Politics, Reviews

Blade Runner 2049 is a masterpiece in Capitalist Realism.

 

In a recent speech, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson caused uproar with the comment “Libya has the potential to turn the city of Sirte into the next Dubai, once it has cleared the dead bodies away.” Despite the faux outrage this generated across the higher minded sections of the chattering classes, this is actually one of the most refreshingly honest and useful appraisals of how our system actually works. Throughout its long history, Anglo-American capitalism has manifested as everything from the slave trade to the unchallenged doctrine of the free world. It exists simultaneously as a liberator, pulling huge swathes of people out of theocratic, subsistence level misery while flattening entire surplus populations at the slightest tremor in the global oil market.

Alongside the collapse of any large scale alternatives, capitalism’s awesome flexibility and ability to incorporate (almost) any aspect of the changing world into itself has left most of us unable to meaningfully comprehend (let alone strive for) a new way of organising society: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world itself than the end of capitalism”.

Blade Runner 2049 is a majestic, visionary film that explores this idea to the absolute fullest, without once breaking into cliché or sanctimony. You can view the entire movie as nothing more than a fresh take on the cyber punk aesthetic, or as a series of moving personal stories, and enjoy every moment. Looking at some of the reactions and reviews its generated to date, that seems to be the way its been initially received. This, however, demonstrates an inability (or unwillingness) to read the main message of the film, in much the same way as a fish is unable to perceive the water in which is swims.

A recent BBC documentary saw Reggie Yates uncovering the scandal of illegal – but widespread – corporate dumping of waste electronics. The audience watch on in fascinated horror as millions of tonnes of this waste accumulate in the African nation of Ghana, powering a dystopian economy in which people live in a brutal pecking order based on their ability to profit from the breakdown of the rubbish. The audience is saddened that such a world exists, in which children and adults alike spend endless hours burning the plastic coating off copper wires and performing countless other hazardous tasks, without even the simplest health and safety equipment, let alone the education to understand that the fumes they breath freely every day are killing them, quickly. We accept that although tragic, its an explicable and predictable underbelly to a global market economy in overdrive. We’re sad, but ultimately we’re not surprised.

Which probably explains how quickly we acclimatise to the scenes of horizon filling landfills just outside the boundaries of Blade Runner 2049’s Megacity One version of Los Angeles. In a world made barely inhabitable by war and climate disaster, but still controlled by hegemonic corporate powers, why wouldn’t such scenes still exist on unfathomably large scales? A regular science fiction movie would wow us with dazzling images of spaceships and star battles, but Blade Runner instead takes us to the wasteland “orphanage” operating semi-illegally as a primitive recycling factory, in which hundreds of children work all day stripping the urban garbage for traces of nickel that will go on to be used in the building of spaceships. “The closest to going off world me or any of these kids will ever get”, notes the brutish overseer character. The presence of this workhouse custodian, played by a black actor, overseeing his overwhelmingly white charges serves to subtly point out that freedom from racial subjugation is a hollow victory if the institution of slavery continues regardless.

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The backdrop of Blade Runner 2049 is the constant juxtaposition of huge, anonymous corporate super structures (Sony, Peugeot and Jonny Walker whisky all get conspicuous placements) with the ubiquitous presence of the engineered slave race of replicants. The arch villain Mr Wallace even goes so far to explicitly state that “no great leap of civilization has been achieved without a huge disposable population, its just unfashionable these days if it hasn’t been manufactured“. And yet, the only thing that really seems to distinguish the replicants from any other working class participant in this society is the prejudice directed at “skinjobs” by “real” people. A not so subtle metaphor for the way oppressed populations can turn to racism to position themselves into a place of relative power against another, even more oppressed group.

In a brief scene highlighting the fundamental failure of this hi-tech capitalist liberation, the sinister chief of staff for the replicant making Wallace Corporation (herself a high end replicant with unusual levels of autonomy) is selling the owner of a drilling company (played by a middle aged black women) an array of potential replicant slaves. She suggests low intelligence workers as standard, but throwing in a few good looking pleasure models for herself, if desired. The scene is treated as incidental to the plot, but once again reveals the fundamental message of the film – that you can have as many layers of personal liberation as you want, but it all comes out as dystopia if the subjugation of one class by another is perpetuated as the basis of that liberation. Shocking then, that some of the initial audience reactions to this insight were “the film needs more black slaves and more female slave owners”. Shocking and pathetic.

Despite all these wonderfully Marxian assessments of the inhuman resilience of big capitalism, perpetually reasserting its dominance despite generating ever greater social meltdowns, the most interesting character by far is Joi, the holographic AI programmed to act as the perfectly domesticated female archetype. A pure, loving being, a good soul trapped at the very bottom of a megalith of nightmarish oppressions.

On the surface, Joi is nothing but a sexist product of male fantasy. She was literally designed to be anything her (male) owner wants her to be. Although she has the artificial intelligence similar to that of a replicant, she’s denied even a physical body. Owned by our replicant hero, K, she is analogous to the working class housewife, placed at the very bottom of the class hierarchy by fact of her gender. The question the audience is invited to ask is whether she even exists as a character, or is she simply a product of her programming? This question isn’t so different to the questions we’re posed by the breakdown of traditional gender roles in our own society. To what extent are any of our life choices our own, and to what extent are they sum total of everything our gender, job and media environment have made us? Viewed in this light, Joi is the true hero of the story. Despite having every aspect of her existence pre-conditioned, she still ends up making the choice to break her chains to the greatest extent she’s able, by asking K to transfer her out of her main database into a portable version and permanently break the connection between the two, facing up to the prospect of her own death in the process.

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You can interpret Joi’s every action as a perfectly programmed reaction to K’s own desires, a selfless machine for simulating love in K’s own loveless world, or you can choose to view Joi as a metaphor for the struggle that we all face – to find purpose, happiness and autonomy in a world determined to dictate our every choice. In this way Blade Runner 2049 bridges the gap between the personal and the systematic and, along with its flawless directing and a perfectly conceived score, is a masterpiece of our times.

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Review: Alex Cameron – Forced Witness

alcam

“Well it’s hard being a liar, I don’t know who’s supposed to be on my mind. ‘Cause I love my little darling, but I also love these women online…”

Alex Cameron made a name for themselves throughout 2016/17, touring the hell out of their debut album Jumping the Shark (Alex Cameron is a guy, but its also the name of the band formed around the core duo of Alex Cameron and his business partner and saxophonist Roy Molloy). The record’s stripped back mix of character acting and repetitive electronica formed a neat bridge between earnest pop singers like Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen and the No Wave freakary of acts like Suicide.

Forced Witness is a massive musical and artistic leap. They’ve ramped up the production values, the variety of instrumentation and the complexity of the arrangements to something much more conventionally pop. The contrast feels something like the difference between Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance and their later super-hit, New Gold Dream.

The album is front loaded, with all three previously showcased singles (Candy May, Stranger’s Kiss, Runnin’ Outta Luck) appearing on the first side. If you’ve been anticipating this record with baited breath, this might take the wind out of your sails somewhat. All the big hitters are over before you get half way through and you might be tempted to think old Al Cam and Roy are runnin’ outta ideas.

This would be a big mistake. The album is put together like a true classic, rewarding repeated listening from different perspectives. They demonstrate their radio songwriting chops early on – enough to keep any hard drinking dancefloor junkie satisfied – and then consciously push other elements to the front of their musical brew.

By the time we get to the jarringly titled Studmuffin96 we’re presented with a seriously disconcerting set of lyrics juxtaposed over a fairly inoffensive musical backdrop. If you’re not paying attention, this might be the point at which your attention starts to wander, but don’t be tempted by the sweet nothings in your groupchats, or the lewd messages from your online lover. Jumping the Shark was full of sparse, mean tunes with vague but menacing themes, Forced Witness opts for a bigger, brighter presentation but much more explicit content. This is American Psycho to Jumping the Shark’s The Shining.

Forced Witness has the feel of Paul Simon’s Graceland, Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions or even The Sisters Of Mercy’s Floodland. On the one hand it’s all about the fabulous songwriting and performances, but on the other hand it allows itself to drift around a bit, showcasing the engineering and production flourishes that have gone into it. Like all great pop records, it pulls together a broad swathe of musical influences and outputs them as something deeply slick and pleasing on the ear yet disquieting to the soul.

Despite the long list of retro reference points, each song deals with a set of experiences which are uniquely post-digital revolution. The alienation of life and love in the online age hangs deeply over the entire piece, as well as multiple explorations on the theme of being a young man in a time and place that increasingly has no use for the norms of your gender. This record demonstrates both confidence and vulnerability – Alex Cameron clearly knows how to put on a  great show of bravado, yet doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with it. This is music for cocksure millennials, starting to grow up and beginning to feel the panic set in.

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Politics

So you want to build a progressive alliance?

Judean People's Front

During the lead up to this General Election campaign there have been multiple calls for an anti-Conservative “progressive alliance”. It’s a strong message with a simple aim that will appeal to most people on the left of politics.

However, before you get too excited and declare it a simple matter of intelligence and resolve – and start condemning your MP for standing in the way of progress – there are a few things worth considering:

The Other Parties

The Liberal Democrats have actively demonstrated that they would prefer to work with a Conservative government than a Labour one. Something Tim Farron has since publicly restated. So the first issue is the assumption that the Liberal Democrats want to remove the Tory government, or that they would prefer to work with a Labour one.

Also remember that on many issues, the Liberal Democrats are a lot closer in policy to the Conservatives than to Labour. Question exactly makes you think the Lib Dems are a progressive party in the first place.

In some ways, the SNP benefit from a Conservative government. It makes them look strong and oppositional and keeps separatist feeling in Scotland high – which gets them closer to independence. A good Labour government in England which offered a decent devolution deal would make their dream of independence much less achievable.

The SNP also now have nearly every single seat in Scotland. What incentive do they have to cut a deal with Labour? What does Labour have to offer them? What incentive does Labour have to cease campaigning to regain its historical political heartland? Do we intend to disband the entirety of Scottish Labour?

The SNP spent decades working towards an electoral takeover of Scotland. Many of their best people have given their entire lives to this cause. Now they’ve achieved it, what is the likelihood of them giving any ground away to a defeated Scottish Labour at this stage in the game?

