Recording of January 2018: Carry Fire

In 2010, down in the East Village, on Delancey Street, at the NYC debut party for Robert Plant's Band of Joy, the assembled rock press, assorted hangers-on, and wannabe VIPs patiently sipped drinks as we waited for the guest of honor. Suddenly, with no fanfare or even announcement, he stepped out of a closet or secret passage of sorts into a roomful of astonished smiles. He'd been there all along.

In the rock world, it seems as if Robert Plant and his former band, Led Zeppelin, are always hovering somewhere nearby. While some 1970s acts have not remained relevant to younger generations, Led Zep marches on, their music never far from the sound or the musical zeitgeist of the current moment. The influence and mastery of their eight studio albums, incalculable and utterly pervasive, grows with every year.

Since the death, in 1980, of drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham, and Led Zep's dissolution soon after, Robert Plant—the curly-haired front man, the singer who got all the chicks—has struggled to escape the shadow of the formidable musical dirigible he helped inflate. With a few missteps—the early-'90s duo of Manic Nirvana and Fate of Nations—and a masterpiece, Raising Sand, his 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Plant has been on a solitary journey.

The darkest corner of Zeppelin's outsize reputation is the fact that Plant is the main obstacle to a long-rumored, long-awaited reunion album and tour. Predictably, this has brought down on his head a storm of criticism, mostly from newer fans who fail to appreciate a fundamental truth: Bonzo was irreplaceable. Even Bonham's son, Jason, can't fill those shoes. To those convinced of that certainty—one that can be distinctly heard on record —Plant's holding the line against any sustained reunion is a classy, sensible move. In place of a Zep 2.0, he's slowly but surely found his own solo voice, and Carry Fire is another solid step in that difficult but ultimately more rewarding journey.

First and always, there's his voice, perhaps the most recognizable human instrument in the history of rock—though Paul Rodgers might have something to say about that. Plant's range and elasticity are, understandably, not what they once were—too many performances of "Black Dog" have taken their inevitable toll. He now has a breathier, lighter tone. But even with that, and everything pitched down at least a step, that voice, always fraught with a certain mystery, remains a supremely expressive instrument able to weave through, say, the "ooooohhhh, aahhhhh" parts at the end of "Dance with You Tonight" with perfect inflection and instinctual grace. If there's a Zep connection on Carry Fire, it's to III, an album that was deemed "folky," particularly after all the thunder of the "Brown Bomber," II. That kind of introspective sifting can be heard on Carry Fire in the mid-tempo love ballad "Season's Song."

While Plant's solo recording career may never again include material as strong as that on Raising Sand, much of Carry Fire was cowritten with his highly skilled and adaptive band, the Sensational Space Shifters. The connection with guitarists Justin Adams and Liam "Skin" Tyson, keyboardist John Baggott, bassist Billy Fuller, and drummer Dave Smith continues to strengthen—the band seems locked in to cowriting and playing Plant's favored blend of blues and English folk music with Arabic and African accents. The album is atmospheric and moody throughout; many of the songs—such as "A Way with Words," in which Plant sings of emotions that he characteristically keeps at arm's length—are really just settings for his vocal meanderings.

The title track, buoyed by Adams's nimble oud playing and the string work of violist Seth Lakeman and cellist Redi Hasa, is carried along by North African rhythms. "New World . . ." has the album's most memorable melody, and lyrics about Europeans discovering the Americas and subjugating the "noble savage."

For listenable sound here, the vinyl edition is the only choice. On this album at least, Plant has chosen the wrong side in the loudness wars, allowing the music to be compressed and dynamically flattened on the CD. Perhaps, these days, this is the conscious choice by record labels like Nonesuch: Those who want better sound will gravitate toward LPs and high-resolution downloads, while those who don't know or care will opt for cheaper, compressed, squashed-sounding MP3s and CDs.

Welcome echoes of Delta blues and the lullaby "Hush, Little Baby" mix over low-end electronic keyboard pulses in "Keep It Hid," in which Plant's endless fascination with mysticism, spirituality, and the natural world appear in the repeated chorus line "Silver key and a golden cup." In a noisy, slowed-down version of "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," a late-'50s hit written by obscure upstate New York rockabilly cat Ersel Hickey (later recorded by the Beach Boys), Plant teams with Chrissie Hynde for an elegant fusion of vocal stylists. Overall, a master at work.—Robert Baird

volvic's picture

Have heard it three times already and really enjoy it. Glad to see he is still relevant as an artist, would be nice if he and Krauss could team up again.

dumbo's picture

Come on Baird, being a bit of an industry insider, cant you probe these artists into WTF they are thinking when releasing new material that is crushed to moon with compression?

The record labels need the artist as much as the artist needs the record label. When I hear people say its the labels fault I call BS. Are these artists really that clueless and just accept whatever the ham fisted engineer tells them "Sounds good" or whatever the slimy marketing fool says is needed in order to sell albums these days?

