April 1998

agents.jpg (11411 bytes)Blue Oyster Cult - Agents of Fortune
Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UDCD 697
Originally Released: 1976
Remastered Released: 1998

by Greg Smith

Sound Quality ***1/2

[Reviewed on Gold CD]

Comparison Releases:

Agents of Fortune
Columbia CK 34164

Sound Quality *1/2

The Reaper (Best)
Zounds CD 27200545B, 1993

Sound Quality **1/2

Now that my daily commute involves a ride along the Long Island Expressway, I pass signs beckoning toward Oyster Bay almost every day. It seems fitting that the soundtrack for many of these trips is provided by Blue Oyster Cult. In fact, car stereo is a perfect vehicle (ouch) for listening to the band's CDs. While cruising along the highway, you almost don't notice how bad the sound is. While I love the band, the sonics on BOC releases range from awful to merely bad. Not too long ago, I discovered that the original recording wasn't to blame; the Zounds collection of their music sounds quite decent. Alas, that doesn't help out those of us looking for full versions of the original albums. So when I found out that Mobile Fidelity was going to release Agents of Fortune, the music that really turned me on to the band in the first place, I made sure to get my grubby hands on a copy as soon as possible.

The obvious starting place to discuss this album is "Don't Fear the Reaper," the radio anthem that is all many people know of BOC. The regular CD release starts out noisy, despite a rolled off treble that kills the subtle details to many instruments. While the bass is fairly strong, and the harmony vocals in the chorus are overlaid in a decent (if somewhat indistinct) fashion, who wants a version of this song where Buck Dharma's guitar is grating to the ear when he really gets wailing? Not me. Zounds does a good job of improving things, with a reduction in noise without taking the high frequencies away. There is a big improvements in dynamics and the bass is more solid. Happily, the guitar isn't in your face anymore, but the vocals are still a bit fuzzy. Mobile Fidelity really gives a different treatment to this song. The sound is less forward even than the Zounds version, with more emphasis on the far deeper and stronger bass work. The voices really float in space, while the guitars sound anchored to the acoustics of a real room instead on an unidentifiable place. During the solo in the middle of the song, there's still a bit of noise, but who cares? I was scribbling notes down until then, but I was forced to stop by the overwhelming urge to start playing the full air band in time with the music. You laugh, I know, but I don't care--I'm having too much fun to be concerned.

I hear the music, daylight disc

After recovering from my jumping about, I started the CDs over to check out how "This Ain't the Summer of Love" came out under Mobile Fidelity's care. The Columbia release features a mess of guitars and vocals all blending together, highlighted by heinous distortion on the louder vocal parts reminiscent of amplifier clipping. There are some random notes in the background that are supposed to be drums, I guess. It's just plain painful. While the new remastered version still hurts a little bit, the solidified bass helps restore the musical balance. It's still not as clear as I'd like, but now it sounds like it was simply the production style used for this track.

"True Confessions" is truly wimpy on my old CD. More tinny drums and sloppy bass, yuck. The MoFi is still a little dull, but the improvement is substantial. The dynamic range just blows away the silver disc. When hearing "Extra Terrestrial Intelligence" on the original release, a listener might have several question. Is that supposed to be a piano? Is that thumping a bass guitar? The Ultradisc release doesn't leave so many doubts. There's more noise during the quiet opening, but in return you actually get some high-end response so the instruments are distinguishable!

"The Revenge of Vera Gemini" reminds me of something else to love the Mobile Fidelity Agents for. The liner notes on the Columbia CD I've been putting up with for years are just plain pathetic. You get a track listing, basic information about the band and recording, and a statement saying "This Compact Disc was manufacturer to meet critical quality standards." That's it. I'd like to find the so-called critic responsible for that mess and smack them around some. Mobile Fidelity really went out of their way to provide a spectacular booklet with their version. In addition to good reproductions of the original artwork (including the cool roulette picture), you get something I've been craving for quite a while: official lyrics. I've read some attempts at deciphering the sometimes cryptic vocals before from fans, but this newly printed version even tells what the background comments in "Vera Gemini" are. There were two words I'd been unsure of for decades now--no more. But wait: there's more! Act now, and you also get a photo of the band circa the time this album was recorded. And those who really are listening carefully to the way this recording was put together will really appreciate the intro from Buck Dharma himself, including not only the usual details on microphones and tapes used but a look into some of the effect techniques used. You too can learn how to improve the snap on your snare drum recordings without using any of that wussy digital gear.

Don't report this, three men said

I've got a pile of notes left on the various degrees of improvement found in the other tracks, but I feel little need to type them in. It's pretty simple. My first copy of Agents of Fortune was a pre-recorded cassette tape. As soon as I got the music on CD, I gave that old copy away. It was obsolete. Now that I've got Mobile Fidelity's remastered version of this recording available to listen to, the original Columbia release is just as obsolete as that cassette. Anyone who ever listens to Blue Oyster Cult should do their ears a favor and cough up the cash for this new version. Get all your friends to buy copies, too. If we're really lucky, the companies involved will be happy enough with the response to get MoFi cracking on remastering the rest of the band's catalog.