No one wants to see Caroline Lucas removed from parliament, but even if you added the entire Green vote to Labour’s, we still wouldn’t have enough votes to form a government. How many seats would Labour have to effectively give away to the Green Party in order for them to suspend their entire national effort? Asking the Greens to cease trading in key marginals is certainly a worthwhile argument, but are they willing? And if we take, we will also have to give, which brings us to…

The Labour Party

The Labour Party *is* a progressive alliance between people with radically different political views. From hard socialists on one end to liberals on the other. If you admit we need to form alliances with different parties, you nullify the one basic principle keeping all those people united in one party in the first place.

The other parties in this proposed rainbow alliance have run some very unpleasant campaigns against Labour over the years, and continue to do so. Anyone remember how Peter Tatchell was defeated in 1983 by another gay man standing for the Liberals? A gay man who chose to hide his sexuality and run a deeply homophobic campaign against Tatchell? Many in Labour still do.

In order to get a progressive alliance through The Labour Party, you would need to win the active consent of people that have been opposed, slandered and abused by the other parties all their political lives. You can’t just wish to Jeremy Corbyn to make it happen, you need democratic consent within the party at large. Calls for the progressive alliance  are often viewed by councillors, activists and party officers as the childish demands of clicktavists who have never bothered to do the actual work of building a Labour government from the ground up.

Lastly, but perhaps most crucially, The Labour Party constitution expressly forbids its members to support an opposing party candidate. It also requires all local Labour Parties to provide their communities with the option for Labour representation. If a local party does decide to support a different candidate, they cease to be recognised as a CLP under the terms of the Labour rulebook.

The Many Seats Of Power

It’s a mistake to view power in the United Kingdom as resting solely in Westminster. Power is wielded in lots of ways by many different groups – just ask a Trade Unionist or a corporate CEO! Governmental power is weirdly most directly by local councils. The leader of Islington Council arguably has more power to improve the lives of Islington citizens than their MP does, even as leader of the opposition. Campaigning for a Labour MP in your local area increases the strength and visibility of your local party and potential council candidates. Even if you don’t knock off that nasty Tory MP this time, you are helping to empower Labour to implement socialist policies via local government. Aspiring and sitting councillors are often the hardest working campaigners at a local level, and asking them to stop campaigning for Labour is not only asking them to hijack their own political careers, but to also hijack Labour’s ability to form strong councils, which are often the last line of defence against malicious Conservative governance. Although MPs have the most celebratory status, and ordinary members are the most vocal on social media, it is Labour councillors who form the heart of the Party’s day to day activity, so any progressive alliance will have to be built with their consent too.
Although Labour currently hold 46 out of 47 seats on Islington Council, this didn’t happen because of a natural right to govern. In 2006, while Labour were sitting in office in Westminster, Islington Council was controlled by the Liberal Democrats – who used their local power to happily sell off and privatise as many of the council’s assets as possible. It’s through a decade of hard work that activists and councillors have been able to regain absolute control and undo much of the damage that was done – all the while bolstering Jeremy Corbyn’s position as an MP in what is now one of the safest seats in the country.

 

Despite all this, I still want to build a progressive alliance – what should I do?

The first thing you can do is join the Labour Party. There are plenty of people within Labour that believe a progressive alliance is a good idea. They point to the fact the first ever Labour government was formed via an electoral pact between Labour and The Liberal Party, and many suspect that there was indeed some behind the scenes discussion with the Liberal Democrats in the lead up to Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.

There are also many cases in which bad Tory MPs have been unseated when Labour members and voters quietly chose to stand aside to give a powerful local Liberal Democrat a shot at the money – Zac Goldsmith’s recent thrashing in Richmond might be considered an example of this.

Within Labour there are many political pressure and policy groups, which lobby around a particular set of ideas within the party and movement. You may have heard of Momentum or Progress, but if cross party centre-left consensus is your main concern, you should consider joining COMPASS, which campaigns heavily on this issue.

If you are a member of Labour you could also petition the National Executive Committee (the NEC, not the leader’s office, is the ruling body of the party) to change the rules, allowing individual CLPs to democratically decide to not stand a candidate if they believe it would be the best thing to do to allow another party to unseat a local Conservative MP (and ultimately bring Labour closer to forming a majority government). As it is, even if a CLP wished to do such a thing it would be a gross violation of the party constitution and a candidate would be imposed upon them by the national party.

A progressive alliance isn’t a simple proposition to be pulled out of the hat once a General Election is underway. It’s a deeply complicated issue that confronts over one hundred years of political history. The intention is noble, but like all things worth doing, it will take commitment and will have to overcome innumerable challenges.

Everyone who values equality and justice will find periods of Conservative government frustrating at best and, at worst, deeply damaging. But the first step towards banishing the Tory menace, whether you want to build a progressive alliance or not, is to join your local Labour Party and start campaigning with them – street by street and door by door.
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All I Know For Sure: The Making of First And Last And Always

by Robert Cowlin

Black Planet lyrics

The date is Saturday 2 June 1984. By invitation of WEA Records, a young Dave Allen stands amongst the throng at Amsterdam’s Melkweg concert venue. Presiding over the audience are three guitarists, two in cowboy hats and the other a rampaging hulk who careers around the stage whilst abusing his instrument; and a velvet-draped shadowy figure mated to a microphone stand as if it were a morphine drip. The PA stacks throb under the pounding weight of a Roland drum-machine, spitting forth a constant melee of machine-beat Armageddon. The band Allen has come to see is The Sisters Of Mercy, and their new distributor – WEA – wants him to produce the band’s debut LP. Allen was fast becoming well known for his audio engineering and production work on records suited to night-time listening. Having just finished producing The Cure’s top ten hit record The Top (Fiction Records, 1984), and previously honing his talents on The Human League’s Dare (Virgin, 1981), Allen was high on WEA’s list and – it would seem – Andrew Eldritch’s, who would swiftly send a telegram to Allen stating: “The Sisters say ‘yes’ to David Allen”[1].

Two days after the Amsterdam gig (which has been extensively bootlegged thanks to a superb soundboard recording of the event), The Sisters’ first set of recordings for WEA were released in the form of Body And Soul. A twelve inch EP, consisting of four tracks, and a seven inch single backed with “Train”. Written and produced by Eldritch, the twelve inch boasted “a re-recorded version of ‘Body Electric’ (this time recorded on 24-track rather than the original version on 8-track) and the superb ‘Afterhours’, a song worthy of inclusion on a film soundtrack. ‘A pure amphetamine song’, was how Eldritch described it in an hour long Canadian radio special also broadcast around this time”[2]. The single reached number 46 in the UK charts, with little thanks to its lamentable promotional video that was only ever shown “on Dutch and German cable TV, the Dutch giving it some heavy rotation”[3]. The video depicts an ancient city in ruins, its columns aflame, to which the band appear to have been transported in a puff of smoke. A dismantled drum kit lies in their wake before which Eldritch shakes as he passionately mimes along. Meanwhile, a wind machine is set to eleven and pointed straight at the band for maximum post-apocalyptic effect. Eldritch and guitarist, Gary Marx, appear to be taking the video very seriously indeed, with Marx displaying some of his trademark stage moves. This exercise in keeping a straight-face even extends to some rather stadium-esque guitar strums from Eldritch. Elsewhere, recently appointed second guitarist, Wayne Hussey, and bassist, Craig Adams, are failing miserably to keep to the moody agenda, with Hussey pulling some comically oafish shapes whenever the camera gets too close.

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Body And Soul, WEA promotional cassette. Photo by LG.

RECORDING

Following a month long spring tour of the UK and Europe, that included a peerless performance on 5 June in Nijmegen, “it was High Time… to crawl out of the tour bus and get … into the studio. [The band] warmed up with a Peel session, which Auntie broadcast three times during the summer, before driving up to sunny Stockport to record the Album”[4]. Over June and July 1984, the band spent six weeks at Strawberry Studios with producer Allen and in-house engineer, Chris Nagle, recording the album which was slated for an October release and had the working title, Black October. At Strawberry, the band recorded all of the instrumentation and some preliminary guide vocals on select tracks, and Allen leant his programming talents to their newly acquired Oberheim DMX drum-machine.

Eldritch has admitted to taking “up to half a year”[5] to pen lyrics for finished songs. Consequently, Hussey and Marx found time to write and record guide vocals at Strawberry for a handful of tracks, notably: “Black Planet”, “First And Last And Always”, and “Nine While Nine”. Hussey’s lyrics for what later became “Black Planet” were entitled “Dance On Glass” and would eventually appear on The Mission’s debut album, God’s Own Medicine (Mercury, 1986). Marx’s guide vocal recording for “First And Last And Always” contains lyrical elements that would later spawn “Marian”:

I’d drafted a lyric and hastily recorded a guide vocal largely out of frustration that the previous [recording of “First And Last And Always” from the Body And Soul sessions] hadn’t built on the potential of the musical idea. Several positives came from it: the album’s title track, [and] the new and spellbinding “Marian”[6].

Marx’s guide vocal for “Nine While Nine” had the working title “Child Of Light” and contains the lyric “the children of the dust”. Marx recalled: “When we were deciding on a title for First And Last And Always, I pitched that one in even though it didn’t seem likely the lyric would surface on the finished version”[7]. In addition to the guide vocals recorded by Hussey and Marx, Eldritch would also record his own guide tracks for “No Time To Cry” and “Walk Away”. In its early form, “No Time To Cry” features a skeletal account of the final lyrics, lacking verse conclusions and the main chorus hook, whilst “Walk Away” utilises the finished lyrics and backing vocals by Hussey. “No Time To Cry” can be heard in draft form on the band’s 19 June 1984 session for BBC Radio One.

After the preliminary album sessions had wrapped at Strawberry, the band “staged a brief escape to New York”[8] before returning to Genetic Studios where they spent August with Allen completing the Walk Away single and album track “Marian”. The intention was to complete the entire album during the sessions at Genetic, however “Andrew fell ill as the recording was in its final stages, and collapsed during the struggle to meet the original autumn release date”[9]. Marx expanded upon this in a Q&A email exchange with me:

It is no secret that the sessions at Strawberry and Genetic were difficult and that the band ceased to be in real terms somewhere in that period. I made the call to pull the sessions at Genetic before completing the vocals and mixing, causing a delay in the album’s scheduled release and all the problems that creates for a major record label promoting a band they’ve invested heavily in. I did it because Andrew was in a mess at that time – he didn’t thank me (I wouldn’t expect it of him). Instead, he got himself back in shape and headed off to do the remaining work. Through choice, I took virtually no part in anything from that point on. The dynamic of the band at that stage was a presage of what played out a few months later. Namely, I was already halfway out the door, Craig was somewhere nearby, and Wayne was still weighing up what kind of life he’d have being Andrew’s hired-hand[10].

