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Thursday, March 8, 2018

TOP 500 SUPERSONIC LIST #50+


Chosen by Claude Lemaire



"This is a journey into sound. A journey which along the way will bring to you new colour, new dimension, new value..."

For selections #1 to 50, please click here: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.ca/2017/01/top-500-supersonic-list.html



51- MFSB – Love Is the Message Philadelphia International Records – KZ 32707 (1973), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: Philly soul, disco, smooth jazz

After nearly 45 years–wherein the world holds its breath under the genuine threat of eroding freedoms, and escalating nuclear war–MFSB's message still rings true and maybe more than ever, resonates all over the globe. Bart Forbes' cover illustration under the art direction of Ed Lee perfectly paints the sombre scenery of the cold war colliding with the 1960s civil rights movements, with KKK hoods, and Nazi propaganda intertwined; strangely a scenario not unlike more recent, and present times. With the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 announcing the return of US troops from Vietnam, it seems at first glance somewhat odd that producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff should stick with such a dire LP cover–exposing the worst of the past instead of promoting a more positive portrait of the burgeoning (me)decade–perhaps reminding us that the mistakes of the past may resurface at any giving time. After a so-so self-titled debut earlier that same year, comprising mostly instrumental covers, this was MFSB's–Mother Father Sister Brother–second, and best album, both musically and sonically, with Universal Love [Philadelphia International KZ 33158], their third LP from 1975, coming in a close second. Although the Gamble-Huff duo had previously scored soulful success with such songs as "Expressway to Your Heart", "Only the Strong Survive", "Love Train"; "I'll Always Love My Mama", and "The Love I Lost"; it took MFSB's Love Is the Message to solidify "The Sound of Philadelphia' through its title track and especially its show-stopper hit "T.S.O.P.", serving weekly as Don Cornelius' Soul Train theme. With Earl Young's pioneering hi-hat shuffling, accompanied by Ron Baker on bass, Norman Harris and Bobby Eli on guitar, Don Renaldo and his Strings and Horns, and Bobby Martin's magnificent arrangements–just to name a few of the key players–this latter track really epitomized the confluence of Philly soul with the emerging disco beat, while the title track became a 'classic anthem' for the gay community, and one of the most defining tracks spinning at David Mancuso's legendary 'Loft' in NYC–the original architect of "Love Saves the Day" and precursor to the 'love message' Philly philosophy. Superbly recorded and mixed by Sigma Sound Studios' owner Joe Tarsia, and mastered and cut at Frankford/Wayne Recording Labs–both anchored in Philadelphia, PA–it is one of the most balanced and well executed of the Philly releases. The 23 second intro "Zack's Fanfare", serves as a short show demo-worthy instrumental track with crisp and punchy big band sound–a perfect tune to get ones attention.
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52- MFSB – Universal Love Philadelphia International Records – KZ 33158 promo copy (1975), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: Philly soul, disco, smooth jazz

As mentioned above, this is the group's third and last LP worth owning, their subsequent albums not living up to the standards of this List nor to their best efforts. Contrary to the previous release that comprised two superb tracks plus a short interesting intro, Universal Love counts five great tracks–including the album opener "Sexy", a fine cover of The Nite Liters' 1971 hit "K-Jee" which grew in popularity two years later when included in the Saturday Night Fever movie soundtrack; and my favorite of the LP: "T.L.C (Tender Lovin' Care)" with its big band stylistic influences, and stunning sax solo intro by Zach Zachary and Tony Williams; "Love Has No Time or Place" though not a hit, is also one of the interesting pieces. Predominantly instrumental like the preceding one, it veers slightly more towards the disco vibe as compared to Love Is the Message, yet still retains the famous Philly soul 'house band' sound. The personnel and production team, pretty much remains unchanged. Once again, engineers Joe Tarsia recorded the sessions at Sigma Sound Studios, and Nimitr Sarikananda at Frankford/Wayne Recording Labs mastered and cut the lacquers in Philadelphia, PA. The sound quality does not quite reach the high level of the previous release: with a bit of compression creeping in, a touch less crispness in the brass, a slight lack of weight in the bottom end, and less upfront or defined in the overall drumset–thus placing this MFSB LP second in sonics. I compared my normal US original pressing–also cut by NS–to my white-label promo, preferring the latter by a small degree, especially in the upper bass 'punch' region. As for Ed Lee's gatefold cover design, and photography; it is the exact opposite of the previous illustration, resembling more a pastel painting printed on a soothing 'get well card'–a sign of the times that people were past dwelling on the problems of the world, hungry for happier times.
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http://www.mofi.com/product-p/mfsl2-012.htm

53- Santana – Santana Columbia – CS 9781 (1969), MoFi – MFSL 2-45012 (2015), (2x45 rpm). Genre: Afro-Cuban, latin rock, latin jazz, psychedelic, heavy blues rock, latin soul

