The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XL: Tales from the Dark Side (August 2003)
I predict that by the end of this year, everyone in the world will know what the initials "DSOTM" mean.
I started spotting this little acronym out of the corner of my eye about a year ago. It seemed that every audio and music magazine was talking about DSOTM, and I rolled my eyes and told myself that I'd have to take the time and figure out what they were talking about. Was it a new digital format, like SACD or DVD-A? Was it a new type of processing, like DTS? Was it a new style of cable interface, like AES/EBU?
No, no, and no. "DSOTM" stands for Dark Side of the Moon. Yes, the Pink Floyd album. Yes, the one that stayed on the Billboard charts for nine-hundred-and-something weeks. Evidently the hottest news in music this year is a thirty-year-old album. I'm seeing kids in their early teens wearing DSOTM T-shirts. Go figure.
It IS the thirtieth anniversary of DSOTM, though, and of course that means a "new," collectable, remastered version had to be released, just like on its 25th anniversary and its 20th and so on. But this year, there's a lot of hype, mostly because DSOTM was released on SACD, the one new digital format I actually like. Over the last year or so, software support for SACD has been steadily growing to the point where there are currently over 1000 titles available. SACD is starting to look like a success story, albeit a modest one. Last year, when Abkco released most of the Rolling Stones catalog on SACD, many people took that as a sign to go ahead and buy an SACD player. Earlier this year, a big chunk of the Dylan catalog was released in that format too. Now, with DSOTM on SACD, interest in the format has increased again. I may start to look at SACD players again this Christmas.
Ironically, two things happened after the release of DSOTM earlier this year. First, there was a bit of a controversy over the reg'lar CD layer on the SACD. Many SACD discs now come with dual layers, one CD, and the other SACD, ostensibly so one can compare the difference, among other reasons. Well, the CD layer of DSOTM supposedly sounds like shit. I haven't subjected myself to the horror of yet another abysmally poor-sounding CD but the word is that it sounds compressed, distorted, and basically unlistenable, and there is some conjecture among the conspiracy buffs that this was done to further underline the superior sound of SACD. After all, as we've learned from the LP vs. CD debacle, buying something because it sounds better is not necessarily an easy sell.
But the other thing that happened is much more interesting, at least to me. An LP version was also released, and those in the know discovered that this was the one to own, the best-sounding DSOTM ever. Now, let me go on record (no pun intended!) and say that while I am a big Floyd fan, DSOTM is by no means my favorite Floyd album. That honor would go to Meddle. In fact, DSOTM isn't even among my top three choices for Pink Floyd. I've always felt that DSOTM was heavy on gimmicks, and light on actual music. Hell, there's only really four or five real songs on the thing. But I have to respect its historical significance. DSOTM was a sonic benchmark. It sounded ten times better than every other rock album made up to that point. In fact, it still sounds incredible, even on CD!
And, strangely enough, considering my relative indifference to it, DSOTM is now the only album where I own THREE DIFFERENT VERSIONS. I've plenty of titles that I've doubled up on, be it one copy on CD and one copy on LP, or one copy on LP, and one copy on some special audiophile version. But I own three versions of DSOTM: a Mobile Fidelity LP, a Japanese EMI CD, and now the new thirtieth anniversary LP that comes with cool posters and stickers and stuff. I took a chance, plunked down my $30, and listened anew. Yes, I have to admit that listening to this version, on my awesome new turntable, was almost like listening to it for the first time.
"Speak To Me"
Actually, this isn't a real song, but a slowly building crescendo of sound effects, voices, and screams that sets the tone for the rest of the album. As the scream builds toward the end and segues into "Breathe," it should induce goose-pimples. Actually, however, on this version the crescendo was a little anti-climactic, because there was quite a bit of surface noise in the opening grooves that really never subsided until the mix got loud and noisy. As much as I live and breathe by the superiority of LP's over CD's, excessive surface noise still really bums me out. I tried cleaning the LP again with my Nitty Gritty machine, and much of the noise disappeared, but there was still SOME, enough for me to contemplate sending it back and getting another copy. But what a pain in the ass that is, especially since I ordered it on the Internet. I decided to deal with ninety seconds of pops and ticks, especially considering that the ubiquitous heartbeat that runs through the album sounded deeper and clearer than I'd ever heard before.
Now we're cookin' with fire, I thought. The surface noise disappeared, and the heavens opened, as they do so often now with my new killer 'table. Crystal clear and potent. Authoritative. Not bad for 1973.
"On The Run"
More gimmicky sound effects, and a really, obnoxious, compressed crash at the end, but this track really excited me for a couple of reasons. First, the loud, zooming tape effect that sweeps from side to side several times during the song now actually travels in an arc TOWARD THE LISTENER, and then away. I almost ducked. Also, you can really follow the movements of the "fugitive" all over the soundstage. No, you can't tell what brand of shoes he's wearing (maybe the SACD reveals that), but you can make educated guesses.
