Friday, 4 June 2010

Are The Human League 'alternative'?

So, I tuned into BBC Four one night and was confronted with 'Synth Britannia', a documentary about the rise of synthesizers related music in Britain, mostly throughout the 70s and 80s.

Now, music based around 'synths' doesn't rank very highly in my regard. Same as country. Or anything remotely modern rap/dance/pop/r'n'b, etc etc.

But BBC music programs always get my attention. They're usually reasonably interesting with archive footage, interviews with bands... And one band, The Human League turned up in their early incarnation (yes, before it all went "Don't You Want Me"). I recalled to mind an old episode of "Sounds Of The 70s", once again a BBC archive excursion I used to religiously record to VHS (damn, remember them!). An early appearance of the League performing "The Path Of Least Resistance" surrounded by turning reel-to-reel tape recorders just burnt into my memory... And of course Phil Oakey's strange long hair on one side/short hair on one side look!

Anyhow, found their first two albums in Fopp Glasgow for £3 each. I like £3 CDs. And despite "Reproduction" getting only a 3 star review on All Music Guide, you know, I quite like it...

First off I think it's up their with my favourite sounding 'remasters' (I'll add more as I remember/find them). The CD sounds gorgeous for something recorded what, 31 years ago?!

Musically, the tracks are nothing like "Dare"-era Human League.

There's an air of industrial experimentation. A definate coldness that only those 'humanless' synths and Phil Oakey's slightly robotic voice can make. They're not really dancable, and in some cases lyrics border on bad poetry/art student who's read a couple of books but nevertheless some of the songs are lost highlights of the whole of synth's beginnings, "Almost Medieval", "The Path Of Least Resistance", "Blind Youth" and "Empire State Human" (the catchiest of the bunch, was also a single). Thankfully the remasters got the 'bonus tracks' treatment, collecting early singles and EPs unavailable elsewhere.

Of course "Being Boiled" is about as essential as this CD gets. It was their first single, apparently recorded to mono cassette in the place they rehearsed, but there's something about this track that just says "I'm different", others recognised it at the time. David Bowie, upon hearing it said he'd heard the future of music. It has possibly the most simply dark and addictively worrying synth basslines ever commited to tape... "The Dignity Of Labour" EP, presented here in full shows the band in full on Kraftwerk fan worship mode... four instrumentals that remind me of early (very early?) Kraftwerk. Obscure and worth a listen, perhaps a single one only though...

So, are The Human League alternative...? Well in their earliest incarnation I'd say they were. They were certainly not mainstream or anywhere near on their first releases and the first album so here they go... Give them a whirl if you fancy some dark, British synth that doesn't resemble the damned New Romantics at all...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Hüsker Dü... others don't

A week off work, day one and boredom and non-achievement sets in. Should've started some major house clearing but instead listened to music, surfed the net, started this blog and attempted to 'remaster' "Zen Arcade"...once again...

Hüsker Dü are criminally represented on those lovely shiny things called Compact Discs... an alternative audiophile's nightmare should begin with their 1984 sprawling double-LP "Zen Arcade". But then all of their SST albums are in dire need of being lovingly tarted up, redressed and reissued. But it may never happen...

Fans of the band that care about sound know their some of their records at times sounded grating, tinny, like metal scraping against metal. Apparently it was a stylistic thing Spot, the producer on most of the bands seminal releases ("Everything Falls Apart" and "Metal Circus" from 1983, the aforementioned "Zen Arcade" and 1985's "New Day Rising") conciously went for. Conciously or not, the aural effect to many listeners turned out to be not so pleasant or palatable despite giving the band a sharp hardcore edge. I'd go so far to say that the production decisions on many of their records left most tentative fans out in the cold. A chilly treble heavy cold...

Sound aside "Zen Arcade" was in itself powerhouse of US hardcore creativity. Shackles were being broken at most turns, piano, psychedelia, acoustic guitars and background harmonising stepped up hardcore's game without losing an ounce of it's power and force. An astounding achievement that showed many bands that there was more to hardcore than breakneck power trios... even if they did still fancy going 200mph once in a frequent while. And the whole thing was recorded and mixed in the now legendary time of 85 hours... A double album recorded and mixed in 85 hours?!