Discovered at Woodstock, stealing Saturday's spotlight show with their stunning "Soul Sacrifice" spectacle, the San Francisco's sextet conquered the stage 'with a little help' from LSD's 'mind-expanding' friends, consequently catapulting them to fame, just a few days prior to the release of their first LP. Santana's self-titled debut is a magnificent melting pot of musical styles, second only in sonics to their 1970 follow up Abraxas. Song compositions as well as arrangements, and performances are up there with the best, easily competing with the aforementioned album. Produced by Brent Dangerfield, and the band, there are no dull moments along the journey, with one track reprising, while actually improving upon, Willie Bobo's boogaloo jazz hit "Evil Ways"–a precursor to early discothèque's latin soul-funk-flavored favorites such as War's "Spill the Wine", hitting the charts the following year. Their 'heavier' version of Babatunde Olatunji's "Jingo" would soon leave its mark on Titanic's 1970 single "Sultana" as well as Cerrone's first French group Kongas from the early-1970s, and Black Soul's mid-1970s afrobeat-disco musical hybrid. Also noteworthy is the delicate piano playing found in the intro, and finale of "Treat" that seems to have inspired Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" from DSOTM. Likewise it is obvious how "Soul Sacrifice" had a profound influence on The Disco Sound of André Gagnon's first single "Wow", six years later. Recorded and mixed at Pacific Recording Studios in San Mateo, CA, by engineers Bob "Deputy Dog" Breault, and Eric "Gentle Ben" Prestidge; according to the credits, it was originally mastered and I guess cut at Customatrix–a division of Columbia in charge of the metal parts right up to the stampers. I did not have an original 1969 US pressing to compare with but do own a Canadian '360 Sound' first press that always sounded poor, with no bass, nor highs, but mostly mids–and quite inferior to my old Canadian '360 Sound' Abraxas pressing–that I would rate no more than a 5. Mofi came out with a first half-speed remastering in 2007 that I found disappointingly soft and veiled in the treble, leading to a lack of articulation, and definition, but nevertheless was a bit better than my Can. copy, leading me to give it around a 6.5. By contrast this 2015 double 45 version mastered by Krieg Wunderlich and assisted by Shawn R. Britton is way ahead of any pressing I have heard in sound quality, and I'd rate it a strong 9.5. Although there is still some slight dryness and lack of extension in the very top octave, apparent mostly as 'sandy' cymbal textures, the rest of the spectrum is spectacularly good, with solid powerful lows and mids, providing forceful driving drumstrokes akin to real live music. The organ feels organically raw, rich, and colorfully 'crunchy'. Percussive instruments such as timbales and congas conquer the deep, and wide panoramic stage. Palpable, and timbrally realistic for sure, they do not attain the top transparency detail found on Abraxas [MoFi UD1S 2-001], though the latter's 'one-step' procedure provides it with a small unfair advantage over this conventional 'three-step' double 45 MoFi edition. Overall, the sound is big and thick but less airy and 'hyper-detailed' than their one-step release–which is to be expected given the difference in price, and procedure, yet still remains tonally right on my system.
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54- The Poll Winners – The Poll Winners Contemporary – C 3535 (mono) (1957) – Stereo Records S7010 (1958), Analogue Productions – AJAZ 7535 (2011) (2x45 rpm). Genre: West Coast jazz

If ever there was such a thing as a symbiotic cool jazz trio up for election, The Poll Winners would win my vote hands down. Composed of Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums, these West Coast Contemporary 'cats' sound as if they had been playing together for decades on end, when in reality Kessel had sidelined with Manne on a few previous albums, and once shared the stage at Carnegie Hall with Brown–at one of Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts–but this LP represents their first recording gig as a trio. As a unit they are tightly locked together, yet remain relaxed, supple and sweet. Consisting mainly of traditional jazz, and popular standards, both sides can work wonders spinning as background music, but the agile performances between players commands complete attention from us for true serious music appreciation. Contrary to today's misguided desire to dominate the other by sheer loudness level, these musicians mastered the art of listening amongst themselves, at times showing great restraint, along with subtlety, speed, and delicate dexterity on demand. Needless to say, when combined with Contemporary's 'genious-in-residence' Roy DuNann manning the mics, and minimal controls in Los Angeles back in March 1957, how could it not turn out 'deliciously' great. Mainly dry sounding, and intimate, all three instruments–guitar in one channel with the two others sharing the opposite–are so easy to follow, with timbrally realistic portrayals: Brown's bass has the perfect equilibrium of pitch articulation, and resonant roundness, spectrally complementing Manne's trebly rhytmic brushstrokes circling the snare skin, while Kessel's Gibson guitar sweetly shines with just the right mixture of warm tone with subtle sustain. Unfortunately, I do not have an original 1958 Stereo Records in my collection but based on my 1984 OJC copy–which are typically fine sounding (thin) pressings but not the equal of more expensive remasterings–I can absolutely attest to the incredible session sound that DuNann captures on tape, and can confidently guesstimate–based on past close comparisons–the uptick one would get with a NM original or perhaps greater still with Analogue Productions' double-45 rpm, remastered, and cut by Hoffman and Gray at AcousTech Mastering–which I will report on in the near future when it arrives.
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55- The Poll Winners – Ride Again! Stereo Records S7020 (1958), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: West Coast jazz

Recorded 17 months later by Roy DuNann, and produced by Lester Koenig in August 1958, this is the trio's follow up to their debut. Again, mostly filled with traditional standards, there are a few more originals by Kessel, and Brown on this one. It would be pointless to waste time, and space repeating the exact same comments as described above, for it is on par in music, and sound quality, making it interchangeable on all aspects. So if you love one, you'll no doubt love the other equally. In this case, I was lucky enough to find a NM original Stereo Records, and can confirm that it is of true reference calibre, almost to the point of wondering if a double-45 rpm remastering could really surpass it.
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56- Borodin – Symphony no.2 / Rimsky-Korsakoff – Capriccio Espagnole The London Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon RCA Victor Red Seal – LSC-2298 (1959), Classic Records – LSC-2298 (1996?), 180g, Living Stereo series, Genre: classical, orchestral, romantic