Honestly, this song has always kind of annoyed me with all of the clocks binging and ringing and clanging at the beginning. Traditionally I turn the volume down a tad when this happens, but this time I let it ride. And, for the first time, it didn't sound like a recording of a bunch of clocks ringing at the same time. It sounded like I was in a room with a bunch of clocks that were ringing at the same time. I could focus not only on the sound of each individual clock much more easily, but I could also pinpoint its location in the room. It was exhilarating, instead of annoying, probably as Floyd originally intended. I also noticed how much the rest of the song is cut from the same cloth as "Breathe," as if they'd been recorded one after the other on the same cloudy English afternoon.
"The Great Gig in the Sky"
Or, as we all used to call it back in the '70's, "The Orgasm Song." Not since Ravel's Bolero... well, you get the idea. Again, this song was never my cup of tea, mostly because it was so weird and different for Floyd. I mean, back when we were teenagers, we used to giggle all through this song. Now, I think it's a great song. And one thing this new version does is really flesh out Clare Torry's impassioned vocals (I just got into an argument with someone who swore the singer was Aretha or Gladys or someone more "famous"). As the song ends, and her singing grows more calm, sedate, and centered, you can practically hear her light up a cigarette.
Along with "Young Lust," this is the rare song where Pink Floyd really lets loose and rocks (yes, I hate writing that phrase as much as you hate reading it). This time, however, I clearly understood why this song has so much momentum and power. It's David Gilmour's guitar. For the entire length of the song, Gilmour never lets up. He's inventive, he's musical, he's clever, he's concise. Gilmour has always been one of my very favorite rock guitarists because he's not interested in wowing you with technique or speed. He plays the song. Every note is the right note in his solos. He's a very emotional player, and this really comes out, of all places, in a song about cynicism, avarice, and ruthlessness.
"Us and Them"
I've mentioned this before, but I love this song for the simple reason that my mom once came into my room while I was playing it, and she said, "This is a really beautiful song. Why don't you listen to more music like this?" For years afterward I referred to her as a Pink Floyd groupie. On this version however, I was disappointed with the overall sound quality. This has nothing to do with the format, but with the recording itself, and the harsh compression during the louder sections. I think there's just too much going on in the mix, and it all fades into a homogenous mess. That's the problem with having high-quality playback equipment, that you can't polish a turd sometimes. You get what you get. In general terms, the song doesn't sound that bad, but the flaws are severely highlighted in contrast with the rest of the album.
"Any Colour You Like," "Brain Damage," & "Eclipse"
I'll condense the last three tracks together, mostly because I view it as a suite rather than three separate songs. I didn't really have any unique observations during the LP's final minutes, other than the sound quality continued to be superb, even after the muddle of "Us and Them." I found myself anticipating the fade out however, with the heart beating and the quiet proclamation that there is no dark side of the moon (in fact, it's all dark). Until I purchased my Japanese EMI import CD, I'd never even noticed that last voice. I was hoping that the voice would be louder and clearer on this new LP than the CD, but it wasn't. Perhaps that's the way it was meant to be.
Of course I had to compare this new LP to my two other versions. First up was the Mobile Fidelity LP, which I bought in the late 70's. I actually owned a garden-variety DSOTM once upon a time, but I gave it to a friend when I bought this version. At one time this was the most valuable LP in my collection, capable of fetching anywhere from $125 to $175 over the years. Imagine my disgust when I placed it on the Michell Orbe SE and was overwhelmed by surface noise. I'm not sure what happened to it, since I've probably only played it two or three times in my life, but it was definitely not up to my standards. I'd probably be lucky if I could get eight bucks for it now.
The Japanese import CD actually did very well. I bought this back when compact discs were new and exciting. In fact, this was the first import CD I ever purchased. I remember being amazed at how quiet it was (and still is), and how you could really hear what all the voices were saying in the background. During casual listening, I might actually prefer this CD to the new LP, especially if I decided to use headphones, as DSOTM fans like to do. But when the gimmicks fade out, and the band starts playing actual songs with actual musical instruments, the lively, exciting LP walks all over the quiet, pristine CD.
So what about the SACD? Well, I've been trying to borrow an SACD player for some time now, but no such luck. I don't even know anyone personally who has one. Gene Rubin, my audio dealer, does not offer a single SACD player. I've been planning on revisiting SACD, especially since a couple of audio notables objected to my premature eulogy of it a few columns back. I have heard SACD on a few occasions, but that was either at the Consumer Electronics Show or a dealer's showroom. I liked it much more than regular CD, but it's hard to make a decision unless it's in your own audio system. Something tells me that as good as SACD is, it can't beat listening to LP's on a world-class turntable.
But if I get an SACD player, DSOTM will probably be the first title I'll buy. And then I'll have four versions. It never ends, does it?
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