Audiophile, Reviews

Songs & Sonics : Ullages (by Eagulls)

In Songs & Sonics, I’m going to review an album in two stages. First, I write a bit about the songs on a record and what I think of them, then I turn my attention to sound quality.

by Robert Cowlin

Ullages opens with “Heads or Tails”, all reverberating guitars and sonorous bass. The smell of post-punk is strong in the air, and this is only heightened by “Euphoria”, with its spiralling guitar, tribal drumming, and litany of gothic phrases yelped by the vocalist. “Wide awake asleep / In the living dream”, reminds one of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, and this is compounded by an ever circling and thicker sonic atmosphere, not only on the track in the question but the album as a whole.

“My Life in Rewind” is my favourite song on the album. I’m loath to draw comparisons to evident influences, but the influence of The Cure’s Disintegration is strong here, and a welcome (re)addition to the mainstream rock canon. The chiming guitars during the verse are particularly pleasing to the ear, with the vocalist’s accent perfectly suited to the unmistakably English brand of drear offered up throughout Ullages.

“Blume” (sic) is perhaps the most tired song on the album. At this halfway point one is acutely aware of what Eagulls are trying to do with this record and this song sounds a little bit forced. Bizarrely, they manage to make a song about wanting to see “dead roses bloom” sound cool. Still, I’m not entirely convinced by this track. Hopefully things will pick up again for the final quarter.

“Skipping” capitalises on the band’s tight rhythm section to great effect with a bass line that’s totally locked into the drummer’s groove. One thing I really like about this record is the perceived minimal use of effects. Consequently, the simplicity of a flanging high-hat is a welcome addition to the album’s pleasantly essential sonic palette.

Ullages is Eagulls’ second album and will certainly appeal to those of a post-punk persuasion. This album very much wears its influences on its sleeve (not the album sleeve, mind), but those influences have released such poor product of late that Ullages is almost a return to form for the mainstream’s take on the post-punk genre all by itself. Thankfully, it doesn’t fall into the same lyrical potholes as Savages’ recent effort and, whilst the music on this record is certainly not as varied as more underground acts on the post-punk scene, I like the fact that Eagulls have settled on a sonic idea and laid it out on this record. Repetition is a form of change, after all.

Sonic Impressions…

I listened to Ullages on the go via Spotify Premium with a pair of FiiO EM3 open earphones, but my sonic impressions are based on listening to the CD and comparing it to the European vinyl pressing. Digital-to-analogue conversion was handled by my Rega DAC-R and the record was played on a Technics SL-1210MK2 with Audio-Technica micro-line cartridge, all connected to Rega amplification and KEF loudspeakers. I also needledropped the LP to conduct easy comparisons between the two versions in the digital realm, and monitored the transfer with a pair of AKG K550 headphones. The album was mastered by Greg Calbi, senior mastering engineer at Sterling Sound, but the LP doesn’t have the Sterling stamp in the deadwax. The LP was pressed at Optimal Media GmbH, presumably from high resolution digital vinyl masters provided by Sterling.

What I can say, right off the bat, is that the vinyl pressing sounds fantastic. The music is well recorded and mixed, mastered with dynamics intact, and the pressing is flawless (as one would expect, given Optimal’s reputation for quality control). Microdynamic information is easy to discern and the atmosphere, whilst foreboding, is spacious and involving. The vocal is perhaps a little recessed for my liking, but overall the balance is almost perfect. Subtle acoustic guitar strums and the odd panned vocal or drum, such as those found in “Blume”, punctuate the sonic landscape but are never overdone. The thickly compressed reverb that audibly clogs the CD mastering (also found on streaming sites and download stores) is nowhere to be found on the vinyl. That’s not to say that the vinyl contains a different mix, it doesn’t, it simply has more space and room to breath thanks to the vinyl master’s dynamic range. My one criticism of the vinyl is that the final two songs, “Aisles” and “White Lie Lullabies”, are too compressed, resulting in audible distortion on the record. Perhaps this is a result of the mix engineer using too much compression as it certainly isn’t an issue found elsewhere on the vinyl mastering.

When comparing the vinyl to the CD, the first thing one notices is how much LOUDER the CD version is. This is the result of heavy handed dynamic range compression and utterly ruins Ullages from a listening perspective. The vinyl reveals an expertly balanced mix, littered with subtleties and avenues for the ear to wander down. By contrast, the CD has absolutely no moving space and feels overly claustrophobic and fatiguing over long listening periods. This is particularly evident on “Velvet”, where the low swirling reverb that characterises Ullages is thickened through syrupy levels of compression that creates a sort of vacuum effect in the ear. The aforementioned recessed vocal suffers here, becoming lost and indiscernible (not so on the vinyl). This effect continues into “Psalms” to the extent where I can’t entirely hear what the vocalist is singing through the compression. Turning the volume up only increases listener fatigue which, ultimately, makes the casual listener less likely to want to return to the album for future listening.

The best sounding song on the album, “My Life in Rewind”, sounds full and rich on the vinyl, with the various instruments sitting comfortably in the audio field. It sounds natural for the kind of music being performed. In contrast, the CD rendering sounds congested, the vocal squished down and the drums weak. Macrodynamics are nonexistent on the CD, thus removing any sense of drama from the song. The vinyl version of the track has a crest factor of 10 dB, whilst the CD version has precisely half that at 5 dB. In order to volume match the two tracks, the CD version has to be reduced in amplitude by 6.11 dB before it has the same perceived volume as the vinyl version. It’s only natural therefore that the more dynamic vinyl master should sound better, for its dynamic peaks can occupy a greater range compared to the CD version. This is why dynamic music sounds better on the radio, Spotify, and your portable device. All these playback mediums “normalise” the volume of tracks to prevent sudden jumps in volume from song to song. A song that has had all of its dynamics squeezed out of it, and is super loud as a result, gets turned down dramatically in these situations, leaving you with a squished uncommunicative bit of forgettable noise.

Below you can see the waveform images of my needledrop of “My Life in Rewind”, followed by the volume matched CD master. Note the amount of dynamic information missing from the CD version. There appears to be no real reason for this extreme use of compression, and it certainly doesn’t seem to stem from any artistic intent or else one would expect to see that at the mix stage – not so, as the vinyl proves.

vinyl

Vinyl needledrop.

cd

CD, volume matched to needledrop.

Of course, none of these sonic differences are format related. The vinyl doesn’t sound better “because vinyl”, and the CD doesn’t sound worse because its “digital”. The answer lies in the mastering differences (note that, as far as I can tell, Calbi mastered all versions of Ullages). Until the loudness wars kicked in around 1995, most waveforms from CDs looked similar to that of the needledrop’s one seen above. If anything, a crest factor of 10 dB is still rather low compared to original post-punk recordings, but a crest factor of 5 dB seems utterly indefensible. It’s regrettable because it turns an album that has great songs and sonics, into one that retains the great songs but – at least on CD – sounds just like every other contemporary recording: squashed to beyond an inch of comprehension.

I would still not hesitate to recommend Ullages to anyone drawn to the dour side of rock. However, if you have access to a turntable, I highly recommend you buy this one on vinyl because it really opens the album up in ways that the CD version simply can’t, which is disappointing. When will mastering engineers stop destroying music in this way?

Scores:

  • Songs : 8/10
  • Sonics : 8/10 (vinyl), 5/10 (CD)
  • Overall : 7/10
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