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Well, that took forever. I had to find out what was wrong with my 5.1 tuner that I was only hearing music on three of the five speakers, and it came down to the fact that I needed to hook it directly to the TV to access the control panel UI and find the setting on the remote to tell it to play Dolby Digital from all five speakers [and the subwoofer!]. I only have the laserdisc player and the DVD player directly inputting to the [olde fashioned CRT] television. I thought the “auto” button and a setting of “Dolby Digital” on the tuner itself would take care of business. More bad interface design, yet I still can’t get a job in UX anymore because I don’t have a degree in that discipline. Sigh. Then having solved the problem [over a rough five hours of plodding through the thick manual] I still needed to find the hour or so to actually play the disc. This was done last week on a day off of work! And now we are ready to sew this patient up for good!
It started with “Astradyne,” as usual. The CR78 “metal beat” was ticking in the rear speakers with the bass drum in center channel. The bass synth drop in the middle movement of the long instrumental panned around the room while the metal beat swirled around the listener, who was rooted to the “sweet spot.” The style Wilson was aiming for was a subtle 5.1 that occasionally panned for effect but mostly expanded the soundstage for a wider apparent space.
On “New Europeans,” the emphasis shifted with Midge Ure coming into the mix with his vocals. as in a film closeup, he was isolated in center channel with a very dry production as opposed to the Plank mix we’ve known for 40 years. This song really was the one to let us know that weer were in 5.1 territory since the grinding , distorted synth hook in the chorus always sounded three dimensional even in 2.0. Here, it was actually coiling around the listener as it had wanted to for all of those years. The drums were also in center channel while the viola iin the instrumental solo was much more prominent here. I can’t say i ever noticed it on the stereo mix much at all. A greater ambience on the filtered voice of Ure in the middle eight also took advantage of the new space well. This is the song that will make you sit still for such a sound in your living room.
By the third song I was discerning the stylistic approach of Wilson’s mix when the cymbal crashes were panned front left. He would stick to this fairly consistently throughout the disc. Ure’s vocals had differing effects on them as compared to the Plank mix. The ambience was tight on the verses but the song really opened up on the choruses. The care taken with Ure’s vocals finally had me discerning exactly what he was singing after decades of mis-hearing things. The great false ending had the song pull itself apart into two channels with the distorted scream [never really discernible on the Plank mix] panning right. The fading coda had the ambience of the song getting wider and larger as it ended.
A big difference in “Passing Strangers” was the prominence of the bass in the mix. Ure was extremely dry and isolated, as was the style here. The synthesizer freakout in the middle eight let me hear the viola in the rear channels as the soundstage got very wide for what is still perhaps my favorite synth riffing of all time. The sequencer was in the front and Cross’ bass was really popping out to become noticed. When Ure was singing I noticed that the soundstage tightened up to contrast with the “zones of expansion.”
The swooshing synth intro to “Sleepwalk” now panned in three dimensions! The metallic percussion was left front dominant with the cymbal crashes spread wide between left front and rear right. The pizzicato synth hook was extremely three dimensional. What I’ll call the “radar” synth was more prominent. And the soundstage got wider on the fadeout.
Warren Cann sounded very much like a newly energized presence on “Mr. X.” Very up front int he mix and quite three dimensional. The higher frequency synths were wide in the rear channels. The “cicada” rhythm was panned right and the tremolo synth work was as three dimensional as Cann was. The viola ambience skewed very wide and this one, along with “New Europeans” was so far the cuts to show off where this album was peaking in 5.1. I loved how Cann retreated to a ghostly presence in the fadeout.
I was eager to see how “Western Promise” sounded. It was my first favorite upon hearing the album for the first time and it’s managed stay in my pole position 40 years afterward. The distinctive sequencer energy was panned back and forth and then to back. Hi-hats were high in the right channel and I can’t remember ever hearing them before. Where Ure was nominally dry in the earlier mixes, here he was slathered with reverb for a change. When he shouted “hai!” it was wide and expansive, but less percussive than I’ve grown accustomed to. I did like how the sequencer in the fade swirled around the listener.
With “Vienna” we can expect that excessive liberties would not have been taken. The thundercrack drums were panned wide and expansive with lots of space given to the reverb. Ure was super close, dry, and intimate in the setting. The chorus swelled in the rear channels and the piano solo had a wide ambience that panned from rear to front channels.
I was crestfallen to note that there was now a longer gap between the final sound of “Vienna’s” fade and the syndrum beats that announced “All Stood Still.” The timing of pauses in track flow really sit with you after 40 years. There was a noticeable gap of a second or two that raised red flags with me. Warren [and Chris’?] BVs were more diffuse against Ure’s leads; weakening the call and response aspect of the song.
That was it for the album. Three of the four B-sides were in 5.1. For reason’s known only to Steve Wilson, “Herr. X” was on the DVD in 2.0 only. I loved the wide ambience on the intro of “Waiting.” The tremolo synth was panned from left to right. The chorus now swirled around the listener most impressively. The ambience on the chorus was amazing and the outro fade I had already loved in 2.0 was even better in 5.1.
For “Passionate Reply,” the claptrap echoed wide and was highly isolated in the mix for a sharper presence. Ure’s guitar lines were warm and enveloped the listener and his spoken middle eight was more prominent. Cann’s vocal turn [heavy panting, at least] on “Alles Klar” was very up front, sounding like jet engines now. His sighs in the mix, which were almost subliminal on the Plank mix, now decayed around the listener. The distinctive “all’s clear” bass synth hook that sounded too minimized in the 2.0 mix had been returned to prominence in 5.1 with excellent ambience giving it the spotlight. This was one instance where the 5.1 corrected what was a “problem” for me in the 2.0 remix. Warren’s sighs on the outro were absolutely haunting in 5.1.
When I was first alerted to an ultrabox for “Vienna” I was mostly excited for the live CD but was only somewhat excited for the rest of the package. The live album was still all of that and more. Realistically, I may listen to the album in 5.1 maybe one more time in my life. It’s just not convenient for me [as if one could not tell by how long it took me to write this review]. But the whole package was very deluxe and interesting without venturing into packaging or [important here] budgetary overkill. While there was initially some sense that they were milking powder from the cash cow at the end of the day I’m happy to have this thorough presentation of the great “Vienna”‘ album in my personal Record Cell. The mastering was the best it’s has in decades and as far as I can see, barring the lack of “Herr X” in 5.1 [though the DVD menu explicitly states this – suggesting that was a deliberate decision and not a gaffe] I can find no fault with any of the details of aspects of this set.
Since it sold out the vinyl on pre-sale, and the CD box probably won’t be around for too much longer, I wonder if we might see the “Rage In Eden” box in the next year? I know that would make a lot of people happy, since consensus is very high on the group’s “difficult” second album together. I bought this because I really had to, as I am the exact target for such an endeavor. But my Aztec Energy Dome is duly off to the duo of Dermot James and Simon Musselle for taking the time to do this well and to do this right. In an era when we have so many errors and flubs on what is an expansive luxury item it’s a pleasure to see the job done so well.