Jason’s 5.1 Surround Audio Roundup Part 1: Emerson Lake and Palmer “Trilogy”

While TV is in its summer session, I thought I’d take a little time to review some new-ish SACD, Blu Ray Audio, and DVD-Audio discs that have been making their home on my player.  For those not in the know, for about 15 years or so, certain albums have been remixed to take advantage of multiple channels we take for granted when watching DVD films. This is usually referred to as 5.1. (the “5” refers to the right, left, center, rear left and rear right channels, while the “.1” refers to the subwoofer). This is how you can hear a plane come at you in your movie and fly straight past and behind you…hence the phrase “surround” sound.

Almost all records were originally recorded in mono or stereo, and don’t really need a surround version. But there are some albums, mostly iconic albums, that actually are greatly enhanced by the format – and, in fact, had the technology been available when the albums were made, they might have been made specifically for surround (as some were using the rudimentary “Quad” technology).

The genre that most noticeably gains from the 5.1 treatment is, of course, Prog Rock. These are the albums we listened to wearing headphones – turn out the lights, turn up the volume and get lost in the sound effects-laden, epic production! Yes, Floyd, ELP, Tull, Crimson, Zeppelin, and, The Who’s rock operas are the examples most mentioned. As an early adopter of all things gimmicky, including, but not limited to 3D TV (you watch “Pina” or “Gravity” on a large screen 3D TV and tell me I’m wrong!), I’ve been minimally collecting these nuggets for about a decade, and I’m quite fond of the manner in which it opens up previously unheard bits and pieces in the original production.

The following is the first in a series of SACD/DVD-Audio/Blu-Ray Audio disc posts. While I’ll give a brief intro to both the band and the album, these will be observations based on comparison to the original stereo mixes…so if you’ve never heard the albums before, you might want to. Of course, if you don’t already know these records, why on earth would you be reading this post? But if I can turn just one person on to any of these records, I’ll consider it a major win!

1) Emerson Lake and Palmer: “Trilogy” (click on song titles to listen to stereo versions):
Surround mix by Jakko Jakszy

ELPTrilogy-1024x1024“Trilogy” was ELP’s third studio album, released in the summer of 1972 and it was the album that made them the touring superstars they became for the next six or seven years. Keith Emerson taught me my first lessons in both syncopation and classical appreciation. He was a synth pioneer and, for a 9-year-old who didn’t love the Bay City Rollers, a means to calling a different kind of music my own and, subsequently, my first “favorite” band.

Observations:

1) Enigma 1 / Fugue / Enigma 2
So I knew there was a heartbeat opening (predating “Dark Side” by two years), but it’s very prevalent now. And within twenty seconds, you can already tell the difference in this mix. For instance, the very opening synth lines that act as a prologue to the piece suddenly are accompanied by tones three octaves below. Never heard that before. Ever. The mix on this song is really straight ahead, and once Jakszy picks a spot for an instrument, it stays there, giving it a true “Live In The Living Room” feel. EXCEPT he does something I’ve not heard before…he places the piano in the rear speakers but seats the listener at Middle C…so anything above middle C is on the left and below is on the right…which has the effect of making you, the listener, the pianist…which is great, ’cause if you know anything about ELP fans, we’re all air-piano playing anyway. Really great effect. Another cool effect is to place the synths that always sounded like hunting trumpets to me (at :30 of Enigma Part 2) far, far off in the distance…like hunting trumpets! Great minds…

2) From the Beginning
Lovely, laid back mix with Greg Lake’s vocals right in front with his guitar, like you’re at a campfire, and the eventual keyboard solo filling in the spaces from center to the back.

3) The Sherriff
A fluff fantasy a la Brits who love to right about the West. Not much new added here until the old-timey piano kicks in – placed in the rear, along with the drums – takes you to a different place, which was, I’m sure, the band’s intent.

4) Hoedown
Having seen ELP in the late 70’s and early 80’s a number of times, this mix recalls how I remember the live ELP experience …the rhythm tracks and main melody (played on the Hammond) are front and center, while the various added keyboard sounds are all over the place. And…wait…HANDCLAPS?! There were handclaps in the song?!…I have absolutely NO recollection of this. Must’ve had to dig REAL deep in the original masters to find THAT!

5) Trilogy
This is why you buy this version. Same effect with the piano as there was in Enigma – amazing with Greg’s lovely vocals in the front…and then…all hell breaks loose…rhythm in front and keys EVERYWHERE! Heaven! The clarity of the low end is sensational!

6) Living Sin
Never liked this song…really at all…but the 5.1 mix really elaborates on Lake’s creepy narrator to make it a much sleazier, more rockin’ experience…thus better. Still don’t like the song, but it’s a much more enjoyable listening experience now. And Palmer plays his ass off on it.

7) Abaddon’s Bolero
You’d never think eight minutes of the exact same drum pattern would be interesting, but I’ve always loved this song in stereo and now…well..Jaszky’s mix really makes the slow crescendo (over those 8 minutes) seem fresh after every 32 bar segment. Also, hearing a LOT of synth lines running counter to the melody I’d not really picked up before. It’s kinda like hearing it for the first time. Really fun! And, again, keeping Lake’s bass stationary helps with the whole live feel. The only drawback is that my favorite synth line at the very end…the crazy high-pitched one…is sorta buried in the mix, whereas in the stereo version it takes over the song. Miss that.

8) From the Beginning (alternate version)
Wow! I may like this one more. Acoustic guitar moved to the rear and the synth solo is doubled by another Emerson take. Gorgeous.

Overall, I found the “Trilogy” 5.1 experience to be extraordinary and really the perfect way to listen to this album. Oh…loud helps! Considering that apparently Jaszky had to piece it together with no chart sheets available (and mislabeled original masters), it’s pretty astonishing! Worth the $25 investment.

Next time: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”

7/13/2015

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