England's XTC was on a creative roll when it released Black Sea in 1980, hot on the heels of its breakthrough Drums and Wires. The album yielded numerous significant hits in the UK, generated a buzz here in the States, setting the stage for their 1982 smash hit English Settlement and all that followed. In some ways it is a perfect blend of the quirky angular freneticism the band had so finely polished on its first three records, yet was very much a warm up for the lush pastures they would soon explore. Black Sea is, in that regard, one of those rare "period of transition" recordings that is genuinely great.
The only problem I have always had with listening to Black Sea on vinyl has to do with the -- for lack of a better phrase -- density of the production and mastering, especially as the tone arm reaches the center of the disc. At nearly 49 minutes in length, the album arguably pushed the limits of what could/should be put on a single disc (rule of thumb is about 20 minutes per side). The more complex psychedelic- flavored tracks residing at the end of the album sides suffered sonically. The eventual CD version of this album rectified this scenario somewhat, but still the album sounded a bit.... well.... congested.
Thus I was especially interested in hearing the latest in XTC's "surround album series" of remixes done by the great Steven Wilson (who has done fine fine remixes of several other XTC albums, my reviews of which you can read about by clicking links I've embedded here for Nonsuch, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Drums & Wires).
I'm pleased to say that my concerns about Black Sea in both stereo and surround sound have been put to rest and expectations exceeded. Like its predecessor, Black Sea is very much a muscular rock 'n roll record at its core, more so even than Drums and Wires in many ways. Producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham crafted a huge sound for the band -- big sounding drums, fat bass, two guitar slingers brimming with amplified electric and acoustic tonality and passionate vocals.
Now, with rock records being remixed into surround sound, it is often really important to have the core rhythm section hitting the listener right between the eyes, both in Mono or Stereo -- I remember reading somewhere that the primary reason the Rolling Stones have never tried remixing their albums into surround is the concern that the mixes would "fall apart" when spread out into the surround sound fields. Its a legitimate concern. Enter Steven Wilson who has the proven golden ear for all things progressive and rock, finding creative solutions to deliver the necessary one-two punch that holds on to the rock essence of a recording while opening up new vistas for listeners of the music via 5.1 multi-channel home theater speaker arrays. Wilson is also adept at breathing new life into stereo mixes, taking advantage of 21st century technologies yet honoring the original intent of the artists and producers.
In this instance, the secret sauce which keeps everything together tastes like none other than drummer Terry Chambers, whose presence quite literally fills the room in this surround mix. It is arguably one of the most rocking 5.1 mixes I've heard to date. The listener is almost in the drummer's seat in this mix -- don't freak out audiophile purists, that description is simply designed to create a visual picture of how big the drum sound is -- and that is not a bad thing as you have all your best band mates from XTC around. The result is a wonderful listening experience that still sounds like Black Sea is supposed to sound, yet offering a new vantage points and perspective. I found myself dancing around the room a bit as I enjoyed the surround mix from most every vantage point without losing the essence of the music -- something that doesn't always happen with surround mixes. You can play this surround mix for friends during a party and those not in the sweet spot of your home theater set up will not have a compromised listening experience.
This new Steven Wilson remix also offers new clarity. Those aforementioned end-of-vinyl-side tracks like "No Language in Our Lungs" and "Travels in Nihilon" sound tremendous. Big and full and uncompressed, the music is bright but not harsh. Guitar tone for days oozes from Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory's amps and into your living room, from numerous vantage points but generally keeping to the traditional four-piece rock band set up of the band during this period -- guitars panned generally left and right, bass and vocals in the center and drums in the heart. But there are neat twists, such as the opening big guitar riffs on "Respectable Street" coming from the back of the rooms.
This CD plus Blu-ray two disc set is not just about the surround mixes -- though you do get a full set of instrumental only mixes as well as singles, b-sides and rarities in 5.1 -- but also about the new Stereo mix Mr. Wilson created. Enabling easy comparison -- the Blu-ray also includes original Stereo mixes / master -- the new digital version is quite wonderful : fuller, richer yet maintaining the essence of the original vinyl experience.
