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Sunday, September 11, 2022

THE ALAN PARSONS PROJECT - EYE IN THE SKY - MOFI - STRATOSPHERIC HEIGHTS

  

The Alan Parsons Project.

Eye in the Sky.  

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab ‎– MFSL 2-500, Arista, (2022, June), promo.   

Originally released on Arista – 204 666 (UK) (1982, May).

Evaluated by Claude Lemaire

Ratings: 

Global Appreciation: 9.6

- Music: B+ (8.7)

- Recording: 9.7

- Remastering + Lacquer Cutting: 9.8

- Pressing:10

- Packaging: standard, non-laminated gatefold

Category: soft rock, art rock, prog pop, prog rock.

Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LPs at 45 rpm). 

Personnel:

Alan Parsons – keyboards, Fairlight programming, vocals.

Andrew Powell – orchestral arrangement, conductor, and piano.

Eric Woolfson – main vocal, keyboards (track 2, 5, 12 & 14).

Stuart Elliott – drums, percussion.

David Paton – bass, lead vocal (track 3).

Ian Bainrson – acoustic & electric guitars.

Mel Collins – saxophone.

Chris Rainbow – main vocal (track 4).

Lenny Zakatek – main vocal (track 6 & 9).

Elmer Gantry – main vocal (track 7).

Colin Blunstone – main vocal (track 10).

The English Chorale – choir vocals.

Bob Howes – chorus master.

Additional credits:

Produced by Alan Parsons.

Executive-producer – Eric Woolfson.

Recorded 1981-1982 at Abbey Road Studios, London, UK. 

Engineered by Alan Parsons assisted by engineer Tony Richards.

Coordinator and Mastering consultant – Chris Blair.

Remastered and lacquer cut by Krieg Wunderlich, assisted by Rob LoVerde at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, CA.

Plated and Pressed by RTI, CA, USA.

Art Direction by Roland Young.

Sleeve Artwork by APB, Colin Chambers, and Hipgnosis.

Photography by Keith W. Lehman.

I can read your mind

Rare are the names that evoke as much respect in the fields of recording engineering and music creation as Alan Parsons. 

Having cut his teeth at age twenty as an assistant engineer on none other than The Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be sessions, he truly rose to prominence by engineering the landmark rock and all time audiophile favorite, Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. The group wished to keep him to work on Wish You Were Here but Parsons had 'Projects' of his own in mind.

It took a few tales of the imagination to get the motor running but with Eric Woolfson, Andrew Powell, and a host of other musicians from Pilot and Ambrosia on board, there was no mystery as to where this train was headed. 

Inspired by writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe, the group's 1976 debut stood out among the progressive art rock world, at times drawing from symphonic impressionism. Not wanting to repeat the same formula, Parsons pursued a different direction with what would turn out to be his lifetime masterpiece–1977's I Robot–both albums remastered at some point by MoFi, with the debut on their 200g ANADISQ 200 series in 1994 [MFSL 1-204] and the latter on three separate occasions: in 1982 [MFSL 1-084] for the regular LP, 1983 [MFQR 1-084] for the UHQR series, and in 2016 [MFSL 2-455] as its first double-45 rpm release. 

As if that wasn't enough, two other versions of Robot are already announced for future release in the form of UD1S "One Steps". Pyramid in June 1978 would be the last great complex work by the group, and strangely has never been remastered on double-45 rpm by anybody–MoFi are you listening? 

Instead of Adam, Eve followed in August 1979, and like most progressive formations, tried to adapt to the latter's drastic dwindling popularity; this in tandem with the emergence of new wave's shorter, simpler, and rawer music structure. Nevertheless it spawned two hits–the incredibly infectious "Lucifer", and the devilish "Damned If I Do". 

The turn of the decade saw the release of The Turn of a Friendly Card which carried the radio hit single "Games People Play"–the remainder of the album lacking memorable compositions and direction. Eye in the Sky was next in line and the last comeback before the steep decline in inspiration.

First released in May 1982, it was the sixth of eleven albums the Project performed on. Though much less complex than previous Parsons projects, it does contain the band's biggest hit–the title track. Naturally Parsons produced and engineered the album, assisted by engineer Tony Richards. It was recorded on analog equipment while mixed directly to digital tape with the digital master encoded by the then ubiquitous Sony PCM 1610 video tape-based system.

