Recordings of May 2003: Every Breath You Take; Fragile

THE POLICE: Every Breath You Take: The Classics
A&M Chronicles 069 493 607-2 (hybrid SACD/CD). 2003. The Police, Hugh Padgham, Laurie Latham, orig. prods.; Nigel Gray, Chris Gray, Hugh Padgham, Phil Nicolo, orig. engs.; David Tickle, Martin Pradler, 5.1 remixes (tracks 1-12); Bob Ludwig, 5.1 remixes (tracks 13-14) and SACD mastering; Bill Levenson, reissue supervision. A?D. TT: 59:43
Performance *****
Sonics ** to *****

YES: Fragile
Elektra/Rhino R2 73789 (CD), R9 78249 (DVD-A). 2003. Yes, Eddie Offord, orig. prods.; Eddie Offord, Gary Martin, orig. engs.; Bill Inglot, reissue prod.; Dan Hersch, Bill Inglot, remastering engs.; Steve Woolard, David McLees, reissue supervision. A?D. TTs: 60:32 (CD), 51:57 (DVD-A).
Performance *****
Sonics ***

A quarter century after the release of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks..., it's easy to forget the impact of punk rock. We had become so accustomed in the early 1970s to each month bringing new bursts of creativity from old bands, new sounds from new bands, that it was difficult for those who, like me, spent every penny of our disposable income on LPs to imagine the musical well ever running dry. But hindsight shows that "progressive rock" became lost after 1973 in a quagmire of pomposity seasoned with pretension. It was thus easily blown away by the likes of the Pistols and the Clash, who in turn were quickly assimilated by the music-biz establishment they railed against. Same as it ever was. But the lessons were learned.

America may have invented rock, but it was Britain who elevated it to a mature art form in the 1970s. Two new batches of historical reissues feature two of the English bands that helped with that maturation. One peaked before punk, the other after. One series is available on CD and DVD-Audio, the other on SACD (without CD layers). Both feature surround mixes on their respective hi-rez media in addition to the two-channel transfer.

Yes's Fragile (1972) may have been the album that broke the band in the US, but it was actually their fourth. The first, Yes (reissued as Rhino CD R2 73786, with considerable extra material), burst on the scene in 1969 and was a traditional record: a collection of individual songs rather than through-composed concepts. Fragile was midway in Yes's progression from song-based band to pomp rock, and was their second album to feature guitarist Steve Howe and the first to feature keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman and Roger Dean's sci-fi-inspired cover art.

However, it was a 1972 cut not on the original Fragile album, but included on the DVD-A and CD re-releases, that is what I feel is the finest flowering of a Yes Song: Paul Simon's "America," in which an intelligent, complex, extended arrangement features Jon Anderson's high Lancastrian tenor, virtuosic playing (particularly from Howe and drummer Bill Bruford), and bassist Chris Squire's twangy Rickenbacker 4001 sound.

With hindsight, Squire's trebly sound now appears often overcooked, bringing to mind Ray Davies' comment in his autobiographical novel, X-Ray (Overlook Press, 1994): "this appalling banjo-like sound." But back in the early '70s, it thrilled by being about as different from the rounded, conservative tone Paul McCartney got from the same instrument as it is possible to imagine. Squire's approach to the role of the bass guitar was also very different from McCartney's, building on John Entwhistle's pioneering work with the Who, where the bass becomes a tenor instrument in both tone and function, leaving the kick drum alone, much of the time, to provide the music's low-frequency foundation.

Soundwise, the analog master seems to have survived the years in good shape, though some modulation noise is occasionally audible. I actually preferred the CD to the 24/96 stereo mix on the DVD-A, which sounded a little thin and grainy in comparison. However, it is fair to note that the DVD-A medium's lack of a hi-rez digital output means I was stuck with my Technics DVD-A10's analog outputs, while CD benefited from my megabux Levinson No.31.5 and No.30.6 system.

Serendipity allowed me to audition the surround mix of "Roundabout" at Dolby's Manhattan screening room. The HF was still a little grainy, but was very much pushed into the background by the surround soundfield. The mix was satisfyingly front-dominant, the rear channels being used for such things as Wakeman's keyboard filigree work and the reverb returns, which successfully immersed me in the music without sounding unnatural.

By contrast to the direction Yes headed off in after Fragile and "America," the post-punk Police were all about songs, to an extent that even the 1969 incarnation of Yes couldn't approach. The virtuosity is at as high a level—drummer Stewart Copeland, with his starting-pistol snare-drum transients, is Bill Bruford's equal in how to divide the time within a measure—and the arrangements are as intelligent, but instrumental complexity is replaced by sparseness, length by concision, sonic width by intellectual depth.

While I'm ambivalent about the merits of the Yes DVD-A compared with the CD, the sound of this Police SACD, which I auditioned on both dCS and Musical Fidelity players, is to die for: clean and grain-free highs, terrific low-frequency weight, and the feeling of hearing way deep into the mix. The CD layer is close but not close enough. I was also able to audition some of the tracks in surround at a Sony demo, using five EgglestonWorks Andra 2 speakers. As with Fragile, the multichannel mix has been done with taste, the rhythm section placed to the front, reverberation and "flavoring" instruments kept in the rear.

I have two gripes: First is the inclusion of the ear-wrenching "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86" remix. Second is the inexplicable decision to release the original Police albums on single-layer SACDs, the only "fully loaded" SACD/CD hybrid being this singles compilation. Surely Universal would have learned from the commercial success of the Rolling Stones' hybrid releases?—John Atkinson