Vertigo Republic Records B00185539-01 (2013, June)
Evaluated by Claude Lemaire
Rating: 9.0 / A+
Category: Heavy Metal
Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LP at 33.33 rpm)
- Ozzy Osbourne - vocals
- Tony Iommi - guitar
- Terence "Geezer" Butler - bass
- Brad Wilk - drums
- Rick Rubin – production
- Greg Fidelman – engineering
- Mike Exeter – additional engineering
- Dana Nielsen – additional engineering
- Andrew Scheps – mixing
- Stephen Marcussen – mastering
- Stewart Whitmore – mastering
The year is 1968 and the summertime blues just got a bit heavier in San Francisco USA. Meanwhile, four lads from Aston, Birmingham, England are touring the club circuit as members of Earth; unaware they are planting the seeds for what will become a bold, new and lasting phenomenon...
As the peace and love/hippie movement dried out, the 'sixties' came to a close; culminating in the violence seen at the Altamont Free Concert. The Vietnam war raged on, with nuclear annihilation between the superpowers now becoming a cold hard reality. By the turn of the decade, heavy metal provided an outlet and conduit for teenage angst and adult anger juxtaposed against a backdrop of country-folk and soft rock dominating the FM dial. And while Led Zep certainly weighted down the scales on their self-titled debut LP [Atlantic 588171 or Classic Records SD8216] back in early 1969 with such songs as "Dazed and Confused" and "Communication Breakdown" conversely combining dissonant heaviness and fiery speed; it is really 1970's Black Sabbath [Vertigo VO6, 847 903 VTY] that layed the foundations for rock's darker direction and subsequent doom, sludge and stoner subsets.
Following in the footsteps of Hendrix, Cream, Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly and Zeppelin; the quartet of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Terence "Geezer" Butler and Bill Ward newly reborned as Black Sabbath set the gold standard for pure metal mastery. From the onset storm introducing the famous eerie riff, based on the diabolus in musica tritone intervall, there is no doubt that Sabbath's eponymous debut LP roused the fears of mainstream mélomanes, all the while cementing their place in musical history amid the cemetary tombstones.
Like their British cohorts, heavy blues rock featured prominently in the album's song structures and playing style; even leaning towards jazz-like improvisation on certain tracks with Cream style undertones running beneath. Their landmark anti-war Paranoid [Vertigo 6360 011] released in September that same year, single-handedly epitomized the genre: "War Pigs"; "Paranoid"; "Iron Man"; "Electric Funeral" and "Hand of Doom" would become unsurpassed metal materpieces many times covered by later 'offsprings' of the species. Paired with a then unknown British producer by the name of Rodger Bain at the helm, this 'triumvirate' of success culminated with 1971's Master of Reality [Vertigo 6360 050] which included such classics as "Sweet Leaf"; "After Forever"; "Children of the Grave" and "Into the Void". Mainly Iommi-produced Vol. 4 would soon follow, mired by studio experimentation as much in white powder than in musical expression.
Though 1973's Sabbath Boody Sabbath featuring Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman and 1975's Sabotage received some critical acclaim, unfortunately most of the follow up LP's - under different direction or self-produced - did not live up to the same high standards of the earlier 'doomier' period. Of course substantial drug and alcool abuse within the band did not help, ultimately leading to Ozzy's departure in 1979 after the musical disaster of Never Say Die! (ring a bell 007). Ex-Elf and Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio took over the soaring vocals for the following two albums - Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules in 1980 and 1981 respectively while 1983's Born Again featured Ian Gillan, of past Deep Purple fame. Numerous personnel changes would ensue for the remainder of the Sabbath catalogue with Iommi being the one and only core member ever present.
Timewarp to 2012 and the four lads now well into their mid-sixties reunite to record a new album with famed American producer Rick Rubin to the rescue. Because of a contractual dispute, Ward declines to attend the sessions while Rage Against the Machine and one time Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk is chosen to fill the bill. Now for many die-hard fans, just the absence of the original drummer and producer - be it to a lesser extent - would be enough to pass over this long overdue reunion. Granted, Ward was a great swinging rock drummer with roots stemming from Big Band jazz and early rhythm & blues and in an ideal world we all wished he'd be up there tracking and touring with his British bandmates but to stubbornly stick to that prerequisite would be a shame.
