This will be a quick one–Rant? Polemic? More of a warning to the unwary. It was inspired by running into Jethro Tull’s Passion Play in a store today, remixed.
Remixing other people’s work, in particular especially beloved works, is very dangerous territory. It is like tampering with someones childhood memories, their primal brain wiring–unsettling and ill advised. So, an important question: just because you can, does it mean you should? This brings us to the spate of reissues that have been remixed by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson.
I had first noticed the remix game being played with In the Court of the Crimson King, King Crimson’s majestic debut. Seeing Steven Wilson’s name was intriguing, he can work wonders with his own band in the studio. Yet there was a nagging question-did this album really NEED to be remixed? After all, this whole album, from recording to artwork to final mix, is a product of 1969. A time capsule if you will. All part and parcel of what the artist considered a single body of work, a document of the time and space it was created in. Should someone come bounding into the room and proclaim they are able to improve on it? For that is the underlying message, because if it cannot be improved upon, why should anyone attempt it in the first place? (this is ignoring the 5.1 mixes that have been created for sound systems so equipped. If it was created in stereo, leave it that way is my take, I know others that are delighted by 5.1 discs surround sound effect, but I have yet to meet one that doesn’t feel ‘artificial’) Overall the Court reissue was somehow not quite right. Too clean. Not warm. Perhaps this was the only experiment. I was wrong. He was planning to remix every important Crimson, ELP, Tull and Yes album of the early 70’s. This needed watching.
Modern technology can work some miracles (see article here on the resurrection of the Velvet Underground acetate by Universal), but there is a point where modern technology loops back in on itself, and brings diminishing returns. But when factoring in an important aspect, the analog vs. digital debate, then the argument gets a bit clearer. The albums Wilson has remixed are full analog creations of the seventies (60’s for Court), and converting the whole work to the digital domain is the first step towards sterility. Analog breathes, has life and tension, real sound waves recorded as they happened to be created. Digital is an approximation, very close but an approximation that is clean, motionless and somehow gets cleansed of the emotion inherent in the music. 80’s and 90’s works created solely in the digital domain usually have this sonic flaw. Some call it the “ProTools” syndrome. ProTools is a computer program used in many modern recording studios that isolates every part of every multi-track so it can be processed individually. The results are precise, clean and crisp. And often sterile. Unfortunately this is not how music sounds when it is created live, and much of the life of the music is sapped when transferred this way. Analog has a very different quality when overdriven (recorded in the red, ironically see King Crimson-Red). Harmonics appear, and the sound can produce qualities that no one has expected, but are delightful artifacts. Digital however, produces nothing but nasty glitch sounds when overdriven. Butch Vig was a big mover and shaker in the ProTools style of production (interestingly, Dave Grohl flat out refused to have the Foo Fighters last album with Vig recorded on anything but analog tape, threatening to firebomb any computer in the studio).
But Vig’s work, however huge sounding it is, can tend to a samey feel, big sound but ultimately lifeless. This is the process that Wilson uses to remix the classic albums of the 70’s, dump them into the computer, digitizing them, and start fiddling. Akin to cutting a small child into 40 pieces and then reassembling it carefully, then wondering why it doesn’t act like it used to. The records he has worked on were all created with analog microphones, recording desks, tape machines and mastering. The sound was reproduced on an analog record on an analog turntable through analog speakers. The path stayed pure analog.
A quick side note: without getting too technical, many remixes often use compression. This is a technique that makes ‘everything as loud as everything else’. The recent Genesis remixes suffered from disastrous compression. Comments like ‘hey I never heard that little tingly bit before that used to be in the background’ are tempered by cymbals crashing to be heard over lead guitar with bass fighting for the attention….you get the picture, ZERO dynamics. Quiet bits were meant to be quiet, loud surges were meant to be loud. Compression means that every single instrument and every single passage is fighting for your attention at essentially the same volume.
Lets’ first look at the list of what has been done so far: Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull, Yes…the big guns of progressive rock in most people’s collections. More obscure contemporaries like Hawkwind and Caravan also got the treatment. (Hawkwind’s remix is unsettlingly clean and very un-Hawkwind) These were also the ummm important gods of the time for many. Tampering with icons of people’s past is getting into a grey area of good vs bad.
Close to the Edge by Yes is one album that is a sonic benchmark. Highly dynamic, it captured Yes at their peak and is usually agreed to be the highlight of their career, both sonically and compositionally. The Wilson remix tries to keep the feel of the original, but is essentially dry and flat sounding. Wilson said that some of the overdriven parts of certain albums needed to be addressed, with the overdriven artifacts in mind. Many fans disagreed. Clarity? Yes, there is plenty of that. Some vocal bits are higher in the mix than they used to be.(some oddly are pushed to the background). But warmth and life are far more important than clarity. Ultimately this comes down to one thing-what is more important, clarity and cleanness of a mix or the emotional feel and warmth of the music? The power inherent in the music lies in the latter not the former. This is an important part of the equation that Wilson has missed. One basic fact remains–analog tape is not very suited for digital remixing. All of the Wilson remixes I have heard suffer from the above traits, cleaner but ultimately emptied of emotion.
Remixing albums is like tampering with a work of art. It comes back to the original question: does it really need to be changed? Another troubling point is that this project smacks of wayward hubris, a dangerous motivation. It takes balls to think you can improve on the work of people from decades ago, rock visionaries who created musical works far superior to anything Mr. Wilson has ever come close to. One does not indirectly try to tell another artist what they should have done in the studio, one appreciates the work as it was created. So what is the motivation here? Is it for us, or is it for his own gratification? Put in a different way-“Hey Mr. Picasso! Come over here! I fixed all the noses on your paintings!! They didn’t quite ‘look right'”.
Film makers learned the problems with this trick when George Lucas added special effects to the original Star Wars movies, to the universal disdain of purist fans. Even Lucas realized he had made a mistake. A work of art is static, captured in time, not a continually changing piece that is always in flux. And that’s where all of this is headed. Stop the madness.