Having recovered, Eldritch spent 23 November – 9 December 1984 at Livingston Studios in London with Allen, in-house engineer Tony Harris, and tape operator Barry Clempson where they recorded vocal tracks and prepared the first set of finished mixes. Knowledge of the Livingston team’s involvement has only recently come to light (it has forever been documented that the band went back to Genetic Studios after the Black October tour, this is not correct). In 2010, when Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab was preparing the album’s vinyl remaster, a photograph of the master tape used was released that revealed the following information:

  • Livingston Studios, Brook Road, off Mayes Road, Wood Green, London, N22
  • Date: Nov-Dec 1984
  • Studio: Strawberry, Genetic, and Livingston
  • Tracks: Stereo
  • Producer: Dave Allen
  • Client: WEA Records
  • Artist: The Sisters Of Mercy
  • Engineer: Tony Harris at Livingston
  • 2nd Engineer: Barry Clempson
FALAA Master 1

First And Last And Always master tape. Livingston Studios.

I spoke with veteran engineer, Tony Harris (whose credits include technical work for REM, 10000 Maniacs, and The Jesus And Mary Chain), who recalled fond memories of the winter spent with Eldritch and Allen recording and mixing at Livingston Studios:

As you can tell from the box labels, we worked on this album in November/December 1984. The tapes had been recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport; I believe Chris Nagle had been the engineer there. “Marian” had been done at Genetic studios, presumably engineered by Dave Allen who was also the producer. The tapes were pretty much finished instrumentally when they arrived at Livingston. We did all the vocals and the first set of mixes there. The vocals were recorded with an AKG C414 microphone. We worked in Studio 1 which, at the time, had a 42 channel MCI JH500 mixing desk, Otari MTR90 tape machines, and an Urei 1176 compressor.

It was an interesting session; I think Dave and Andy both had fairly different views about how they wanted the album to turn out. If you’d seen the band at this time you’d know that a great part of the live sound was the power of the drum machine through the PA. I think Dave’s idea for the mix was to try to recreate this effect (sensibly in my opinion) so we hired in a PA rig and had it set up in the live end at Livingston with a view to using it as an effect whilst mixing. Andy, on the other hand, had been listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac (I kid you not) and wanted a really clean hi-fi sort of sound. Dave, being a good producer, went along with the artist’s vision and we spent weeks mixing with the PA standing idle! It was a great British compromise.

I don’t remember having to do a lot of compiling of vocal takes. Eldritch was like Joe Strummer, he did the takes quickly and there weren’t many retakes.

I remember Dave had an infatuation with a thing called Zoids. These were self-assembly robot dinosaurs that were around at the time, many types that you collected. I remember that we had a piece of plywood across the meter bridge to have Zoid battles on whilst we were mixing! I also remember “Bud”, one of the studio cats, battling with ‘Tyrannozoid’ one time!

The tape boxes in that picture are definitely the ones from those sessions, it’s clearly my handwriting and I remember writing them. I’ve always been lead to believe that the album was subsequently mixed at least a couple more times so I’ve never known which, if any, of the mixes we did ended up on the album. If Mobile Fidelity used our masters for a re-issue, it suggests that they are on the album.

There was a studio version of “Emma” on the Strawberry tapes, I think we did a vocal on it but never mixed it, I think Andy thought it was “too obvious”, even though everyone loved it at gigs. I had a rough mix of that but unfortunately it disappeared from the Livingston tape store years ago.

You can see the studio pretty much as it was when we mixed First And Last And Always in this picture of me “hamming it up” in Studio 1, although the tape machine in that pic is a Lyrec TR532 which I’m pretty sure had been replaced by the Otari by the time The Sisters were in.

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Livingston Studios.

This is funny, I’ve just checked out Wikipedia and the Livingston sessions aren’t even mentioned! Story of my life, one “classic” album I work on and there are no credits on the sleeves and even Wikipedia omits me![11]

After the sessions at Livingston, WEA asked seasoned engineer Reinhold Mack to try his hand at mixing the album in December. I spoke with Reinhold, who told me that his mixes were engineered at Giorgio Moroder’s Musicland Studios in Munich, but he did not get on with Eldritch so the job was abandoned. Eldritch would later tell Harris that he’d been “remixing in Germany but [didn’t] like the results”[12]. Marx’s assessment was less sympathetic: “[Mack] was given a go at remixing at least one tune but nothing was used on the album. ‘A Rock And A Hard Place’ was the only finished mix I remember hearing from him and it was awful”[13]. In fact, Mack mixed at least four tracks and his work was circulated internally at WEA on cassettes dated 11 January 1985. In addition, his mix of “Walk Away” was inadvertently included on the album’s American LP promo (1985, ST-E-60405-1). Those who have heard Mack’s mixes will note the similarity of “First And Last And Always” and “No Time To Cry” to their officially released Livingston-mixed counterparts. Harris explained:

There is no reason why the Mack mixes wouldn’t sound similar, Dave’s a well organised producer and what we recorded would be pretty much how we wanted it. I remember Andy farting about EQ’ing drums and bouncing them to other tracks. I remember recording to tape various guitar effects, such as the panning effect on ‘Possession’, so all these would be available to Mack for his mix. Generally, the difference would be subtle differences in reverbs and compression, but the ‘shape’ of the song wouldn’t change much[14].

There is some uncertainty surrounding the recording of the two No Time To Cry b-sides, “Blood Money” and “Bury Me Deep”, which were not part of the original album sessions. Harris affirms they were not recorded at Livingston, and Marx had no involvement with the tracks, so they were certainly recorded after August 1984:

Wayne played some great stuff on those tracks, and “Blood Money” is a tune I really love. I had always assumed they were both recorded and mixed at Livingston but, to be honest, without your prompt I wouldn’t have been able to name the studio. I only remember turning up once at the request of Craig who was trying to act as bridge-builder. Both tracks were already finished as I recall. Andrew and Wayne were playing out some weird bromance and understandably I didn’t take any great interest in who was or had been mixing what. You would probably have had more luck if you’d asked me to name the contents of the fridge there. I don’t remember Dave Allen being around then either – he had a much rougher ride than he deserved[15].

Long-term Merciful Release office manager, Boyd Steemson, speculated to me that they might have been recorded at Good Earth on Dean Street; unfortunately my enquiries with the studio’s ex-employees were fruitless. However, thanks to Harris’ diligent record keeping, it is documented that on 10-11 January 1985, Eldritch returned to Livingston to mix “Bury Me Deep” with Harris. Harris’ recording diary notes that the sessions took place between 12 pm – 8 am, and 6 pm – 11 am; a phenomenal amount of time for one vocal/guitar mix! With the album sessions having wrapped on 9 December 1984, that leaves a gap of one month for “Bury Me Deep” to be recorded. Harris had never heard of “Blood Money”, and it seems logical that, had it been recorded by the time of the January mixing session, Eldritch would have brought it to Livingston along with “Bury Me Deep”. Thus there are potentially two recording sessions, pre and post the January mixing session at Livingston and prior to the single’s release on 8 March 1985, unaccounted for, with Good Earth being a potential location. Conversely, Harris proposed that the tracks were most likely recorded at Strawberry Studios after the album sessions had wrapped at Livingston, and it is highly unlikely that the band went back to Genetic as Allen had moved on to new projects by that time. Steemson asserted that the “No Time To Cry” single version was mixed at Eel Pie Studios: “The only studio session I can remember going to was for the mix of the single version of ‘No Time To Cry’ at Eel Pie … It would have been January (or possibly February). Andrew was in charge of the session so the engineering would have been done by the in-house engineer. Fairly sure that the mixing was just for the single, so no other tracks worked on at Eel Pie”[16].

Tony Harris recording diary

Tony Harris’ recording diary. 10-11 January 1985.

RECORDING TIMELINE: 1984-1985

1984 March Strawberry Studios Recording: Body And Soul sessions.
1984 June 4 Release: Body And Soul EP.
1984 June 19 Maida Vale Studios Recording: BBC Radio One session.
1984 June-July Strawberry Studios Recording: Album (instruments, guide vocals).
1984 August Genetic Studios Recording: Walk Away single, “Marian”.
Mixing: Walk Away single, “Marian”.
Master: Walk Away single, completed.
1984 October 8 Release: Walk Away single.
1984 Nov-Dec 23-9 Livingston Studios Recording: Album (vocals).
Mixing: Album.
Master: Album, completed.
1984 December Musicland Studios Aborted album mixing with Reinhold Mack.
1985 January 10-11 Livingston Studios Mixing: “Bury Me Deep”.
1985 Jan/Feb Eel Pie Studios Mixing: “No Time To Cry” single version.
1985 March 8 Release: No Time To Cry single.
1985 March 11 Release: First And Last And Always LP.

MIXING

One of the most oft-discussed aspects of this album’s intricate history is the record label’s use of different track mixes for different territories. The album was released in one mix variant in March 1985 on LP and cassette in Europe, the United States, and Australia; and an ‘alternate’ mix variant by the Warner-Pioneer Corporation in Japan. The original European (MR 337L), USA (ST-E-60405-1), and Australian (240616-1) vinyl releases (amongst others) feature four tracks subsequently remixed by Eldritch after the Livingston sessions. When and where these were remixed is unknown, but Marx ventured that: “The only other person I could imagine Andrew trusting to oversee any finished mixes would have been Chris Nagle back at Strawberry, but even that seems unlikely”[17] (I attempted to contact Nagle to no avail). The original Japanese vinyl release (P-13162) was the first to contain the complete set of Livingston mixes as they appeared on the December 1984 master tape assembled by Harris. As it is known that Mobile Fidelity used the Livingston master for its 2011 reissue, it is possible to deduce which releases stem from the correct Livingston masters and which ones come from Eldritch’s altered master (detailed later). For the purposes of this article, I am going to use the terms “Eldritch master” and “Eldritch mixes” to refer to the altered non-Livingston tape used to cut the original European gatefold LP and its related off-shoots.

