A bunch of years ago I had an interesting learning experience with regards to surround sound music. I was in the midst of my run working with DTS -- I was their external publicity and marketing communications consultant for about eight years, for those of you who didn't know this -- and I was getting very seriously into the whole surround sound thing. By "into it" I mean into it well beyond the call of duty for work; I was actively collecting all the surround sound music I could get my hands on by the artists I loved. I was -- and remain -- passionate about the technology. If your system is set up correctly and the mixes done properly, a surround sound listening experience can be revelatory.
When I finally found a copy of Yes' Fragile on the wonderful-but-woefully-under-distributed-and-poorly-marketed high resolution DVD Audio Disc format, I was in Prog Rock heaven -- "Prog Heaven," if you will, which is a little like "Hog Heaven" ... only different.
The 5.1 surround sound mix put me inside the band and sounded bigger and wilder than even the best of stereo LP pressings I had of the album.
I was so excited I invited one of my music buddies -- Johannes who is at least as big a Yes fan as I am, more-so in some ways -- over to hear the surround mix. I plopped Johannes down in the sweet spot in my living room home theater set up and we listened together, me glancing nervously at his reactions to the new recording. In short order, he started picking apart the mix and to my utter disappointment telling me all the reasons it sucked.
In short, he hated the new sound applied to the album. He said was hearing details in the mix that weren't on the original stereo version. He was also not hearing things he expected to hear.
Needless to say, my surround-sound buzz-bubble was burst for that moment.
Then I played him the bonus track of the 5.1 mix of Yes' stunning interpretation of Paul Simon's "America" -- a song from the time period which appeared on the Yesterdays LP compilation.
He hated that even more ...
I gave up at that point, not fully understanding his perspective -- I thought it sounded pretty dang cool.... different, but cool. But I let all of that experience sink in and continued to dangle 5.1 goodies his way when possible.
Fast forward ten plus years and here I am reviewing the new Steven Wilson-helmed remix of Fragile both in Stereo and 5.1 surround sound. And listening to it, I now fully get what Johannes was upset about, especially when you do an A/B comparison of the mixes.
But I was not quite so surprised to discover that Mr. Wilson got the surround mix "right" -- if you will -- this time as he has no doubt established a niche as the meister-re-mixer supremo, the go to guy that (seemingly) all the progressive music makers trust their life's work. The reason why he is so successful at what he does -- in the face of stellar remixes by some of the best audio engineers in music history -- has never been more apparent than on this new edition.
Why? Because on the Blu-ray Disc version of this reissue of Fragile you get not only his stereo and 5.1 remixes -- which remain true to the original intent of the original 1971 mixes done by Yes and its producer Eddie Offord -- and a flat transfer of the original stereo mix, but you also get the 5.1 mix from Rhino's 2002 DVD Audio edition! So now you can quite quickly (depending on the capabilities of your player) switch between the mixes to compare and contrast the differences.
Now, mind you, I'll defend my original opinion of that 2002 DVD Audio mix -- I DO still like it because it IS so different. Just like Mickey Hart's reinventions of The Grateful Dead's seminal albums Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, the 2002 edition of Fragile was indeed a re-make / re-model situation. That was the prevailing thought of the day that the surround mixes SHOULD be different.
The only problem with it, of course -- and that is perhaps where the industry failed a bit, drinking its own Kool Aid -- is that when it comes to reissues, the buying public by-and-large doesn't really seem want anything quite THAT different for their day to day listening. Some of those listeners do want a surround sound experience. And they want to hear things in the best possible sound quality. But they want to hear their old favorites in a manner that still recalls the music they know and love, the sound they grew up on.
Enter Steven Wilson who broke into this industry that was already teaming -- yes, teaming -- with all manner of audiophile-friendly engineering experts in 5.1 surround sound. Heck, the industry had grown to a point where for several years there was even a surround sound trade show with much excitement and ballyhoo ensuing at these events (Awards! Celebrities! Parties!). Some of those early surround sound mixes were cool, mind you and remain so -- from Queen's Night at the Opera to exclusive quadrophonic and 5.1 releases by none other than Frank Zappa.
And yet still, the industry seemed to flounder and perhaps coincidentally many seminal artists held off on letting their recordings be touched. Things changed years many later when the fledgling Mr. Wilson convinced none other than Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame that surround sound could be a good thing if it was done a certain way. Wilson's sonic successes with the King Crimson catalog opened the vault floodgates to all manner of classic progressive music makers who wanted their beloved master tapes given his special touch. Mr. Wilson has subsequently done seminal remixes for high profile bands including Jethro Tull, XTC, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Tears for Fears, Gentle Giant and many others (including his own band Porcupine Tree). Oh, yeah, and of course he has done the stellar remixes of albums by Yes including The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Relayer.
Fragile is his latest master re-work and it does not disappoint. Here you get the full rock splendor of Fragile in 5.1 surround yet it still sounds like the Fragile album we all love. That said, now with this easy ability to A/B the new and old surround mixes, I can say I still like the old DVD-A mix for the wacky variety it offers.
On it, Jon's voice has church-like ambiance added. The drums are mixed way up some tracks where previously drums almost didn't exists ("We Have Heaven"). Bill Bruford's "Five Percent For Nothing" on the DVD-A mix is almost as insane as Elliot Scheiner's incredible-but-wonderfully-mad surround mix for The Flaming Lips Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots which -- on Pt 2 of that title tune, which literally moves an entire drum kit around the listener in time with the song!