Avalon holds a special place for me for a variety of reasons. Mostly theyre fond memories, but one memory is not. When I bought my first CD player back in 1985, I immediately drove home, but not before I stopped at the record store, where I bought my very first CD for some $23. That CD was Avalon. Excited, I drove even faster home, hooked up my new toy, then played the disc. As I sat back expecting the "perfect sound forever" that Id been promised, I quickly realized that digital music, at that time anyway, was no great leap ahead of what I had spinning on vinyl. In fact, this disc sounded worse -- much worse -- than vinyl! For recording quality, I give the original CD release no more than 2 1/2 boxes. Its thin, tizzy at times, and lacking detail. Still, I love Avalon, and I played that crappy-sounding CD for almost 15 years. Despite the poor sound quality, this disc has seen more play time than any other in my collection. The easy-flowing nature of the ten tracks is almost hallucinatory.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into my local music store and saw this new special-edition remaster. It doesnt come in a jewel case, either. Instead, it is a plasti-wrapped cardboard album jacket and liner that mirrors the original LP release. "Cool," I muttered, since I knew I just had to have it. I quickly popped out my Visa and ran back home again.
Thankfully, they got it right on this time. After just the first three tracks, its easy to hear the improvement over the regular CD release. The drums that open "More Than This" have much greater weight and impact. Macrodynamics are improved by a long shot, and although there isn't the deepest bass you will hear recorded, it thunders in comparison to that of the original CD release. In fact, it took four volume clicks upward on my preamplifier to match volumes when I went back and played the regular CD. When I did get the peak volumes equalized, I could tell that the regular CD was greatly compressed and with not nearly the dynamic range that this new release has. Dynamic range is one of the things greatly improved. Resolution is stepped up more than a notch as well, making it much easier to hear into the recording. The decay of instruments, room and hall ambience, musical nuances, and so on, are much easier to discern. You don't need a really good system to hear all this. On even a moderate system, this increased resolution should be apparent.
On the second track, "The Space Between," there is a lot more detail to the sounds of the instruments, and their separation in the soundstage makes them more distinct in space. Simply put, their placement left to right, front to back is much more solid with plenty of resolution to tell what's going on all around. Once again, dynamics are improved greatly, as they are throughout the rest of the disc, so I wont mention it again (consider it a given), and the saxophone, which is placed to the right of the stage, has considerably better bite and attack. Despite the fact that the louds are much louder than on the regular CD, there is a greater sense of ease to the music because much of the brittle, edgy digitalness of the previous release is greatly diminished. While I would not call this CD liquid, I would say that it is reasonably smooth without the brash, hard sound many associate with digital playback.
On the first two tracks it was easy to hear that Brian Ferrys vocals are improved, being much more robust, warm and full-sounding, but it wasnt until "Avalon," the title track, that this was really driven home. The regular CD sounds acceptable, but when played back to back against the remaster, is thin and veiled in comparison. On the remaster, there is an almost resonant quality to the voice that is much more real and natural. Furthermore, detail around the voice, echo and ambience are much more apparent and easier to pick out. When Ferry sings, you hear the small space of the voice and then the echo and decay spread around. Instead of the relatively flat vocal image you get on the regular CD, this one has a fuller, more "bulbous" sound.
One area in which Avalon shines, and it is rarely mentioned in audiophile circles, is in its very well-delineated and -placed soundstage. Engineered and mixed by Bob Clearmountain, it is one of the best soundscapes in popular music. This is no minimalist recording, so the stage is likely artificially created; but no matter, there is a great sense of space and depth with very good instrument specificity throughout all the tracks. The original CD release simply hinted at what is contained here. Its quite flat and homogenized in comparison. Left-and-right placement was easy to discern, but depth was shallow, or non-existent, and it was hard to figure out just how far back each instrument, voice or sound was supposed to be. Depth and overall spaciousness are greatly improved here, and the instruments have a much more solid placement in space. For example, "Take a Chance with Me," with its ethereal spaciousness and distinctly placed guitars and drums, has greatly improved solidity in the stage, and it is easy to position each sound in a three-dimensional plane.
With all this praise, you would think this is the best recording you can buy. Well, as good as it is, and it is good, it is not quite at the top of the sonic hill. Remember, my comments above are in relation to two CD releases. Compared to the finest pop/rock recordings, this one ranks reasonably high, but there are a number that are better in different ways. If I wish to nit-pick, I can still find things to criticize in the recording. This is not the most pristine or liquid-sounding album, and at times some grain seeps through, particularly in the midrange. Most of the drum tracks have excellent bass depth and weight and pack a wallop, particularly on this remaster, but occasionally some of drums have that lightweight, almost "papery" sound that is not very realistic. Finally, Ferrys vocals are recorded quite closely, and this new recording brings out the warmth and fullness, but it is still not as liquid and pure-sounding as I suspect it could be. Chances are that most of these things are present in the original tapes and no fault of the mastering job. No, this isnt the finest recording you will hear, but it is a good one, and I suspect it is probably the finest CD release of Avalon well ever get.
For fans of Avalon, forget the original CD release, even if you already own it. If you need some sort of excuse to buy this disc, pretend your old CD is like an LP that you wore out. You dont need a reference-class system to hear the difference. The improvements in dynamics and clarity will likely be appreciated on even the lowliest of systems. Perhaps when SACD or DVD-Audio or whatever our next generation digital format is takes hold, well get yet another version -- that's maybe even better again. If this happens, Ill probably buy the new version too. But for now Im thankful that the studios didnt forget about Avalon. The quality of this release more than makes up for the original.
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