[SOUNDSTAGE! MUSIC OF MERIT]

 

[THE GOLDEN ZONE]September 1997

Jethro Tull - Aqualung

  • 1st release: Chrysalis VK41044, circa 1984?
  • 2nd release: Chrysalis 8-52213-2, "25th Anniversary Special Edition", 1996
  • 3rd release: DCC GZS-1105, 1997

"You Gen Xers just don't GET it! Aqualung is an LP. The only CORRECT format for Aqualung is LP. Luckily DCC has the best sounding Aqualung LP ever released anywhere in the known universe. You're makin' me squirm real bad just THINKING about an Aqualung CD. "...dB

Doug better get used to squirming, because this month I'll take a look at not one, not two, but three different Aqualung CDs. The first one, which I'll dub "the original", often stood out in my CD collection for how bad it was. If I wanted a poorly mastered CD, I knew I could rely on Aqualung to provide it. So when the 25th Anniversary release came out, sporting the "digitally remastered" logo, I picked that up, too. This again failed to satisfy, for different reasons. The main focus of this review is the just released version from DCC. Have I finally found a pleasant Aqualung CD? Will Doug Blackburn ever stop abusing me for trying? You don't expect me to answer all these questions in the first paragraph of the review, I hope. This contest will have four rounds, and I just heard the opening bell.

The Master

You want an original master tape for Aqualung? Don't ask Chrysalis for it. It's fairly well known that the master tape they've been using for a while now is at least a 2nd generation copy. Considering how bad the original CD release sounds, I wouldn't be surprised to find they didn't even use that one--a cassette tape could easily capture the sound quality you'll find there. DCC had wanted to release Aqualung for years, but refused to use the same crummy version Chrysalis has. It's only recently that their detective work revealed another person on the grassy knoll, uh, I mean another master tape. Apparently Ian Anderson has the 1971 British release master in his personal possession. After some wheeling and dealing, he agreed to let DCC have it for one week. A million dollar insurance policy was obtained and tape went via courier across the ocean and into Steve Hoffman's hands. Bear in mind that this is a slightly different mix than the one all previous American releases of the album have been made from, so some of the differences I note later could very well be from differences in the master rather than differences in the CD mastering process.

The Technology

I don't even want to think about how poorly the mastering was done for the original Aqualung CD; it's just too traumatic. For the 25th anniversary of Aqualung, Chrysalis went all-out (by their standards) to make the most deluxe Aqualung possible. They used "state-of-the-art analogue to digital converters" and processed the result down to 16 bits with the Prism Sound Super-Noise-Shaping system. This claims to "reduce the apparent level of background noise and equally important, subtly modify the psycho-acoustic properties of the recording to enhance the sense of presence and realism." Translation: they processed the hell out of it. I'm sure they meant well, but the results are less than stunning. DCC doesn't spend all day running music through digital programs that try and make it sound better. They carefully construct a signal chain that converts the analog master to digital form so that it's as faithful as possible to what Steve Hoffman imagines the master is supposed to sound like. You've got a classic showdown here: Chrysalis with their fancy processing software vs. DCC and their judiciously applied analog technology.

The Sound

Here's a recipe for annoying your neighbors: load three distinct Aqualung CDs into a CD changer. Turn up the volume loud enough that you can hear as much low-level detail as possible. Play a track off of one, then advance through the changer two more times to hear the other versions. Go back to the ones you've already heard sometimes to clarify subtle points. Then, advance to the next track and start the process over for them. Lather, rinse, and repeat 10 more times to hear every song. Some days I wish I still had the almost deaf landlord who accompanied my first apartment; he used to play his TV so loud that I never worried about how much I turned my system up.

