August 2010

Hendrix and Soft Machine on Vinyl

Earlier this year, Sony Legacy began its reissue of Jimi Hendrix’s recordings, including posthumous releases, under an agreement it signed in 2009 with Experience Hendrix, L.L.C., the company led by the guitarist’s half sister, Janie. The CDs in the Legacy series are sourced from the same masters prepared by Eddie Kramer and George Marino for the 1997 MCA/Universal releases, which were an improvement over the label’s earlier reissues. The vinyl versions, however, are newly remastered and fully analog.

Vinyl collectors have been extolling the virtues of the new pressings, and one fanatic I know described Are You Experienced as a "AAA pressing." At 20 bucks, the record seemed worth it, even though I’ve already bought three other versions, including the CD. I also own the Japanese mono and UK pressings, which have a slightly different track lineup.

The Legacy version is a single LP comprising the original US song selection. The MCA/Universal version, in contrast, was a two-record set whose second disc included the songs originally released on the UK Are You Experienced (here in the US, those songs made their way onto Smash Hits). RTI pressed the record in Los Angeles, and their vinyl quality seems to be exceeded only slightly by Pallas in Germany. I compared this pressing to both the MCA pressing I bought in 1997 and the LP I bought in the mid-1970s. For the sake of brevity, I’ll simply note that while the CD sounds good, this music deserves to be heard in analog.

I started with a comparison of "Purple Haze" on the three LPs. The MCA is surprisingly natural and musical for a digital master. Mitch Mitchell’s snare has a pleasing ring, and Hendrix’s voice, mixed in the hard-right channel, is clear and well defined. My mid-'70s Reprise is somewhat murky, though it has plenty of analog warmth. The mastering on the new Legacy pressing brings more detail and space to all elements of the recording. You get a much stronger sense of Mitchell’s foot pedal hitting the kick drum and of the wood of the drum sticks hitting the snare head. Hendrix’s voice is sharply focused in the right channel, and it has a more defined, holographic presence.

The snare drum rolls at the start of "Manic Depression" have more snap on this new pressing, and when the intro pauses for a second, you can hear the drum resonating. Hendrix’s guitar has more grain in its texture than on either of the other pressings, and his voice is more palpable and real throughout the record. The guitar solos, which on the Reprise are somewhat folded into the mix, are clearly set off without sounding overemphasized. Other details, such as the background vocals on "Hey Joe," are much clearer, but they haven’t been compressed and they don’t crowd out the lead vocals or instruments in the soundstage.

Some of the pleasures of Are You Experienced have always been its channel panning and tape manipulation, which give the record its late-1960s aura. Hendrix’s voice, slightly slowed, repeats the phrase "Purple Haze" behind the closing guitar lines on that track, and you can hear him more clearly than ever. Mitchell’s toms pan between the left and right channels on "May This Be Love," and the tone of the drums, like Hendrix’s guitar tone, has never been more defined. The lower strings in particular sound fuller and more natural. When the guitar feedback and slashing drums in "I Don’t Live Today" part ways as Hendrix says, "There ain’t no life nowhere," he’s almost frighteningly present in the room.

I could go on picking out things that I’ve listened to for more than 40 years but find myself hearing for the first time. The voiceovers and sound effects on "Third Stone from the Sun" are more audible, as are Mitchell’s cymbal splashes. Bassist Noel Redding is especially well served here, and you can tell whether he’s using a plectrum or just his fingers on each track. The 1997 reissues suggested that a reassessment of Redding’s contribution was overdue, but this pressing makes that task seem especially urgent.

While I occasionally wondered if the high end was slightly overemphasized on this master, a comparison with the CD dispelled that suspicion. The space around each instrument, as well as the depth of the soundstage, makes this pressing the definitive version of this astonishing, marvel-filled record. I can’t imagine a better sounding Are You Experienced in any format, and I feel as if I’m finally hearing it as it should be presented. I’m ordering Axis: Bold as Love as well.