A 1/2" 30 IPS analog master was also run simultaneously at the time. I'm guessing perhaps as a parallel backup tape–considering mixing and mastering in digital was still in its early years back then. All recording and mixing was done at Abbey Road Studios in London, UK. 

Warning: The following text may contain strong opinions, reader discretion is advised.

Don't leave false illusion behind...

By now you must be aware that since the last trimester, Planet "Audiophile" Earth has been gyrating around one singularity: the discovery of DSD256 within the Milky Way MoFi universe. Yes a black hole has been sucking positive energy all around us, disrupting the normal flow of electrons and positrons in our daily lives. On the other hand, if you are an alien from another galaxy scanning us, here is my take on the whole antimatter

For us humans there are two things in life that are difficult to digest: the first is feeling deceived by a long-time partner who we put our trust; the second–and perhaps even harder for some–is having to admit that a pre-conceived conviction, as solid as it once seemed, may turn out to be unfounded. Each person will react differently but for me I was both shaken and stirred. When such situations materialize, I try to search for a silver lining–and no the compact disc is not what I had in mind in the present case. Revisiting my vast collection of MoFi titles, I asked myself one simple question: Do they still sound as impressive as I found them in the past? And for the vast majority the answer was a resounding yes! Of course, a few titles were not up to that same supreme level, but that was always the case beforehand just as with other competing labels. Granted, all this is a hard pill to swallow for some of us hard line analog aficionados, but denying such subjective results would be merely lying to ourselves. So what is that ray of sunshine stemming from Orion you may ask? Given how I and so many others, for years never once detected any digital trace while playing our favorite MoFis, that sunny ray is the sudden realization that digital in certain forms can not only sound transparent to our senses–but dare I posit, perhaps even surpass when both technologies combine forces? Thinking about it, there is an analogy with what happens with "analog" film; yes the film is moving in a continuous motion but it is in reality projecting a series of individual frames–samples in a sense–of an everchanging event at a typical rate of 24 frames per second. Sound familiar? And does anybody look down on visual cinematic masterpieces such as Lawrence of Arabia simply because it is built upon assembled frames?

Comparisons...    

I do not have the original UK in my collection but do have a Canadian first press in mint condition bought when first released. It has a regular LP jacket but with an embossed gold leaf for the eye motif. The matching green paper inner sleeve has the lyrics on one side and the credits on the flip side. Typical for the period, the vinyl is quite thin and floppy, probably around 120 grams, and both sides are visually similar with approximately a half-inch of dead wax. 

On the other hand, MoFi's cover is a sturdy non-laminated gatefold housing both 180g, 45 rpm-cut LPs with lyrics and credits gold-printed on the interior. I would have liked that they also add that embossed gold leaf to the eye motif as a subtle clin d'oeil to the original artwork. 

The artwork follows MoFi's typical jacket presentation which when first introduced circa 2005 was superior to other remastering labels. Today in 2022, the game has changed and they face strong competition from the likes of Tone Poet and Acoustic Sounds which boasts laminated gatefolds with beautiful internal photos. 

Methodology...

Engineers Krieg Wunderlich, assisted by Rob LoVerde used the original 1/2" 30 IPS analog master–and not the original PCM 1610 digital master–as their source, converted the latter to a DSD256 format; this then passed through their analog console and to the cutting lathe. He left about one-inch of dead wax for sides A, B, and C, and three-quarters of an inch for side D. Plating and pressings were done at RTI in California and the records are inserted in MoFi's standard HDPE inner sleeves in addition to a folded paperboard displaying their releases. As usual with MoFi the original label is replaced by their ubiquitous black label which now sports a green trim at the top. The vinyl was shiny, well centered, and dead silent throughout. 