Tightly led and influenced by Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin–the eldest of 'The Five'–along with Cesar Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov were also identified as The Mighty Handful; a small group of young self-trained amateurs-composers from 1856 to 1870–highly responsible for influencing the course of Russian music. Borodin's best known large-scale work–his four part symphony–sets the stage with ambitious aplomb, alternating between major and minor thirds throughout the score. Monumental, 'military-esque', and majestic in grandeur, the piece was written between 1869 and 1876, with a final orchestral revision in 1879, the latter premiered by Russian counterpart Rimsky-Korsakov that same year. Originally released in 1959 on the Red Seal label, the captured sound of Kingsway Hall, recorded by Decca engineer Alan Reeve, and later remastered, and cut by Bernie Grundman is immensely impressive: bold, brawny, brassy, and solid are all adjectives that come to mind upon my many listening impressions. Tonal balance is spot on with realistic string, and woodwind timbres–in particular the brass fortes cut through with fiery force, no doubt due in part to Martinon's exciting direction of The London Symphony Orchestra. The dynamic as well as the frequency range are both huge, making this particular pressing quite challenging, all the way from source to speakers. Soundstage scale–width, height, and depth–is also up there with the very best on record, confirming once more that with certain Living Stereo's, Grundman and Classic Records really got it right. Side two opens with Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnole which is equally captivating musically, and sonically.
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57- Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick Chrysalis – CHR 1003 [Island Records] (UK) (1972), MoFi – MFSL 1-187 (1985), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: progressive rock

Progressive's peak period of creativity, and popularity–if ever one could conjure up such a scenario–is arguably around the years 1971 to 1973, producing many masterful gems such as: Genesis' Foxtrot and Selling England by the Pound; Yes' The Yes Album and Fragile; King Crimson's Lark's Tongues in Aspic; ELP's Tarkus; Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells; and the all-time biggest selling–if one stretches a bit the genre's definition–Pink Floyd's DSOTM. Inspired by Monty Python satire, Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick is just another jewel in the crown of the mighty British Empire that ruled the artistically-inclined airwaves, roughly covering the decade from 1967 with Sgt. Pepper' right up to the uprising of the anti-establishment punk movement circa 1976–wherein the original pioneering progressives were starting to sound stale. Following the thunderous success of Aqualung, the band led by Ian Anderson, which by now had carved out a subgenre niche for itself–melding a triad of art, hard, and folk rock–were preparing to push further the more progressive elements from their musical recipe into a full-fledged concept album comprising only one composition divided in two lengthy parts. Combining medieval and renaissance folk, jazz, rock, and odd time signatures within classical musical structures, the complex composition confirmed the proficiency of the band through tight rapid dynamic shifts. The resulting release in March of 1972 was not only a musical high point of their career but fortunately for us audiophiles, a solid sonic success as well, making it their best sounding album by far–a situation not unlike Rush with 2112, whereby a gifted rock band with progressive inclinations broadly suffers from badly mixed, and mastered productions. Superbly recorded by engineer Robin Black at Morgan Studios in London England–home to such sonic wonders as Led Zep II, Tea for the Tillerman, Meddle, America, etc.–on a 24-track Ampex, my original UK 'Pecko Porky' pressing cut by George Peckham has everything going for it: great tonal balance, wide frequency range, warm yet precise in rhythmic precision when called upon. I don't have the 1985 MoFi, but I had compared it some years ago from a friend's collection with both my UK original, and my first press Can. [Reprise MS 2072]–which is also quite good and pleasant–and the MoFi sounded equally excellent with a hint more warmth than the UK, the latter having a bit more mid presence, making them both equal winners, and worthy, while the first press Can. copy came out close behind the two others.
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58- Gentle Giant – In a Glass House WWA Records – WWA 002 (UK) (1973), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: progressive, experimental rock

Another giant step that would constitute a worthy addition to the previous prog citations above is Gentle Giant's fifth album In a Glass House, also released during the aforementioned apex, in September 1973. Created by three brothers–Phil, Derek, and Ray Schulman–in 1970, and accompanied by a few other talented musicians along the way, the band cultivated a small but serious following, reaching their peak period between 1972's Octopus and The Power and the Glory two years later. At the time, conservative Columbia corporate chiefs considered the album–In a Glass House–too 'uncommercial' for the North American market, thus dropping the band from their roster, resulting in the necessity for retailers, and fans alike to import the LP from Mother England–insuring us audiophiles to end up with a better chance of finding an original UK pressing with superior sound most probably. Admittedly a tad more experimental than their British counterparts; rather than following the 1970s prog prototype 'formula', the five multi-instrumentalists challenge us–as well as themselves–by combining complex musical structures utilising an array of unorthodox instruments within the realm of rock as well as vocal polyphony, and polymeters more in line with medieval classical forms. Self-produced, it was engineered by Gary Martin in July 1973 at Advision Studios, while mastered and cut–at Trident I suppose–by Ray Staff, both situated in London, England. The instrument mixdown is finely executed with the rapidly sharp 'snappy' kick, and remaining drumkit, particularly standing out, well defined dynamically, and rhythmically. Multi-layered vocals plus myriad percussive timbres are also well served. Tonal balance is excellent, leaning more towards a quick, clean, neutral, 'solid state' signature, than the typical tube warmth we tend to associate with the early-1970s, and not unlike a good direct-to-disc sonic footprint featuring stellar dynamics for the genre. The sole caveat is a slight lack or lightness in the bottom end lows, in order to give it more weight, majesty, and authority. Pretty much on the same level playing field as Octopus at least for my acquired taste.
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59- Voivod – Nothingface MCA, Mechanic Records – MCA-6326 (1989), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: prog metal