The English prog rock band Soft Machine, named after a book by William S. Burroughs, opened for Hendrix both in England and here in the US. Chas Chandler, former bassist for the Animals, managed and produced both artists. The Softs, as their fans affectionately call them, grew out of a Canterbury-based band called the Wilde Flowers, and by the time Chandler and Tom Wilson produced their first album, they were a trio. Kevin Ayers played bass and sang; Mike Ratledge played an overdriven, distorted Lowery organ; and Robert Wyatt played drums while sharing lead-vocal chores with Ayers. Soft Machine combined psychedelic rock and jazz, with perhaps a hint of classical, to form an unusual sound that worked because of the musicians’ innovative ideas and skillful playing.

Sundazed Records has reissued the first two Soft Machine albums on LP in beautifully mastered editions, housed in excellent reproductions of the original gatefold covers (though cost probably kept Sundazed from recreating the pinwheel front cover on the first album that predated Led Zeppelin III’s by two years). Bob Irwin remastered both LPs, using the original analog masters as the source. The second LP, The Soft Machine Volume Two, has been available recently in a US pressing, but I haven’t been able to determine who manufactures or distributes it. I own a copy of that pressing, as well as the CD that Big Beat released in the UK in 1989, which included both titles on a single disc.

Chandler and Wilson recorded the band’s debut in New York during a four-day session, and it’s a grand slice of late-1960s musical ambition and strangeness. Ayers later called it, "unfunky, cerebral caterwauling." The record was atonal at times, inching close to the free jazz that would later define the band, but it often establishes a terrific groove, with Wyatt driving things along smartly. Wyatt’s oddball tenor singing gives the songs an eccentric glow, and lyrically the record has its share of English peculiarity. Ratledge is an exciting soloist, and the distortion he adds to the Lowery brings grit and energy to many of his solos (he also plays acoustic piano and the Lowery without effects).

The Sundazed LP improves upon the sound of the decently mastered CD, giving it a more organic and true sound. Wyatt’s drum taps in the opening to "Hope for Happiness" ring more sharply across the two channels, and they reverberate without decaying quickly. Ayers’s bass has more plonk, and the 1967-era channel ponging of Wyatt’s drums on "So Boot if at All" has more foundation and gravity. Wyatt’s multitracked vocals on "Why Am I So Short" are also better separated and have more weight.

Ayers left the band after the first album and went on to a lengthy, well-regarded solo career. Bassist Hugh Hopper, who had been a road manager for the group and contributed some songs to the first LP, replaced him. The Soft Machine Volume Two consists of two long compositions, "Rivmic Melodies" and "Esther’s Nose Job," both of which are composed of shorter musical sections. Wyatt, Hopper, and Ratledge share the writing credits, and the music moves further into jazz than the first disc, in part because Hopper is more overtly a jazz player. But despite its complexity, the music remains approachable.

As mentioned, the Sundazed LP is an improvement over the CD, and a vast improvement over the other US version on vinyl. As just one example, a comparison between the Sundazed and the other LP shows Wyatt’s vocals on the opening track, "Pataphysical Introduction-PT I" to be too forward and bright. Instruments on the Sundazed pressing flow more naturally and have more resonance and focus than on either of the other versions I own. The drums sound more open and wooden, and the cymbals have a more focused edge to them, with less decay. Hopper’s fuzz bass on "Hibou, Anemone and Bear" is more isolated from the other instruments, and Ratledge’s organ (which sounds like a reed instrument here) and guest Brian Hopper’s double-tracked saxophones are more clearly delineated.

The gatefold covers on both LPs are first rate, with excellent photo reproduction. The first LP includes a color photo, and the liner notes of both records, which sound like they were written by an accountant trying to be "with it," are a hoot. Soft Machine expanded to a quartet with Elton Dean on reeds on Third, which was closer to free jazz than rock and showed the influence of then current composers, such as Terry Riley. Their albums through Sixth would be unlike anything else in rock, but by Seven Soft Machine was beginning to sound like other jazz-rock fusion bands.

The first two Soft Machine records, like early King Crimson and Pink Floyd, are from a time when anything seemed possible in rock music and musicians were willing to experiment and risk looking foolish. Original copies of The Soft Machine and The Soft Machine Volume Two command a handsome price, but I’d be surprised if they sound as good as these pressings.   

. . . Joseph Taylor


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