Anyway, you can tell almost everything you need to know about how a given release of Aqualung is going to sound during the first few seconds of the title track. The opening guitar chords on the original are noisy, with The Big Tape Hiss (capitalized because it is so truly horrible). On a system with an exaggerated treble, The Hiss on this version will drive you out of the room. When you listen to the rest of the music, you find yourself asking questions. Is that vague modulated thump in the background supposed to be a bass or drum? Was that ugly distortion at one time the sound of the guitar strings? These questions and many others should be answered by the 20th anniversary version, but they aren't. The hiss is gone, sort of. See, the processing they used to get rid of the noise is far less effective in the louder parts than in the softer. So when you hear the space between notes, the hiss is totally gone. During the music itself, it's back. This constant fade in and out of the background noise is, to me, worse than a noise that happens all the time. I used to get the same pulsing effect when I sic'ed my dbx dynamic range expander on the original CD, and it wasn't any more pleasant then. There are actually some small improvements on the anniversary release of this song, but they really aren't worth dwelling on. The DCC version fixes up most of the problems you hear on the other versions. The hiss is quieted considerably compared with the original, and is always at that low level; much less distracting than the remaining noise left from the Prism processing. The bass is clear and way deeper, while at the top end the cymbals actually shimmer like they should. The soundstage is much larger, with the weird vocal echo in the middle sounding like it is in a much bigger space.

Moving on to Cross-Eyed Mary is a more pleasant experience. While the original still has The Hiss From Hell, the flute sounds decent and the kick drum comes through fairly well. The anniversary edition gets the expected hiss modulation by the music, and the kick drum picks up some impact. DCC's track actually lets you hear all the drum parts as distinct, rather than the generic "drum sound" the other versions portray. The double-tracked vocals really jump out at you on their version, and bass guitar rumbles just right.

Cheap Day Return shows more of the same pattern. While the bass sounds reasonable on the original, there's the usual hiss and a fake sound where the guitar body sounds are supposed to be. The 20th anniversary edition doesn't improve the problems at all, adding only hiss anomalies. DCC cleans up the noise without being irritating, while restoring the guitar nuances and making them sound like real instruments.

I've always been a big fan of Mother Goose, and it's one of the few spots where the original Chrysalis CD sounds pretty good. Compared with the previous three tracks, this one has better dynamics and a big fat kick drum. The bass on the 20th anniversary edition is even better, and actually edges out even the DCC version by my taste. What DCC does give you are the edges to the entire envelope of Ian's flute playing, with all the detail laid bare. The quiet singing and guitar of Wond'ring Aloud are totally ruined on the original CD, obscured by hiss (hey, wasn't that a Floyd album?). Happily, the crap is gone on both the 20th anniversary and DCC releases. The newer Chrysalis release takes the sense of space and aliveness along with the hiss when they processed it out, and it actually sounds worse than the original in that regard.

The laughing voices on Up To Me improve in a fashion that shouldn't surprise you if you've been reading along so far; they get better with each new version, floating more in space instead of just being random sound effects. Also no shock is that the bass is sucked away in the anniversary edition; the DCC release comes between the two, not being quite as pronounced as the original version. The really big gain you get from DCC is in the guitars, which, it is suddenly revealed by their remaster, actually have strings on them (a fact you'd never have guessed from how the other two sound). My God is an apt reaction to how bad the original Aqualung CD sounds, where again the Mother of All Hiss (unrelated to Mother Goose) obliterates the soft guitar opening. This time there's even a loud squeal to go with it. The squeal is still there in each of the other versions, albeit at a reduced level. The 20th anniversary version is fairly competitive with DCC's on this one, losing only a bit of the edges to the guitar notes.

A loud farting noise accompanies each of the bass guitar notes on the original version of Hymn 43, which is about average overall in mastering crumminess for this CD. Don't expect that Chrysalis will fix it, their new version is even less dynamic and the soundstage collapses ("enhance the sense of presence and realism", my ass). DCC saves this track, it's one of the most improved on their release. The recording sounds like it's in a much bigger space. And that bass guitar have been treated with the remastering equivalent of Gas-X, because there's a nice tight sound to it. Quite refreshing after hearing the other two.

