Mastering techniques for audio CDs have improved immensely over the many years since the format was introduced. Unfortunately, older releases don't benefit from these advances until they've been remastered using more modern equipment. Luckily, the big record companies have been reworking their back catalogs with increasing frequency lately. Many artists find their entire recorded history released again with improved sound quality, and usually better packaging to boot. Rush is one such band, and they certainly needed it. The sonics of the early Rush CDs are quite awful indeed. It's music you listen to in spite of the recording, not because of it. Mercury sure tried to do justice to the band's recorded output last year when they updated all of Rush's digital releases up to 1987's Hold Your Fire. My original reaction to these new discs was so mixed that I decided to sit on them for a while to sort out exactly what I think. I didn't expect that to take over a year, but it got complicated. You'll see what I mean. After all, I ended up using 27 different CDs before I was over; the 12 originals, the 12 replacements, and three Mobile Fidelity versions.
Poor John Rutsey. Rush's original drummer has got to be the least-missed performer in all of rock music. He doesn't do a bad job on their first album, but the old CD doesn't really portray that very well. On "Finding My Way," the dynamics of all the instruments are hugely compressed. The remastered version restores the edges to all of Lifeson's guitar notes, and there's a whole new bottom end. Wow, there are cymbals, too! "Working Man," not to be confused with Dave Duvall, is also improved, with better portrayal of the drums and a bit more echo to Geddy's voice. But the guitar is the amazing part; it's HUGE on the remaster. If you're a fan of this album, I highly recommend the new CD. It's a winner. The liner notes use bigger print now, but unfortunately there's still no song lyrics.
Fly By Night
Neil Peart makes his impressive first appearance on this second CD from the band, and to really appreciate what he does you've got to have the new version of this disc. It's like he got a whole new drum kit for Christmas. The liner notes now include the song lyrics, and higher-fidelity pictures of the band let you see exactly how nice their hair was styled back in 1975. This is another must-have.
Caress of Steel
Caress of Steel has always sounded far better than the first two Rush CDs, but there's definitely room for improvement left. "Bastille Day" features two guitar parts, and their interplay is really unraveled by the remastering. Unfortunately, the high-frequency material (cymbals in particular) are just a touch on the harsh and splashy side. "Lakeside Park" is better in that regard, less in your face, while adding considerable power to the vocals. The full LP artwork and lyrics are now included, which is very welcome. I give this one a thumbs-up, but it's not as impressive a change as the previous two discs, especially when you consider the potential for brightness on some systems.
The ancient 2112 CD I have always stuck out as the truly sore thumb of the Rush catalog. It grates on your nerves with tinny and harsh highs, indistinct thumps for bass, and distortion all over the place. Did I mention thin vocals? Sometimes I think they just ran through the version of the master EQed for vinyl when making the digital version. When Mobile Fidelity remastered this release a while back onto gold CD, it was a revelation. Sure, there was still plenty of background noise from the 1976 master, but along with that was a restored sense of recording space that's wonderful. The kick to the bass is absolutely incredible, and the vocals are all free of garbage for once. I was hoping the new Mercury remaster would be similarly great, because that would open up a better 2112 to more fans. Unfortunately, it's not to be. The '97 remaster is overly sharp, with all kinds of weird stuff going on. There's some sort of weird whistle in the background during the opening that hurts to listen to, and even more noise than the MoFi. The low-frequency impact isn't even in the same league as the older gold release. The kick drum is almost lost in the mix, and the disc is often abrasive. As much as I'd like to recommend a cheaper version, the fact is that the Mobile Fidelity 2112 is worth every penny of its premium price. Better snap one up now because with the official remasters out I suspect they aren't going to keep selling their version all that much longer. The differences in the liner notes are kind of interesting. Mercury reproduced the difficult-to-read red type of the original LP, which is very cool but apt to make your eyes equally red. MoFi reset the type into a clear black and white, which misses the flavor of the original while being more functional.
A Farewell to Kings
The first thing I did when getting Retrospective I, the first CD from the remaster series I bought, was listen to "Xanadu." I'd remembered the original release as being very noisy and grainy. The new one is still somewhat noisy, but the high-frequency material is much clearer. There's a bit of the shift toward a forward treble that's characteristic of the '97 Rush remasters on this track, but it's somewhat subtle. "Cinderella Man," in contrast, was already a bit on the obnoxious side on the old disc. The latest version still errs a bit in that direction to my ears, but it's ameliorated by restored bass that keeps the overall tonal balance good. The liner notes for this one restore a couple of graphics, but there's no big change. This CD is a winner, with a sizeable improvement to be had.
"Circumstances" as original released in digital was dull with unresolved bass. The new release is neither. Similarly, the guitars (or should I say "axes?") on "Trees" are far better. The liner notes give a new foldout with pictures of the trio. I've nothing but good things to say about this new CD.
I've heard lots of rumors about the Permanent Waves master tape over the years. Some tell me it's long lost and only poor copies remain. While I can't accept such hearsay as fact, the remastered version of the album isn't going to disprove that assertion. "Spirit of Radio" started out on CD with somewhat low resolution but an excellent tonal balance. The new version has detail all over the place, with nasty cymbals and unpleasantly crunching guitars. "Freewill" isn't quite as obnoxious on the top-end, but it's still not even close to what I was hoping to hear. I don't consider this remaster acceptable at all. On systems already leaning toward bright, it's absolutely unbearable. I don't know what Bob Ludwig and company at Gateway did to this one, but somebody deserves a beating for it. My current plan involves making my own CD using the new release and judiciously applied digital EQ. I can't ignore all the extra information I get from the remaster, but it's just not listenable in its published form as far as I'm concerned. I find the original more enjoyable in many environments. Again, we find some more pictures of the band in the liner notes, but nothing special here.
Join me next month for part two, covering Moving Pictures to Hold Your Fire. We'll listen carefully to breaking glass, and delve into the mystery of the missing Weapon. It'll be loads of fun.
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