I thought this was going to be a difficult review to write… I mean… English Settlement by England’s XTC is arguably one of the best sounding albums by any band or artist to come out of the so called “new wave” movement of the late 70s and early 80s. The album is easily one of the band’s finest moments musically and sonically.
In the United States, some of you might have a somewhat skewed (or skewered, even) memory of this album’s unveiling as their then label over here — Epic Records — severely sliced-and-diced the sprawling, lush two album experience down to a shoddy single disc. They even dumbed down the beautiful forest green artwork into this sort of nauseous-looking, flat split pea soup color that I suppose someone somewhere thought would pop better on record store shelves.
Fortunately, most of us serious fans soon learned of the problem and quickly snapped up the pricey but lovely UK import pressings to hear the full album and enjoy the original artwork, lyrics and all-around English-ness of the release.
We weren’t disappointed. English Settlement was an instant classic.
Over the years the album has endured numerous reincarnations including an incomplete version in the CD format — fortunately, eventually the whole album was put on a CD (in varying sonic states) and the universe was satiated for a while.
With the new 21st century era of remastering well upon us — and the joys of remi-XTC-ology (sic) as helmed by the now-near-legendary, prog-rock guru, surround-sound meister-producer-engineer, Steven Wilson, a reality — anticipation has been brewing steadily for English Settlement to get the sonic upgrade treatment.
While at the time of this writing we’re still waiting for news of the eventual 5.1 surround sound remix version (the master multi-tracks are still lost in the archives!), the band has been cleared to issue a new super deluxe LP version off the original half-inch (30 inches-per-second, analog tape) master mixes via their own Ape Records imprint. This new package comes pressed on lovely, utterly quiet and wonderfully centered 200-gram thick vinyl and it sounds simply splendid.
It also sounds quite different than the original UK pressing, so while you will want to own this, don’t go dumping your beloved original pressings.
While there is a wonderful clarity on this new edition, the sound is a little different likely because of the way the mastering was handled. While I admit to be speculating here, the records are cut a little quieter so you’ll have to turn up your amplifier a bit to push some air out of your speakers…. but when you do, you’ll most certainly feel the punch!
For example, Terry Chambers’ tom toms and kick drum on “All Of A Sudden” are much more powerful.
Little details which were formerly only somewhat audible are now much more present. Little bells and chimey-swishy details sparkle like sunshine on a quiet lake on a late Summer afternoon… Formerly somewhat buried rhythm guitar parts dance joyfully from the speakers … Sonic booms like the big gated snare explosion in “Down In The Cockpit” are now much more in your face. Heck, now I can really understand every word of Andy Partridge’s spoken word break in that song.
Now as good as this new edition sounds, I’d have trouble writing overused reviewer cliches such as “it sounds like a layer of gauze was removed from the recording” when applied to this new version. However, it does sound like the music has been brought into a tighter focus while increasing the dynamics that were already there. So the louder parts are louder and the quiet parts get quieter.
Its almost like when you hear a classical recording that hasn’t been volume equalized (aka compressed)… so those quiet parts really get quite hushed!
When you get to a track like “Melt The Guns,” you experience a much more widescreen presentation of the music that is almost cinema-scopic in nature. Colin Moulding’s sexy bass lines wind around the persistent rhythms like a serpent looking for so many apple-takers wandering in the garden of earthly delights…I’m guessing that for the original UK pressings, decisions were made to reign in the music, keeping the grooves tight for radio punch as well as to accommodate the limitations of the average teenage turntable back in the day.
Now you can really feel the slither of those snaky bass tracks.
This new version of English Settlement sounds pretty fabulous on my Music Hall MMF 7.1 turntable (with Goldring 2400 cartridge).
I’m guessing there was a whole lot less compression used in this disc mastering.
Speaking of compression, the set includes a CD with a flat transfer off the master tape (other than the inherent compression which occurs in the creation of the compact disc format). A “flat transfer” means that no additional compression was added to the recording (such as is often added to a final master to make a record pop when played over the bandwidth-constrained radio airwaves). Technically, there probably had to be some amount compression added in the physical LP mastering stage, otherwise your stylus might jump out of its grooves!
]]>That said, when I got to “Its Nearly Africa,” my speakers were really getting a workout on the low end from this new LP version. The starburst of room ambiance at the start of “Knuckle Down” is kind of astounding on this new version — a detail that is crunched down and glossed over on the original.
It was at this point, in fact, that I realized that while I will be holding on to my original UK pressing of English Settlement, this new version will clearly be my “go to” version for quite some time to come.
At least until Steven Wilson’s 5.1 surround mix comes out…
If you are a fan of XTC and this album, you probably need to hear this new version. Yeah, its a bit pricey but the package is lovely and unusual. Most of the original cover art elements are presented in-tact, but in somewhat different form factors. For example, the lyrics now get their own dedicated booklet instead of being thrust on to the peach-hued inner sleeves — which, by the way, are now individual cardboard LP sleeves for the discs, each protected by nice audiophile-grade, plastic-lined paper inner-sleeves.
The CD comes in the package housed in its own LP-sized cardboard flat — why the record labels didn’t do this approach in the early days of the CD, I don’t know — it makes so much sense and retains all the glory of the large format album art… but that is another discussion entirely…
I’m quite pleased with this new reissue. I think you will be too.
Also, remember that by buying this version you are doing a very good deed by supporting your favorite band directly in a way that they have never really experienced (ie. they are actually getting paid for their releases!).
And who knows… hearing this music in with such fresh focus might just inspire you to make that pilgrimage you know you always wanted to make to visit the English countryside… to see the great manor houses and the rolling hills…. to drive around some of those legendary roundabouts … and to see the famed Uffington horse (on the cover, near Swindon where the band is from) in all its enormous splendor (as I did in 1999!).
“Life’s like a firework, you’re only lit once…”
Or more simply as The Rutles once sang: “Get up and go!”