I'm gonna switch things up on y'all, Dear Readers: usually I start babbling about something personal and get down to the meat of things later in my reviews. This time I'm going to dive right in and talk about what I was hearing on my first bunch of listens to the fine new reissue, remix and remaster of Gentle Giant's 1972 progressive rock landmark release Octopus (which came out last year and has been on my to-get list for some time now).
I'll save my little related personal tale for later...
The sound on Octopus, which has been mostly remixed by prog rock's reigning super producer and remix master Steven Wilson, is excellent. True to Wilson's style -- and the likely reason why so many bands have been working with him -- is that he remains true to the original vision of what the album was supposed to sound like, updating the music only with clarity, focus and detailing that may have been previously glossed over. But, he doesn't change up the sonic palette wildly.
Consider taking your vintage progressive music restoration project to Mr. Wilson akin to bringing your primo 1967 Camaro to a detailing expert. It comes out looking great, but at the end of the day you still have your sassy 1967 Camaro.
I first noticed the difference on the second track of the CD part of the CD+Blu-ray Disc package, "Raconteur Troubadour." When the violins start to come up in the mix on the original they are kind of -- well, not quite buried, but -- subdued. On the new remaster, they aren't particularly louder in mix, just more pungent and flavorful. Rounder sounding. Fuller bodied, almost where you can hear more of the acoustic sound of the instrument than before. Its really lovely! I went back to the earlier 2007 CD edition of Octopus put out by Repertoire Records and the sound, while good, doesn't quite have the same impact as this new remaster.
It's important to note here that on the Blu-ray Disc you get a 96 kHz , 24-bit flat transfer of the original master tape -- that is, a copy of the original recording without any of the levels of compression that might have been applied in making the original album. So the audio levels will be be lower but when you turn things up you get all that music (and any anomalies that were on the original tape, such as hiss).
Moving deeper into the Blu-ray Disc, I'm immediately taken by the thoughtfulness -- and fun! -- of the overall presentation, particularly the screen saver function. Yeah, I know this isn't really an audiophile thing but it does relate. One of my ongoing grumps about most audio-only discs is that they put a static image on your screen which you have to keep on in order to listen to the disc. Now with an LED screen this isn't a big deal but for my Plasma Screen TV, I've had some minor issues with image burn. This eventually goes away, but its an unnecessary nuisance at a time when you really just want to enjoy the buzz of the music and not worry about things. So this Octopus Blu-ray is real nice in that it takes care of your screen with live action footage of real living Octopi!
Also neat is that while you are listening, little messages appear on the screen with commentary from different band members related to what you are listening to at a given moment. So it makes the whole listening experience more interactive (in a way) and compelling.
Of course, if you just close your eyes you can get well immersed in the nice 5.1 mix. Due to one master multi-track reel gone missing , Steven Wilson could only create a pure 5.1 mix for 5 of the 8 tracks on the album. The other three were extracted using Penteo's software which pulls 5.1 surround elements from the mixed two-channel stereo master tape. Thus the opening tracks sound nice and very much like the original mix, with -- probably, I'm guessing -- a bit of tasteful EQ employed to brighten things up a bit. Its oddly fortunate that the lost reels impacted the first tracks on the album in that it forces you to immediately get acquainted with that sound, so by the time the "real" (if you will) surround mix starts the difference isn't really that jarring and you simply get to appreciate the clever discrete nuance that much more.
By the time you get to "Knots" you are well into the madcap mindset as four voices sing at you, like slightly crazed madrigals dancing in the four corners of your listening space, emanating from each speaker. Its really quite mesmerizing! By the time the full band kicks in you are noticing that the core rhythm section is featured front and center. Its a whole lot of fun.