It is well known–at least to those working in the music milieu–that the Canadian province of Québec is distinctively, and historically recognized as having a deep appreciation for two musically-challenging genres–progressive, and heavy metal–as well as Montréal serving as a metropolis for the disco scene during the 1970s, followed closely by the underground punk-hardcore-alternative crowd found in such places as the famous Foufounes Electriques. Having set foot a few times in 'Foufs' in the mid-1980s to early 1990s, I can attest to its importance in supporting the scene, as well as discovering burgeoning various-metal bands playing exciting live sets such as Groovy Aardvark, Dead Brain Cells (DBC), and most importantly Voivod. After debuting in 1984, followed by a couple of subsequent albums, in the noisier thrash metal subgenre, the Jonquière-based quartet conquered the territoire with its 1989 metal masterpiece Nothingface, producing a perfect blend of prog and metal–with subtle elements reflecting Rush's precision, King Crimson's dissonant chords of triads, and tritones along with a captivating cover version of Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" taken from their 1967 psychedelic debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Columbia SCX 6157]–adding of course their own original 'trash touch'. There is no weak track on this LP; every one is a stunner from start to finish in creative compositions, dissonant arrangements, and powerful performances. Furthermore, producer Glen Robinson, assisted by engineers Benoit Lavallée, and Rob Sutton did a fantastic job with the sound which was recorded digitally at Victor Studio in Montréal, and mixed digitally at Powerplay Studio in Long Island City, NY. Contrary to the subgenre's norm, and music period, the tonal balance is spot on, linear, and lowly compressed with non-fatiguing sound, and surprisingly–for digital–clean extended cymbals. In fact the whole drumkit–kick, snare, toms–is articulate, with timbrally realistic, struck 'snappy' skins, under the batons of "Away" aka Michel Langevin's impressive playing. Guitarist "Piggy" aka Denis D'Amour along with vocalist "Snake" aka Denis Bélanger, bring forth their unique dissonant stylistic signature to the foray. Bernie Grundman did a fine cutting, minimizing inner-groove distortion. Probably one of my top 5 to top 10 metal albums, and surely my all-time favorite prog metal LP.
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https://www.mofi.com/product-p/mfsl1-392.htm

60- Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones Warner Brothers – BSK 3296 (1979), MoFi – MFSL 1-392 (2013), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: 'jazzy' 'folky' 'bohemian' pop

We all have a record that we remember fondly, the first time we heard hifi highly surpass our expectations–RLJ for me falls firmly into that category. Spinning on an Oracle Delphi with Koetsu cart, C-J tube electronics, and B&W 801 speakers at my local shop–i.e. your typical mid-80s high end gear way back in the day–I listened attentively as our young bohemian artist "flipped a dime", its sparkling decay floating over Red Callender's cool double bass walking... My gear taste may have evolved a little over time, but my appreciation for Jones' cozy poetic vocals remains sunk in to this day. In similar fashion to two iconic singer-songwriters–Joni Mitchell, and Carole King–Jones penned all of the eleven songs on her self-titled debut album, plus sharing two co-writes. Joined by a bevy of first-rate musicians such as Dr. John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Steve Gadd, and Jeff Porcaro, it was produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, with assistance by Penny Ringwood. Engineered, mixed, and mastered by Lee Herschberg with additional engineering by Lloyd Clifft, Roger Nichols, and Tom Knox; the original 1979 release shared some 'audiophile angles' without being overtly created as such, nor succumbing to any emotional blandness as we have often encountered in situations where sonics presided over creative content. Returning to my original US 'Jacksonville' pressing on my present custom system, it is evident that though the general sound is quite good, with decent dynamics, and tonal balance for pop-oriented material, the single 33 1/3 rpm 2013 MoFi reissue, remastered and cut by Krieg Wunderlich, is clearly superior in every manner, with better high frequency extension, detail, and airiness–most apparent in the delicate triangle, cymbals, and numerous percs in general, showing the former's slight veil. Vocals, finger snaps, mandolin, guitars, and bass strings have better articulation, and harmonics. The dynamics are much improved over the original; the kick drum in particular is quite tighter, sharper, and steadfast, solidifying the pace from the get-go with "Chuck E.'s in Love" all through to the end. Finally the soundstage slightly gains proportions, though this recording remains rather intimate than 'extra-large-scale'. I do not have the first MoFi half-speed remastering back in 1983 [MFSL 1-089], nor the UK Nimbus Supercut by Gerald Reynolds, nor the 2013 double-45 rpm edition by MoFi [MFSL 2-45010], but suspect the latter should better this present one a notch or two further when given the typical meticulous MoFi care but cannot confirm without a true listening.
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61- Pixies – Surfer Rosa 4AD – 803 (UK) (1988), MoFi – MFSL 1-296 (2009), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: alternative, garage rock, noise pop, punk