Four tracks exhibit mix variations between the Livingston and Eldritch masters: “A Rock And A Hard Place”, “Black Planet”, “First And Last And Always”, and “No Time To Cry”. The difference between the mixes of these tracks is notable, considering Eldritch’s desire to make a ‘hi-fi’ record (see discussion below). Essentially, Eldritch’s mix alterations frame the album as a post-punk disco record, with its snapping snare and taut bass, whilst the original Livingston configuration is far more mature (and hi-fi sounding) in nature. The cheesy-yet-awesome synthesised bass on “A Rock And A Hard Place”, and relentless Doktor Avalanche supreme programming on the title track, are absent from the Livingston mixes. Instead they feature additional instrumentation and more advanced production flourishes. Nonetheless, Eldritch has admitted that releasing the album in its Livingston configuration was a mistake:

The content of First And Last And Always should be the same wherever you buy it. Unfortunately when we had it released on CD (in the days before you got a CD ‘test’ copy in advance of release) there was a cock-up with the tapes and some of the tracks were pressed with the wrong mix. We are planning to put this right as soon as possible[18].

This presents something of a conundrum for fans, who traditionally view the European vinyl as containing the ‘original mixes’, whilst the mixes found on the Japanese vinyl are imaginatively known as the ‘Japanese mixes’ and generally considered to be alternate to the original. Thanks to Harris’ input above, we now know this is not the case. In fact, the ‘Japanese mixes’ are the original complete set of Livingston mixes, whilst the original European vinyl utilises alterations authorised by Eldritch without the input of the album’s primary sound engineers. Upon hearing Eldritch’s four remixes, Harris was shocked at how they sounded. He remembered Eldritch forever tinkering with the mixes: “Dave and I kept out of it. Eldritch would spend hours equalising the drums in particular, listening at a very quiet level. Then we would reappear and correct everything. The four alternate mixes definitely weren’t made at Livingston. No weird mixes came out of Livingston!”[19] Likewise, Mack confirmed that Eldritch “did not run any mixes by himself”[20] at Musicland.

One can trace the beginnings of the album’s mix variations to the end of July 1984 where, at Strawberry Studios, the band and Allen had completed seventeen tracks on ten reels:

  • Reel 1: Tones / “No Time to Cry”
  • Reel 2: “Emma” / “Walkaway” [sic]
  • Reel 3: “Poison Door” / “A Rock And A Hard Place”
  • Reel 4: “Scottish One A” / “Scottish One B”
  • Reel 5: “Possession” / “Spit On Your Grave” / “Evil Come Evil Go”
  • Reel 6: “Marianne” [sic] / “Wide Receiver”
  • Reel 7: “Nine While 9” [sic]
  • Reel 8: “Little Wing”
  • Reel 9: “Andy’s Little Wing”
  • Reel 10: “Down To E…” / “On The Wire”
Strawberry track split 1 (adjusted)

Strawberry Studios track split.

Tones refers to test signals at the beginning of the first reel; “Scottish One” is the working title of “First And Last And Always”, here seen in two variants; “Little Wing” is the working title of “Some Kind Of Stranger”, again seen in two variants. Harris affirms that he used every song he was given to work with from the Strawberry reels and he did not recognise “Wide Receiver”, thus confirming the widely held assumption that it was scrapped early on. “Spit On Your Grave”, “Evil Come Evil Go”, and “Down To E…” remain unknown, though Allen implied during a 2010 seminar[21] that they are familiar songs. Given Harris’ comments, it would seem reasonable to presume that two are working titles for “Black Planet” and “Amphetamine Logic”. The most likely candidate for the remaining unknown song is “Down To E…”. Allen could not remember what it became, and Harris surmised it might have been a jam track though it is unlikely he would have heard it given that “On The Wire” (the other track on Reel 10) was completed prior to his involvement. Therefore, in this configuration of events, it is feasible that Reel 10 did not go to Livingston.

Marx had the following to say about the Strawberry reels:

Okay Rob, you really believe in testing a man. Thirty plus years have passed since the events you’re concerned with. The specifics weren’t necessarily deemed to be of significance at the time to us or anyone else so trying to respond accurately through a filter of mythology isn’t going to be easy. Given the depth you’ve already managed to dig down to I would be surprised if much of what follows isn’t already documented elsewhere, but you asked so I’ll answer.

  1. What did the songs “Spit On Your Grave”, “Evil Come Evil Go”, and “Down To E…” become?

I really don’t recognise these working titles sorry.

  1. How complete is the Strawberry Studios recording of “Wide Receiver”?

Although I don’t ever remember it being thought of as a track for inclusion on the album, I believe it went through a similar process to the other main tunes. As such it would have existed for a while as a well recorded, complete backing track awaiting Andrew’s vocal and any further touches after it was clear if there were any ‘holes to fill in’. This could mean a few changes to the drum programming to add dynamics, or instrumental decoration from guitar or keyboards. Quite often the actual tape would be spliced to take out sections which had ceased to be part of the structure. I didn’t play on the track and I suspect it was layered up by Andrew on his own. This wasn’t an unusual thing, with both Wayne and Andrew often preferring to get the bulk of a backing track in shape before inviting further input. With some of their material from that period it was necessary because it was more about a soundscape and an atmosphere than the single killer riff. Any fans from the pre-Warner’s era would doubtless say that, for all its strengths, there isn’t a guitar line to match “Alice” anywhere on those finished tunes. I may be wrong but I think Andrew wrote some lyrics and recorded a fairly lengthy section of vocal for it. In much the same way as “Some Kind Of Stranger”, it had an end section with vocal but no earlier verses for weeks on end. I never heard a finished vocal for the whole of “Wide Receiver”.

  1. The Strawberry track split notes “Scottish One A” and “B”. I’m aware this is the working title for “First And Last And Always”, why the A and B though?

Here I can only say that the tune which became the album’s title track had a longer history than the likes of “Marian” and “Black Planet”, and had already been recorded at Strawberry around the time of “Body and Soul”. Of all the tunes we were working on at the time of signing with Warner’s, the “Scottish One” was considered the main contender for first single and we went in to record it with that in mind. Within the sessions Andrew struggled to come up with a workable lyric and melody and, in what became the frustrating pattern of later sessions, he spent time working through the night adding unnecessary extra layers to the arrangement. I think he had also suggested we slow the tempo considerably. The tipping point arrived when we came in one morning and heard a sort of harmony guitar line he had added to the main riff. It brought to mind some awful soft rock 1970’s Celtic band like Horslips. At that stage we agreed we were in danger of killing the tune and decided to move on to something else to clear our collective heads. It could be that the tune “Body And Soul” was already kicking about, I don’t remember. Sadly that is pretty much how I feel about it now – it is not a memorable tune. Lots of nice touches but nothing at the centre of it. I think the lyric had large chunks that were re-worked from what was shaping up as the lyric for the “Scottish One”. Certainly the “ever and always” was not a million miles from what Andrew reverted to on the album track’s chorus. I can only assume the labelling came about because Andrew still fancied the possibility of returning to the slower version of the backing track if he couldn’t find a vocal to gel with the album sessions version[22].

Strawberry track split 2 (adjusted)

“Wide Receiver” track split.

A selection of potential mixes from various sessions was dubbed on to three WEA in-house cassettes for the label’s consideration. The album tracks missing from the below evaluation cassettes (“Amphetamine Logic”, “Nine While Nine”, “Possession”, and “Some Kind Of Stranger”) share identical mixes across all releases of First And Last And Always. Of the tracks featured on the WEA in-house cassettes, “A Rock And A Hard Place”, “Black Planet”, “First And Last And Always”, “No Time To Cry”, and “Walk Away” have each had at least two mixes released officially (details below).

Helpfully, the three WEA cassettes circulate on bootlegs so it is possible to figure out which of these mixes became officially released versions. Thus:

WEA Records
11/1/85[23]
No Time To Cry Mack Mix  
First And Last And Always Mack Mix  
Walk Away Mack Mix Officially released on Elektra LP promo
A Rock And A Hard Place Mack Mix  
Walk Away Eldritch Mix  
A Rock And A Hard Place “A” Eldritch Mix  
A Rock And A Hard Place “B” Eldritch Mix LP Eldritch mix
 
WEA Records
31/1/85
First And Last And Always Mack Mix As above
No Time To Cry Mack Mix As above
A Rock And A Hard Place Mack Mix As above
Marian Genetic Mix LP Genetic mix
 
WEA Records
4/2/85
No Time To Cry Edited 7” Eldritch (Eel Pie) mix
No Time To Cry Unedited 12” Eldritch (Eel Pie) mix
Black Planet Second Mix Eldritch mix with louder bass guitar
First And Last And Always LP Eldritch mix
Black Planet Third Mix Eldritch mix without piano
Black Planet Fourth Mix LP Eldritch mix

The absent “first mix” of “Black Planet” must be the Livingston album mix. On the Livingston master, it is known as the “Holy Roman Empire Mix”: “A whim of Andrew or Dave. There are notes on the [master reel] box that it was an EQ’d copy of the original mix. The listed settings suggest a general brightening up on a Klark Teknik DN360 graphic equaliser”[24]. Note the curious lack of any finished Livingston mixes on the three WEA in-house cassettes. Perhaps the purpose of these cassettes – circulated one to two months after the Livingston sessions had wrapped – was to showcase the potential alternate mixes prepared separately by Mack and Eldritch for the suits at WEA (excepting “Marian”).

For years, Eldritch’s four altered mixes were only available on non-Japanese LPs, whilst all CD variants featured the complete Livingston mixes. More recently, the Eldritch mixes were released on CD, through Rhino Records’ botched 2006 remaster (details below), and high-resolution download, through Rhino’s more successful 2015 remaster, which also saw the release of a deluxe 4LP box-set. In addition, the Livingston mixes got a new lease of life in the form of a vinyl remaster by the American audiophile label, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, in 2011.

The Livingston and Eldritch mixes can be found on the following common releases:

Livingston Mixes
YYYY, Country, Format, Cat. No.
Eldritch Mixes
YYYY, Country, Format, Cat. No.
1985, JPN, LP, P-13162
1988, EU, CD, 240 616-2
1988, USA, CD, 9 60405-2
1990, JPN, CD, WMC5-255
1992, EU, LP, 9031-77379-1
1992, EU, CD, 9031-77379-2
2002, HK, CD, 8122736032
2008, RUS, CD, 4607173158390
2009, EU, CD, 0825646839476
2011, JPN, SHM CD, WQCP 1103
2011, USA, LP, MOFI 1-006
1985, AUS, LP, 240616-1
1985, CAN, LP, 24 06161
1985, EU, LP, MR 337L
1985, USA, LP, ST-E-60405-1
1986, BRA, LP, 38054
2006, EU, CD, 5101-17579-2
2007, EU, CD, 5101-19186-2
2012, EU, CD, 2564656827
2015, EU, LP, 0825646284047

TRACK GUIDE

The original Livingston, Eldritch, and Mack mixes; Strawberry track sheet; bootlegged outtakes; and WEA in-house variations result in the following known mix variants:

“A Rock And A Hard Place”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 3
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix, officially released Eldritch mix “B”, Eldritch mix “A”, Mack mix, Livingston vocal outtake.