I always felt the 1982 Canadian pressing was fairly good sounding, and above average for that period–studios were generally introducing more digital equipment and the music industry as a whole heading towards a higher level of dynamic compression before hitting the true loudness wars of the 1990s and beyond. That said I did find that the tonal balance was close to neutral but a bit thin in the kick drum and bottom end, plus the upper mids were a bit too high in level due to some over-compression limiting the volume cranking. The soundstage was excellent and well balanced as expected from an Alan Parsons production. Musically I liked a lot the title track and its intro "Sirius", as well as the instrumental "Mammagamma"–which resembles Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell" from The Wall–but felt the remaining songs lost my interest for some reason as compared to his earlier musical compositions.

And I don't need to see anymore to know that...

This latest MoFi blows my mind and stomps all over the Canadian first press. From the onset, the first low vibration fades in and it is as if I energized my sub–the thing is I don't own a sub! Even at a low level you feel the deep low end and subsequent crescendo recalling the first time I witnessed the THX Deep Note intro in a wonderful-sounding THX certified cinema. Then the famous Fairlight CMI-sampled clavinet riff loop makes it entrance. This in turn is followed by the fade in of the powerful kick drum dead center stage that is punchier than the Canadian first press. The guitar strikes' every eight-beat intervals are more dramatic also; hi-hat comes in, then snare, and strings. It's as if the Romans are entering the Colosseum. The soundstage expands in all directions, the height seems to have no limit, my whole 700 square-foot basement audio room transforms into a virtual hologram awash in sound. Electric guitar enters and cuts in at just the right level, then fades out, leaving us with only the near-field quick-panned synth delay over a black background sucking the air around us. We segue into the title-track, and a huge sound bed appears that Goldilocks would pronounce "was just right" bearing the sonic hallmarks of JBL 4520 scoops sporting alnico woofers and horn lens tweeters playing in late-1970s discothèques. The snare has the perfect proportion of fast attack to get your foot-tapping, and slow release to prolong the pleasure and create breathing space within the mix and rhythmic flow; i.e. what engineers call the ADSR sound parameters. The vocals come in at just the right level and warmth to communicate the singer's emotional disillusion and detachment regarding his relationship. It is easy to distinguish the difference in timbre of the back vocals vs Woolfson's lead even during the overdubs. The quick snare roll after "I can cheat you blind" has that realistic snap while the floor drum displays that thud you get with a firm tightened drum skin–again these kinds of details are what separates the big boy remasterers from the rest. Just like their previous I Robot double-45 rpm release, the tonal balance is full range and dead on, so much so that there is zero ear-fatigue, sometimes leading to high volume levels over 90dB at the listening chair without ever realizing it! Paradoxically the whole presentation sounds buttery smooth yet the rhythmic fabric remains intact, and the pace does not slow down. The overall sound is full, warm, and lush but never dull. Needless to say I am in ecstasy! "Children of the Sun" syncopates snare and hi-hat at breakneck speed with kick drum marking the metronomic pulse. It progresses into symphonic royalty reminiscent of "The Raven", and a militaresque march that lets you feel their boots stomping on your doorstep.

Side B's "Gemini" melts in your ears as the celestial voice canon builds up with added reverb. The vocal envelope is truly heavenly, and hints of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds' album ring true. "Silence and I" starts out smooth at the piano, adds vocals and strings. Slowly the song structure gains grandiose heights, then abruptly shifts tempo the likes you'd find in a Riverdance musical, then switching to cinematic French horns which sound absolutely romanesque and riveting in realism. 

I won't elaborate regarding the sound of the rest of the album for it is one of the most uniform pop/rock recording and mastering jobs I have ever heard with the lone exception of side C's "You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned" which unfortunately was highly compressed on the master, making it too loud and a touch fatiguing compared to all the others. Because of this, it is my only minor criticism that MoFi did not lower the average level on this one to subjectively match the loudness level of the other tracks that are much more dynamic, instead of having to readjust my volume before and after. Musically it doesn't seem to integrate well either as if somebody suggested "guys, we need a commercial guitar-driven pop-rock song in a hurry"–all of which explains my slight downgrade from a "perfect 10" in the rating section at the top of this article. I tried to imagine what a "One Step" version could improve upon, and the only thing that came to mind was to maybe have had a sliver more definition in the deepest bass, and even that difference could backfire given the delicate balance they achieved here–so MoFi don't even dare going down that route, and set your sights on Pyramid instead for future Parsons releases. 

