We audiophile type music collectors are a funny bunch. We often go to extremes to find best possible versions of our favorite recordings, be it on SACD, Blu-ray Disc, high resolution downloads or fancy heavyweight vinyl records pressed in exotic locales (Germany! Czech Republic! Kansas!). My latest entry into this game is a quest for a fairly definitive version of Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies. The story about the Zombies -- and the creation of this legendary album -- is well documented elsewhere on the Interwebs, so I'll direct you over to the Wiki if you are not familiar with this recording and what happened in its wake.
Now, of course the so called "holy grail" in pursuing this quest for a "best ever" copy of Odessey and Oracle will always be an original UK pressing from 1968 in either Stereo or Mono. On the short list after that comes an original US pressing with the altered cover on Date Records (a CBS subsidiary).
However, both of these items are pretty difficult to find in good shape at a reasonable price, the UK copies commanding prices in the range of many hundreds of dollars. The US pressings can approach those levels as well.
Fortunately, there have been a number of reissues in recent years which offer the budget minded audiophile many options. As I've become a quite passionate fan of The Zombies in the past 15 years, when reissues starting happening on vinyl I began to explore some of these options. This article will focus on a number of the most recent versions from Varese Sarabande -- including one on fabulous multicolored vinyl issued exclusively via Newbury Comics -- and Repertoire Records.
It is important to note that Odessey and Oracle was recorded in 1967 at EMI's Abbey Road studios in London. The Zombies were the first band into that famed studio right after The Beatles completed Sgt. Pepper (they even used John Lennon's Mellotron which had been left behind there!). So keep in mind there is a very specific sound of that studio and the recording gear used to make this album. This was probably recorded on a four-track recorder (as was Sgt. Pepper, albeit several machines sync'd together) and remarkably self-produced by the band (as opposed to all of the Beatles output which was guided by George Martin).
The first thing I did in prep for writing this was to listen to my original Date Records pressing. Its not a mint copy but for its age (and the price I paid for it) it plays quite well apart from some unobtrusive occasional clicks 'n pops. The first most notable trait I noticed on Odessey and Oracle is how rich and round the bass sounds are: bass guitars are full and detailed, vocals have a lovely round flavor to complement the bright pop tones. Rod Argent's piano cuts through the mix and Hugh Grundy's drums punctuate when necessary with bunches of that legendary Abbey Road echo chamber. Its really a perfectly balanced mix and kudos must go out to the band for producing a classic album that has stood the test of time alongside albums made by industry heavyweights of the period. The Zombies only had an engineer at their disposal so they had to have had a very clear idea of how they wanted the album to sound right from the start. Paul Atkinson's guitars, acoustic and electric, have distinctive tones, such as the vibrato on "Beechwood Park" -- its all about the "amp tone" (as us guitar geeks call it).
On the new Repertoire issue of Odessey and Oracle the sound is quite rich and warm, with a nice round bass and midrange flavor very much akin to the original US pressing. The thick, black 180-gram vinyl is dead quiet and perfectly centered, reputedly half-speed mastered from high definition 24-bit audio (at Abbey Road!). There is a very pleasant overall sound on this version. Colin Blunstone's vocals sound particularly glorious. There is a really nice sense of instrument placement on this pressing. On "Brief Candles" the vocal harmonies are very clear in the left and right channels as two different distinct voices. Little details like the harmonies on the bridge shine wonderfully on this track. You can really make out the interaction between Colin and (I think) Chris White as they trade off vocal lines and even words within a sentence.
On the limited edition multi-colored vinyl version of Odessey and Oracle which I ordered from Newbury Comics -- a limited edition run of 1,000 copies exclusive to that retailer -- the pressing fares pretty well all things considered. First off, the vinyl itself is very quiet, thick and well centered. And while the sound is really quite nice overall, I can detect more of that digital edginess (if you will) than, say on the Repertoire version or the Date Records edition. On the choruses of "Brief Candles" Colin Blunstone's voice takes on a slightly phase-y flavor. Most interesting is how the aforementioned distinction between Colin and Chris White's vocals sort of blur together more on this version.
This edginess is not quite as apparent on the black vinyl Varese Sarabande version.
Ok, so here is a cool point worth noting: I noticed this initially on the Date Records pressing of Odessey and Oracle that the whole album has a certain sound, presence and volume level from song to song, but when you get to the big smash hit at the end of Side 2, "Time of the Season," something changes. Sonically, it felt like that particular track was different than the rest of the master used to make the LP. It almost sounds, to my ears, like they tagged on a different sounding mix for that particular song -- quite possibly the hit single mix, but I'm not sure -- at the end. It stands to reason they would do this, especially as a way to entice people to buy the full album knowing they would get the hit song they heard on the radio as well.