It was a very curious thing reading the wonderfully copious liner notes for the deluxe edition reissue of Jethro Tull's 1970 album Benefit, because the band has quite mixed feelings about the recording. Yet, while growing up, I always viewed this as a highly regarded album from anyone I ever met who was into Tull. It is the album that really fine tuned to their sound that evolved into Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. Their last made on 8-channel multi-track recorders, this new remix (and remaster) of Benefit by Steven Wilson is an outstanding example of how to treat a vintage album -- with love and respect, preserving the original intention of the band yet removing layers of (if you will) dust that had been blurring the sonic image.
I always liked the sound and feel of Benefit and this new mix does in fact do a great job of maintaining that flavor. Wilson explains what he was up against in doing this mix and also the desires of Ian Anderson to bring in the stereo imagery. He writes in the liner notes: "When they were mixing for stereo in the late sixties and seventies, it was usually for reproduction on a large piece of furniture with the speakers built in and only a couple of feet apart! So for this reason the stereo mixes tended to be quite extreme, and pretty unnatural. Now we can keep the whole sound world a little more "glued" together, but still keep the stereo positioning as it was, just not as unnaturally extreme left and right."
I agree with Wilson that his new mixes are more cohesive. They are also more accurate. On tracks like "Teacher," they discovered some fairly wild tape speed issues on both versions (one faster, one slower) which have been corrected digitally. This is a very informative essay and, frankly, the kind of detail that every remix / remaster project should include in the liner notes.
That said, the 5.1 surround sound mix on Benefit is wonderful. Because of the limitations of the recording, drums and bass are pretty much kept to the front sound stage, which is ok for rock and roll anyhow -- the rhythm section needs to stick together in most instances. The drums were all recorded on one channel in mono anyhow. Remember, they only had eight tracks available. Steven Wilson has nonetheless done a magnificent job of opening up the mix into the surrounds, having some fun with the special effects, double tracked electric and acoustic guitars and such. Right from the get go on album opener "With You There To Help Me" as the ghostly laughing and echo-drenched flute playing of Ian Anderson floats through the room, you know you are in for a dynamic listening experience.
The surround sound experience is also really effective on moody acoustic-oriented tracks such as the haunting "For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me." They enjoy some gimmicky fun swirling certain effects around the room but it totally works because... y'know... that IS what people would have wanted to hear back in the early 70s! This is particularly very cool (yes, very cool, particularly) on "Play In Time" which sends the swirling backwards tape effects sailing around the room.
To the older folks reading this: yeah, you may want to get your old bong out of the closet. As Jim Morrison once said: "This is the trip, the part I like..."
The fidelity on the DVD is really quite wonderful, presented in mostly 96 kHz / 24-bit fidelity via DTS and Dolby 5.1 codecs (note: in preparing this review, I only listened to the DTS version, my preferred option in situations like this). This is standard DVD Video disc, so there is no fully "lossless" presentation of the surround sound mix, but the DTS track still sounds quite outstanding. I suspect that the cost/benefit ratio of them doing DVD Audio or Blu-ray on this album may not have been worthwhile for the band to create. Stereo mixes are presented in LPCM and sound excellent, full bodied and round. In addition to Wilson's new mix, you get a "flat transfer" of the original LP mixes (US and UK versions); as they are inherently quieter, you may find yourself turning up your volume a bit to play those versions. They sound superb, all things considered (ie. analog mixes off 8 track from 1970). You also get a slew of bonus singles (with rare sleeve art!) and and a CD of previously unreleased mono and stereo mixes such (which I've not really had a chance to absorb as of yet).
All in all, this collection is excellent and a great addition to the Jethro Tull remasters program that the band and Ian Anderson have been creating for us fans these past several years. Now, I am hoping that they will work on a 5.1 release of my favorite Tull album, A Passion Play and I hope they issue it on Blu-ray -- it warrants that sort of treatment.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.