The Eldritch mix has a flanging synthesiser coupled to the bass guitar that plays throughout the track, the introduction’s twelve-string guitar is in the centre channel, the vocal is thicker throughout, and at the 02:20 breakdown there is a twelve-string guitar playing and wild tom-drum reverb. The Livingston mix loses the synthesiser, the introduction gains an additional guitar in the left channel whilst the twelve-string guitar moves to the right, the verse gains even more guitars, and at the 02:20 breakdown there is a six-string guitar playing instead of the Eldritch mix’s twelve-string. Generally, from 02:20 until the end, the guitar mix differs greatly for both versions. Listening to the mixes back-to-back, one gets a sense of the Eldritch mix being closer to what you might expect to hear in a nightclub, whilst the Livingston mix is more restrained. The Livingston mix has more in common with the song’s live arrangement, with its additional guitars and lack of synth. Eldritch mix “A” is almost identical to its officially released counterpart (“B”), except for one instance of an altered snare effect and some minor additional vocal delay, and the closing vocal round is not mixed as smoothly. The Mack mix is something of a deconstructed Eldritch mix, featuring a stark synth line and guitar parts that take their individual turns in the spotlight. Mack’s mix lacks the drive of Eldritch’s and reveals that, in 1984, the band were wise to stick with the guitars and not let the synths take too much of the attention. A version very similar to the Livingston mix but with a more off the cuff vocal take is available on bootlegs. Upon hearing this version, Harris commented that the vocal outtake was “probably recorded at Livingston”[25].

“Amphetamine Logic”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: ?
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix.

“Black Planet”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: ?
Known variants: Officially released Livingston (“Holy Roman Empire”) mix, officially released Eldritch (“fourth”) mix, Eldritch second mix, Eldritch third mix, Strawberry outtake with Hussey guide vocal (aka “Dance On Glass”).

The Eldritch mix has a clear vocal throughout, the “run around in the radiation” lyric is panned to both channels, there is an overall toppy production quality, and the fade-out is truncated. The Livingston mix has a murky effect on the vocal throughout (the recording of which Harris recalled with great enthusiasm), more prominent bass guitar, faint synthesiser flourishes, and a full-length fade-out. In my opinion, neither mix is completely perfect. The vocal production on the Eldritch mix is easier on the ear, but this mix is let down overall by its sonic texture and the truncated fade-out is sloppy. By contrast, the Livingston mix is warmer with a clearer bass guitar, but the excessively effected vocal bogs the song down somewhat. Eldritch’s second and third mixes are subtle variations on his officially released version, with the second mix being the most balanced of the set thanks to its more prominent bass guitar.

“Blood Money”
Recorded: ?
Reel: ?
Known variants: Officially released Eldritch mix.

“Bury Me Deep”
Recorded: ?
Reel: ?
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix.

“Emma”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 2
Known variants: Strawberry “faders up” mix, Livingston rough mix.

I played a couple of bootlegged studio recordings to Harris to gauge his reaction: “Emma”, and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Harris confirmed that Emma was recorded at Strawberry Studios (including vocals), and an additional set of vocals were recorded at Livingston. Allen and Harris were both keen on “Emma” (enough for Harris to commit a wild “rough mix” to tape one night, drenched in delay and various guitar effects) and implored the band to release it but Eldritch vetoed it. Upon hearing the widely available “Emma” bootleg recording, Harris remarked that it sounded like a typical “faders-up” mix from Strawberry. Harris had never heard the “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” recording, which means that it was not brought to the album’s mixing session at Livingston (in fact it was not even recorded until June 1985).

“First And Last And Always”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 4
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix, officially released Eldritch mix, Mack mix, Strawberry outtake with Marx guide vocal (aka “Marianne”/“Red Skies Disappear”).

The Eldritch mix opens with a reverse snare hit, the drum-machine plays throughout the introduction, and there is a stereo guitar sweep at 00:32. Throughout the Eldritch mix the drums are snappier with the snare being particularly dynamic, this is most apparent around the 02:27 mark. Overall there is a greater utilisation of macro-dynamics, especially during the chorus. At the 01:40 breakdown, the piano and synthesiser are buried and an additional guitar is overlaid. Verse 2 exhibits sparser instrumentation, and the mix closes with a slightly longer fade-out. The Livingston mix has a longer introduction by about ten seconds, during which the drums fade in and out and are generally mixed differently (Harris is very proud of the tom-drum delay he engineered). At the 01:50 breakdown (ten seconds later than previously mentioned due to the longer introduction), the piano and synthesiser are more prominent with the synthesised harp panned to the left channel, the bass guitar is also more prominent during this section. At 02:36, there is an additional guitar accompanying the “my calling” lyric, and the main guitar riff plays throughout the second verse. My sonic impression of the two mixes is similar to “A Rock And A Hard Place”, whereby the Eldritch mix sounds more club/single oriented and the Livingston mix more album focussed, with its sophisticated introduction and synthesiser flourishes. The Eldritch mix has a triumphant quality thanks to its dynamics whereas the Livingston mix is more laidback. The Mack mix is a combination of the two. The intro shares sonic qualities from both, though it is truncated and features a more prominently picked guitar part in the left channel that recurs throughout the mix. The most interesting aspect of the Mack mix is the appearance of a brief bass solo at 02:08 and the fact that this version is heavily edited in parts, with a running time of 03:30, perhaps implying that it was once intended to be an edit for radio or single release.

“Marian”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 6
Known variants: Officially released Genetic mix.

“Nine While Nine”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 7
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix, Strawberry outtake (aka “Child Of Light”).

“No Time To Cry”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 1
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix, officially released Eldritch/Eel Pie mix, officially released 7″ edit of Eldritch/Eel Pie mix, Mack mix, Strawberry outtake with Eldritch guide vocal.

The Eldritch mix’s introduction has a flange effect on the snare drum, and the outro is longer with additional sound effects marking the song’s ominous conclusion. The 7″ edit utilises the Eldritch mix but truncates the introduction. This edit can also be heard in the music video. The Livingston mix has a longer introduction with delightfully panned reverberating tom-drums, these stereo drums are reprised during the song’s breakdown at 02:27, and its outro is curtailed with a quick fade-out. From a listening perspective, I prefer the Livingston mix for its stereo drum presentation; the Eldritch mix sounds distinctly one-dimensional by comparison. On the other hand, the conclusion of the Livingston mix is regretfully rapid, whilst the Eldritch mix’s end suits the song perfectly. The Mack mix uses the Livingston as its template but the drums and vocals are drier, adding more presence. This results in a somewhat clunky rendering of the chorus, which works better when covered in reverb. One advantage of Mack’s mix is the added definition on the bass guitar, and the tom drums are particularly thunderous during the breakdown.

“On The Wire”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 10
Known variants: Officially released Genetic mix.

“Poison Door”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 3
Known variants: Officially released Genetic mix.

“Possession”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 5
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix.

“Some Kind Of Stranger”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 8, 9
Known variants: Officially released Livingston mix, officially released Strawberry outtake with Eldritch guide vocal (aka “early” version), Strawberry instrumental.

The “early” version (featured on Rhino’s 2006 CD remaster, 5101-17579-2) share’s similar sonic qualities to the “faders up” mix of Emma, and the vocal performance is reminiscent of Eldritch’s other guide tracks that have leaked from the Strawberry recording sessions.

“Walk Away”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 2
Known variants: Officially released Genetic mix, officially released Mack mix, Eldritch mix, Strawberry outtake with Eldritch guide vocal.

Early live performances of this song reveal that the instrumentation was written by the time of Hussey’s live debut on 7 April 1984. The lyrics however are far more nebulous, with the debut performance including the significant line “don’t walk away”. They languished in a barely finished state throughout the USA Spring Tour (10 April-16 April) and even into June 1984, before being finalised in time for the band’s Peel session on 19 June. Hearing Mack’s mix of “Walk Away” properly mastered reveals a tantalising insight into how different the album could have sounded with his production fully realised. Mack’s robust style is more rock oriented and strips away a lot of the song’s pop leanings to bring out the guitars and present a more honest vocal mix. The Eldritch mix is the same as the Genetic mix but features thicker drum EQ and a brief but prominent flanging guitar part at 01:30.

“Wide Receiver”
Recorded: Strawberry Studios
Reel: 6
Known variants: N/A

IMG_20160727_194028

The only surviving example of Tony Harris’ rough mix of “Emma”.

MASTERING

Harris recalled that Eldritch’s next subject of obsession – after fixating on the mixing of the album – would be the album’s mastering: “I need to find someone who’ll add back all the midrange I’ve EQ’d out”[26], Eldritch would say. Harris recommended Ray Staff, the cutting engineer at Trident Studios in Soho, who would end up cutting the British lacquers for all of The Sisters Of Mercy’s albums (and later go on to remaster them for Rhino’s 2015-2016 box set campaign). Mastering is the final stage of record production, the process by which music is transferred from the master tape to the analogue lacquer or digital glass master for mass production. Mastering can often make or break a recording, representing the last chance for a professional engineer to add a finishing touch to the overall tone of a piece. It is often compared to lighting artwork in a gallery: easy enough to do but difficult to get absolutely spot on.

The UK promotional LP (lacquers cut at Trident Studios, promo pressed at PRS Ltd.) appears to be the first instance of First And Last And Always on vinyl. The promo’s production parts are the source for the German white label test-pressing and are therefore the likely source of subsequent Germany-for-Europe pressings with A3 and A6 matrices (all pressed at Record Service GmbH). This mastering has a panning error at the start of “A Rock And A Hard Place”, whereby the opening note is silent in the right channel. This error also appears on the USA promo, Canadian LP, and early cassette pressings. When this panning error is present, the opening guitar strum of “Marian” is heard in both channels. The re-mastered A7 matrix fixes the panning error on “A Rock And A Hard Place” and instead pans the opening guitar strum of “Marian” to the left channel. All Record Service GmbH pressings used the same side-two stamper (R/S Alsdorf 240616-1 B2) throughout the album’s production run. My favourite R/S cut is the A7/B2 matrix variety for the corrected “A Rock And A Hard Place” and generally quieter vinyl it’s pressed on compared to earlier attempts.