As for Rubin, anybody who has ever visited a few of the myriad rock or audiophile forums knows that he is no stranger to controversy. Since the mid-1980s, after founding Def Jam Recordings - which later became Def American and simply American - the man has worked with some of the hippist, coolist artist of the moment covering a wide spectrum of genres that often were initially at odds with each other such as hip hop rap, rock, thrash metal and even country. Beastie Boys, Aerosmith, Run DMC, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Rage Against the Machine, Metallica, System of a Down and Slipknot are just some of the 'biggies' to seek out his magic.
The very first metal act to sign on his new label were Slayer; who up until then had released two LPs of rather mediocre quality. Reign in Blood [Def Jam Recordings GHS 24131] changed all that. Regarded by many as the all time most influential album in extreme speed-thrash metal, Rubin is duly credited with transforming the sound of the band into one lean and mean metal machine. In 1994 he revived 'The Man in Black's fortunes with a series of stripped-down country folk and alternative rock cover albums that introduced Cash to a whole new generation not necessarily into country music. In 2008 it was Metallica's turn for a career rejuvenation with the release of Death Magnetic [Warner Bros. 512119-1].
After years of going down hill under the direction of producer Bob Rock, Rubin got the guys back to their thrash metal roots augmented by punchy complex time signatures a la ...And Justice for All [Elektra 60812-1]; in effect giving back what 'hardcore fans' were long ago pleading for. And that in a nutshell is what Rubin does best; he inspires bands to deliver what their core audience can only pray for. How I wish that more bands or producers would also 'get it'. Imagine what Rush teaming up with Rubin, Kramer or Albini would accomplish. Just ponder the following: 'Ok guys, now listen up! Mix in a bit of 2112 with some Farewell to Kings, Hemisphere and Permanent Waves, stir thoroughly and we'll pick the best out of 3 takes...' well one is allowed to dream wouldn't you agree?
So if Rubin is that good, where is the problem or controversy you may ask? Well at least in audiophile circles and even with some 'regular' rock fans, he is known to be heavy-handed on the dynamic compressor and 'pegging the meters' to get that 'crunchy' sound; the aforementioned Metallica album being a case in point. The CD version surprisingly garnered quite a lot of negative feedback to the extent that a petition to remix or remaster it with greater dynamics was circulated online while the Guitar Hero version did not suffer the same faith and the 45 rpm 5 LP boxset though clearly compressed is nonetheless quite punchy, fun and tonally balanced; in other words do not expect Nat King Cole dynamics for sure but it is still far better balanced and less fatiguing than 90% of 'modern' metal.
On this release, he turned to his trusted small circle for technical expertise; engineers Greg Fidelman, Mike Exeter and Dana Nielsen for recording; Andrew Scheps for mixing as well as Steven Marcussen and Stewart Whitmore for mastering. Fidelman, Nielsen and Scheps have collaborated many times on past Rubin productions such as Slayer's World Painted Blood [American Recordings 88697 41318 1, Columbia C 741318], Metallica's Death Magnetic and way too many Red Hot Chili Peppers albums to list here. The line that divides rock producer and engineer is often a slim and sinuous one and therein lies the crux of the matter; who is the most influential in the final sound of a record?
One of the key aspects behind this reunion release and tour was to get the ambiance just right. Thus it should come as no surprise that the first instructions Rubin gave to the band was to reconnect with their debut album to pick up on the bluesy doomy vibe permeating throughout it. What is more startling and of particular importance to us audiophiles I should think, is that he repeated the same mantra in addition to the following three albums to mixer Andrew Scheps to get the right 'feel and balance'. Back in the day, Black Sabbath was recorded at Regent Sounds in London on 4-track tape in only two 12-hour days for tracking and two 8-hour days for mixing coming just under a thousand dollars total budget. For Paranoid, Bain got them set up like a live date by performing preproduction at Rockfield Studios in South Wales so as they be well rehearsed and ready when came the actual recording instead of experimenting in the studio like so many artists. Backing parts were done once more at Regent, with the 4-tracks later bounced to the more modern church-converted 16-track facility at Island Studios built by Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame.
Regarding the tracking of 13, even though the band was also directed by Rubin and Greg Fidelman, to play 'live' together in the same room with a minimun of overdubs; a multitude of mics and tracks - well over 50 in fact - were installed and done at Rubin's Shangri-La studio in Malibu, CA. The latter was designed by producer and audio engineer Rob Fraboni and rendered famous by Bob Dylan and The Band's historic mid-1970s recordings including The Last Waltz. Very few plug-ins were used so as to keep the overall recording rough.