One would hope someone like Plant knows better then to fall into that trap but apparently not. He's not alone of course, unfortunately. Other past super stars of the Rock world have done the same thing on their new materials. IMO, they are ruining their reputation instead of cementing in time a well deserved legacy of great music.

I wonder what everyone will do once they have let an entire generation of music be washed away by these ham fisted engineers "Remastering" all the previous works of art that didn't need to be touched up to begin with. Before long all that will be left are these "Remastered" copies that are unlistenable and crushed to the moon.

Annoying stuff to say the least....Blaaah

supamark's picture

this album is a good illustration for one reason for vinyl's resurgence - modern mastering doesn't compress vinyl nearly as much as digital, giving it a huge sound quality advantage. The second link is a pdf that explains how the values in the first link are calculated. This relates directly to Mr. Baird's comments in/re which version to get.

deckeda's picture

... whereupon many a famous musician was interviewed about their personal gear? That was when I learned musicians could not be more different from audiophiles. See also: Beethoven and deafness.

The band didn't prevent Ahmet Ertegün (not that they really could have ...) from having Led Zeppelin II Side 2 remastered, when Ertegün's daughter's cheap record player essentially became the deciding factor, did they?

ok's picture

..does anyone know that Bonham’s hitting ratios are actually being used as a reference for the Greenwich universal atomic clock?

AJ113's picture

"...those who don't know or care will opt for cheaper, compressed, squashed-sounding MP3s and CDs."

Mp3 files are created using file compression. This is a completely different process to the dynamic compression used in audio recording. The only connection the two processes have is the name.

Further, CDs are not compressed in any way. The files on a CD are 44.1kHz 16 bit wavs, exactly the same files that are created in the mastering studio. They are a true representation of the recording. Vinyl recordings, on the other hand are sometimes attenuated, especially at the lower end of the frequency spectrum, because of the physical limitations of a needle in a groove, thus making them sub-standard, in terms of staying true to the original mastered recordings.

I have measured the loudness of The May Queen, a track on Carry Fire, it comes in at a healthy -9.7 LUFS, not loud by any means, and certainly not hyper-compressed. At this loudness level I doubt that there would be any need to process the recording any further for vinyl, so I suspect that the vinyl has exactly the same recording as the CD - although of course, the vinyl itself will be inferior due to the electro-mechanical method of sound reproduction it requires.

deckeda's picture

Context told us that RB knows the differences between dynamic and lossy compression.

The Carry Fire review highlights a common discovery about modern LP pop releases: They are often more dynamic than the digital versions. That alone should make any music lover want to invest in better LP playback. You can’t write a check or download another file to regain lost dynamics unless you get lucky and the label had a change of heart. On the other hand, my checkbook has erased quite a few substandard, inferior electro-mechanical issues LOL.

In short, I worry about what I can control and act accordingly.

Here’s the LP dynamism thing in practice. If an audio signal has little dynamic range, the cutting level on the LP will need to be kept very low so that the cartridge can track it. And that makes the noise floor high. And so there's the incentive not to do that.

Mastering is (or used to be) crafting a separate product for an intended audience. You can cheat easier to day, and use one master to cut or stamp another type of product, but since it’s never ideal, it’s wrong to conclude one particular format is inherently limited based on what could have been used to master it, or previous examples of it. It logically doesn’t make any sense.

All that matters is the end result, not what we think should automatically be the end result. RB let us know which version sounds best. It’s up to each of us to accept that news, or not.

Axiom05's picture

Absolutely disgraceful. I doubt that the CD is any different from "High Res" download. What a waste of bits. This is volume compression, i.e., dynamic range compression, not file size compression.

AJ113's picture

If you record a contemporary vinyl playback to a computer and then measure the resultant file using the TT dynamic range meter, it will give a higher reading than its digital counterpart, due to artifacts that are added as part of the vinyl cutting and playback process, which represent a degeneration of the original file. This displays the inadequecies of the meter, rather than being evidence of a separate, 'more dynamic' vinyl master.

"Mastering is (or used to be) crafting a separate product for an intended audience." Not in my experience. Perhaps your experience is different.

supamark's picture

The mechanical limitations of vinyl playback limit how much you can compress the dynamic range and still have a playable record at an acceptable output level. The only limitation of digital in:re dynamic compression is you can't go over 0 dBFS, but everything can be compressed to fall between 0.5 and 0.1 dBFS and it'd be fine (well, it'd sound like crap, but it would function correctly).

AJ113's picture

No album as far as I know has ever been mastered to a 0.4db dynamic range, so your point is moot.

supamark's picture

Numerous people have shown clearly that you are completely wrong about the difference in dynamic range between vinyl and digital releases generally and also this record specifically. Remember, the first rule of holes is: Stop digging. You're already pretty deep, maybe it's time to put down the shovel.