If you are hunting for a USA pressing with the Mack mix of “Walk Away”, look for the following side-one matrix number: STE 60405-A-1 MASTERDISK. Non-A1 pressings use the standard Genetic mix. The side-two stamper is the same across all USA pressings.

First And Last And Always has been reissued many times and, consequently, mastered many times. Each mastering engineer brings a different sonic approach, allowing us to hear the album in subtly different ways. Below are my subjective opinions on the various pressings. Whilst I have tried to stress the importance of the complete Livingston mixes in this article, it is Eldritch’s variation that was released first, so I will start there.

Eldritch Mixes:

Quite simply, my current favourite sounding release of the Eldritch mixes is the USA LP (1985, ST-E-60405-1), mastered by Howie Weinberg at Masterdisk. The sound is crisp, taut, and dynamic, with a smooth control of sibilants. “Possession” is a surprising sonic standout. Weinberg’s mastering really complements the mixes, particularly “First And Last And Always” which is important here as it is one of the altered four. The original European LPs – pressed at Record Service GmbH – I find are often pressed on low quality vinyl, resulting in excessive surface noise and crackle. This issue is further exacerbated by the European inner sleeve which is made from coarse paper, thus scuffing the record’s playing surface over the years. By comparison, the USA LP was packaged in a black poly-lined inner-sleeve which is much more adept at protecting vinyl records. Rhino’s 2015 4LP box-set was cut from original production masters by Ray Staff at Air Studios, and pressed at Optimal Media GmbH on dead quiet vinyl. It sounds great. Any new collector could save themselves a lot of hassle by simply buying the box set and enjoying it. The box set is complemented by a high-resolution digital download at 24-bits / 96 kHz, presumably sourced from the same production masters used to press the Rhino LPs. Streamers will be frustrated to note that the Eldritch mixes are still not available online owing to a record label mix up. If you want to hear them in their best digital form you must purchase the high resolution download from HD Tracks.

The Eldritch mixes made their CD debut in 2006 courtesy of Rhino. The packaging is excellent, with a detailed booklet and many interesting archival photographs. Unfortunately, the sound quality is a disappointment thanks to some unforgiveable mastering errors. Most notable of these is that the volume of the tracks fluctuates across the CD, as if the songs have been prepared in isolation rather than as one coherent album. This makes for quite a jarring listening experience. In addition, four of the tracks are frustratingly brickwalled, whilst the main bulk of tracks are pleasantly dynamic. Thankfully these errors are all undone by the 2015 remaster, and the only track of any remaining significance on the 2006 CD – the unique early version of “Some Kind Of Stranger” – is mastered correctly with dynamics intact.

elektra tp

USA test pressing. Photo by LG.

Livingston Mixes:

In a similar fashion to Rhino’s 2015 box set, any collector wishing to obtain the full Livingston mixes in superb sound quality should look no further than Mobile Fidelity’s 2011 vinyl remaster. Cut all-analogue from the Livingston master tapes supplied by WEA London’s archive, the sound is rich with the widest stereo spread I have ever heard for this album. The current market value of the original Japanese LP makes obtaining it somewhat prohibitive, and I was not particularly impressed by a needledrop I heard of it, a spectrogram of which revealed the presence of a digital delay line in the cutting path. When the album was remastered in 1992 it was released on vinyl and features the Livingston mixes. I heard a needledrop of this pressing and was quite impressed by the sound, but a spectrogram revealed digital processing in the signal path that is absent from the Mobile Fidelity pressing. Certainly, the Mobile Fidelity remaster is the purest in terms of its signal path and provenance. In my opinion, the Mobile Fidelity remaster sonically frames the complete Livingston mixes correctly for the first time. There is none of the imbalance that plagues previous releases, instead the sound is spacious and one gets a real sense of the hi-fi sound that the band and engineers working at Livingston were trying to achieve.

The commonly available European and American CDs from 1988, on WEA and Elektra respectively, contain the Livingston mixes and are cheap and plentiful on the second-hand market. These CDs were pressed at the same plants as their earlier LP counterparts – Record Service GmbH and Specialty Records Corporation – though the mastering engineer is unknown in both cases. What is known is that the CDs received unique digital masters for their respective territories. The German pressing sounds a little darker overall and rolled off on the top-end, whilst the American pressing sounds boosted in the midrange and a bit brighter on the top-end. The discs do not offer a particularly rich or enjoyable listening experience, and it is my opinion that they are primarily responsible for some of the band’s fans’ mistaken contempt for the Livingston mixes (an unfortunate situation that I hope this article will put right). Of the two, the German pressing sounds closer to the Mobile Fidelity remaster (though not nearly as resolving or detailed), with the American disc seeming to me like the odd one out. If you favour a brighter presentation, or your hi-fi is particularly warm sounding, you might consider trying the American CD as it certainly clears up some of the German CD’s potential muddiness. From a technical standpoint, the American CD is inferior because “Walk Away” exhibits clipping, which could cause some older CD players to distort. The German CD (1988, 240 616-2) is digitally identical to the Japanese CD (1990, WMC5-255), and the American CD (1988, 9 60405-2) contains an identical EQ curve to the 1992 “remaster” (1992, 9031-77379-2) but the 1992 disc is on average -0.4 dB quieter than the American CD across all tracks (so, technically speaking, it is re-mastered but the sound is exactly the same as the American CD from 1988). The slight reduction in level resolves the aforementioned peak issue found on the American disc. Rhino’s Original Album Series box-set (2009, 0825646839476) contains the 1992 mastering.

Two peculiar releases came out in Hong Kong (2002, 8122736032) and Russia (2008, 4607173158390). Both are officially released digital clones of the 1992 CD. The 2002 Hong Kong disc claims to be an HDCD, but it contains no decipherable HDCD data (such as peak extension). The 2008 Russian disc is coloured gold. Obviously, neither offers any additional sonic insight over the 1992 CD.

The table below lists the peak data values for each track in dBFS. Comparing peak analyses of CDs allows collectors to examine the digital data contained on different discs to see which ones are identical or unique. In the 1988 EU and 1990 JPN columns, the peak value is identical for every track – thus the discs are digitally identical.

TRACK PEAKS (dBFS): 1998 EU 1990 JPN 1988 USA 1992 EU
Black Planet -0.05 -0.05 -0.90 -0.50
Walk Away 0.00 0.00 Over 0.00
No Time To Cry -0.06 -0.06 -0.15 0.00
A Rock And A Hard Place -0.27 -0.27 -1.73 -1.33
Marian (Version) 0.00 0.00 -0.36 0.00
First And Last And Always -0.49 -0.49 -0.70 -0.30
Possession 0.00 0.00 -2.01 -1.61
Nine While Nine -0.07 -0.07 -0.74 -0.34
Amphetamine Logic 0.00 0.00 -0.65 -0.25
Some Kind Of Stranger -0.46 -0.46 -0.36 0.00

The peak data for the 1988 USA and 1992 EU columns is different, but the 1992 peaks are simply shifted down by around -0.4 dB. Proof of this can be found by comparing the tracks’ RMS volume levels:

TRACK RMS (dB): 1988 USA 1992 EU Delta
Black Planet -14.24 -13.82 -0.42
Walk Away -13.81 -14.35 0.54
No Time To Cry -15.04 -14.64 -0.4
A Rock And A Hard Place -16.06 -15.66 -0.4
Marian (Version) -14.29 -13.89 -0.4
First And Last And Always -15.17 -14.77 -0.4
Possession -16.71 -16.31 -0.4
Nine While Nine -15.09 -14.69 -0.4
Amphetamine Logic -14.98 -14.58 -0.4
Some Kind Of Stranger -14.88 -14.48 -0.4

The following frequency analysis graph plots the frequency curve of “Black Planet” from the German CD (red) and the American CD (blue). The German CD exhibits a bass boost in the 100-200 Hz region and a dip in the mid-range, whilst the USA CD is slightly more even throughout. These differences are responsible for the sonic impressions between the two CD masters, as outlined above.

BP EQ - Red DE - Blue USA

“Black Planet” frequency comparison of 1988 CDs (Germany / USA)

 

This article started life as a simple attempt to describe mix variations and wax lyrical about mastering. Thanks to a chance discovery however, it morphed into a far greater project. I would like to thank Tony Harris in particular for his help piecing the puzzle together, Gary Marx for peering back into the black, Boyd Steemson for his tantalising recollections, Dave Allen for his comments in 2010, Reinhold Mack for responding to my incessant enquiries, Phil Verne for photographic assistance, and LG for audio delights. Albums only work if the songs are great. The songs on First And Last And Always are great, they have stood the test of time, and they are worth obsessing over. Alas, the full picture remains incomplete, and until someone can interview Eldritch on the missing pieces the dots may never be completely joined. Attempts were made by your humble researcher but the call went unheeded. Until then, you have just read all I know for sure about the recording, mixing, and mastering of The Sisters Of Mercy’s First And Last And Always.

IMG_20160727_194000

Tony Harris’ cassette back-up of the Livingston master tape.

References:

[1] David M Allen, 29 August 2010: Sound Seminar. The Woodmill, London.

[2] “Serpents Kiss!”, Spiral Scratch, January 1989, 37.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] “Working Forward By Looking Back”, Merciful Release communication (1985): 1.

[5] Markus Hartmann, “…And the Wind Blows Wild Again…”. Zillo, November 1990.

[6] “Nine While Nine demo”, MyHeartland, accessed 8 August 2016, https://www.myheartland.co.uk/viewtopic.php?p=530936#530936.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Working Forward By Looking Back”, 2.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Gary Marx, e-mail message to author, 30 August 2016.

[11] Tony Harris, e-mail message to author, 23 July 2016.

[12] Tony Harris, Recording Diary, 10 January 1985.

[13] Gary Marx, e-mail message to author, 30 August 2016.

[14] Tony Harris, e-mail message to author, 24 July 2016.

[15] Gary Marx, e-mail message to author, 30 August 2016.

[16] Boyd Steemson, e-mail message to author, 22 August 2016.

[17] Gary Marx, e-mail message to author, 30 August 2016.

[18] “Speculation”, Underneath The Rock (2: 1992): 3.

[19] Tony Harris, minuted conversation with author, 27 July 2016.

[20] Reinhold Mack, Facebook message to author, 1 August 2016.

[21] David M Allen, 29 August 2010: Sound Seminar. The Woodmill, London.

[22] Gary Marx, e-mail message to author, 30 August 2016.

