Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Latest Installment of The Smoking Jacket Now Online at Part-Time Audiophile

My latest installment of The Smoking Jacket is now online at Part-Time Audiophile. In this article, I talk about long, thin cigars like lanceros and panatelas and how to get more enjoyment out of them.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Anatomy of Sound's Song Circus on 2L Recordings

In last week's review of 2L Recordings' Mezzotints, I mentioned that I had a handful of albums in for review that might be a little too avant-garde to play at trade shows. That's too bad, because I've had so many musical epiphanies while listening to music that's "outside of the box." I think about musical pieces I've heard over the years such as Kevin Volan's White Man Sleeps or Scott Walker's The Drift or heck, even my favorite rock album of all time, Pixies' Doolittle, that have changed my tastes in profound ways because they were so challenging to me at the time.

When I first received Anatomy of Sound's Song Circus right before the holidays and stuck it in my CD player, I instantly thought to myself that this was NOT something I could bring to CES and play in my room--unless it was the end of the day, of course, and I wanted to clear the room and head back to the hotel. This collection of experimental pieces for five voices and "electronics" is definitely not in the wheel house of your average grumpy old audiophile, but if you can power through your preconceptions about songs and melodies you might find that Song Circus will evoke feelings and emotions that are as rewarding as they are unsettling.

"Through minutiae explorations into the very microlevels of sound anatomy, through vocal investigations as well as the activation of spatial premises and the discovery of timbral qualities of objects, Song Circus masters an unusual audial vocabulary that expands the idea of what music can be."

That's the brief description of this album on the liner notes, and it pretty much hits the nail on the head in a paradoxically vague way. What you'll notice first is the presence of five female voices making random sounds that dance around our definition of singing. Noises, pops, whoops and even sirens abound in this open, airy soundscape, defining spaces and daring you to hear ever closer. Then you'll notice the low rumblings in the distance, drone variations and sudden squawks that might make you jump at times--especially if you're tempted to lean forward to catch all of the tiny little details.

The overall impression is sort of a mix between ambient, Bjork and "Revolution No.9," despite the fact that these sounds are all captured organically and naturally by Morten Lindberg's microphones. You might be tempted to think that so much of Song Circus is a studio creation, but you'd be missing the point. While the first part of the album, a 12-part suite titled "Landscape and Figures," does unite the five improvised female voices with Ruben Sverra Gjertsen's sounds, which have been channeled through either eight or sixteen sound channels--Morten Lindberg's new Immersive Sound technologies, which takes surround sound to a new level of complexity, is the perfect partner for this composition--attention must be paid to how those sounds interact with the singers. This is, to a certain extent, reminiscent of the idea that an electric guitar is actually an acoustic instrument since the tonal qualities are dependent on how the guitar amp interacts with the room.

Once you get past that distinction, the second piece makes more sense. "Persepone," Ole-Henrik Moe's piece for five voices and wine glasses, is a purely acoustic exercise that focuses on "vocal sound, dynamics and microtonality." It's purer and more aesthetically soothing than "Landscapes and Figures," and yet it gives you more context to enjoy the album as a whole.

So no, you will not be humming these pieces to yourself after listening in your car on the way to work. This is brain music, to put it succinctly, something to help you define your own expectations when it comes to your musical sensibilities. Song Circus will either challenge you and expand your horizons, or it will make you head for the exits. But I can't think of a more informative recording in my entire music collection. If you patiently listen to Song Circus in its entirety, you'll emerge from the experience knowing more about your sound system and how it interacts with your listening room. You'll also know more about your brain, and how it interacts with new information.

As much as I enjoyed this album, and the way it revealed things I've never heard before, I'm even more excited about the other avant-garde recording I received from 2L. That one left me in complete awe, so check back in a couple of weeks!

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Vinyl Anachronist #107 Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. In this installment, I talk about the ultimate analog format, reel-to-reel tapes, which is making a serious comeback right now. You can read it here:


Thursday, January 28, 2016

2L Recordings' Mezzotints on Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD Hybrid

It's been a couple of weeks since the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show ended, and I've finally reached the point where I can start catching up on some of these music reviews. All through CES I kept saying to myself that I had five albums from 2L Recordings to review when I got back, and I had to get serious about finishing those reviews. In the spirit of efficiency, I brought all five of those discs to CES with me and played them as much as I could in order to get more familiar with them.

For reasons obvious to high-end audio show-goers and the audio industry in general, I couldn't play all of five of them. Two were definitely avant-garde recordings, incredible and mind-bending musical adventures that might re-define how you listen to contemporary classical music. "Room-clearers," in other words, or perhaps "suburban audiophile repellant." One more, perhaps my favorite of the five, was only available in the Blu-ray format, and our digital front-end couldn't play that format. That left only two remaining recordings that I could play over and over in the room.

