I generally have a pretty good track record when it comes to predicting whether or not new technologies and formats will catch on with consumers. I backed Blu-ray over HD DVD. I pegged D-VHS as a non-starter from the get go. I predicted that DirectX would win out over OpenGL in the world of 3D computer graphics, that DVD would meet with a level of success that LaserDisc never did, and that FireWire would lose out to both HDMI and USB.
Before you go patting me on the back, though, consider this: in the early 2000s I also predicted that surround sound music would dominate the market within the coming decade. SACD and especially DVD-Audio absolutely changed the way I listened to music. And one could write a book about why both formats failed to resonate with the average consumer, from the rise of more convenient portable music formats, to the fact that both DVD-A and SACD required specialized hardware, to the obvious uncertainty caused by any format war. But no matter the reason, they failed indeed, and with them my hopes for a surround sound music future died.
But recent developments in the realm of Blu-ray are giving me hope that surround sound music is making a real comeback. The big special edition box sets that are all the rage in music these days often come packed with 5.1-channel high-resolution mixes on audio-only Blu-ray discs. Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree is making quite the name for himself overseeing surround sound remixes of classic albums from the likes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson; and the Universal Music Group’s new Blu-ray Pure Audio line, while primarily focused on stereo high-res offerings, is starting to revive some of the company’s forgotten 5.1 DVD-A mixes (like Beck’s Sea Change) for a new audience.
Will it catch on this time around? Who knows? But I do know that these surround sound Blu-ray audio discs deliver a music experience unlike anything most consumers have ever heard.
Yes: Close to the Edge
Best Track: 3–”Siberian Khatru”
Close to the Edge, from Yes, had to wait for Blu-ray to get a proper surround sound release, but it was so worth the wait. Yes’ Fragile was far and away one of my favorite multichannel music releases from the DVD-Audio era, and I always thought it was a shame and a sin that the band’s superior Close to the Edge never made it to the format. Part of that had to do with the fact that the original tapes were missing until just recently, but labels also had a nasty habit of releasing only one or two of a band’s albums on DVD-A or SACD back in the day. (See also: Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead, Queen, among others.) So for whatever reason, Close to the Edge had to wait for Blu-ray to get a proper surround sound release, but it was so worth the wait. Remixed (in both stereo and surround sound) by Steven Wilson, the album has been given new life and new levels of clarity in its 2013 re-release. There’s so much to love about the mix as a whole – from way the meedly-meedly elements in the first passage of the title track buzz around the room like a bumblebee, to the way the densely strummed acoustic guitars in the first passage of the second track, “And You And I,” move to the side of the room to give the rest of the music more room to breathe.
But by far the best cut in surround sound is the third: “Siberian Khatru.” I’ve always loved this song on a technical level, but its sheer density always has kept me from bonding with it on an emotional level. Even Wilson’s brilliant new stereo remaster doesn’t do enough to address the fact that there’s just too much going on in the mix. But the 5.1 surround mix does absolute wonders for the music, brilliantly and delicately deconstructing the elements in such a way that they all still come together in your head as undeniably the same song, but with enough space between them that you can appreciate them individually. I particularly love the way that Jon Anderson’s solo vocals remain firmly planted front and center, but when Steve Howe and Chris Squire join in, their layered harmonies peek over your shoulders instead of smacking you in the face. It transforms the song from an opaque tangle of sounds into an absolute sonic wonderland that you’ll want to explore over and over again.
Best Track: 1–“The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”
The big, straightforward sound on XTC’s Nonsuch release is graced with a 5.1 mix that plays up its bigness and enhances the sense of space immensely. Steven Wilson has made such a name for himself in the multichannel music space that there are a good number of fans buying his remastered albums without ever having heard the originals. And I certainly hope that’s the case with XTC’s final studio album, because this tragically underrated disc from a likewise tragically underrated band deserves a new audience. Nonsuch also displays Wilson’s penchant for delivering mixes that are perfectly tailored to the music at hand. So in this case, you won’t hear much of the radical channel shifting and discrete panning heard on Close to the Edge. Instead, Nonsuch’s big, straightforward sound is graced with a 5.1 mix that plays up its bigness and enhances the sense of space immensely. The first track, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead,” is a great example of this. The opening guitar licks at first sound like they’re firmly planted in the front left channel, until you realize that their reverberation decays into the surrounds. The same is true of the thunderous drums, which positively fill the room.
Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here – Immersion Box Set
Best Chapter: 2–”Welcome to the Machine”
The second track of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, “Welcome to the Machine,” starts off with what sounds like an invisible hand lifting the mechanical clunking/whirring elements of the mix straight out of the left surround channel and kerplunking it into the front right. With most of Pink Floyd’s new Immersion box sets (The Wall being the rare exception), the band is including a DVD and/or Blu-ray discs with not only new 5.1 surround remixes, but also the original quad mix from the ’70s. My favorite of the new mixes is, by far, the one for Wish You Were Here, mostly for the way that it truly enhances the tone and thematic spirit of the album.
The second track, “Welcome to the Machine,” starts off with what sounds like an invisible hand lifting the mechanical clunking/whirring elements of the mix straight out of the left surround channel and kerplunking it into the front right. And normally I would hate that sort of hyper-discrete gimmickry, but in this case it totally works. What really makes this mix stand out for me, though, is that as the song progresses, and as those mechanical elements take a backseat to the more organic guitars and Minimoog synthesizer, so too does the mix relinquish its heavily panned channel separation to a more organic, immersive mix that puts you at the center of an ephemeral bubble of sound, rather than the rigid box of audio in which the song begins.