Mike Exeter later handled additional overdubs at Tone Hall, Warwickshire in England. Sonic flexibility was a key aspect of the elaborate session setup, enabling the band to work on more than one song during the day. At any time there could be over 20 tracks just for the drums, 5 for the bass, 15 for the guitar - clean and distorted - including 2 solo tracks plus 4 sustain tracks playing just one note for a better, smoother transition between the loud and quieter parts. To further add weight in the nether region, a piano chord tracked in stereo was mixed in to the sound wave envelope. Lastly, 2 vocal tracks completed the session.
Scheps admired the sound of Sabbath's first albums but was adamant not to follow that route, stating in interview: "sonically, what we were going to do would have almost nothing to do with those records...it simply is not what records sound like today. If I had tried to mix their new album to make it sound like their first albums, nobody would have liked it. It would not make sense." On that last point I beg to differ, giving as prime example last summer's two biggest chart selling hits: Daft Punk's RAM [Columbia Sony Music 88883716861] and Robin Thicke's single "Blurred Lines" [Star Trak LLC 3755893]; both of which borrowed heavily on the methods and sound aesthetics of the mid to late 1970s - good dynamics, low compression and warm tonal balance - while garnering rave reviews for music and sound production, not to mention a Grammy for Best Engineered album, Non-Classical. And the people never complained; in fact, it even got ordinary folks and the main press to start noticing the great 'non-fatiguing' sound which is all too rare. So my take is this: great sound, vintage or modern and hell, even bad sound, would not change much in the end; simply that fans are going to buy or download this latest reunion record because it is Sabbath getting back with Ozzy, period. But if you can make it sound good, why not?
In order to maintain a certain link to the past yet at the same time moderately modernise it, he relied on an 'old friend' of sorts with musicians of a certain era; behold the Neve 8068 analog mixing board. [To get a better understanding of the 'Neve cult following' and multitrack rock recording in its heyday, I recommend viewing the documentary film Sound City: Real to Reel (2013) by musician Dave Grohl for his semi-personal perspective on the subject at hand].
Having majored in all things digital in the late 1980s and specialising as a world renowned Synclavier engineer, it was a paradigm shift when Scheps met Rubin in 2001. Since then and previoulsy working entirely in the analog domain - from the mics, mixing board, 30 ips half-inch master tape right up to the lacquer - on Stadium Arcadium [Warner Bros 49996-1], the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' 2006 LP; he has bought the Neve not only for its unique sound but for the more tactile approach to mixing with real knobs instead of a mouse or digital plug ins. Which is not to say that he does not take full advantage of the latter when appropriate - this is not a Sheffield Lab 'direct 2 disc' purist recording after all but a true complex studio creation. Tons of vintage outboard gear and Tannoy SRM-10B monitors also occupy pride of place at Punkerpad West, his studio in Van Nuys CA.
Sabbath is the kind of band that possesses such chemistry plus Iommi's legendary awesome guitar/amp sound mating with Ozzy's signature delivery made Scheps' job so much easier allowing him to subtly ride the faders, 'EQ' and parrallel compress the tracks as if he were mixing a 'front of house' live set. This hands on approach is all the more important when you are working with what is essentially only three or four instruments and a lead vocal stretched over long songs and want to keep stimulating the listener's interest. He will often emphasize the first introduction of a musical pattern or riff while gradually 'down riding' it lower as newer overdubs or musical shifts emerge along the way, leaving our ear/brain fill in the difference - "you want to be able to really get inside of a guitar tone, and change it subtly from section to section". Again Scheps: "The balance gets built up like that, without me using automation. I'll do this multiple times until all of a sudden I get the feeling the song is playing itself. If you'd look at the faders for each of these balances they would have looked very similar, but if every fader is in a different spot by half a decibel across 32 faders, you have a very different mix". This is a perfect example of applying psychoacoustic theories to real world sound design and exemplifies what separates the men from the boys regarding mixing engineers.