I did not have the 2007 Speakers Corner Records [AL 9599] remastered and cut by Rob LoVerde at Sony Music Studios, New York CIty, and pressed by Pallas in Germany, so I cannot comment on it but in a funny twist of faith, he is the same engineer credited with assisting Krieg Wunderlich in this present MoFi release. 

To summarize, in spite of the "scandal" and the DSD256 "step", this recently released remastering by MoFi is the most analog-sounding Alan Parsons Project album I ever heard and ironically probably the most analog-sounding MoFi ever also–in league with Gino Vannelli's Powerful People [MFSL 1-041] cut all analog at half-speed by Stan Ricker back in 1980 no less! Keep in mind I have all six of Parsons first albums in multiple versions including most of the UK originals, a couple of German and Japanese all-analog first pressings, Classic Records' Robot reissue, and three different previous MoFi versions among a total of one-hundred MoFi's including nine "One-Steps" in my collection–spanning the earliest JVC pressings, ANADISQ 200 series, and up to the present releases. Clearly Krieg Wunderlich worked his magic and pulled one out of the bag once again! 

Now that the internet is all abuzz about transparency. Full disclosure: I got this as a promo copy, but more important, now that I've heard it, would I spend my hard-earned cash to buy it? Absolutely without a moment's hesitation, and have already recommended it in spades to my audiophile friends. That is how fantastic it sounds. 

So what have we learned fellow music lovers, vinyl collectors, and audiophiles?

1- The truth will set you free.

2- Transparency is key.

3- DSD is subjectively transparent and does not impart a digital trace or aftertaste.

4- When sourced from analog, the use of a DSD file has the important benefit of preserving precious historic fragile magnetic tape from further degradation or heaven-forbid serious damage from running the tape multiple times. It opens the remastering industry to a larger portfolio of music genres and major label vaults who may object to lending their master tapes. In addition it liberates the mastering engineer and label to experiment to the nth degree the best EQ and cutting practices without any pressure or time constraints to reach that pinnacle we all yearn for. 

5- In all manufacturing chains, everything is important, but in the realm of remastering an album and the final sonic product, the inclusion of DSD is way way down the list of subjective sound alteration, and is negligible at most. By far the most important factors are the sourced tape's sound and condition; its transfer; the mastering engineer's experience and sonic choices; the equipment–reel to reel tape decks, EQs, limiters, cutting lathes, etc. There's also the plating; fathers, mothers; stampers; and pressing plant. All take precedence over "is it truly AAA" or "could it be AADSDA" or whatever acronym one relies on when buying a record. I rely on my ears and they tell me this Eye in the Sky is a sky-high high home run!

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TREASURES FROM THE VINYL VAULT - PART 2

 Coming soon...

TREASURES FROM THE VINYL VAULT - PART 1

 Coming soon...

DIVING INTO DISCO - PART 7

 Coming soon...

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

DIVING INTO DISCO - PART 6 - PSYCHEDELIC SOUL AND FUNKYDELICS - Crafting Creativity

Written by Claude Lemaire

For Part-5: http://soundevaluations.blogspot.com/2022/01/diving-into-disco-part5.html

By 1967, the Motor City is still monopolizing the music charts and airwaves, cruising full speed ahead, rivaled only by Britain's Fab Four. But there is turbulence and static on the horizon stemming from a strong current blowing from the West Coast, plus inner tensions within the hit factory and family. These combined factors would eventually shake the label's foundation to its core, and shape its direction before the turn of the decade.

Turn on, tune in, drop out  

It's early June, and the Summer of Love is in full bloom converging at the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets where free flowing hippies are tripping and dancing away wearing flowers in their hair. 

This segment is brought to you by the letters LSD

Psychedelics were nothing new. Psychologist and writer Timothy Leary had experimented with, and espoused the effects of acid, while the Beatles–long past their "yeah yeah yeah" period–had by now driven their car deeper into Norwegian Woods rolling on Rubber Souls, and taken Penny Lane for a trip through Strawberry Fields complete with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. 

San Francisco's Bay Area was thriving with bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience incorporating psychedelics into rock, but soul seemed spared from this acidic trip, up until now that is.