The words garage, punk, and noise rarely go hand in hand with audiophile, and yet this second release by the Bostonian band encompasses exactly that–a true melting pot of the above, thanks in large part to audacious musicians, a rarebreed producer-engineer named Steve Albini chosing to take the 'hands-off' approach, and a bold reissue label known for its rich creative catalogue. Coming off the heels of their debut mini-LP Come On Pilgrim [4AD MAD 709], Surfer Rosa recorded in November 1987, and released the following March represented a big leap in artistic, and sonic maturity for the quartet. It remains one of their two best albums along with the following 'slicker' release Doolittle. Here the sound is raw, primal, powerful, super dynamic–as far as rock recordings go–with abrasive dissonant guitars, 'gutsy' electric bass, deep drum impact that room-reverberates, screechy vocals, and a general fearless spunk attitude. There is no doubt Albini's direct-to-tape sound signature plus direction permeates the album, which as usual is closer to the real thing than any other 'normal' rock production can claim to be–lovely, and spectacular perhaps, but so afar from reality. Having heard many of his engineering-productions with his own band–Shellac–and others recorded in his Chicago studio, I can confidently say this present Pixies LP strikes the best balance between them all. I did not have the original 4AD UK or US pressing to compare with, but MoFi's Shawn R. Britton did an outstanding remastering, and cutting job, and up there with the best 33 1/3 rpm cut MoFi's. For a more in-depth evaluation, you can go HERE: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.ca/2012/04/pixies-surfer-rosa.html 
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62- Pixies – Doolittle 4AD – 905 (UK France) (1989), MoFi – MFSL 1-296 (2009), 33 1/3 rpm. Genre: alternative, garage rock, noise pop

For any artist or band to successfully follow up a superb album is no easy task. The probability of disappointing music critics or your loyal fan base–for those who care about such things–by either repeating the same winning formula or doing a complete 180, is quite high. Fortunately for the Pixies, neither of these scenarios occurred. In fact, on the contrary, Doolittle did do a lot... in sales, chart positions, and received critical raves as much, if not more so than Surfer Rosa. Both releases remain highly original, and quintessentially influential in the alternative, noise pop, grunge scenes, especially so with Nirvana. Gil Norton replaced Albini as producer and engineer with assistance from Dave Snider, and Matt Lane at Downtown Recorders in Boston, and mixing was done by Steve Haigler at Carriage House Studios in Stamford CT. The overall sound is generally well balanced from top to bottom, with a few song structures exploiting the loud-quiet dynamic shift within, that again would distill down a few years later to Cobain's singing style along with the band's hard-soft, chorus-verse musical contrasts. Contrary to Surfer Rosa, and Albini's approach, here the textures are less raw, more polished, and adhere more to a good 'conventional' multitrack studio sound presentation. The original UK 4AD MPO (French) pressed LP cut by Jack Adams is generally quite good while MoFi engineer Rob LoVerde's remastering, and cutting, edges the original in certain specific areas or on certain tracks while with others it is almost a toss-up in personal taste. Both pressings are worth having. I would stay away from the US Elektra version for it is a DMM cutting instead of the typical warmer lacquer-cut. For a more in-depth evaluation, you can go HERE: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.ca/2012/06/pixies-doolittle.html
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Contemporary Records S 7568 (1959), Analogue Productions – AJAZ 7568 (2003) (2x45 rpm). Genre: jazz, big band, bop, west coast, cool jazz

Pepper's Plus Eleven is the second of five LP's released–between 1957, and 1960–on Lester Koenig's Contemporary jazz label, smack in the middle of the 'golden age' of jazz, and sound. Contrary to what the title might suggest, there are not eleven musicians accompanying him but rather fifteen listed in the credits, so I'm guessing +11 simply signified an 'over the top' performance a la Spinal Tap! At any rate, this small 'big band' conducted by Marty Paich, and recorded expertly by Roy DuNann, and Howard Holzer in March, and May 1959 remains my favorite of the five releases for many reasons: because of the chosen 'classic' compositions–many from Dizzy, and Charlie–Pepper's performance, and Paich's exquisite arrangements, perfectly showcasing, as well as blending, the brass' blattiness with a lightning fast rhythm section. The dynamic expressiveness of the many musicians is outstanding on both the faster boppish material, and the slower sweeping cooler ballads, beautifully breathing air down their reeds. I did not have an original 1959 Contemporary pressing to compare with but do have the first Analogue Prod. version remastered, and cut by Doug Sax in 1995 [APJ 017] which was quite excellent sounding, and leaning on the warm side with bloomy low mids, but also a micro-veil towards the top treble. The 2003 double-45 rpm cut by AcousTech's mastering team of Hoffman and Gray, not surprisingly addresses the latter point, providing an airier top end, better bite and crunch to the trumpets and saxes, serving a livelier, subjectively faster, more energetic, dynamic snap with refined realism, at a tiny expense of losing a tad in 'tubey' 'romance', well worth the trade-off.
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64- The Roots – Do You Want More?!!!??! Geffen Records – GEF 24708 (EU) (1994), (2x33 1/3 rpm). Geffen Records UMe – B00229918-01 (2015) (2x33 1/3 rpm), clear blue vinyl. Genre: hip hop, conscious, jazz rap, neo jazz