The 180 gram heavy-weight LPs were pressed I believe at United Record Pressing. All sides were flat, shiny lustered, deep black, providing contrasting groove depth; all in all visually perfect and reassuring for the eyes. The four labels are identical and reprise the classic Vertigo 'swirl' of the early 1970s - the group's original UK label - reinforcing the link with the past and I might add, a classy touch. Inscribed in the dead wax on all sides are 'CB'. Mastering/cutting engineer Chris Bellman who joined forces with Bernie Grundman Mastering in Hollywood since 1984 has a career reaching back to the 'golden' disco years of Casablanca & co. Quite prolific, Discogs lists no less than 25 pages on him. Here he chose a groove-spacing travel of 3 inches for side A; just over 2 inches for side B thus leaving a wide 1 1/2 inches unmodulated; 2 3/4 inches for side C and just over 2 3/4 for side D. With roughly 17 minutes of music on side A; 9 1/2 on B; 12 on C and 15 on D; this translates to approx. 5.7 min./inch; 4.8 min./inch; 4.4 min./inch and 5.5 min./inch of linear cutting displacement respectively. At 33 1/3 rpm and normal cutting levels, all fall well below the recommended maximum limits for non-distorted sound.
Will the Bain legacy shine through this 'dark' reunion? That we shall see without further ado.
Right from the start up to the very end, 13 is a solid winner. The 'old school' Sabbath fan can rest assured; even without Ward nor Bain, Rubin has succeeded once again where so many have failed in the past: to bring about the rare and sought-after alchemy between band and producer, delivering it as a gift to die-hard metal fans worldwide. Musically this could be seen as a logical 'Vol. 4 candidate' in the sense that it is a more worthy follow-up to 1971's Master of Reality than the true Vol. 4 was at the time. This is pure heavy metal with a definite penchant for the doomier side rather than any stray towards prog, hard rock or thrash aspirations. There are more musically challenging albums out there; they did not reinvent the wheel for sure. As such, many new songs instantly recollect and reconnect with their glorious past.
Such is the case with the opener "End of the Beginning" whose slow tempo and desolate chords are a direct throwback to "Black Sabbath", the track that started it all. This is followed by the first single of the album - the 2014 Grammy winning "God Is Dead?". Side B continues heavy with "Loner" ripping it's riff right off of "N.I.B." while "Zeitgeist" calms things down quite a notch recalling "Planet Caravan" from Paranoid. After this smooth 'intermezzo', side C comes roaring back with a vengeance in what I believe are the two strongest tracks of the LP: "Age of Reason" and "Live Forever" prove without a a doubt that these 'old-timers' can more than hold their own against the new kids on the block when it comes down to combining heaviness with grooviness. Side D gets bluesier with "Damaged Soul" that features harmonica supposedly played by musician Stanley Behrens - yet nonetheless credited to Ozzy - recalling the feel of "The Wizard" from their debut LP. Lastly "Dear Father" ends in style with its outro annexed to the exact 'thunder and rain' intro taken from "Black Sabbath"; closing the circle - how perfectly fitting.
Audiophiles can breathe a sigh of relief also: the sound is uniformely and genuinely excellent. No it is not perfect when put up against top-flight demo material be it L.A. Woman, DSOTM, Rumors, RAM or the like; but in the context of metal and hard rock recordings which sadly have a rather poor or 'below par batting average', believe me this is in the upper echelon for the genre and I have a sizable metal collection to affirm the latter.
Going into more sonic detail: Iommi's guitar and tube amp sound is spectacular and steals the show. Fidelman's tracking and Exeter's overdubs capture the drive, density and energy of the electric guitar like I have rarely heard on record. It is warm, lush and so thick you could cut it with a knife; i.e. what guitarist and some audiophiles call full tone. Add to that non-processed, rather dry, low on reverb and echo but with plenty of power and sustain; all this producing a larger than life panoramic-wide effect yet still intimate in presence and proximity; somewhat counterintuitive at first glance I admit. You instinctively recognize his signature 'doom' sound but it is as if it took on serious steroid enhancement four decades later. Ozzy's vocals are quite good and young sounding; a miraculous timewarp to a period long gone. After all the 'lifestyle abuse' that mind and body went through and the extreme babbling incoherence we are used to seing in real life, you would be forgiven to expect a 'past due date' delivery? What you get is the exact opposite in fact. Like the guitar, the vocals have minimal processing with only two dedicated tracks: the lead and a double that Ozzy overdubbed reminiscent of his early years.
