I never expected to be doing a shootout type review of this Emerson Lake and Palmer (ELP) album, Brain Salad Surgery. But happenstance being what it is, good fortune enabled this to come together.
Now, truth be told, I have an original DVD Audio version of this progressive rock classic (containing a great 5.1 surround sound mix) which became my go-to version years ago; so much so, it prompted me to get rid of my vinyl copy when I was downsizing (apartment living these days, don’t ya know, space at a premium, yada yada yada…)
That said, I happened to be at a garage sale recently and was surprised to find a bunch of seemingly unplayed (but opened) 180-gram, modern reissues of some prog rock classics. Given the price point, I couldn’t leave them behind, figuring it’d be a chance to hear this one in particular on vinyl again with out having to spend $20 or so on it in the stores.
Then, a friend of a friend gave me, as in for free, about 500 albums which included a very clean original US pressing of this same album. Still while listening to the reissue, I wasn’t really considering writing up any sort of review until I got to the end of side one.. but I’m getting ahead of myself…
Here’s how it all went down…
First, after cleaning both albums I listened to both side ones back-to-back. Starting with the Manticore / Atlantic Records original, it sounded basically good. However, I noticed that the vinyl was surprisingly a tad noisy just like my old copy had been — one of the reasons I was OK with parting with it in the first place when I purged 3,000 or so LPs from the collection. I’m guessing the noise had something to do with the oil crisis of the mid 1970s which did impact the sound on some vinyl pressings. Its really not terrible and only noticeable mostly in the very quiet bits and between songs (this is ELP bombast at its peak, after all!). But it is a thing that can annoy some people, especially us audio-centric types who, in a perfect world like things nice and tidy when it comes down to noise and distortion…
Anyhow, next, I put on the Razor & Tie copy and right from the first needle drop I was surprised how noisy the vinyl sounded for a seemingly pristine, unplayed 180-gram album. I even cleaned it again and aimed my antistatic gun at it again just to be sure. The next thing I noticed is that the new LP is mastered at a much quieter level and the grooves are tighter together (perhaps that was intentional, arguably reducing distortion toward the end of the side); regardless, you do have to turn up the volume a bit to match levels with the original.
The real impetus to write this up for you, Dear Readers,was triggered when I got to the last track on Side One: “Karn Evil 9, 1st Impressions.” Some weirdness happened there.
For example, the sudden drop out of the band — a slightly gimmicky mixdown trick and part of the original mix — jumps out of the speakers on the new version quite oddly, sounding like a mistake vs. the groovy little surprise as it is on the original. I have no idea as to the reason for this but I can only assume that someone tried to digitally clean up the original edit or perhaps punch it up a bit in the mastering stage. I don’t discount the possibility that the artists might have wanted it that way for this reissue, but to my ear it sounds wrong. That is just my opinion — your enjoyment of this moment may vary.
Then, when the song ends, they messed up the fade out. Now, it ends very abruptly — this is lame, and I’m really not even that hardcore an ELP fanatic. On the original it fades out and you hear the tambourine shaking while the synthesizer burbles out to silence…. This is crucial for consistency as the song continues on Side Two, fading in with the same synth pattern and the tambourine.
This is a genuine bit of fail and the kind of thing that drives some prog rock purists a bit batty, especially…
Both sides of my Razor and Tie copy were also a little bit off center, creating some wow apparent on the longer synth and organ notes. Also after listening to effectively four sides of this album in rapid succession I noticed that there is a somewhat different audio footprint (if you will) on the reissue. Perhaps that is intentional or simply a side effect of digital remastering, but whatever it is, the sound is somewhat different.
That difference is more apparent on the high end, particularly cymbals — there almost seems to be a bit more room sound apparent on this new version than the somewhat compressed tighter sound on the original. By the time you get to the 2nd Impressions on Side Two, you can really start to feel more of the difference as the piano sounds noticeably brighter — again, perhaps this is intentional or perhaps it is a side effect of some mastering decision, digital or otherwise, I do not know.
All I know is it is a distinctly different sound that made me long for the original vinyl. Remember what I said earlier about those daft prog rock purists… (wink wink, nudge nudge)
Again, I’m not going to compare any of these to the DVD Audio / surround sound mix because that is a whole other thing, a different animal, an entity in its own right — I’m here today to just compare and contrast these two versions on vinyl.
And my conclusion on that front is save your money and find a reasonably priced original pressing. They aren’t that hard to find. I see them in the stores periodically used for around $10 or so; I also see them frequently at garage sales, thrift shops and flea markets so if you have the “crate digger” gene in your DNA, you can probably find a copy that way quite easily.
But there is no need to be spending $20 or more on this particular reissue. Save that for a your next record shopping splurge.
Until then, happy hunting for an original pressing of Brain Salad Surgery…