Most of mainstream America only discovered the group in 2009 and have been enjoying them ever since in their living rooms on a nightly basis, but Fallon's famous 'house band' has its Roots reaching back to 1993 with the 17 track independent release Organix. As its interrogative title suggest, Do You Want More?!!!??! is their–major label debut–follow up album, which explains why the track sequencing starts out at number '18' instead of the usual numerical '1'. Originally released in 1994 as a double-LP Euro import, and as a shorter-duration US promo [DGC PRO-A2-4693] for radio and deejays–with fewer tracks, and clean edits–it was not until 2015 that Geffen through Universal Music Enterprises decided to give it a proper 180g 'noise-free' reissue. In concert with disco, funk, and metal; hip hop has not garnered much attention or praise in the audiophile press, perhaps due in part to some 'bad apples', ripe with extreme EQ or compression, contaminating the minds or leaving a 'bad taste' within many heads of sound departments. Admittedly a lack of quality remasterings in those musical genres as opposed to the steady diet of jazz, classical, and common rock we normally get fed, equally enters the equation. What sets apart The Roots from many of their peers is that they are a full-fledge funky acoustic band–rather than a few guys rapping over some pre-recorded material–capable of jazzing things up as well as rocking it up live when called upon. Saxophonist Steve Coleman lends his lips on six tracks. Produced by Grand Negaz, it was recorded by David Ivory, Vince Kershner and Gordon Rice at Sigma Sound Studios plus Otto Capobianco at Nebula Sounds, both situated in Philadelphia, PA. Drummer and co-founder Ahmir-Kalib Thomson aka Questlove mixed the band, along with Bob Power, Tim Latham, Richard Nichols, A.J. Shine and Jim "Jiff" Hinger at either Sigma Sound or Studio 4 in Philly PA, as well as Battery Studios in NYC. Tom Coyne at The Hit Factory in New York did a great mastering job. The in room drumkit predominates throughout, sounding mostly natural if a little fatter yet fun, including fine snare textures. The total mix features plenty of punch in the lows, with nice bounce to the bass–acoustic and electric–plus clean non-agressive highs. Tarik "Black Thought" Trotter's panned rapping-vocal arrangements, add originality to the table. Despite its cohesion, there is just enough of mild sonic variety explored amongst songs to keep it refreshing, and counterbalance the somewhat minimalist repetitive tempos, and percussive patterns within the grooves. Lastly, the very low compression, contributes to a totally non-fatiguing listening pleasure.
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65- Cypress Hill – III (Temples of Boom) Columbia, Ruffhouse Records – C2 66991 (1995), (2x33 1/3 rpm). Genre: hip hop, gangsta, latin hip hop

Released within a year of the above Roots selection, Cypress Hill's third LP celebrates the darker side of hip hop, hence the gangsta subgenre qualifier. Though the themes, and lyrics may seem harder, bleaker, and even exploitative, the overall musical tracks do not differ that much from other contemporary rap genres, with the exception of skipping over any jazzy arrangements, and horn-based instrumentation. What makes this double-LP particularly interesting is the infusion of Indian influences in certain tracks with subtle psychedelic sounds, sending the listener into a dreamy state over hyp-hop-notic grooves, graced sometimes with syncopated sarcastic rapping. The tonal balance is mostly spot on with just the right amount of 'snap, crackle, and hop' to enhance the experience, including tight punchy kick, appropriately detailed highs, a few sustained sub-territory explorations, and generally low compression.

A final note:


Now don't go 'bonkers' if you have not found your favorite recording included in this List, just remember: we are still at the beginning of a long long journey...into sound.



Thursday, October 12, 2017

VINCENT BÉLANGER - PURE CELLO

Audio Note Music – ANM 1601 (UK) (2017, March)

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Ratings:

Global Appreciation: 9.7
- Music + interpretation: A+
- Recording: 10
- Mastering: 10 - Lacquer Cutting: 9.5
- Pressing: 9.5
- Packaging: above average


Category: Classical
Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LPs at 45 rpm)
 

Credits:

Executive director Michel Plante
Produced, edited, and mixed by Jacques Roy

Recorded by Stephan Ritch and assisted by David Cope
Recorded at Clark Chapel at Pomfret school in Pomfret, CT, USA, June 8 to 12, 2015

Mastered by Guy Hébert with Stephan Ritch
LP lacquers cut by Philip Gosselin at Lab Mastering in Montreal, Canada

Plated and Pressed by Optimal in Germany
Cover photo by Luc Robitaille
Inside photos by Stephan Ritch
Sleeve Design by Unseen Works

 

Named official 'musical ambassador' for Audio Note Music, Canadian cellist Vincent Bélanger is part of an all too rare breed: an authentic audiophile/musician. Dedicated to raising awareness around his beautiful bicentennial or so instrument, the busy 38-year-old is on an ongoing mission to bring back the fun and excitement of listening to live classical music, while going to great lengths to transpose that essence to record. Playing since the age of eight, it is only since 2011 that he discovered the fine art of great recorded sound. Nowadays, he is well known among the 'hifi circuit'–his many show-stoppers wherein he plays in synch with or alternates between a recording and himself, seems to be one of his signature stratagems. Of course the degree of success of the old "Is it live or is it Memorex?" query lies as much in the reproductive chain quality than the recording itself.



Which brings us to the latter part of that equation, in this instance the LP titled Pure Cello–the first and only record release (as of writing) from the renowned UK high end company led by manic music lover, and record collector extraordinaire Peter Qvortrup. Back in June 2015, and with a $30k cost breakdown budget, what started out as a–$10k goal Indegogo–crowdfunding project to produce an entire album of solo cello, blossomed into an ambitiously impressive release. This is the protagonist's fourth album, after Bélanger & (Anne) Bisson's Conversations [Universal Music Canada CM5-2222] in 2016–she being a well known show regular from Québec with 'audiophile-approved' pedigree, and like Vincent, was once featured through Montreal's premier label Fidelio Music. The latter team released his first album titled , back in 2011–though at the time available in digital format only; it is presently in preparation for future release on vinyl.
 

