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Hi-Res Audio Reviews, Pt. 1 - March 2002

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~~~~ DVD-Audio ~~~

The Firesign Theatre - Boom Dot Bust - Rhino DVD-A R9 75979:

The irrepressible quartet of wild improvised audio sketch comedy/satire are back in surround sound, a month early for April Fools. I say back because this is nothing new to them since back in the quad days they produced two SQ LPs and 8-track tapes in surround. Now they have to their advantage really clean reproduction and surround effects on all channels, so when they pile on the sounds and voices you can still pick out details without good guffaws being trounced by the distortion. The performers reveal in one of the three video segments on the disc that although they don't see the point of surround for music they find it just ideal for their comedy. One of the funniest bits is the third of the video interviews, in which Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor hold forth on the wonders of DVD-A. (If I still was doing my radio version of AUDIOPHILE AUDITION the soundtrack of this video would be featured on my annual April Fools Special for certain.) There is also a still photo section, lyrics for the songs, and bios of the four performers.

The concept here is a town out in the middle of the desert named Billville, and in which everyone is named Bill. The Firesigners play, among other characters, the mayor, local doctor, town planner and basketball coach. The town is in the path of twisters, and the sound effects of the twister make creative use of the surround facility. The broadcast of special events at the highly-promoted Billville is interrupted regularly for the group's off-the-wall commercials - such as for Thai Food Mary's restaurant and the DevilMaster Exorciser which rids your house of demons. If you're not sure what sort of music your guests would like in a surround sound demo, try a track of this very creative DVD-A.

- John Sunier

TCHAIKOVSKY: Sleeping Beauty ballet suite - London Philharmonic/Don Jackson - Silverline DVD-A 86031-9:

Not the complete ballet, but a generous suite of a dozen sections. Silverline seems to be keeping the conductor a secret on this classical series. One has to search the fine print of the booklet to learn who it is. The familiar ballet melodies sparkle and shimmer in the enveloping embrace of the surround field. It feels more like music for the actual ballet than in a stereo version; the listener almost becomes part of the performance. For those who lack DVD-A playback there are both Dolby Digital and DTS tracks. The simple titles for each movement are followed by short text descriptions of what is happening onstage with that particular music - a great use of the DVD-A extras. There is also a test section for setting up one's surround speakers.

- John Sunier

MAHLER: Symphony No. 10 (Deryck Cooke's performing version) - Berlin Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle - EMI Classics DVD-A 4 92394 9:

Unlike the EMI DVD-As transferred from quad masters of the 70s, this fine performance of the uncompleted final Mahler symphony was recorded in l999. Previous realizations of the Tenth sounded choppy and rough to me but this one seems to flow smoothly and convincingly. Whether or not that is due to the higher resolution and surround, to the skills of the three people who further tweaked the original Cooke performing score, or to the talents of Rattle and his unrattleable Berliners, I cannot say. The video side of the disc sports Dolby Digital 5.1 plus PCM stereo tracks; the audio side contains the 96K 5.1 DVD-Audio tracks plus a separate stereo mix. This band of super-musicians is hard to beat, especially in such appropriate repertory. The opening Adagio movement is deeply heartfelt and the surround seems to draw the listener into the elegiac feeling. There are no extras other than the movement titles.

- John Sunier

RICHARD STRAUSS: Also Sprach Zarathustra; The Alpine Symphony - Staatskapelle Dresden/Rudolf Kempe - EMI Classics DVD-A 4 92396 9:

This one is an earlier 4-channel master made in quad days for release as an Angel SQ-encoded LP (which I have but unfortunately can't locate at the moment...). The l973 taping still sounds excellent in this 4.0 surround version. They also offer a 24bit/48K stereo mix that sounds a bit better than most standard CDs (just as 48K DATs were better than 44.1 DATs of the same material). It appears that many producers are not depending on the automatic mix-down of the 5.1 tracks to stereo and taking the time and care to have more control over a separate stereo mix. Four-channel DVD-A transfers show us that the center channel is not really vital for music surround and would be better used on the sides or as one of the height channels with the LFE. The Alpine Symphony is an extremely programmatic musical mountain-climb with 22 short movements telling the story of the journey step by step. Zarathustra is not as dynamic as Reiner's but the surround involves the listener more fully in the work and the on-screen movement titles keep one's attention on the composer's often ingenious tone-painting. They're like intertitles for a silent film but in this case it's a soundtrack without screen images.

