It’s that time of year!
So, the recent half-speed mastered, 45 RPM, 180-gram vinyl editions of Brian Eno’s seminal art rock albums from the mid 1970s generally sound pretty wonderful (with some caveats). The question of whether you need them depends on how “into” Eno you are.
I for one am a big fan of Mr. Eno so picking up these new issues was something of a no brainer. They weren’t easy to find initially around here in San Francisco as they sold out quickly but I did finally get them all (I reviewed Another Green World last year).
I have a nice UK pressing of his Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) album which still sounds pretty rocking even though it has been well loved and played a whole lot over the years. “Third Uncle” has been a particular favorite demo disc for me over the years — it is one of those tracks that easily blows people’s minds when they first hear it. The interplay of wide panned stereo guitars punctuated by stereo percussion is always mesmerizing.
The new Half Speed Mastered (by Miles Showell at Abbey Road Studios in England) version of this recording appears more quietly on the new discs so I had to turn up my amp a bit more. A somewhat bigger soundstage is one of the differences I’m noticing initially and a generally increased sense of openness and air surround the recording. This version is also sounding quite a bit brighter sounding and somewhat less claustrophobic (and there in lies the rub for me, especially on tracks like “Third Uncle” : I’m not sure I like losing that dense compressed feel on tracks like this… but more on that in a bit…).
The music fares better on songs like “Put A Straw Under Baby,” with much more natural sounding violins and organ sounds there. You can almost feel the room in which the fiddles are being recorded in. The more I get used to the sound of this album I think I’m mostly liking it. “China My China” is striking with its big synthesizer swells and skronky, raw rhythm guitars percolating in each speaker. When the typewriter parts kick in and the very Fripp-like guitar soloing emerges, its just a wonderful trip.
The new half speed master also wins points for simply spreading out the music across four album sides, so end-of-side gems which often suffer on standard LPs, such as the title track — “Taking Tiger Mountain” — generally sound wonderful. I use the word “generally” for a very specific reason however: my copy has some unfortunate distortion happening in the grooves on that track which is odd given there are only two songs on that side and I’d otherwise heard no problems elsewhere. So, I’m not sure if its just a pressing anomaly or some stray dirt or something in the grooves (I may fully wash the disc at some point to see if it helps).
Apart from that one disappointing moment, my LP copy is otherwise excellent with dead quiet, well centered vinyl and all those good things audiophile folks tend to appreciate.
All this talk of pressing problems does sadly underscore one of the underlying challenges of the vinyl universe and for some of you who have embraced the digital world, it might well be easier for you to just listen to Eno’s albums on a streaming service like Tidal. There you will hear “Taking Tiger Mountain” with no real noise floor and it frankly sounds pretty solid using the CD quality 2004 digital remasters (note: I never had this album on compact disc to compare it to). “Third Uncle” is very bright there and you do lose some of the presence of the instruments in this 16-bit, 44.1 kHz presentation. However, what you lose there you do make up for convenience and lack of the aforementioned disc pressing anomalies.
So, there are trade offs.
For me, I’ll hold on to my half speed mastered version of Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) as it mostly sounds pretty great and is a nice complement to my original 1974 UK pressing on Polydor Records (which is in good shape for its age, but no longer minty). Also, since the 45 RPM two LP versions are out of print technically, you may have to look around for a copy at your favorite music stores and online (there are versions up on Amazon still, see the embedded link at the start of this paragraph). I also need to note that there is a new single disc 33 & 1/3 RPM version of Eno’s classic albums out now so be aware of what you are buying (I have not heard those yet but they are less costly and may serve your vinyl needs just fine).
And as for Tidal, well there is a wonderland of Brian Eno’s music up there so I plan to be exploring a lot of the albums which I have missed in recent years — Mr. Eno’s output increased a lot and its been hard keeping up on all the releases. Again, another perfect reason to have access to a service like Tidal even if the albums are only in CD quality: it is a great way to explore the music and decide if you want to step up to a higher resolution version (if one exists).