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Listening Report: Guided By Voices Isolation Drills 20th Anniversary Edition Vinyl

Mark Smotroff is ready to trade in his 2015 edition…

As modern rock groups go, Guided By Voices are one of the most collected, collectible and coveted bands of our times. With more than 100 records released, the group is a machine of creation led by its founder, Robert Pollard. 

Many of their seminal releases from the 1990s and early 00s command significant dollars in their original vinyl incarnations. For example, first pressings of 2001’s Isolation Drills go for upwards of $100 these days. Surprisingly, that is even with the specter of reissues looming. In 2015 there was a pretty nice blue vinyl edition which I reviewed (click here) and enjoyed until I found a fairly priced original at a record swap meet.  Even that reissue is selling for $50-100 on Discogs!  

That may all change however with the release of the new 20th Anniversary edition of Isolation Drills which has been both remastered and repackaged. In this instance, the remastering is not inconsequential: the 16 song album is now spread across two LPs spinning at 45 RPM and the result is a joy!

Listening with fresh ears, the original LP of Isolation Drills sounds pretty good but when you turn up the volume a bit you can hear the harsher edges of the early mastering. I suspect that there was perhaps a fair amount of compression applied to squeeze everything onto a single LP; perhaps some digital anomalies crept in along the way.  

It is especially noticeable on Robert Pollard’s vocals and the harmonies and double-tracked vocal parts which take on this sort of over emphasized fuzzy texture right from the get go on tracks like “Fair Touching” and “Chasing Heather Crazy.”  Pollard’s vocals on “Glad Girls” have this sort of slightly phase-y essence around them on the original pressing. 

The instruments are also less distinct there. The kick drum just sort of thumps away muddily in the background. The guitars grind but not in a great way (as opposed to hearing loads of amplifier tones and the purer vibe of the guitar flowing through your speakers). 

The new 20th Anniversary edition of Isolation Drills goes a long way to rectify these problems. The new mastering feels like it was done with lighter hand and is more supportive of the music. The crisp vocals don’t feel over-stated into fuzziness. The slashing electric guitars sound richer and rocking, yet less artificially buzz-saw like. And now I can better feel the kick drum! 

The really great thing is now I can turn this album up loud (as rock records were meant to be played) without it assaulting my ears. “Skills Like This” sounds tremendous with lots of big slashing amplifier tone coming through my speakers on those chugging break downs.  Pollard’s vocals on “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “Glad Girls” are clearer and more natural sounding and the double-tracked vocal choruses aren’t sounding buzzy. The acoustic guitars at the start of “Sister I Need Wine” sound terrific! The “wop wop” backing vocals on “Want One” jump out of the speakers in a pretty badass manner on this new pressing.  

All in all I am very happy with this new 20th Anniversary edition of Isolation Drills The vinyl is dark, black, well centered and pretty thick (it doesn’t quite feel 180 gram but also not 140 gram… so perhaps its a 150 gram?)

So this is a great improvement to a great GBV album.  But the joy doesn’t end there. The cover is a major reason to get this new edition. If you owned the original CD you know that it was housed in an elaborate  package which opened to reveal the band sitting in the inside of a private plane.  This new LP version recreates that in a large format and it is spectacular.  Someone put a lot of care into the creation of this version of the album and it shows. 

I’m ready to get rid of my 2015 blue vinyl reissue of Isolation Drills. I guess the big question for me is whether I can part with my original pressing from the ‘90s.  If I do hold on to it that will be purely for a collector’s completist perspective.  This new 20th Anniversary edition of Isolation Drills will be my go to version for the foreseeable future (until perhaps when we someday get a remixed version!).

Bravo GBV!

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