- John Sunier

David Diggs, keyboards & guitars - E-Klek-Trik - Silverline DVD-A 81042-9:

Silverline is just about the most prolific producer of DVD-Audios so far, with an eclectic catalog of discs, all of which also feature both Dolby Digital and DTS tracks for those with the capability of decoding one or both of those but not DVD-Audio. Their discs also feature some visual content - at least the lyrics and track titles on the screen. In this case there is a photo album, artist bios and a discography. In spite of his list of albums, I hadn't heard of Diggs before. His disc certainly fits its title - the dozen tracks range from MOR to fusion to singer/songwriter numbers to mainstream jazz. The ensemble is sizeable, changing members depending on the needs of a particular tune. Trumpeters Bobby Rodriguez and Judd Miller are standout soloists - the latter using an EVI controller on his trumpet. Violinist Doug Cameron's solo and Diggs acoustic guitar on The Song of the Bird are lovely.

As the album title indicates the electronic is also strong in this collection, in addition to the eclecticism. In addition to the EVI there are three electric guitars plus synthesizers. Several of the tracks feature vocalist Rachel Diggs; while nepotism in vocalist selection often spells disaster in jazz albums, she comes off quite well here. I especially liked Subscribe to You, one of the two songs on the disc which she wrote. Most of the others are by her father David. The surround channels add to some of the electronic musical effects and also carry the background vocals and some of the supporting percussion sounds. Tracks: Jazzwerk, Why, Stumble, Time Creeps, Amor a Distancia, White Heat, Rachel, Love From a Distance, Far Cry, The Song of the Bird, Subscribe to You, Stairsteps.

- John Henry

Pat Metheny Group - Imaginary Day - Warner Bros. DVD-A 9 46791-9:

The l997 recording has been specially remixed for DVD-A. The back of the jewelbox as well as most of the page of the program booklet are printed with tiny color icons of triangles, spheres, trees and other symbols; one has to search the booklet to find some readable information on the performers. Metheny's basic group with Lyle Mays on keyboards, Steve Rodby on electric and acoustic bass, and Paul Wertico on drums is rounded out with a half dozen other sidemen, including four percussionists - Dave Samuels and Glen Velez among them. With people like Velez and the many colorful percussion sounds there is a fascinating substrata of world music influence at work in these improvisations.

The static visuals for the nine selections are gorgeous widescreen color photos of a variety of striking landscapes. The visual mood of each one seems to perfectly fit the music you are hearing: Which is dreamy, flowing and generally relaxing without being soporific. The percussion is not of the crashing type but explores the more subtle sounds of all sorts, and all around the listener. The title tune is the first on the disc as well as the longest, and sets the scene for the dreamy musical floatation tank of this surround experience. My advice is to turn down the lights, put your feet up, have a glass of wine and spend an imaginary day with the Metheny Group. Tracks: Imaginary Day, Fellow Me, Into the Dream, A Story Within the Story, The Heat of Day, Across the Sky, The Roots of Coincidence, Too Soon Tomorrow, The Awakening.

- John Henry

The Eagles - Hotel California - Elektra 60509-9:

The top album from one of the leading groups to capture the Southern California rock gestalt. The Eagles derived three hit singles out of this meticulously-produced album. It's now been meticulously remixed to 5.1 surround and it's better than ever. Feels like you're in a really intimate club and the Eagles are spread out all around the room with you right in the middle! I said at the start of this DVD-A reviewing that it was rather silly to put the lyrics up on the screen when they can be in the note booklet. Well, it's not. Since there's no room for MTV-style music videos along with the DVD-A tracks, the lyrics are a big help in finally understanding some of the lyrics' finer points some of us may have missed all these years. Not necessarily mondragons (the girl with colitis goes by...'Scuse me while I kiss this guy...) but just filling in some details that were not enunciated by mealy-mouthed vocalists.

Tracks: Hotel California, New Kid in Town, Life in the Fast Lane, Wasted Time (x2), Victim of Love, Pretty Maids All in a Row, Try and Love Again, The Last Resort.

Steely Dan - Two Against Nature - Giant Records 9 24719 9:

Interesting to hear the high-res surround version of this classic album so soon after seeing the DVD-Video of it from Image Entertainment that we reviewed a few months back. Unfortunate that one would have to purchase two separate DVDs to have the total Two Against Nature experience, but that's the way the digits crumble. I don't believe any rock group has been as successful incorporating jazz into their work as Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Their lyrics are even better when displayed up on the screen and you can follow them in the music. (With most rock lyrics I find that just the reverse is true.) My favorites were (and in high-res still are) the self-deprecatory What A Shame About Me and the wickedly tongue-in cheek Cousin Dupree. The mixing for surround is a kick - pointing up the dramatic and musical sense of the tunes and enveloping the listener in the perfection of their highly-polished arrangements.

Tracks are: Gaslighting Abbie, What a Shame About Me, Two Against Nature, Janie Runaway, Almost Gothic, Jack of Speed, Cousin Dupree, Negative Girl, West of Hollywood.

- John Henry

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