The old "Geezer"'s bass is a bit 'camouflaged' or overpowered by the guitar to my taste but one could argue that it blends better that way. Wilk's drums produce mixed results and are the primary reason that keeps this recording from attaining perfection. On the one hand they sound quite heavy, powerfully pounding in some parts which is great in this doom context but I find the kick would welcome a bit more attack and articulation to cut through the dense tone. This does improve slightly starting on side B and even more so on side C but the heavy use of drum and parrallel mix compression robs a little life out of it and that of the snare also. At the other end of the spectrum the ride cymbal comes out clean with nice natural metallic shimmer but regretfully there is some graininess or dirt heard on the hihat and crash.
As a comparison I took Rubin's advice and spun their first three albums - all Canadian first pressings on the 'olive green' Warner label - back to back: no filler-up material on these gems; they are still musically incredible and way ahead of their times on many musical aspects. Sonically Bain's production aided by Tom Allom, Barry Sheffield and Brian Humphries' engineering is variably good to excellent with their debut coming out leaner and cleaner with great cymbal detail and decay but some near-excess in the 'stereo mix' reverb while the following two LPs are much dryer, dig a bit deeper and sound a trifle veiled. The snare snap and low mid impact along with the fast rise time heard on the drumkit showcases well Wards' impressive dynamic playing. The general mixes were quite spot on but they do sound 'bandwidth-shy' when juxtaposed right after listening to 13. In that sense the new guys got it suprisingly right.
Fidelman's tracking and Scheps' mix is in fact compressed and limited in dynamic range when measured objectively but on a subjective angle, it passes rather well and does not provoke the typical listener fatigue so common in this day and age of loudness wars. Regarding the latter, I do not expect the same negative reaction that the infamous Death Magnetic provoked. I attribute this to a sublime - warm - tonal balance with just the right amount of density and distortion to relax the ear and listening experience. This, plus the band's excellent 'native' sound, Rubin's clear 'intelligent' production objectives and keeping things relatively uncomplicated from start to finish, seems to be the key here. Marcussen and Whitmore's mastering is remarkably consistent and of good taste. Chris Bellman's fine lacquer cutting insures a distortion-free, wideband balanced, non aggressive sound as one might expect more from the Hoffman-Gray duo than a Grundman cut. The vinyl surface proved near perfect from start to finish and modulated at a moderate level with no obtrusive inner-groove distortion; as expected given the sufficient dead wax and safe time distribution.
To conclude, depending on culture or one's point of view, the number '13' can be the bringer of either bad luck or good luck; in Sabbath's case, the latter definitely prevails. 13 can be considered one of their best albums in a long career, equalled or surpassed only by the band's first three offerings. I dare hesitate to call it one of the all time best metal albums for there are way too many LPs and subgenres that could challenge that statement. It is a safer bet to call it one of the best sounding metal albums ever produced. Rubin you truly are 'The Wizard'!
Released just a few months prior to Sabbath's 13 is another album from a major metal act that garnered much less attention in the main press but remains a force to be reckon with...
Century Media 8961-2 (2013, Jan.)
Rating: 4.0 / A
Category: Progressive Metal
Format: Limited edition purple Vinyl (2x180 gram LP at 33.33 rpm)
- Denis "Snake" Bélanger - vocals
- Daniel "Chewey" Mongrain - guitar
- Jean-Yves "Blacky" Thériault - bass
- Michel "Away" Langevin - drums
- Produced by Voivod
- Mixed by Sanford Parker
- Recorded by Pierre Rémillard and Jean-Yves Thériault (Blacky)
- Mastered by Colin Jordan
- Artwork by Michel Langevin (Away)
Formed in 1982 in Jonquière, Québec, Voïvod - featuring Michel "Away" Langevin, Denis "Snake" Bélanger, Jean-Yves "Blacky" Thériault and the late Denis "Piggy" D'Amour - has never reached the mass appeal that the British pioneers have duly earned. On the other hand they do enjoy a large cult following in their home province and especially so in Europe, where more 'oblique' styles seem to flourish better than in the States. They remain Canada's most important metal act and one of the rare ones to achieve substantial notoriety; a strange thing considering La belle province's strong appeal for metal music. If heavy blues was the dominant DNA ingredient found in the earliest bands, an unlikely combination of hardcore noise, thrash and prog lay at the root of this creative quartet. Try to imagine the apocalyptic bleakness of Discharge, King Crimson's dissonant riffs a la "21st Century Schizoid Man", "Larks' Tongues in Aspic" or "Red" with Rush's harder concept period fused into one. This may explain their unmistakable unique style of composing.
