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Appreciating Jon Anderson’s Olias Of Sunhillow in Quasi-Surround Sound

Mark Smotroff finds himself pleasantly surprised…

In the world of do it yourself (ie. DIY) recordings, it is common-place to immediately default conversation toward legendary artists like Todd Rundgren who came to prominence in the early 1970s with several magnificent mostly self-produced-and-played recordings (Something/Anything, Runt, etc.).  

If you’re a Beatle fan, you’ll inevitably steer this discussion towards Paul McCartney’s self-titled first solo album in 1970. And if you’re really up on things and you’re a fan of all things Beatles-related, you’ll know that Emitt Rhodes created an eponymously titled album that same year which many fans call the best first solo album that Paul McCartney never made. In the 1990s and beyond, Guided By Voices wear the crown of DIY indie rock kingship. 

But one artist who is generally overlooked for his DIY music-craft is none other than Yes frontman Jon Anderson. He, in the wake of Yes’ massive mid-70s successes — chart topping albums,  sell out tours — crafted a first solo album that remains both a remarkable piece of music and a significant technical accomplishment. 

On Olias Of Sunhillow, Anderson took the solo album concept to literal heart playing everything himself. Pouring his soul into making this wonderful recording, indeed he tackles every instrument… even the ones he didn’t know how to play!

The beauty of Olias Of Sunhillow is that at once it sounds distinctly like a Yes related project but it also has elements of what would soon become known as “new age,” spiritual themes and even world music sensibilities mixed in. The recording is not quite progressive “rock” in that sense, but it is certainly a very progressive musical statement. 

It’s also unjustly overlooked by most people…

To that, I was thrilled when I read that a new special edition of Olias Of Sunhillow was coming out including a high resolution DVD version with a surround sound mix. I got my hands on a copy of this recently for a very reasonable $20 and I have to say i’m pleasantly surprised at how much I am enjoying this version.

Here’s why:

Perhaps my expectations were set low given that I was anticipating somewhat wonky sound on the DVD. I admit I’ve become a bit of a Blu-ray snob and always wish for music to be presented in the highest resolution possible usually on that physical disc format. In my defense I have purchased some very underwhelming surround sound mixes on audio-only standard DVDs (again, as opposed to the higher resolution DVD Audio, SACD or Blu-ray Disc formats). 

Olias Of Sunhillow however is a unique creature and in this instance I wonder if preparation on a higher resolution disc would make that much of a difference in the long run given the realities of the project.

You see, the original multi-track recordings for the album are lost. All that remains is the two-channel Stereo master tape (presented here in LPCM format at 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution which sounds just ducky all things considered).

But the surprise is that this DVD includes a surround sound “up-mix” of Olias Of Sunhillow made from the Stereo master tape. What this means is that the album was put through a proprietary digital processor — I’m guessing that it used Penteo software — which analyzes the recording and churns out an approximated surround sound mix. 

Now, I do not know the software used but I assume that there are different parameters that the producers can tweak to find an optimum balance between front and rear channels. 

Olias Of Sunhillow actually is in many ways the ideal music that could work with a software program like this. There are enough distinctive vocals, jangling guitars, bells and harps in it, yet only a minimum of drums and such. It’s more about percussion than a full dense drum kit, so there’s actually a quite a lot of sonic space between the instruments in this recording to begin with.

Presented in DTS 96 kHz/24-bit sound the mix sounds quite good with no horrible artifact-ing going (at least nothing jumped out at me that I found especially bothersome). Jon Anderson’s voice was already processed with effects and other textures in the original recording.

The up-mix worked surprisingly well. For example, when finger bells and little cymbals tingle periodically, some may percolate into the back speakers. You might find harp strings coming from behind  or around you. Sometimes there are vocal chants and delayed sounds that happen in the surrounds. Again it all seemed to work quite nicely — so much so that I really enjoyed listening to Olias Of Sunhillow this way!

I give the producers of this DVD some additional kudos because they worked up a nice screensaver which is good so you don’t damage your TV screen while watching or listening to Olias Of Sunhillow. The images scrolling by are from the fantastic album art.  

Still, I wonder what a Blu-ray Disc version of this mix might sound and look like. Could they make an even higher 192 kHz, 24-bit resolution up-mix?  And, might these on screen images look more detailed?

But, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers and the reality is that we’re lucky to even have this new version of Olias Of Sunhillow at our fingertips to enjoy. Maybe there will be enough excitement about the recording that someone will dig down into the archives at Atlantic Records to magically discover the original multi-tracks. Then it would be great to get Steven Wilson (who did most of the classic-era Yes albums in 5.1 surround) to work his wizardry in creating a genuinely discrete, immersive surround sound experience for this album.

For now, however, if you like Yes and you like Jon Anderson and you love Olias Of Sunhillow, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this release.

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