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Sunday, January 16, 2011

LADY GAGA - THE FAME MONSTER

Streamline Records (2009, Nov.)
Canadian CD 8001387202

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
 
Rating: 1.5/ D+

Category: Dance Pop
Format: CD (red book 16/44.1k)

Producers: RedOne, Ron Fair, Fernando Garibay, Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, Teddy Riley
Co-Produced by Lady Gaga
Executive Producer: Vincent Herbert

Recorded at Record Plant, Los Angeles, FC Walvisch, Amsterdam, Metropolis, London, UK, Paradise, Hollywood,  CA, Darkchild Studios, Los Angeles.
Recording & Tracking Engineers: RedOne, Dave Russell, Eelco Bakker, Space Cowboy, Tal Herzberg, Frank Wolff, Jonas Wetling, Dan Parry Christian Delano, Hisachi Misoguchi, Johnny Severin.
Mixing Engineers: Mark "Spike" Stent, Robert Orton at Sarm Studios, London, England, Jack Joseph Puig, Rodney Jerkins at Chalice Studios, Los Angeles, CA, Dave Russell & Teddy Riley at Masons Sounds, North Hollywood, CA.
Mastered at Oasis Mastering, Burbank, Ca.
Photography by: Hedi Slimane 

All tracks written by RedOne, Lady Gaga, Space Cowboy, Fernando Garibay, R. Jerkins, Lashawn Daniels, Lazonate Franklin, Beyonze, Taja Riley.


The CD is housed in a standard jewel box containing a twelve page booklet featuring five shots of the protagonist printed mostly in two tone with black or grey as the predominant theme. All song lyrics and individual credits are listed so tiny to either give you eye strain or pass them entirely. The packaging is thus a bit lacking and does not help what is becoming more and more a dwindling market. Having not examined the LP, I cannot comment if the artwork is equal or more extravagant but I suspect the sheer size of the same content would go a long way in improving the situation.

Unless you've been living on another planet for the past three years you need no introduction to the monster protagonist of fame but for those few who have, just imagine if Madonna and Marilyn Manson had hit it off together in the mid eighties and you'll get a pretty good idea what to expect music wise and image wise from the gag lady of shock & awe.

Take two parts Madonna and add one part Marilyn. Add a dash of Vocoder to the mix.  Shake & stir and voila, a new Star stirs the pot.

 


And because Mr Manson was by all accounts an updated version of the original Shock Rock Jock of Detroit Glitter–Vincent Furnier aka Alice Cooper...


...- we are in reality in an incestuous recycling of past genres and envelope pushing, namely to shock!


Unfortunately the envelope in question being pushed is not one of musical creativity but rather one of MAXIMUM LOUDNESS. In effect this is pretty much one of the loudest CD's to greet my NEC transport and as you know this is becoming the 'new normal' since a few years. No doubt when One (no pun intended Red) aspires to become the heir to the throne to 'Queen of Mainstream Dance' One must push the limits of physics; in this instance we're talking heavy compression ratio followed by hard limiting. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Example of compressed and limited waveform (top) vs non treated dynamic waveform (below)
                              
Beware the mighty scalpel in the wrong hands
This is no Gag...

The Fame Monster opens up with "Bad Romance" a dance-pop song with a pounding beat and catchy chorus evoking Boney M's 1978 Disco hit "Rasputin". The mix is very dense with the vocal track standing out too loud. The extreme compressing/limiting gives instant listener fatigue yielding a puny 3dB of dynamic range on the sound meter. We're fast approaching white noise territory! 

"Alejandro" hints at Madonna's "La Isla Bonita". Nasty synths grace the intro followed by an emphasised beat plus a 'flanging' type effect from lows to highs. Even though this is the best (ahem) sounding track it is still too loud and hard, producing listener fatigue.


"Monster" gives false hope with a very punchy intro. Unfortunately this short reprieve for the ears is shattered by extreme compression/gain maximizing giving rise to a dense hard mix. Vocoder is applied on vocals ala Black Eyed Peas and company, accompanied by an unbearable cheap synth; not to mention highly repetitive in song structure.

"Speechless" is indeed most appropriate for describing my utter disbelief on how low mankind has descended and totally lost it regarding the art of recording. Yes my friends this is a new low point as far as I'm concerned in how NOT to Record, Mix and Master a song.  Ditto for the next track. Is there something between the ears or are there in fact any ears involved in the numerous steps to suck the life out of a song. One must ponder the question. This the lone power ballad of the album and borrows freely from The Beatles "Something" for the guitar sound. Once again it is processed with extreme compression/gain; a major auditory assault leaving me in dire need of rest for my tired ears. This one earns an all time low of 0.5/ E rating.