Marking their debut in 1984 with War and Pain [Banzai BRC 1925] followed by Rrröööaaarrr [Banzai BRC 1973 or Noise International N 0040] in 1986 and Killing Technology [Noise International N 0058] recorded in Berlin, Germany in 1987; all three tended to veer towards noisier versions of Motörhead with the latter LP just hinting at possible prog inclinations. This gradual shift from noisy speed into more complex time signatures and focused compositions accelerated with the release of Dimension Hatröss [Noise International N 0106-1] featuring "Tribal Convictions"; a great track with accompanying video - highly original in song structure and for its 'primeval' percussion.
The quartet would reach its musical zenith in 1989 with their most progressive oriented metal album to date: the superb Nothingface [Mechanic MCA 6326]. A veritable tour de force of odd meters and musical creativity coalesced ingeniously into one metal masterpiece; which included an original cover of Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" taken from their debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Columbia SX 6157 or SCX 6157]. This would turn out to be their 'Sgt. Pepper' and subsequent LPs would not live up to this high benchmark.
1991's Angel Rat [MCA 10293] produced and poorly recorded by Terry Brown - who ironically worked on Rush's best albums - departed from their previous styles, toning down some of the prog complexities for a strange alternative rock metal hybrid, saw the departure of bassist Blacky; replaced initially by Eric Forest and eventually by ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted aka Jasonic. Two years later, The Outer Limits [MCA -10701] brought back hard and prog elements and featured their lengthiest composition ever, the out of this world 17 1/2 minute "Jack Luminous" - think 2112 meets Gentle Giant; it also signalled singer Bélanger sitting out for the next two LPs. With Seattle taking over the entire rock scene and grunge replacing thrash as the new darlings of the 'heavy' crowd, metal descended underground while extreme subgenres intensified in the form of death, black and sludge leaving many to disappear under the radar for the better part of the decade. Like Metallica, Anthrax and many of the first wave of speed thrashers, Voïvod took a back seat to creativity; in the process causing me and others alike to lose interest.
But here is the conundrum for any artists or band: we expect them to innovate, yet when they do change direction or surprise us, we are often displeased and yearn for a return to the 'good old days' as if we wish to discover a NOS of unreleased material when the band were at their apex. Which explains in part the favourable reception that Sabbath got with 13 and why Voïvod's Target Earth - the band's sixteenth album - is also preaching to the choir. At first I found it to be a sequel to Nothingface but on my second spin I would rather qualify it as a prequel. It shares all the complexities of the latter but is less polished, more brute force than finesse, rougher and darker; stirring images of Alien and Blade Runner. This is the missing link between Dimension Hatröss and Nothingface, now providing a bridge to cross that large leap; just like "Cygnus X1 Book I - The Voyage" from Rush's A Farewell to Kings [Anthem ANR-1-1010] was the transit to "Book II: Hemispheres" [Anthem ANR-1-1014].
As with previous albums drummer "Away" handled the artwork. The colorful gatefold jacket depicts an imaginary alien armed warrior. The back cover lists the songs inside a circle surrounded by red, yellow, green and purple hues commensurate with the front. Inside are the four members captured by photographer Ronald Mc Gregor clad in black t-shirts, half of them graced by gray hair; a far cry from the young metal warriors of War and Pain. The reddish orange inner sleeves made of thick semi rigid paper are adorned with stylised 'sci fi' animalesque drawings obscured by the black printed lyrics and credits.
Target Earth introduces younger guitarist Daniel "Chewey" Mongrain stepping into Denis "Piggy" D'Amour's shoes. They are big shoes to fill and he does it seamlessly; in fact one must have a keen musician's ear to appreciate the playing and sound nuances between both. The Fripptonian dissonant chords are all there and blend perfectly with the original reunited remaining trio yet he distinguishes himself from "Piggy" more with his forthright 'rock-ish' leads than the dark decadent riffs. Bélanger's limited vocal range has not improved with time; in fact I found it less in tune or passionate than in the past but just like Motörhead's Lemmy, it has become part of the band's signature sound. Langevin and Thériault live up to their previous high standards.
