Timing being what it is, when I learned of the new 50th Anniversary Boxed set celebrating Jimi Hendrix' landmark 1968 recording Electric Ladyland, I grew concerned knowing I had travels ahead of me and might not be able squeeze in a review of this important release. I reached out to the powers that be and they graced me with an early pre-release promotional Blu-ray Disc containing the high resolution versions of the album. So, yes, here we will explore this groundbreaking album presented in 96 kHz, 24 bit resolution in its original uncompressed Stereo mix and a new first-time Surround Sound mix in both DTS-HD Master Audio and uncompressed LPCM. The Blu-ray included in the Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition marks the first time any studio album in the Hendrix catalog has been remixed into Surround Sound.
Now, after a couple listens to this fascinating new mix I realize that some audiophiles may question this version of Electric Ladyland a bit... But I also realize that hard-core Hendrix fans will probably dig it... a lot. I guess I'm a hard-core Hendrix fan. And I think that producer Eddie Kramer is a hardcore fan.
From the official press release for Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition he reveals: "I had always dreamed of mixing Electric Ladyland in 5.1 surround sound," says Eddie Kramer, who engineered every Hendrix album made during his life, and produced or co-produced nearly all of his posthumous material. "It always felt to me as the perfect vehicle for the kind of adventuresome stuff that Jimi and I were trying to do in 1968. The visceral thrill when we completed the first surround mix of 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)' was palpable. It was an overwhelming experience--pun intended. We viewed this song as the surround test and the moment I heard it I flashed back on those moments when Jimi and I were mixing the stereo album, laughing at our attempts to find that 'elusive' sound."
Indeed, the truly great thing about Mr. Kramer's new first time ever Hendrix Surround Sound mix is that it feels like something Jimi might well have tried had 5.1 Surround Sound existed back then. And who would know Jimi's head space better than Eddie Kramer who worked with Hendrix, crafting the sound on all the albums he released during his lifetime. So keep that in mind when you listen to this fascinating new Blu-ray disc.
In a way, this mix reminds me of some of the early Quadrophonic mixes I have heard over the years, what with its full-room, freak-flag-flying feel, this Surround mix is at its best when you play it loud ... real loud! There you'll find your sweetest spot for this immersive psychedelic blues rock experience. At times this mix reminds me of the way Phil Lesh's bass was handled on the fantastic 5.0 remix of David Crosby's solo debut album). This is fun, active and very immersive inside-the-band mix... but... again... you really need to play it loud!
Accordingly, you might want to put away any preconceptions you may have of traditional soundstage. The Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition Surround Sound mix doesn't seem to worry about those sort of audiophile concerns. Consider that this music was very much a studio creation, a high art piece as well as ripping rock-blues experience. Electric Ladyland was Hendrix' Sgt. Pepper... and then some! If you go back and look at the credits, you'll see that Hendrix did a lot of the album on his own overdubbing many of the parts in proto Todd Rundgren / Emitt Rhodes fashion, even though the album is credited to the band.
So, how does the Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition Blu-ray Disc sound, you ask? It's pretty wild! The music feels like Electric Ladyland and is overall a fairly warm flavored mix. It feels like 1968. At times the mix feels like you are in the room with Hendrix and his studio mates, especially Mitch Mitchell whose drums are everywhere. Hendrix' multiple vocal harmonies and falsettos on the title track fill the room from all angles while guitars wash around the room. "Crosstown Traffic" jams around you with backing vocals emerging from the right to left at times.
"Voodoo Chile" sounds positively huge, oozing with heavy overdriven guitar amplifier tone. Hearing this with fresh ears and being reminded that Jack Casady was on the session, I can fully appreciate how the Jefferson Airplane bassist might have been inspired -- along with Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen -- to form Hot Tuna (a group which evolved into a Hendrix-like power trio in the early 1970s). Steve Winwood's Hammond Organ sounds full of life in this mix, rich with the (likely) wood-cabinet flavor of spinning Leslie organ speakers.
Noel Redding's "Little Miss Strange" is a super groovy near demo track with strummy fat acoustic guitars in back and big drums and guitars everywhere. So many layers!
The slashing panning guitars on "Gypsy Eyes" are super cool as are the phase-y sounding drums at the start. The combined "wah wah" Guitar and Harpsichord on "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" is super present in the room. Jimi's solos are all around the listening space. These are complete psychedelic sound paintings, to borrow some language Eddie Kramer discusses in the accompanying Making of Electric Ladyland documentary (also on the Blu-ray Disc in the Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)
"Rainy Day Dream Away" may be my favorite surround track on the album due to the way it starts out sounding -- and feeling -- like a murky jazz club. The band there -- which includes Buddy Miles on Drums and Freddie Smith on Saxophone -- is super chill, you can almost smell the smoke hovering in the air of the studio. Because this track is a full band type recording, it makes sense that it has a more traditional soundstage. And by the second part of the jam -- "Still Raining, Still Dreaming" -- the band is tight, loose and swinging, funky filling the room with soul and fire. Mr. Kramer has some fun with those opening "wah wah" guitar stabs poking you around the room in time with the music.
"All Along The Watchtower" is really interesting because Mr. Kramer was able to expand this tight "single" mix feel (if you will) into a 3D sound field without losing the essence of his original production. The solo parts are dreamy. It is also really cool because you can hear the acoustic tone of Mitch Mitchell's drums, something I never noticed on the two channel Stereo version.
"Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" is again massive, with Hendrix' guitars melting around you. A bit more traditional blues-rock trio sound stage here, this performance just kills it and hearing Jimi's guitar enveloping you through a 5.1 Surround Sound three dimensional listening space is like listening with the best pair of headphones you never had.
There are uncompressed LPCM 5.1 and DTS HD Master Audio options on this Blu-ray Disc; I think I like the way the LPCM handles the music better in this instance. It's just that its got an extra bit more...more ... if you'll pardon my borrowing a phrase from Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland... muchness!.
Speaking of Alice in Wonderland, the cover art on this new edition features the original design Hendrix had in mind for the record. It features the band sitting on a statue with children in New York's Central Park. Photographed by the future Mrs. Paul McCartney -- Linda Eastman -- while searching around the Internet I discovered that the statue she had the band itting on depicted none other than Alice and some of her pals from Wonderland!
There are no doubt many other wonders to explore in the Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition boxed set. We are hoping to get the full set soon and will explore that in Part Two of this review series soon. Stay tuned!