Face the music, if you like The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) you probably fall into one of two categories: the casual listener who enjoys their later period pop hits from albums like Discovery and Xanadu or the more prog-rock leaning fans of their seminal mid-period albums from Eldorado through Out Of The Blue.
And then there are the hardcore fans who -- like me -- also dig the really adventurous and sometimes "out there" early stuff created at the dawn of the seventies. This was the time when ELO was being formed as a parallel band designed to replace The Move (for a short time both existed simultaneously). Its a fascinating period of the band's music as the group was defining its sound that would include elements of vintage rock and roll -- electric guitars, harmonies -- as well as the essence of classical music: Cellos, Violins! Bassoons!
This first album by ELO has seen numerous reissues over the years -- mostly in the UK -- including a two CD set in the early '90s and another in 2001. Both offer the original album with a selection of bonus tracks, single mixes, a rare acetate, a BBC performance and more. Curiously -- and most frustratingly for this writer -- those reissues offered stereo versions of the Quadraphonic mixes.
What's that you say? 'That doesn't make sense!'
Yeah, I hear ya! You see, some people collect Quadraphonic albums just to play them on their regular stereos (the discs were often "compatible" with stereo) because the recordings would sound different; in some instances there might have even been different takes used. For me however, this was all just a taunt, a tease and a frustrating glimpse into what might ELO might sound like if we could only hear it in genuine discrete multi-channel surround.
The good news today however is that the Quad mix of this first ELO album has finally been issued for real on a 40th anniversary CD+DVD package! It snuck by me in 2012, released only in the UK as far as I know. I found a copy at Vintage Vinyl Records in Fords, N.J. on a recent trip back East and I'm really glad I grabbed it.
As much as I like the early ELO albums, those recordings have always come across as rather murky listening affairs when compared with the focused clarity of Eldorado or New World Record. This was probably partly due to nature of the mix, the pressing quality (domestic United Artists pressings from the early 70s always sounded a little boxy to my ear) and/or simply too many good ideas thrown up against the wall arrangements wise.
Whatever the case, the music on the early ELO recordings is often very busy. Thus hearing it opened up in the room spread around four speakers is a joy! All the things you would expect to hear are there: cellos emanate from all corners of the room! And there are some surprises, such as Bev Bevan's drum kit in a rear corner (on at least one track), placing you essentially in the middle of the room with the band.
While I would have liked to have heard this release on a higher resolution uncompressed disc format such as Blu-ray, the 96/24 DTS track presents the music very well in 4.1 surround. I give kudos to the producers for not trying to re-invent the mix but simply presenting what was done in 1973 in a more or less "as is" state. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it is still really interesting and cool and fun. The enclosed booklet gives a fair amount of detail about what went into the original creation of the Quad mix (done in 1973 at the dawn of the initial Quadraphonic movement).
The music is all around you and opens up nicely, no longer harboring that sort of claustrophobic feel of the stereo mixes and now sounding more like a classical chamber group. This is a very string-driven album -- acoustic & electric guitars, cellos and violins. Pulsing electric amplifier tonality crashes head to head with acoustic sensitivity resulting in a heady strange brew. This is post-psychedelic, pre-prog rock music with classically-tinged sounds bearing a curious almost Victorian sensibility. Some of it sounds almost Art Deco. Proto-Steampunk, perhaps? You decide.