Which is not the case I can confirm concerning the recording and final sound quality of Target Earth. We are not mere planets but universes apart from the excellence found on Nothingface that was produced, engineered and mixed by Glen Robinson, recorded digitally at the vintage Victor Studio in Montreal with assistance by Benoit Lavallée and mixed digitally at Powerplay Studio, Long Island with assistance by Rob Sutton. This great engineering team had done a splendid 'near-audiophile' job of capturing the band with a rare combination - especially in metal - of a balanced dry mix with fine precision and wide bandwidth; you could easily follow every instrument at any point with no listener fatigue.
This time a whole new team of players have delivered just the opposite: a highly compressed, unarticulated sonic 'soup'. With few exceptions, the kick drum has no punch, the snare has no snap, cymbals are mostly veiled and ill-defined. The electric bass lacks body and impact and is distorted though this appears more of an artistic choice. Vocals are grainy and hard to follow through the thick haze while the guitar's native sound is quite interesting and on the cool side but is slightly hampered by the over-processed mix drenched in reverb and brick wall limiting.
"Target Earth" and "Kluskap O'Kom" fill side A; the bandwidth and soundstage are narrow but do get a bit wider on side B with some small improvement in the lows, kick and top end. "Empathy for the Enemy" starts off with what sounds like citar - a rarity for the genre - bringing in middle eastern flavouring while "Mechanical Mind"'s intro of blocks, bells and chimes borrows liberally from Rush's "Xanadu" intro from A Farewell to Kings. Side C opens with what I consider the strongest track of the album: "Warchaic" with its too short intro of cinematic grandeur and Coplandesque aspirations, delivers tympani and fuzzy bass with all the depth and heft worthy of top audiophile pedigree. To our dismay it rapidly falls under the thinner compressed assault like the remainder of the LP. Contrary to Sabbath, there is no warmth, intimacy or sound cohesion; resembling more a 'white noise' accompanied soon by some ear fatigue. I have heard worse and it is not that far below the mediocre average for this genre but it is all the more maddening when the musical content merits so much better and that it once was so superior.
Not being present during the sessions and post production, it is difficult to point the finger at one particular stage more than the other for this outcome but having compared the LP with the CD, I can attest that the latter was sligthly worse; so we must deduce that the fault lies earlier in the chain. A good recording can be marred by a bad mastering but a bad recording or mixing is hard to improve at the mastering stage whatever you throw at it. So without further ado, here are the personnel responsible in some form or the other for the album's sound: for starters the band decided to produce it themselves; it was recorded by ex-Obliveon guitarist Pierre Rémillard and Jean-Yves Thériault at Wild Studio in St-Zénon February 2012 and Studio Plateau in Montreal June 2012, both in Québec; mixed by Sanford Parker at Hypercube and mastered by Collin Jordan at The Boiler Room, both in Chicago, IL. Assisted by Martin Brunet and GrimSkunk guitarist Peter Edwards. Surprisingly Parker is friends with Steve Albini and regularly records at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago even claiming to be inspired by him - if so I did not hear it on this album.
The lacquers were mastered and cut by MK at Optimal Media GmbH in Germany. The double 180 gram vinyl pressings are available in black, blue, orange, red and purple. Although black vs colored vinyl often yield slight sonic differences, I did not have the luxury to compare, possessing only the purple edition but matrix runouts confirm they are all sourced from the same stamper. According to the company: "Colored and marbled discs are poorer in sound quality. This is caused by the zinc oxide in the white color that needs to be added to the vinyl compound so other colors can be created. Optimal Media have developed their own vinyl compound and color range." As in everything audio, subjectively some may still prefer the colored pressings over the traditional black. All four sides were flat and silent with the dead wax averaging a satisfactory 1 1/8 inches except side C coming closer to 1/2 inch only.
In conclusion, Target Earth is up there with Voïvod's best material though not surpassing their more refined and tremendoulsly better recorded Nothingface. It would be in the band's best interest to hook up in the future with a top rock producer/engineer the likes of Eddie Kramer, Steve Albini or Rick Rubin who do not limit themselves to metal, have vast experience with top artists in real studios and have not exposed their ears to years of 110dB+ gigs playing guitar or drums; top that off with a renowned rock mastering engineer like Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray or Chris Bellman and you would assure yourself a win win situation. With that in mind I strongly recommend this album strictly on musical merit. It is a shame that this simply reinforces the bad sonic reputation of metal among discerning audiophiles and tends to validate my long-held suspicion that musicians clearly listen to their material with a different set of ears than the rest of us.