Regarding that particular format, Bélanger–being born near the dawn of the 1980s–was way passed the golden age for vinyl, nor never knew the generally good multitrack analog sound of that previous decade. In fact it is safe to say that with the exception of MoFi, Analogue Productions, Classic Records, and a few independent labels, he grew up in the era of what can be considered vinyl's 'crappiest age', not only in terms of cheap pressing quality, but also right smack in the loudness war's conflict affecting both CD, and vinyl! Thankfully, somebody or something convinced him that in this day and age, when done properly, vinyl still rules. Initially suppose to be released as a 331/3 rpm, they soon opted for the advantages of cutting at 45 rpm on four sides instead of 'squeezing' the grooves to fit two sides–though costlier in manufacturing and consequently passed on to the consumer, it was the right decision to make when ultimate sound is your main priority.

Another ironic twist one could say, was the deliberate choice of not surrounding himself with the typical classical 'circle' of technical personnel, be that for production or engineering. Bélanger often finds the modern classical or chamber recordings too distant sounding, and thus 'robbing' the listener of the presence one gets at a live concert, close up to the musician. I totally share the same sentiment, which is the reason why I try to sit in the very first rows, regardless of musical genre, and position my loudspeakers close up with vectors crossing right in front of my head, resembling in part Audio Note's recommendations, though far from the corners. What is interesting is that the cast of assembled accomplices were chosen rather from the audiophile, and pop/rock community, and the recording philosophy more in line with a jazz recording, i.e. miked quite close to the instrument.

 
Of equal consideration is his view that the 'new guard' of musicians–contemporaries of his so to speak–are risk averse, relating to repertoire or interpretation; commonly playing it safe or conservative to a point of blandness. It reminds me of one of the all time greats–Russian-born American cellist Gregor Piatigorsky–who was not afraid of taking certain stylistic liberties to better deliver the drama, passion, and power of the piece, solidly supported by his impressive sustained vibrato. The master probably figured out early on that the 'medium' through tape, records, and even the distance separating the performance from the audience dilutes the emotional aspects of the partition, and therefore one must judiciously compensate to fully restore the full expressive force from the composer, channeled through the performer. One could even extrapolate this thesis in the home reproductive system, concluding there are multiple minute losses in the entire complex recording chain–while some choosing horns for emphasizing the musical drama, and tension of the music, but I digress.


 
Audio Note's David Cope chose the charming Clark Chapel close to the Pomfret school in Pomfret, Connecticut USA for its superb acoustics as well as the deep level of sound isolation provided by the six-inch thick doors, and surrounding stone walls–a visual delight as well. Les Studios Opus' Jacques Roy produced, edited, and mixed the session, while Plurison's Stephan Ritch, who is also a freelance sound engineer recorded it with assistance from Cope. Two pairs of mics were chosen: a primary pair of Lauten Horizon LT-321 tube condenser cardioids in what at first glance resembles a typical Blumlein configuration, i.e. capsule to capsule facing one another 'polar-rotated' at 90 degrees–which normally would employ two 'crossed-figure-8's–but the 321 being a cardioid, classifies it more into the 'XY' pattern (at 180 instead of the typical 90 degree alignment) placed roughly at head level, inclined 45 degrees, 22 inches from the cello, plus a pair of DPA 4003 omnis spaced 10 feet apart, approximately 20 feet away towards the back for room ambiance. The Lauten visually distinguishes itself by sporting a 'lollipop' head capsule instead of the typical rectangular Neumanns or common fare. Its high sensitivity enables lower gain from the preamp, plus a wide bandwidth pretty flat down to 30Hz, and a broad 2dB plateau from 4 to 15kHz, brings a bit of 'bite' to the instrument–more so than a regular ribbon mic. Both mic sets were amplified by separate solid state Moon Audio 3500 MP preamps–renowned for their extremely low noise, non-colored, and flat frequency, extending up to 250kHz. The output(s) sent to an Apple's Logic Pro X on a MacBook Pro using an Apogee Ensemble Thunderbolt DAW at 24-bit/192kHz resolution. Cabling was AN SOGON LX silver.

 
Fortunately for us, Bélanger is as demanding of sound quality as he his of his musicianship. Maximizing the time they had at their disposal in the chapel, he spent nearly 8 hours playing while the team recorded the entire session. At a later date, producer Roy–a veritable modern-day Macero–selected, and even edited Bélanger's best takes in order to deliver us the 'perfect performance'. Try as I might, I could not detect any edit or musical oddity whatsoever–we are very far from the infamous "Take Five" splice just preceding Morello's improvised drum solo. The repertoire encompasses the baroque period from Bach to more modern material with Spanish cellist Cassadó, passing through the 19th century with German cellist Grützmacher–in which 12 etudes have their debut recording–and composer, pianist, organist, and conductor Max Reger, better known for his organ works than the cello.
 
 
In the end, it took three masterings, and two or three lacquer cuttings to give the go-ahead! Karisma's Guy Hébert handled the former while Philip Gosselin from Le Lab Mastering in Montreal, Canada, accomplished the latter on his fully refurbished Neumann VMS-70 lathe equipped with SX-74 cutter head. He is the sole cutting engineer among seven mastering engineers–him included–quite an impressive number all working under one roof; even more so considering the plethora of self-produced music, and myriad mastering apps available online these days. Keep in mind, we are not talking New York, Nashville or L.A., but Montreal, Québec! Plating and pressings were provided by Optimal's plant situated in Germany, and limited to 2000. Ironically, Montreal's metropolis briefly had a vinyl pressing plant a few years ago known as RIP-V, but as destiny would have it, its acronym anticipated its own demise. 