At the point of writing this SST have made no efforts to remaster their Hüsker Dü backcatalogue. Fans call for it but apparently the still apparent bad feelings between the ex-band members still hinder this happening despite Bob Mould not being against the idea. Alot of other bands have bought their masters from SST to give them a shining chance of being heard in a better way than SST ever be bothered to present them. Even the bands debut studio EP "Everything Falls Apart" (not originally released on SST) got the whole remastered and expanded treatment with liner notes to boot thanks to Reflex and Rhino. Spot's production even sounds bearable and it makes me wonder if the other albums would shine with a bit of care and time.

Some Hüsker Dü fans are against the idea of remastering their beloved bands backcatalogue. "That is what the 'Du sound like. No need for remastering" says one, "I don't think it's unfortunate. Would you want someone to 'remaster' the Mona Lisa because Leonardo didn't have glow in the dark paint or something? The originals are perfect as they are." says another. But like the small majority I think their seminal CDs could do with a major overhaul. As it is now when you buy "Zen Arcade" on CD you're buying the album exactly as it was presented on CD for the first time in 1987, 23 years ago. 23 years ago and technology has moved on far too much to ignore that mastering techniques and equipment has improved (and got worse thanks to the ever annoying loudness war. Two sides to every argument, etc etc...)

So I dug out my 1987 mastered "Zen Arcade" and ripped it to my PC, opened the files in Adobe Audition and got to work. Removing DC offset and beginning the process of what I call "RE-EQ'ing" each track separately. I've done this before but my 'monitoring' equipment as well as software choices have improved since the last time! The waveforms show that yep, the 1987 CD, like most CDs from that time still have a nicely intact dynamic range. One good point. This was years before the loudness war really kicked in and digital clipping and compression became the order of the day.
And so how did I get on? The original CD is very thin sounding, where is the power in Greg Norton's bass guitar? And for something so tinny there's actually very little high end treble sparkle. It's mostly high-mid, that frequency section that in excess can turn anything to metallic sounding mush. A little tweaking here and there, a new CD burnt and voila. Some power restored to the rhythm section, the guitars still glare at you like a hungry wolf without all the grating and a bit more shine in the upper high frequencies which reveals alot of those "I never knew that was there!" detail that was buried in the murk... I guess it's as good as I'll get to hear this album until someone more responsible than moi gives it a well deserved overhaul! Until then...

The Alternative Audiophile

Let the babbling commence...

So, what's this all about?

Well it seems to be quite a rare notion to put the two ideas of 'audiophile' and 'alternative music' together... Personally I listen to and love ALOT of music, yes, mostly alternative (what does that term mean anymore anyway?) and I have found it is quite a neglected corner to in the world of audiophiles.

Are the brash guitars just too brash for their high-end equipment? Are they scared some shouting may blow their ultra-expensive speakers? Pah!!! Why are they so scared?

Some audiophiles probably believe that most alternative music is just noise, and well, why bother presenting that 'noise' through anything remotely better than a cheap boom box or tinny computer speakers pumping out lovely 128kbps MP3s when there's so little of auditory worth in these recordings? I say NO, it's not all just NOISE. Sometimes alternative musicians and bands are clever enough to layer parts as well as most classical composers (and probably without the classical training), and well sometimes, maybe all that doesn't matter. Simplicity and passion can be all that is needed to get across the message.

But I think that any music, ANY music can benefit from being played through a system with a touch of finesse. Some 'music' just doesn't deserve it though, and  no it won't improve a bad song or a non-existant melody, it can't put the passion in if it wasn't already there... but at least you'll get closer to hearing it 'as it was intended' and sometimes you'll may be hearing it 'better' than some of those financially poor bands recording in broken down studios with blown monitors and analogue 8 track machines with half the tracks not working in the days before everyone got a PC with a soundcard and Cubase/ProTools and made lovely hiss free recordings at home for no more cost than the price of their own electricity!

So what's the point of this? Music is my passion. Hi-fi is another one of my passions. I strongly believe the two go hand in hand ;)

But when it comes to my passions I tend to babble on. I'll tell you about my favourite sounding albums. I'll tell you about my not-so-favourite sounding albums and the lengths I went to make them that bit better to my ears (with a touch of la technologie moderne to help) and I'll hopefully hear from some other audiophiles out there as well as alternative music fans who can give their views, likes and dislikes!

So turn up and enjoy!

The Alternative Audiophile