Pink Floyd, 5.1 mixes, and Obama’s Libya

25 10 2011

Animals remix, by Pink Floyd. Nice lean sound reconfiguration but the thudding snare and toms must be unfixable. Vocals and guitars are up front and sparkling. Rick Wright drifts in and out in all the right places, never overstaying his welcome. Nice to hear a classic well served by technology.

Animals was unfortunately birthed between two giants: Wish You Were Here and The Wall. It’s not neglected as much as overshadowed, and could have well stood the 5.1 treatment its brethren are now receiving.

Animals is sometimes referred to as Pink Floyd’s response to punk. Maybe. But the sheer length of these songs says no. And punk never could never touch something like Animals. It’s a whole different animal. And not a dinosaur.

Like all music, over time, styles like prog slide in and out of favor. The best of the  bunch, like Pink Floyd and a few others, overshadow their contemparies and continue to easily do so. No one ever made a mistake buying a PInk Floyd album, going to one of their concerts, or sitting in a car way too long on a cold day for Welcome to the Machine to end on the radio.

Pink Floyd continue to deliver the thematic goods too — the wag of the finger at big business by Animals‘ is as relevant today as ever. Let that pig fly over the Battersea power station every day as a reminder of the struggle between business and the rest of the nation’s well being.

The Dark Side box, which came out about a month ago, contains the 2003 5.1 mix, which was, oddly enough, originally released as an SACD. Evidently the two formats are actually compatible with each other. SACDs have gone out of favor, but they pack a solid sonic punch. Knowing a 5.1 mix can be embedded into an SACD is news. Old news, probably, but still news here at the Prog Desk.

—  Discipline and Starless & Bible Black by King Crimson. The 5.1 mixes are getting wide release this week. If they’re anything like the previous work by Steve Wilson, they’re worth having. Sitting in a wide audio field of prime Crimson is a few hours well spent. The stereo mixes, no matter how good, can’t compare.

— Archiving vast musical performances and then selling them at just the right cadence and price is just another day at work for the Grateful Dead. The band’s third serial archive series will be launched in February. Dick’s Picks and Road Trips did their jobs, but the branding sprouts another branch next year. Read all about it here. Thirty-five years and more than 3,000 shows — the snowflakes of rock. Now that’s an archive.

“Inside Obama’s War Room,” in Rolling Stone. This is a revealing look into high-level diplomacy and international politics.

“As he analyzed the crisis, Obama kept his own cards close – so much so that even those deeply engaged in the strategy sessions found it hard to get an accurate impression of where he came down on the issue. But in a move that seemed squarely aimed at avoiding the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama also laid down what insiders say was a set of five guiding principles for any intervention in Libya: that it be effective, multilateral, follow international law, put no American boots on the ground, and pursue a well-defined, achievable goal.”

Must reading, here.

5.1 mixes

21 08 2011

The Prog Desk here at Out There has a terrific audio sweet spot. It’s equipped with enough firepower to deliver the knockout punch for hard charging music and the deft reach to clarify the details of something more quiet. The fundamentals of good sound are in happy alignment: A couple front right and left satellites and a subwoofer surrounding the iMac get the job done.

CD’s rule, along with streaming of radio stations and specialty sites like the Deadpod.

More isn’t always better, but two rear satellites over the right and left shoulders would add depth to the sound field. The goal is getting the most out of the extra speakers, beyond a generic surround sound that is basically just re-filtering stereo. Re-filtering it nicely, sure, but that doesn’t squeeze the most juice from the grape. The ideal would be running 5.1 through the iMac. This level of streaming is rare — Netflix delivers with 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus sound, but there’s not much else out there.

Most workstations, like the Prog Desk’s, aren’t designed with this kind of sound in mind. The iMac also doesn’t have the ports necessary to get 5.1 out of DVD or Blu-ray players. Out There‘s Viewing Room, at the other end of the house from the Prog Desk, has a terrific 5.1 sound field with an easy chair smack dab in the middle of the sweet spot. This is where lots of listening is done to something prog does very well — 5.1 remixes of classic performances.

The best of these mixes take the gimmick out of the mix. It’s tough to convince folks that 5.1 is an inexpensive step forward from previous failed attempts to upgrade sound, like quadraphonic.

Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree is the highest profile of these classic prog remixers. He’s entrusted by Robert Fripp with the King Crimson studio catalogue and come through wonderfully. The mixes of In the Court of the Crimson King, Islands, Red, In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard flesh out the essence and spirit of the original recordings, many done with relatively primitive equipment in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The original clarity was lost with the bouncing down of tracks during overdubbing, when at least one generation of clean sound was sacrificed for the sake of multitrack recording.

It was a necessary evil at the time. But with the aid of the original master tapes of these sessions, Wilson takes first-generation recordings un-dulled by bouncing and lays them neatly out in the sound field, producing crystal clear remixes of great music marred by the original, wooden production. The results have all been revelations. His mix of Thrak should be out this fall. Watch for it to roll out on Fripp’s excellent DGM site and watch his diary for hints too.

All the King Crimson mixes are 5.1 DVD, but Wilson’s thinking beyond this format.

“There’s no question Blu-ray is the best way to release my material,” Wilson told Sound  & Vision magazine. “For better or worse, I have this reputation as being someone who’s on the cutting edge of audio excellence, or whatever you want to call it. Some people are complaining that we’re abandoning DVD-Audio, but come on — you can get a Blu-ray player for 75 bucks.”