[23] Tracks 1, 2, 4, 5 feature on the Palazzograssi bootleg, The Last Magician Of Rational Thought (PG 04    , 1989).

[24] Tony Harris, e-mail message to author, 24 July 2016.

[25] Tony Harris, minuted conversation with author, 27 July 2016.

[26] Ibid.

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Audiophile, Reviews

Review: Sound & Vision – The Bristol Show 2017

by Robert Cowlin

The Sound & Vision show takes place annually in Bristol and is the UK’s largest and longest running gathering of Hi-Fi manufacturers and enthusiasts. I had hoped to go last year but band commitments got in the way so my wife organised for us to go this year for my birthday. It was our first time visiting a Hi-Fi show and presented an exciting opportunity to hear many brands that we had read about but never had the chance to audition, we were also able to experience some indulgent cost-no-object configurations. The show was hosted at Bristol’s Marriott Hotel, with the ground floor conference suites being dedicated to larger demonstrations for twenty to thirty people per slot, and the hotel’s guestrooms being taken over by the smaller brands that convert the rooms into mock listening areas and living spaces in order to demonstrate their products to about six persons at a time. We went for two days, which was enough time to comfortably visit all the large demonstration rooms as well as all four additional floors worth of smaller demos. We could probably have done the whole thing in one day but it was nice not having to rush and being able to revisit some of our favourite rooms. The building was consistently packed for the entire time that we were there.

I wrote down our thoughts on some of the demonstrations and will outline them below, but first a couple of general observations. I was impressed by the number of manufacturers that had made a concerted effort to bring acoustic treatments to their demonstration rooms. Hotel rooms are hardly great for listening to music in, especially when every other room on the floor is pumping out tunes as well. A lot of manufacturers had brought bass traps and acoustic panels with them to treat the rooms, and the home cinema manufacturers were using digital room correction in their demos to improve the acoustics. I would estimate that around half of the manufacturers at the show were using some form of physical or digital acoustic treatments to improve the sound and those rooms unquestionably sounded the best. It is important to keep this in mind when reading my sonic observations below as not all the rooms were treated, but there really is no excuse when so many brands had brought something with them. Unfortunately, a lot of the manufacturers relied on either extremely bright or dynamically compressed digital music to demonstrate their products. In my opinion, this proved detrimental as it was countered by other manufacturers using excellent sounding vinyl set-ups to show off their products. I am very much a digital music enthusiast over vinyl, but the limitations of the vinyl format proved advantageous when compared to manufacturers that were playing hyped-up bright sounding productions in an attempt to entice attendees into their rooms. Generally, the rooms playing records sounded better because the lack of brightness or over compression allowed us to get a better impression of the products that were being exhibited without getting ear fatigue. Finally, the constant harping on by the brand representatives about ‘CD quality’ and ‘high-resolution’ got very tiring. We were regularly reminded that the demonstration tracks were only CD quality, and just think how much better this would sound with high-resolution audio being played. I am pretty sceptical about high-resolution for playback purposes and have never seen any evidence that a high-resolution master and its CD counterpart can be reliably identified in a blind test. Most of the attendees appeared to lap up the high-res voodoo talk however.

I have created a Spotify playlist of track highlights from the demonstrations reviewed below. Listen along and see if you can hear what I am talking about.

Brand Reviews:

ARCAM
Situated in one of the larger conference suites, ARCAM was demonstrating its AV860 Dolby Atmos & DTS:X 7.1.4 AV processor, with KEF providing the surround speakers and four Atmos ceiling speakers plus two bespoke sub-woofers with Celestion drivers. The amps were set up in a bridged mono-block configuration, with one amp per speaker providing 1,000 watts per channel of power. The overall cost of all the amps, speakers, 4K projector, and screen was around £100,000. The brand rep jokingly described the set up as their “lifestyle range”. The rep informed us that the demo was using Dirac digital room correction and played some rain sound effects with Dirac on and off to great effect. He then played the opening scene from Mad Max: Fury Road. The sound was immense and the picture quality was perfect, the demonstration immediately put every cinema I had ever attended to shame. The demonstration finished with a clip from a Paul Simon concert filmed in HD. I almost clapped at the end of the song, it was that convincing!

ASTIN TREW
I had not heard of this brand before but AT was launching its AT2-210 integrated amplifier, using a Planalogue ‘Prelude’ turntable with ‘Sibelius SG’ floor-standing speakers by Pearl Acoustics. We were the only people in the room so I chose “Vicious” by Lou Reed as the demo track. There is a repeating cowbell on this track and on this set up it was all we could hear. Reed’s vocal was lost somewhere down the hall but that damned cowbell just kept clobbering us over the head every second. Very tiring indeed. The ‘Prelude’ turntable looked an impressive piece of kit however.

AUDIOENGINE
The room was set up like an office as Audioengine was demonstrating its tiny HD3 Wireless active speakers, placed either side of a computer monitor. I connected to them via bluetooth and streamed Bullion’s “It’s No Spirit” from Spotify. I was not particularly impressed. The speakers failed to control the song’s pulsating and potentially flabby sub-bass, instead just spluttering out a choked boom throughout the track. The brand rep started talking over the sonic mess, probably for the best.

hd3_go-to_system

HD3 Wireless speakers

AUDIO NOTE UK
I have read a lot about this brand, it appears to have a bit of a cult following particularly on US Hi-Fi forums. Audio Note had a CD transport and DAC combo feeding one of its amplifiers (didn’t get the names) with the ‘AN-J’ speaker at the end of the chain. Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Daddy” started playing as we entered the room. This is a track we are quite familiar with so it was a good opportunity to make some brief evaluations. The sound was very polite and pleasant, quite a lot of mid-range detail. I did however notice that the track’s snare drum seemed to have a bit more added punch than normal, so perhaps the speakers have some reinforcement somewhere in the mid-range. This characteristic carried over to the next song, a female vocal track. Each time the singer held a particular note the sound became unpleasant.

an-j_01

AN-J speaker

BOWERS & WILKINS
Another mega-bucks surround sound demonstration, this time by B&W. We heard the flagship ‘800 D3’ in a 5.2 configuration with the new ‘DB1D’ sub-woofer. First, the rep passed around some of the driver elements that go into building the 800 Series speakers. The metal structures were incredibly hefty and made no echo if you tapped on them. Impressive engineering on display. The rep then played Lou Reed’s “Vanishing Act” in stereo to great effect. The speakers had a vice-like grip over every speck of sound, the scale was of course massive. The rep demonstrated how well isolated the sub-woofer is by placing a glass of water on top of it and playing a bass heavy drum track. He called it the Jurassic Park test, the water remained still throughout the whole track! The demonstration concluded with the opening scene from Unbroken. The whole experience was incredibly tense and dramatic, with the various surround effects rendered to perfection. I wonder if you might feel a bit locked in by it all in the long-term, the sound was that commanding. The cost of the system was £60,000.

bowers-wilkins

CYRUS
This room was pretty cool. Cyrus was demonstrating its new ‘ONE’ integrated amplifier, a reboot of the original Cyrus One from the 1980s. Cyrus had a selection of its milestone products on display from the last thirty years and was demonstrating the new ‘ONE’ amplifier with three different speakers and Audioquest Nighthawk headphones (the new amp includes a very capable headphone amplifier). I was not familiar with the speakers or the song selection, and the brand rep kept taking forever to introduce the tracks and then only played them for thirty seconds! Nevertheless, one quality that I noticed across all the tracks and speakers was that the sound was incredibly clear and lucid without a hint of brightness or fatigue. I really enjoyed listening to the amplifier and found the half-width case aesthetically appealing.

DEVIALET
The self-proclaimed “best sound in the World”, Devialet makes a curious range of curved wireless speakers with mouthwatering specs. At the Bristol Show, Devialet was demonstrating its new ‘Gold Phantom’ loudspeaker. It (perhaps unfairly) struck me as a sort of Hi-Fi lifestyle product, retailing at ~£2,000. The sound was very good and benefited from the speakers being set up in a tight rule of thirds configuration with only two chairs for listening. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” was playing and the Gold Phantoms conveyed the song’s rhythmic elements and crunch with ease with excellent stereo separation to boot. Looks wise, the Phantoms are very much a marmite product that no doubt will compete with KEF’s new LS50 Wireless speakers (discussed below).

gold-phantom

Gold Phantom speaker

DYNAUDIO
Celebrating its 40th anniversary and exhibiting the What Hi-Fi 2016 Product of the Year ‘Emit M20’ stand-mount speaker (among other models), the sound in the Dynaudio room was very impressive. The M20’s imaged with pinpoint precision, emphasising the importance of space between one’s speakers, and had a pleasant airy quality that would certainly suit warmer sounding electronics. They retail at £600, I expected them to be twice that price.

Demo track: Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Tin Pan Alley”.

dynaudio

Emit M20 speakers

HARBETH AUDIO
Quite possibly my favourite room of the show that has left me coveting a pair of Harbeth loudspeakers! Harbeth was also celebrating its 40th anniversary and demonstrating the limited edition ‘SHL5plus’ large stand-mount speaker. Unlike many other rooms, designer Alan Shaw was playing a selection of classical and jazz recordings with the idea being to convey a subtle and nuanced sound rather than the whizz-bangs going off elsewhere. The speakers framed everything perfectly and had an addictive and comforting sound that you could listen to for hours. Highlighting the fact that speakers are probably the most important part of a Hi-Fi set-up, Alan was simply playing tracks from his portable digital player to superb effect. No high-res gimmicks, no exotic cabling, very little in the way of isolation. Just great speakers. Quality clean amplification was provided by Norwegian manufacturer, Hegel. If you ever get a chance to hear a pair of these speakers do not hesitate! Dynamic range, realism, and perfect sound await!