Slipstream has differences just like the rest of the tracks, no need to beat that dead horse further. Nowadays, whenever I hear Locomotive Breath, I suddenly have this urge to go buy some beer (I hate selling out). All subtlety to the piano at the beginning is, of course, lost in the hiss and squeal of the first release. The DCC version has little hiss and the squeal is almost gone. Amazing, there's actually some action on those piano keys! The weird wobbling effect to the bass on this track comes through more cleanly than I'd ever heard it before. The 20th anniversary edition has less hiss than the DCC version, but the early piano part isn't quite as real. Once the track gets loud, there isn't as much of a difference.

As we Wind Up the disc, we find (all join in) more quiet piano parts you can barely hear and fake guitar bodies. The 20th anniversary edition restores this music, it's quite nice. Surprisingly, the DCC release is still pretty noisy, and overall I actually prefer the anniversary version in both that area and how the guitars sound. Amazing, something to like about it just as we were nearing the end.

The Package

The original release of Aqualung came with a pathetic set of information about the album. The little four page liner notes give you a track listing, who was in the band, and the Aqualung hymn. That's it. The 25th anniversary release came with a big deluxe box, which of course makes it stick out of my collection in an irritating way. Inside the box is a regular sized jewel box, but the liner notes booklet that comes with it is also oversized so you can't just dispose of the outside box. Annoying, and for no good reason, since it's not enough bigger to justify on the basis of giving a better look at the artwork or anything. In their defense, you do get the nicest rendition of the cover in a CD size I've ever seen, with the painting texture revealing Aqualung's grubbiness in excellent form. You get the lyrics to all the songs and some quotes from reviews of the album. On the CD itself, you'll find another bonus--six extra tracks. Lick Your Fingers Clean is a track wisely left off the album, there's the Quad mix of Wind Up, and an interview with Ian Anderson. The other three tracks are BBC recordings of Song for Jeffrey, Fat Man, and Bouree. Interesting to hear, but certainly not compelling additions to the album. DCC's version comes between the other two; you get all the lyrics and artwork, but the graphics don't look quite as detailed as the anniversary edition and there's no bonus tracks.

The Winnuh!

I've been trying to find a Aqualung CD worth liking for a long time now. The original release sounds so bad it actively gets in the way of the music itself. The 25th anniversary version is better, but I'm so disturbed by the processing artifacts that I've only listening to it a few times in the year I've had it. If you really want to hear Aqualung clearly on CD, the DCC version is the obvious choice. I've found myself enjoying the songs quite a bit more than I ever had before.

I highly recommend snapping up a DCC Aqualung before they disappear. You see, there's a very painful trend I've been following lately. Many record companies are taking the opportunity to sell the same music to the public again by releasing remastered versions of recordings people already own. I'm usually all in favor of that. Recently, though, this has taken an ugly turn. Not content to merely make the best possible CD from the unprocessed master tape, the big record companies have taken to messing around with the music instead. Now, think about this: if Chrysalis spent their time making what, to their ears, is a perfectly good digital release of Aqualung, do you think they'll ever go back to the master again? I wouldn't be surprised at all to find that future releases of the album, be it on CD, DVD, or whatever, will come from the digital version they've already made and screwed up. After DCC's release is out of print, it may never be possible to get a proper digital release of this album again. It's not just this album that's a problem, either. Artists like The Who and Elton John have now remixed their classic albums and released the new versions as the standard. While some of these are very good, they are all different from the original music. When it comes time to release future versions of, say, Who's Next, you can bet that it's this remixed version you'll be getting. This is very upsetting to me, as I happen to find that particular version to be inferior to the well remastered version MCA had previously made available. I don't ever expect to find that available to buy again; I suspect all that will ever be released in the future are new digital transfers of the remixed version.

It's already becoming nearly impossible for anyone to get good copies of the original master tapes of many classic albums, especially since they are so prone to wear and degradation over time (not the mention loss). The work DCC is doing on albums like Aqualung is especially important when you realize that it may very well be the last time anyone ever touches the original master to sample that analog tape and make the best digital version possible. Don't say I didn't warn you if you wait to buy it and find that Aqualung has slipped between your greasy fingers, never to appear in such a listenable form again.

.....Greg Smith
gsmith@westnet.com


Copyright 1997 SoundStage!
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