The 5.1 mixes of  Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, and Ommadawn are compelling. Video complements the wide and instrument-specific reengineering of these marvelous recordings. These were terrific when originally issued in the ’70s and these mixes make them sound even better.

Genesis has two boxes worth the investment: studio and live sets spanning the majority of the group’s career and nearly documenting the entirety of the early classic lineups. Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme suffered the most. Great songs and performances framed by wooden, lifeless sound. Like the King Crimson remasters, these recordings from the early to mid ’70s have the audio veil ripped away to reveal crisp sonics, rescued from the grave of analog murk. Remarkable. These sound so good, especially Selling England by the Pound, that’s it’s sometimes tough to believe they actually exist. But they do and should be heard by everyone.

Is anyone talking about 7.1 streaming? Inevitably, yes, they are. That means Steve Wilson’s on the right road — the one leading to Blu-ray.

When done right, 5.1 mixes like these are miracles. The step to 7.1 brings out the conservative here at Out There: Five is plenty. Let’s enjoy what we have instead of overreaching.

Mike Gordon & Stick Men, Live

29 05 2011

Two bassists with muscular, melodic styles who don’t mind improvising in front of an audience. Tony Levin’s a permanent sideman, even in his own band, Stick Men; he’ll soon gravitate to different players and it’ll still sound like he’s the architect. Mike Gordon’s consistent pleasure in playing live with Phish is evident from the fall 2010 tour with his own band.

Here are two fresh and vigorous live performances available as a free  download or to stream. This is music worth buying.

There’s not a duff musician in the bunch and as bands they’re not afraid to stretch out.

Download Mike Gordon, live, 11-16-10, Minneapolis, here. It’s well played jammy rock fusion. Not necessarily in that order. It’s a happy performance that sounds loosely familiar with twists. The mp3 soundboard has enough bass to hold down the bottom. You don’t know most of the songs; it won’t matter. In the best jam band tradition, the party continues if you leave the room and it’s still bubbling when you walk back in and notice the band’s ripping through Alanis Morissette’s Hand in Pocket or Little Feat’s Sailing Shoes. The Any Griffith Show theme has a did-I-really-just-hear-that cameo. It’s not a mood breaker but a mood enhancer. Yes, humor belongs in music if it’s done right. The production is a warehouse-y echo with just enough slapback to make it shimmer. The performance never lags, always leans ahead, and refuses to go flat.

Stream the Stick Men show, or buy a download, here. It’s a night on Stick Men’s 2011 South American tour, a 2-track recording straight from the mixing board.

Pat Mastelotto is predictably rock solid. He was one of King Crimson’s cleanest and leanest drummers. HIs work on the early 2000s Crimson tours is some of the most enjoyable performances that band ever produced.

It’s always a pleasure to hear Tony Levin play bass. Or Stick. Or whatever’s at hand. He brings a willingness to experiment at a solid gait. This Buenos Aires show never drifts too far from Crimson’s shadow. That says much about Tony Levin’s influence on Robert Fripp.

Yes, That’s Indiscipline in Spanish. Nice changeup. The 14+ minutes of Slow Glide sound like early ’80s Talking Heads. That’s a compliment. There is never enough Westernized African-trance rock to go around.

There’s another live Stick Men show to stream here, an audience bootleg from the same South American tour. Monte Video is another crafted and unrestrained performance and the audio quality is just fine.

All these recordings are free to listen to now. Enjoy this embarrassment of riches while driving, or with headphones, or ambiently. The performances are strong enough to eat up all three.

Live Fripp: ’74 & ’10

17 05 2011

When music cost more it seemed there was less of it. Now that music is often free, there’s a glut. More is good but more is a lot to wade through.

Prog loves this glut and it’s a pleasure to sip from the fire hose.

Robert Fripp’s recent performance in a very public space in New York playing his version of ambient jazz is available to listen to any time for free here and here. Free music that’s actually worth paying for … but why bother. Thank you, seriously, WNYC Radio, for actually creating programming in the public interest, at no direct charge, with an interview that is not over-the-top fawning. Archived too? There is nothing to not like and that’s a compliment for the stale loaf of bread that’s become American radio.

The context of this show’s broadcast fits into the progressive mold: a live recording, strictly by the station for its listeners. This practice fled from album-oriented rock radio’s demands for low budgets in the mid to late ’70s. A live broadcast from a local venue, usually a small one, was a treat for those who couldn’t get a ticket. Grateful Dead on KSAN formed the mold.

Fripp that costs is available too.  Toronto ’74, with all the beautifically jagged edges Fripp owned at the time. Bill Bruford’s hollow-with-a-solid-bottom drumming, the heady pull of the dark bass, and the sheets of steel guitar. DGM makes the show available by mail order as the most recent release in the King Crimson Collectors Club series that dates back to the late ’90s.

Pay the guy; he deserves it. No one should have received the bad treatment Fripp’s been meted out by the music business, and he’s only one of tens of thousands to realize he had to be part businessman in addition to avant garde musician. Evolve or die, eh?

Both performances are progressive, a foot in the past and one in the future. Put each in context with its time and it’s clear they’re an accurate mirror of our time, then and now. Those who listened closely, and those who still do, are still present for a feast of audio.

Plus, it’s a Robert Fripp audio feast. He’s easy to underrate and tough to overrate.

Prog should be rewarding in this way. It’s not a drive-by  experience. It’s meant to resonate and both these Fripp performances will bounce pleasantly around the room and your head for a while after you’ve heard them.