"Dance in the Dark" along with "Alejandro" and "So Happy I Could Die"–one of the three strongest songs–could have come out much better with better sound/production values. As from the start high compression/gain is at the rendez-vous but instead of the typical anemic bass plus thin sound so common, the "miracle"(?) of Multi Band Compressor's comes to the rescue giving an inflated bottom end. Not surprisingly, audible distortion of non artistic value is quite evident on the bass and artificial (16 beat) high hat. It is exaggerated to the point of camouflaging the electro kick punch. In effect it would have slammed much more with a better bass balance. Again the ears sound full and bloated. Rest time.

"Telephone" sports better punch in the intro before the chorus comes on way too loud. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record even though this is even worse: a broken CD.


"So Happy I Could Die" actually offers an interesting 32 bar of inflated lows until the extreme compression makes the ears feel full. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then U2 must be quite flattered 'cause the melody here borrows quite heavily from "Sunday Bloody Sunday"'s 'I heard the news today...'

Finally "Teeth" is biting hard in Madonna's mid-1980's recipe with "Vogue"'s intro as the main dish. The lows are exaggerated plus compressed and would have slammed more with a different EQ putting more emphasis on the 80hz instead of 30 or so.

THE FRIGHTENING FINALE

When the last note ended my ears were completely full in the bad sense. An awful feeling and such a waste for everybody concerned in the project and of course the poor listener who even with a Dynamic Expander couldn't possibly restore any sound decency to what resembles mud at times. 

It is an ironic fact that in this 21rst century we are faced with an onslaught of recordings that have less dynamic range than the very first wax cylinders and even more so the 78rpm Shellac's of the 1930's.  I'm not talking S/N ratio here and please don't confuse these two intertwined but different specifications. 


As an example listen to any of Louis Armstrong's or Bix Beiderbecke's early Chicago years and compare Lady Gaga or any mainstream pop/rock of this last decade, be it with your ears, soundmeter or soundwave analysis software and it will be plain to see or hear, that regardless of the poor (small) S/N ratio of the 78rpm Shellac versus the superior (large) S/N ratio of the CD–theoretically close to 95dB (peak) given the 16 bit binary encoding–the former 85 year old recording has so much more DYNAMIC RANGE that it is truly scary, more so than this Monster of Madonnaesque and Mansonesque combined!


After all she may be the Million Dollar Baby just now but this ain't no Killer album.
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Postscript: After reading mrbrian200's comment regarding the compression/limiting issue, it could very well be that the vinyl edition of 'Fame Monster' has more dynamic range than this CD. For those who like her music I sure hope so. Sadly I will not take up the task of confirming or denying if such is the case. Regardless I would be surprised if the major part of the 'squashing' was not embedded in the tracking and mixing stages and as such transferred to the vinyl edition most probably. If anybody has done the comparison or has the LP, please feel free to leave your comment for interested readers. Thanks mrbrian200.

Postscript 2: After finishing writing my evaluation I stumbled upon this related article. It is long and detailed but if one takes the time to look into it, you'll soon notice how often the words "compression", "compressors" and "limiters" come back in Mixing Engineer Robert Orton's description of mixing Lady Gaga's "Just Dance". Although that song is from her first album, you can extrapolate for 'Monster' and better understand how much sound manipulation is involved in today's mainstream music as compared to previous decades.  No wonder it sounds so awfully artificial.

Below is the link:

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar09/articles/it_0309.htm

Postscript 3: Since the initial writing of this review, Lady Gaga has demonstrated on numerous occasions on live television–her Sound of Music and David Bowie tributes in particular–that she possesses far more musical range and abilities than was presented on this album or previous releases, and as such the severe critiques above should be viewed in the context of the production values related to this CD only. It is just unfortunate that this EP album chose not to reveal her talents.
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NEVER FEAR,  ALWAYS SURPRISES COMING UP


2 comments:

  1. Official release High-Def videos watchable online of "Alejandro" and "Telephone" lack the extreme compression/limiting in the music score with "thoughtful" balance and better detail (despite mpeg data compression). Someplace, somewhere a listenable master does exist. Sad those of us who bought the CD aren't allowed to hear it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is very true. After much digital downloading, I have recently been getting back in to vinyl. After some research I purchased a quality pre-amp and brand new record player, and decided to start with trying a lady gaga record that my girlfriend owns.

    Modern 180g vinyl, must be a good recording right?

    As you describe it, it sounds like mud. I thought I had bought the wrong record player and had a crap stylus. But I tested more and more. I found that some of the older records in the collection sound infinately better. Animals by pink floyd, and the terrordome 12" single at 45rpm sound fantastic.

    So.. the moral of this story.. modern recordings, especially pop, are rubbish. Dont waste your money or time.

    Thankyou for this article. I have learnt a lot and it explains exactly what my ears detected!

    ReplyDelete