Soundstage! - The Golden Zone

XTC: Skylarking

1994, Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc II with GAIN (Original 1986, Geffen).

I listen to a lot of remastered rock music CDs. You'd think that, having listened to so many, I'd eventually get to the point where I had enough experience to predict what they were going to sound like. I'm certainly not there yet; despite having a handful of gold CDs from Mobile Fidelity that are remastered versions of things released in the mid- 80's, it's still a surprise as to what I'll find with each new one. Looking just at that subset of my collection, I find things like Sting's 1985 Dream of the Blue Turtles, which doesn't sound any different whatsoever to me. Def Leppard's 1987 Hysteria sounds the slightest bit better, while the 1987 Robbie Robertson release milks an extra chunk of quality out of the master tapes big enough to improve my enjoyment of that CD quite a bit. At the other extreme, 1985's Heart corrects a huge number of glaring flaws, it's so improved that the thought of listening the original again makes me cringe. So when faced with a 1986 release from XTC, I wasn't sure what to expect. The original Geffen release showcases characteristic work from Todd Rundgren on production and engineering, making it one of the better sounding CDs in my collection, although it had some audible recording flaws. I liked it enough that I picked it to review as part of my collection of great obscure 80's albums. Happily, the MoFi version joins a collection of impeccable releases from their UltraDisc with GAIN system that push good recordings forward enough to really make them sound great.

When you listen to Skylarking, there's an incredible number of sounds, both big and little, pervading every track. Little insect-like sounds and simulated fire join traditional rock sounds and a collection of orchestral instruments. Every track consists of complicated and tightly interwoven layers of music and sound effects. The main thing the gold remaster does is make all the backgrounds these sounds are created over sound disappear. It's like the improvement you get when you make the blacks darker on a CRT; although nothing is actually brighter, it seems that way because of the increased contrast. The buzzing insects in "Summer's Cauldron" are clearer. The big fade-ins on songs like "The Meeting Place" and "Sacrificial Bonfire" are more palpable because the background they occur against is so dead silent. Not that the original release was noisy, mind you, but all the dynamic range on MoFi's version move things up an extra notch on my quality scale.

The only real flaw I ever noticed on the Geffen release was that, on some of the more complicated passages, it seemed like some part of the recording was overloading and saturating. The opening to "Grass" seemed a bit distorted, and all the strings on "1000 Umbrellas" seemed to get a sharp edge on them during the louder portions when I turned it up to a proper volume level. All these hints of problems are all swept away with MoFi's remaster.

There are some other improvements. All of the background singers are more easily distinguished into a collection of voices instead of being a generic backup vocal sound. And the bass guitar/drum interplay in songs like "Meeting Place" and "Ballet for a Rainy Day" benefits from having the bass go deeper, enough so that you can distinguish the instruments from each other better. The big drum whacks that accompany "Summer's Cauldron" and "Sacrificial Bonfire" sound even bigger, with more of that satisfying impact.

Looking inside the package, the liner notes look nicer, are easier to read, and include a cool picture of the band left out of the regular release. They did slice out the fan club information out of the last page to fit it all in, but that's a minor loss.

Wrapping everything back up, the Ultradisc treatment has turned Skylarking from being a merely excellent recording to one that is really top-notch. It's a close call as to whether it's worth the trouble for fans who already have a copy to spend the extra cash to upgrade, but I think it's definitely a good idea for any sound-quality conscious buyers to get the gold version.

(Greg's Rock Remaster Reviews has reviews of all the other remastered CDs mentioned)