I’ll be honest with ya folks: I didn’t get around to reviewing the second wave of Zep album remasters because I honestly didn’t have reference copies of the albums on vinyl anymore.
Like many of you, I too had succumbed to getting rid of certain “common” records on vinyl back in the day in exchange for a then-seemingly tasty CD replacement. Over the years I’ve steadily restored my Zep collection on LP but had yet to find a decent (and reasonably priced) original pressing. That changed more-or-less recently when I came across the untitled fourth Zeppelin album (sometimes referred to as Zoso or simply Led Zeppelin IV) at an estate sale for a couple of bucks.
I say more-or-less as this isn’t the super pristine “holy grail” version that someday I’ll find, but it is a very playable and enjoyable early US pressing which — depending on whom you talk to — some consider the definitive article. This one features the original “1841 Broadway” address for Atlantic Records on the label and has the “Porky” and “Pecko Duck” etchings in the deadwax. From what I’ve been told by some Zep aficionados, these also have the serial numbers indicating a desired stamper among collectors of these things.
That said, I feel re-acquainted enough with how this hard rock classic should sound on vinyl to tackle this review. I mean, I grew up with the album, my older brother bringing it home upon its release when I was about 10 years old, so I feel pretty intimate with the music, enough to objectively approach listening to the high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit download version as remastered by Jimmy Page himself.
The new one sounds real nice, I will say. The first test for me is “Going To California” and there I’m hearing really nice round acoustic guitars and a richness to Robert Plant’s voice that is not all that different from the original vinyl. “When The Levee Breaks” also sounds real good.
But ya know, kids… I’ll tell ya… and this won’t be a surprise…. when I turn up the volume good and loud on the digital versions that is where I start having problems with the download version. When played at a “normal” volume, the digital version sounds just fine. But when you pump up the volume, then I find things start to fall apart a bit and its not anyone’s fault really. I think its just the nature of digital or at least this flavor of digital. The high end takes on a sort of harsh angularity that makes drummer John Bonham’s cymbal crashes harder (for me, at least) to listen to. There is also some phase-y type stuff going on in those cymbal crashes on the download that is not on the vinyl. Everything is harder edged making it less enjoyable loud volumes.
And, sorry folks, but given that this album is arguably ground zero for all things hard rock and heavy metal, it SHOULD be played really loud. Bonham’s kick drum is much fuller and pronounced on the original vinyl.
Curiously, I went back to my old CD copy (an RCA record club edition, at that!) and, y’know what? It sounds pretty great! It still has some of the digital artifact stuff going on — Plant’s voice is much harsher on this — but the cymbals sound more like what I hear on the LP.
Me thinks some tweaking of the high end went on in the “digital remastering” process for these new editions, perhaps a little too much.
Seriously folks, what you end up listening to is ultimately a matter of choice. Your choice, Dear Readers.
Some people genuinely like the new remastered, crisper sound. Others prefer the warmth of the analog original vinyl (or the old CDs for that matter). Its all good and whatever you choose to do is valid.
If you are a hardcore fan, you’re going to want all the buzzers and bells of the super deluxe packages (and you probably have them all already!).
If you are more than a casual fan (like me) you’ll probably enjoy the high resolution download as a complement to your original album, particularly for the entire album’s worth of bonus tracks — essentially a fascinating alternate view on the album with different mixes of each song, each featuring different elements-in-progress that were being considered. I really like the instrumental, Mandolin-Guitar mixes of “Going to California” and “The Battle of Evermore” in particular. Those alone make ownership of the bonus disc essential listening.
Gotta say, after all these years this album does have something of a timeless quality to it — timeless, if you like hard rock, that is. As many times as I’ve heard “Stairway to Heaven” I can still enjoy it as much as the first time I heard it as a little kid. That says something which goes beyond mere nostalgia.
It sure has been a long time since I first rock and rolled…