Demo track: Art Blakey – Moanin’.

harbeth

SHL5plus speakers

ICON AUDIO UK
A room full of modern valve amplifiers, valve phono stages, valve CD players(!), and valve headphone amplifiers from award winning valve Hi-Fi manufacturer Icon Audio. Far too many things to list but Icon was demonstrating its massive 15″ horn speakers which did not sound as impressive as they looked.

icon-audio

Icon Audio display

KEF
I own a pair of KEF’s award winning LS50 speakers so I had to hear what it had come up with for the new LS50 Wireless active version on demonstration at Bristol. One issue that people have reported with the passive LS50 is that it is a bit fussy about what amplifier it is paired with. I have not experienced any issues with it connected to my Rega Elex-R, but I think – given the speaker’s relatively affordable £800 price tag – many owners try to mate it with entry-level amplifiers that do not have enough power to properly drive the KEFs. It appears that one really needs an amp in the same price range as the LS50 (or higher) to get the best out of the speaker. With this in mind, KEF has decided to create an active version of the LS50 with purpose built dual amplifiers inside (one for the mid/bass driver, one for the tweeter), thus solving the potential amplifier pairing problem. The new LS50 Wireless is a complete Hi-Fi solution, with everything happening inside the speaker boxes. You just add stands and cables, then control everything via your phone or tablet. Design wise, it is the same as the original LS50 but with the amplifier and DAC added to the back, so they are pretty deep! Three tracks were used to demonstrate the speaker’s most noteworthy qualities: scale, sound-stage width, and pinpoint imaging. We were sat at the back and still the spatial cues were faultless despite us not actually being able to see the speakers. The speakers come with a phone app that lets you dial in DSP room correction, compensating for room dimensions and speaker placement. If I did not already own a pair of passive LS50s the new active version would definitely be on my audition list.

Demo track: Malia – Celestial Echo.

MISSION
The only real attempt at budget Hi-Fi in the whole building, Mission was showing off its What Hi-Fi award winning LX-2 stand-mount speaker (£160). We were the only ones in the room at the time so we picked “Kooks” from the 2015 remaster of Hunky Dory. The LX-2s did an admirable job of rendering Bowie’s vocal, but not much else. The song’s tuneful yet subtle bass was non-existent and there was very little realism on the piano. Overall, a somewhat unbalanced presentation. Bizarrely, the speakers were being fed by hundreds of pounds worth of quality Audiolab electronics so the source certainly was not at fault. The speakers were quite far out in the room given their size, and perhaps would have performed better in a smaller environment where reinforcement from the main wall would have improved the bass. Nonetheless, I have heard better budget speaker performance from the likes of Wharfedale and Cambridge Audio in the past.

mission

LX-2 speakers

MQA
MQA is a new file format, developed by Meridian, that aims to bring high-resolution audio streaming into the home. It is able to compress 24-bit high-resolution audio master files into sizes that are similar to 16-bit FLAC/ALAC files. It can do this because MQA uses lossy data compression to achieve its small file size, whereas FLAC and ALAC utilises lossless compression. Consequently, a high-resolution audio master file converted to FLAC/ALAC will retain all of its audio information, whereas the same master file converted to MQA will be much smaller in size but lose some of its audio information forever. MQA is currently being used by Tidal to stream high-res audio to subscribers. MQA was being demonstrated by Bluesound, who makes a selection of sleek network streamers and amps, and Audioquest, who brought its newly MQA-enabled Dragonfly USB soundcard to the show. The companies were demonstrating with MQA off and then on. Can YOU hear the difference? etc. Bluesound was using a more realistic pair of B&W floor-standing speakers than what we had heard in the B&W room earlier, the sonic characteristics of the earlier B&W demo remained the same though, which was interesting to note. Audioquest had its Dragonfly soundcard connected to a splendid Rega Elicit-R amplifier and speakers that I do not recall the name of. Both demos used a pre-digital era jazz vocal recording and Adele’s “Hello” to demonstrate the apparent difference between CD quality and the supposedly superior MQA. We were the only people in the Audioquest room so took the opportunity to test the rep on his knowledge. The jazz vocal track had an excruciatingly high analogue tape noise floor and I mentioned that any benefit between 16-bit CD quality and 24-bit high-res MQA would be redundant on this track because its high noise floor was obscuring any audible differences happening below -96 dBFS. I told the rep I could not hear any difference and he went: “Right! Let’s try Adele!” The track, “Hello”, is mastered so loud that it has just 4 dB of usable dynamic range. We blissfully sat there, switching back and forth between a CD file capable of containing 96 dB of dynamic range, and the high-res counterpart capable of 144 dB of dynamic range. Both of these ‘buckets’ are capable of rendering “Hello” in all its DR4 glory without hindrance or any audible difference. I tried to explain this but Audioquest was having none of it! By now a few more people had come in and I was loudly proclaimed to be the only person throughout the entire weekend that could not hear a difference between CD and MQA, much to my delight and pleasure! Shortly afterwards I returned to the Harbeth room to hear properly mastered songs being played off a smartphone with incredible sound, go figure.

MUSICAL FIDELITY
I previously owned Musical Fidelity’s excellent entry-level V90 DAC and often regret selling it. However, I have had the opportunity to hear MF amplifiers at dealers and now at the Bristol Show and have always come away with the impression that they exhibit a false sense of air or top-end extension. MF was showcasing its ‘Encore Connect’ all in one music player (files, streaming, CD, etc) and ‘NuVista 600’ integrated amplifier. Speakers were KEF ‘Reference I’ stand-mounts. Lots of brands were using various KEF speakers throughout the show, and this was the only time when we both felt they sounded brash and false in the top-end. I can only assume this impression was down to the Musical Fidelity electronics. In addition to the unpleasant sound, the huge components were finished in a hideous mid-nineties computer off-white colour, the kind you might associate with an old CRT monitor or keyboard. Next!

musical-fidelity

Musical Fidelity display

NAIM AUDIO
Naim had taken over the executive lounge to demonstrate its new ‘Uniti’ range of products. It is another all in one solution that includes streaming, bluetooth, radio, network sharing, and apps that basically means you never need to move ever again. To my delight, the new range also promotes file-based playback specifically from CD rips and Naim has built a device that rips, stores, backs up, and serves your music to the network (‘Uniti Core’, £1,800). With more audiophiles collecting older CDs to get a specific mastering or out of print recording, or simply buying CDs because they are currently so cheap, it is now more important than ever to back up one’s CD collection to a lossless archive. Older discs can contain errors that ordinary disc-based playback would struggle with, but if you rip the disc you are more likely to get files that play perfectly because, when ripping a disc, error correction is not time-domain limited, i.e. the software can spend as long as it likes ripping a problematic track whereas a CD player only has a couple of seconds before having to come up with a fix or it skips. Using software such as dBpoweramp with AccurateRip enabled, one can ensure that a ripped CD is in fact a perfect copy of the disc by automatically comparing the CRC codes from the rip with a user-generated database of codes. If the rip’s CRC codes match someone else then it is an accurate rip as the likelihood of errors being identical across rips is almost impossible. Frustratingly, when the Naim rep promoted lossless CD ripping, he simplified it dramatically by saying: “CD players lie to us because they use error correction, whereas ripped files do not need error correction”. Well, that is sort of true, but the act of ripping a CD might still require the use of error correction in order to accurately rip the disc. I assume/hope Naim’s ripping system includes error correction! The rep did not say whether the ‘Core’ uses AccurateRip or indeed whether it has any method of informing the user that it has achieved a secure/insecure rip. I would not like to be on the receiving end of an irate Naim customer whose wonderful collection of ripped discs all contain audible errors and skips! The Naim rep played five tracks (jazz, classical, rock, female vocal, electronic) through the ‘Uniti’ kit and Focal ‘Sopra No. 3’ floor-standing speakers (£15,000). I have long wanted to hear the ‘Naim sound’ so I was looking forward to this demo but I was quite unimpressed. There was lots of attack, you knew precisely when a note was struck, but the amount of detail was so dizzying that I wondered how much processing was going on inside those boxes. The whole sonic picture was ruthlessly forward and off-putting. How could one listen to that for extended periods? As we went round the show we noticed a few other manufacturers using Naim components in their demonstrations, including some headphones, and that sonic characteristic remained apparent.

naim

Uniti Nova

PRIMARE/REVEL
Swedish electronics manufacturer, Primare, teamed up with US speaker manufacturer, Revel, to present one of the best sounding rooms of the weekend. The minimalist set-up consisted of Primare’s EISA award winning ‘I32’ integrated amplifier (£2,000) and ‘NP30’ network player (£2,000), feeding Revel’s Concerta2 M16 stand-mount speakers (£950). The sound produced by this set up was clean and open. As with Harbeth earlier, the rep took a more relaxed approach to song selection and mixed older more dynamic recordings in with modern productions. I do not have much more to say other than it sounded excellent with no single element causing any offence or annoyance.

primare-revel

REGA RESEARCH
Rega was showcasing its new ‘Planar 3’ turntable and the 2017 iteration of its award winning ‘Brio’ amplifier. It also launched an MC phono stage, modified TT PSU with variable speed control, and digital stylus gauge for accurately setting VTF to two decimal points at the show. The system was playing through Rega’s ‘RX-5’ floor-standing loudspeakers. The new turntable is extremely light and good at dispelling airborne vibrations. I previously demoed Rega’s RX-1 stand-mounts to go with my Rega Elex-R and DAC-R but thought they sounded too dull. At Bristol, the RX-5 certainly sounded better than I remember the RX-1 sounding, not dull at all, but perhaps a bit too open on the top end.

SENNHEISER
We found out that Sennheiser would be exhibiting its £50,000 ‘HE 1’ headphone and amplifier combo at the Bristol show so booked a slot in advance to hear it. We fed the amp with lossless CD rips from my iPod via a FiiO line-out dock to essentially mimic the output of a CD player. The sound was just incredible. As expected, it was the best sounding headphone rig I had ever experienced, digging up newfound detail in performances and unveiling instrumental characteristics that I had not heard before, as well as lifelike vocal realism and exquisite separation. Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” sounded incredible through it, with the drumming in particular gaining an additional sense of realism, particularly during the mid-track rim-shots.

TECHNICS
I was itching to see and hear the just announced ‘SL-1200GR’ turntable, which made its UK debut at Bristol alongside last year’s ‘SL-1200G’ reference turntable. The new GR iteration is almost identical to the classic SL-1200 MK2 and will retail at £1,299, whereas the reference G version is ~6 kg heavier, has a magnesium finished tonearm and brass platter, and retails at £2,999. The cartridge was Ortofon’s 2M Black PnP (~£500) and this was all feeding Technics’ ‘SU-C700’ amplifier (£1,250) and ‘SB-G90’ floor-standing speakers (RRP TBA). With the exception of the added weight, both turntables felt identical to use. Everything was supremely machined to perfection and felt even more sturdy than my trusty SL-1210 MK2 at home. On the whole, the sound of the full Technics system was a bit restrained, with vocals being slightly recessed, however resolution of very low level detail on David Bowie’s “Lazarus” was excellent and I definitely noticed quiet effects that I had not heard before. Perhaps the set up just needed something to wake the mid-range up a bit, maybe a change of cartridge?

That’s it for the 2017 round-up. Roll on 2018!

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