It is a big drag to find myself writing a bummer review for an album and artist I really like. But I feel an obligation to let you know, Dear Readers that this is a release to steer clear of until a better version comes along. And this review is as much for the artists and producers as it is for consumers.
So, here we have a classic of the progressive rock / jazz fusion form, created by a band led by one of the greatest drummer/percussionists and composers in music history Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks, etc.). Bruford's One Of A Kind includes several bonafide classics including College Radio staples from back in the day such as time-and-mind-twisting "Hells Bells" and "Fainting In Coils." This is a gem -- a masterpiece even -- featuring one of the greatest guitarists of our times, Allan Holdsworth (RIP).
Given that the recording was released in 1979, chances are it is an analog mix so there is much potential in the way of warmth and dynamics to be appreciated there. And, given that fans of said prog-flavored musics tend to be older males who probably have a fair amount of disposable income plus an appreciation for genuine high fidelity music, it seems to me that this would not be a time to be cutting corners on the one thing that really matters to most of us out here in audiophile land: sound.
I was hopeful when I found this album at Amoeba Music, sealed new for about $20, which is very fairly priced for a two disc set that is usually only available as an import. This is especially key in the face of it previously only being available in a pricey super deluxe edition boxed set. Man, I would have been miffed had I bought that expensive set and got this kind of weak presentation of the music!
The packaging even looked real nice too, what with a gatefold album style CD package and all that. But when I opened the disc my heart sank: the surround disc was on a standard DVD which I knew immediately meant that it was going to be a compressed, lower resolution presentation of the music.
Indeed, the mixes are presented using fairly archaic technology Dolby Digital (aka Dolby AC3). That was fine 15-20 years ago. But the reality is that today we have much more robust solutions such as DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD (and the newer-still Dolby Atmos for that matter!) all of which sound great!
They probably cost a bit more to manufacture and license, I suspect.
Thus all this amazing music is offered here maxed out at about 48 kHz in a very compressed and squashed sounding surround mix. So squashed, its kind of hard to hear whether the actual surround mix itself is any good. It was done by Bruford himself along with and current King Crimson guitarist / singer Jakko Jaksyck, so I can't imagine them issuing anything less than immersive.
And it is kind of immersive in the way that the five-channel stereo setting on my old AVR sounded. Playing this mix of One Of A Kind, I wasn't hearing much in the way of discrete mixing of tracks. There are some things going on, but overall everything sounded blended in mushily -- it feels like a flabby multi-speaker version of Stereo instead of a muscular, rich and rewarding deep 5.1 surround sound immersion into the band and the music.
Of course, when I went back to my white label promo LP (US Polydor) that sounded best, warm and crisp with all the instruments resonating clearly and more defined, sans that sort of blurring artifact effect that can happen with poorly handled digital processing.
Hopefully at some point One Of A Kind will be remixed and reissued in higher resolution form on a more robust medium like Blu-ray Disc. Classic recordings like this deserve better treatment.
If you have access to Tidal or Qobuz you can hear some of this music streaming in CD quality. The Master Strokes compilation sounds quite good with clear definition of Bill Bruford's kick drum and Allan Holdsworth's guitar sounding appropriately huge! There are many riches to explore in Bill Bruford's music including his fantastic and more straight ahead jazz group Earthworks -- but really, nothing in Bruford's world is "straight ahead" so be prepared to be challenged musically.
Heck, just try counting along in time to "Hells Bells" which - from an online sheet music site I found -- seems to be in 19/8 time!
I'll leave you with some wisdom from Sly and the Family Stone to consider while trying to tap your toes along with this track:
Push a little harder
Think a little deeper
Don't let the plastic
Bring you down..."