Reflections of 

The way life used to be

"Reflections" mirrors that melancholic mood and was the first song credited to 'Diana Ross & the Supremes', underscoring Diana's undeniable rising star power within the Motown ranks, while sowing the seeds of discord among the trio. 

Released in July, the single's strange stereo spacey intro suggest psychedelic pop ingredients–a first for the label. With its slower tempo, sadder lyrics, and the war raging on in Vietnam, the change in musical direction is a clear departure from the past, even though it was still penned by H-D-H. The corresponding album would appear only the following March. 

Through the mirror of my mind

Through all these tears that I'm crying

Trapped in a world 

That's a distorted reality

The drugs not only expanded the mind, they expanded the song lengths, sparking the single to take a back seat to the album for the first time in pop territory. This turn of events enabled composers and artists alike to explore outside the box, borrowing structures and arrangements found in other cultures and music genres. 

Enter the Bay Area...

Hey, hey, hey, hey,

Beat is gettin' stronger

Music's gettin' longer,

I Wanna take you higher

Hailing from San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone embodied that free spirit to a tee. The "Stone" family comprised the multi-talented Sylvester Stewart aka Sly Stone, mastering many instruments, brother Frederick J. aka Freddie on guitar and sister Rosemary aka Rose on keyboard–who joined a bit later–plus Larry Graham on bass, Cynthia Robinson on trumpet, Jerry Martini on sax, Greg Errico on drums–most members sharing equal vocal opportunity–and the back vocals trio 'Little Sister'. The racially and gender integrated group brought A Whole New Thing to the music scene in October of 1967. 

Way ahead of its time, their debut LP presented a powerful mix of soul, funk, psychedelic, rock, R&B, blues, and jazzy horn stabs–a combination never seen before in the industry, but revisited decades later by artists such as Prince, and Lenny Kravitz. 

With its brazen brass-heavy "Frere Jacques" nursery rhyme intro, the single "Underdog" underscores the changing of the guard with what one could codify as a proto-funky-hip hop track. "If This Room Could Talk" showcases a more soulful steady beat while "Turn Me Loose" fires into a frenzy. "Advice" has that groovy R&B vibe. "I Cannot Make It" cast a looser Jagger-Stones stutter. With dissonant chords and spooky psychedelic effects "Trip to Your Heart" is all the more original. "Bad Risk" rocks the house hard with "Dog" packing a punch closing the album. Recorded live in the studio without overdubs, the album's audacity most certainly impeded its success, prompting Epic execs to pressure Sly for a more commercial dance-oriented record. 

The daily double answer was "Dance to the Music" first released as a single in November, and later as an album in April 1968. Fusing funk with psychedelic rock, powered by an energetic metronomic Motown beat and precocious break and buildup, it set the stage for future funk and disco tracks to follow. One can hear how much an influence it had on musicians such as percussionist and band leader Hamilton Bohannon by listening to his seventies solo material, such as "Foot Stompin Music" from Insides Out in 1975–a decade earlier Bohannon was working at Motown, and touring as the backing band for the label's top artists. 

With his fuzzy-distorted bass brother Graham's gonna add some bottom to the mix while Sly follows with a groovy churchy-organ run, ending with Cynthia and Gerry blowing horns. The twelve-minute "Dance to the Medley" sounds almost like an alternate version of the title-track with greater emphasis put on the psychedelic effects, and we can infer future influence on The Jackson 5. "Ride the Rhythm" and "Color Me True" respectively distinguish themselves by increasing the rock and blues ingredients along with trading various vocal registers within the group, gradually reinforcing the foundations for the emerging psychedelic soul subgenre. 

That same April, Archie Bell & the Drells from Houston, Texas started a new dance called the Tighten Up. With its bass solo intro, crisp funky guitar, uptempo rhythm, and particular brass chords, it added a bit of light fun to the party.

Reference List (Singles, albums, and labels): 

"Reflections" [Motown M 1111] 

Reflections [Motown MS 665]

A Whole New Thing [Epic BN 26324] 

"Underdog" [Epic 5-10229]

"Dance to the Music" [Epic 5-10256]

Dance to the Music [Epic BN 26371]

Insides Out [Dakar Records DK 76916]

Tighten Up [Atlantic SC 8181]

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