Making Memories” is fun acoustic-based classic road rock.  “Rivendell” is a personal favourite, an ode to the home city of Elrond and his Elf kin.

Like many Rush albums of the early 1970’s, some of this music might be impenetrable to the uninitiated. However, one must push through it in order to appreciate where this band came from and where it was going.

Finally, when this album was reissued in the Sector 1 box set, a 5.1 mix on DVD was included as a bonus.  I couldn’t leave you without speaking about that mix, briefly.  It’s a pretty straightforward surround mix, presumably because as Rush albums go, Fly By Night is a lot more straightforward than the later discs.  Not a lot of tracks and instrumentation to play around with.   It’s clear though, and it’s a pleasure to listen to.  I only wish I had the ability to listen to 5.1 mixes more frequently, so I could get to know this disc a little better.

As for Fly By Night?

4/5 stars. The best was yet to come….