Some of you know this, but I suspect a whole bunch of you have no clue that in the early part of the new Millennium there was a big effort afoot to establish a new era of surround sound music. Beyond the failed effort from the early 1970s that was Quadrophonic sound, the new initiative promised more clarity, immersion, genuine high fidelity and even high resolution sound. New labels blossomed seemingly overnight and even the major labels started issuing these discs on a variety of formats which could play on these new systems. Of course, due to the ensuing format wars, the entire industry shot itself in the foot and for the most part the public sat it out until the dust settled.
Fast forward and today, 5.1 surround is still basically alive and well. However, a lot of people have home theater systems which can play these discs and don’t even realize they have the ability to play them. Heck, many don’t even know that these discs even exist out there.
I suspect a whole lot of these discs never got reviewed back in the day, even a little bit. Thus, I’m here today to start looking at some of these early surround sound discs that I was given recently which you may be curious about checking out — or not — in your music hunting travels:
Fly Like an Eagle – Steve Miller’s 1977 smash hit shines on this DTS 5.1 surround music disc. Essentially a CD that contains the surround sound music files in the DTS format, the fidelity is surprisingly nice on this fun and immersive version of the album. While it mostly keeps the rhythm section in the front channels, vocals, guitars and effects fill the room with a tasteful yet fun mix. Like many of what I often call “repurposed quads” — old four channel mixes that have been tweaked for the new 5.1 format, with low frequencies directed to the sub-woofer and a right-left channel blend created for the center channel fill — the mix is not really trying to recreate a live sound stage. Don’t go into this expecting that sort of listening experience. The original vision for surround sound was one of a new artistic medium, opening the potential of multiple speakers to the musicians and their producers to do creative things such as putting the listener in the middle of the band. This Steve Miller release finds a nice balance between that sort of extreme immersion and a more standard listening experience. I like it when the spacey effects on the title track kind of swirl around you. This one is a keeper for me. And it turns out that this was originally only available on Quadraphonic 8-track cartridge so I’m all the more impressed with the mix … someone put some time into this one, for sure.
Agents of Fortune – Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 break through is notable for its smash hit “Don’t Fear The Reaper.” a song which stands out on this album with a richer overall sound, stronger vocals and harmonies and more adventurous songwriting evident. It really is almost a prog-rock tune, with the dramatic faux classical breakdown in the middle section which leads back into the groovy groove of the basic tune. Unfortunately the sonics on this SACD are overall pretty weak, sounding fairly tinny and uninviting. This is somewhat surprising for a release on the SACD format which in theory boasts higher fidelity than the 20-bit DTS discs. But, as we have learned over the years, so much of the fidelity you hear on pre-recorded media also depends on a variety of external elements beyond the source material used including how the tape was transferred and how it was mastered for the playback format. My guess is that someone simply grabbed an available Quad mix of this album out of the vaults and transferred it over without much thought to how it might sound on a variety of different playback systems. It is also worth noting that this one is on the earliest version of SACD which has only one layer for the 5.1 mix, so there is no stereo mix on this (nor a so-called CD-compatible stereo layer). So, unless you are a hardcore Blue Oyster Cult fan, you probably want to skip this one until a proper remaster is issued.
Not Fragile – Bachman Turner Overdrive’s 1974 opus does faire a lot better than the BOC disc but isn’t quite as shiny as Steve Miller’s offering. On it you’ll get your good basic BTO-styled rock ‘n roll here, playing full and rockin’ with a relatively punchy sound. I mean, this is your basic four-piece rock band, not The Electric Light Orchestra. Its curious because as much as I like it, I kinda wonder why anyone would really want to hear “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” in surround sound? Yet, here is is and I say this with no disrespect to Mr. Bachman and company who I respect highly. I have my suspicions as to why some of these things happened back in the day. Perhaps it was part of a knee-jerk marketing effort back in the early 1970s, a time when everyone who was even remotely popular got to release albums in Quad even if the music didn’t particularly make sense in that form… From Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler to Bob Dylan and Jim Croce, there are plenty of artists whose music didn’t necessarily benefit significantly from the Quad experience, yet who had albums out on the store shelves probably before other bands who perhaps warranted it more (Yes? Nektar? Beatles?). This in contrast to more enticing recordings from multi-layered bands like Pink Floyd or artists Mike Oldfield. Curiously, like the Steve Miller album above, I only found BTO Quadraphonic recordings coming up listed on 8-track cartridges! So perhaps this was a mix that designed for driving in the car or simply being played over a teenager’s budget priced Quad sound system from the local discount store. That makes sense to me. Anyhow, all that babble said, I guess it was something of a no brainer for a 21st century company to reissue these old tapes as repurposed 5.1 surround discs. Again, overall Not Fragile sounds pretty good as basic rock ‘n roll albums go, just don’t go into this expecting Dark Side of the Moon. That said, I do wonder if the title might have been an insider pun to the prog rock band Yes who had a smash hit with its album Fragile a few years earlier… Curious…
Anyhow, those are a few from the batch for you to check out — or avoid — for now. In the months ahead I’ll be looking at more of these vintage discs which you can still find if you look around on eBay, Discogs.com and Amazon (check some of the links we have embedded above if you are interested).