Unseen Works designed the album sleeve. Luc Robitaille captured the musician, cello in hand, spread between the front and back cover on a white bare background. It reminded me of some classical-new age or pop covers from the 1980s and 1990s, which in my opinion, does not convey the true high calibre material lurking within this release. They appear to have been inspired conscientiously or not by Nancy Donald and Hooshik's design of Céline Dion's Falling Into You from 1996. My preference would have veered more towards an authentic B&W photo or a darker background with the cellist in 'deep thought' or actually playing in the chapel, visually winning over its natural target audience, which is the audiophile community. On a more positive note, the sleeve opens as a gatefold, wherein 13 photos–mostly B&W–frame a central larger one in color, tastefully taken throughout the course of the day by Ritch, informing us on the team's personnel, equipment, the chapel's beautiful interior, and even the actual cutting of the master lacquer at a later date. Inserted in one of the sleeve's openings, is a full-sized glossy sheet containing brief infos regarding the musical selections plus Bélanger's bio, both in English on one side, and french on the reverse. The LP's are safely housed in what is my preferred method: i.e. wedged-corner paper with poly lining the inside, providing protection plus strength.


All four labels match the front cover's hues (as did Dion's LP also). Closely examining the vinyl, inscribed in the dead wax are 'LAB PG' for Montreal cutting engineer Philip Gosselin as well as A1 B2 C3 D1 respectively indicating I presume which of the master plates were chosen to make the stampers. This unmodulated area averages a radius around one-inch wide, with side B closer to 7/8 of an inch–each side roughly varying between 10 and 13 minutes, the latter approaching the maximum time recommended for 45 rpm with limited bass content. I think Gosselin got just the right compromise between maximum groove spread vs minimal inner-groove distortion, and in effect, I could not perceive any diminishing of high frequency purity throughout. I had the rare opportunity of borrowing two copies from friends, to compare with mine: all three were perfectly flat, beautifully black, and very shiny, with no scuff marks. Most sides were devoid of any ticks, except for one copy that had a few minor ones near the end of side B, plus another copy that had a small 'v-shaped dent' about half an inch from the outer groove affecting both side A and B in the same spot for a few platter turns, heard in the form of a 'low thud' as if someone was gently 'tapping his foot' at the recording venue. That said the vinyl surface noise floor was nearly as quiet as the best MoFi's pressed by RTI, which suggests that Optimal are capable of generating great quiet pressings but need to improve somewhat there QC methods if they wish to reach the pinnacle of vinyl manufacturing. Also on all three copies, I could detect a faint 'cyclic' noise throughout side A–the remaining sides seemed ok or at worst barely perceptible. I could not confirm but was told that this low level noise does not appear on the CD version, inferring that it was not present at the recording site, and therefore is part of the vinyl chain, either at the cutting lathe or during plating procedures which include rotational steps. Note that with the vast majority of albums, the music content and–in 'pre-dolby days'–analog tape hiss, would cover these minor noises. But because of the nature of this recording–i.e. a solo cello, the musician exploring extreme dynamic phrasings, a pure digital, direct to MacBook Pro pathway, and hence no tape hiss–everything is laid bare to hear, especially so if your system is dead quiet like mine is, and puts the onus on every step of the project. That said, in the end it did not diminish my listening pleasure.

Now onto the listening: It is by far the best cello recording I have heard anywhere regarding sound, and one of if not the best, most natural sounding LP in my roughly 8000 record collection. The tone, and textures eminating from the bow, strings, f-holes, and resonant wooden belly, bespeak a deep degree of realism rarely encountered through any format medium. Bélanger's passionate performance of this rarely recorded repertoire, makes it just as enjoyable from a musical standpoint–running the full gamut of emotive range, from mere melancholy to bold bowing bravura, with every (Audio) Note resonating in between. He brings a breath of fresh air to the sometimes stale state of playing we get from certain classical musicians since the last couple of decades. It demands a lot of dexterity, forcefulness, finesse, not forgetting an absolute command of one's instrument to pull off this outstanding level of mastery. Just one example are the double-stops delivered on side D, leading us to wonder falsely if two are actually sharing the score, such is the quality of execution. We can sense the presence and physicality–his every efforts, easily captured by the main mics, and see-through sound. The entire recording-production team proved adept at mixing just the perfect proportion of proximity vs room ambiance. As a result, we get to relish the intimacy, power, and pizzicati precision of the cellist close up, plus Clark Chapel's consonant colors embellishing the soundstage, and informing us on the venue's inner dimensions–ultimately transporting us to its first pews in Pomfret, Connecticut. The sound is neither overly warm nor 'clinical' cool, but simply neutrally natural–nothing hints at any 'digititis'. In fact, it sounds a lot like a direct-to-disc LP but without the added pressure that the musician, and cutting engineer usually encounter during these sessions, which not surprisingly affects the performance. A one-step plating instead of the normal three-step would have been interesting also. Contrary to most music labels, Audio Note was wise enough to conserve the full frequency response, and vast dynamic range of the recording, not compressing in any direction the session. High praise also must be credited to Hébert, and Ritch for the fine mastering, engineer Gosselin at Le Lab Mastering for skillfully cuttting the master lacquer, and the artist himself for refusing to settle for anything less than the best.

A must-have in any collection. Kudos to all!