This is a good moment to discuss the concept of the need for a modern mix to be developed with digital in mind. Earlier CD representations of this music were probably -- and I underscore that I am guessing here, folks -- created using a straight transfers of the analog master as designed for the vinyl LP record format. That is, the original analog mix may have been created -- and especially, mastered -- with the limitations of the LP format in mind. So those tapes may well have not been optimal for a digital listen. Accentuated highs can appear over emphasized, layers of added compression that may ultimately work well on vinyl playback may sound off the mark in a digital presentation. This factor might be exacerbated when the music gets compressed further, crunched down to the CD's 16 bit, 44.1 kHz presentation -- the result can be undesirable brightness and emphasis of certain frequencies outside the original intention of the mix. In short: it ain't quite right.
So Steven Wilson's work remixing the original master multi-track recordings in first generation 24-bit fidelity -- crafting them into something new that honors the past -- is really an important step to take for reevaluating and it appreciating this album with, quite literally, fresh ears.
The difference between the old CD version of XTC's Black Sea -- I have an original UK edition on the Virgin label -- and the new remix is palpable. While producer Steven Wilson has not swayed from the original widescreen production design of producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham, he has brought out details and warmth of the recording, closer to the feel of the original vinyl mix.
For example on the ska-reggae inflected power pop of "Living Through Another Cuba" Terry Chambers' snare drum goes from being mere "ping" (on the old CD) to a more realistic "pang," resonating quite brilliantly. On songs like Colin Moulding's "Generals and Majors" you hear the rich orchestration of the band's playing and their vocals alongside his propulsive bass lines which drive the song alongside Terry's quazi-march step drums. Dave Gregory and Andy Partridge's guitar parts cut through the mix with fat amplifier tones and lovely acoustic resonance. Little details like the phase shift-sounding cymbals and vocal effects -- which were perhaps over accentuated on the 16-bit, 44.1 kHz original 1987 Virgin Records CD version are now sounding more balanced and blended in this new compact disc presentation.
One great thing about exploring a reissue like this is that you discover songs which you may have overlooked in the past, finding new favorites along the way. Accordingly, the big rediscovery for me is the song "Rocket From a Bottle," a wonderful bit of chugging power pop brilliance again featuring Terry Chambers' pounding tom-toms and some glorious mesmerizing snake-charmer-like guitar signatures (probably from Dave Gregory).
On this Blu-ray of Black Sea you also get access to archival recordings including early versions of songs and a batch of Andy Partridge's demos from the period. But the real stars -- for me -- are the inclusion of the three promotional videos the band made for this album. On the big TV screen its nice to see the band having fun, clearly on a creative and professional peak, they appear super confident in "Towers of London" and "Generals and Majors" -- I mean.... one has to be super confident on film when pulling down the trousers of guest star and Virgin Records label founder, Richard Branson (and this does happen)!
I only have one little teensy tiny nit to pick on with this mix and that is simply that the original song transition fades were not really adhered to.... thus, for example, at the end of "Rocket From A Bottle," the rich piano chord fades out instead of cross-fading into the opening of 'No Language In Our Lungs." There may be one or two other instances like this, but all in all it is a minor detail. And frankly, I can understand why Mr. Wilson probably did it that way. Again, I'm guessing again here folks, but as many young buyers of downloads purchase individual songs -- which frequently get used in playlists and such these days -- those creative cross fades which many of us love from the original album become a mere annoyance for newer fans not attuned to full album listening.
So it goes... we do still get the original stereo mix presented in a flat, uncompressed transfer on the Blu-ray Disc, so we aren't losing anything really. We are simply gaining a new perspective on this fine music.
All in all, I'm quite pleased with this new remix of Black Sea. It opens up the music without losing its essence.
Clarity without compromise -- what more can one ask for?