During a slow time at the show, I checked my Facebook account on my phone and noticed that the 2L Recordings page was promoting that one of the CES exhibitors was playing a selection of the newest releases from 2L. Trollop that I am, I posted a comment on that thread that I was playing a new 2L recording in the room at that very moment as well--Mezzotints, a collection of chamber music from Norwegian composer Stale Kleiberg. Within minutes I had a handful of people drift into the room, almost as one, and they started listening to this warm, direct yet melancholy music with huge smiles on their faces. Ah, the magic of social media.

If you're unfamiliar with Klieberg, I can quickly refer you to my review of David and Bathsheba
where I just couldn't get over the astonishing amount of detail captured by Morten Lindberg's microphones,and how the overall sound interacted with the inner walls of the church where it was recorded. With Mezzotints, the scale is much smaller. This is a mix of pieces that feature all sorts of chamber arrangements such as string quartet, solo piano and variations thereof, so you won't quite feel the same level of enveloping space as in the earlier recording. But here's what you do get: probably the most dynamic and powerful performance by a string quartet in recent years, coupled with solo piano pieces that may set a new standard.

My friend Bob Clarke of Profundo has told me once or twice that a great grand piano recording will tell you everything you need to know about an audio system, and I agree--although I think it's more fun to use Shelley Manne's drumming on Sonny Rollins' Way Out West. That flies in the face of modern audiophile dogma which states that the female voice, preferably from someone like Diana Krall, Eva Cassidy, Patricia Barber or Diana Krall, is the ultimate test of a system. But listen to Jorgen Larsen's piano work on Mezzotints and then try to tell me that you're not hearing more of the piano than ever before. I'm not talking about the clinking of the ivory keys or the sound of the felt-covered hammers hitting the strings, but the actually sound of the body of the piano, that big wooden box around all those mechanical structures, and how that huge wooden enclosure shapes and delivers the sound that we ultimately hear.

As for the string quartet--which consists of Marianne Thorsen on violin, Oyvind Gimse on cello, Bard Monsen on violin and Ole Wuttudal on viola--when I say that this ensemble is "dynamic and powerful," I really mean that they redefine the term "whipped into a frenzy." There are points throughout Mezzotints where these four musicians are so synchronized and so contagious with their passion that you can hear the bodies of their instruments buzz and rebel as one.

Another reason to mention Bob Clarke is that I used a very new system to evaluate this recording, along with the other four. I've placed my personal reference, the Trenner & Friedl ART monitors, back in the system after a lengthy hiatus, and I paired them with the big new Unico 150 integrated amplifier and Unico CD Due DAC/transport that we used at CES. (Trenner & Friedl are imported from Austria by Bob.) With the 150's magnificent power matched to the somewhat low-sensitivity ARTs, I think I have a system that's optimized for most of these 2L Recordings. The imaging is spectacular, and the level of detail retrieved from these recordings is truly rare.

Oh wait--I forgot something. Another 2L Recordings disc just arrived in the mail. But that's okay, since I popped it into the CD Due and gave it an initial listen and it was utterly amazing. With the temperatures only occasional rising above freezing, a plenty of snow still on the ground, now is the best time to indulge in more amazing Norwegian recordings.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

New Review of Janet Feder's New LP, T H I S C L O S E, at Positive Feedback Online

My review of Janet Feder's new LP, T H I S C L O S E, is now up at Positive Feedback Online. I haven't written for the good folks at PFO for quite some time, and David Robinson was gracious enough to get this review up the day after I wrote it! I have some more LP reviews coming up, so hopefully it won't be as long until my next PFO article appears.

You can read it here. Enjoy!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Heard About the New Technics SL1200?

Have I heard about the new Technics SL-1200 yet?

Why yes, I have. I just returned from the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where I was representing two of my brands (Opera and Unison Research). My room on the 29th floor of the Venetian was right across the hall from the Technics room. I noticed that on set-up day, so once the show began I immediately headed over to get the scoop.

I'm not going to go into much detail here, because I plan on writing an entire article on the new limited edition Technics SL-1200GAE turntable that was debuted to the world just a few steps from where I sat for four days. But I did sit and listen, and here are my initial impressions:

1. I was disappointed to see that the new 1200 looks just like the old one from a distance. But the insides are all new. This is a radically different turntable from the classic 1200, with lots of new engineering ideas inside. The new 1200, as a result, is a LOT heavier than the old one.

2. Yes, it's going to cost $4000. I scooped the price when I went into the room and asked how much. The Japanese gentleman from Technics replied, "We think $4000, but we're wondering if that's too much." Within an hour, the press at the show started reporting the MSRP as $4000. The audio world collectively groaned, although turntable guru Michael Trei said that a more basic model would eventually debut at about half the price.

3. I sat down and listened to it in an all-Technics system. (Technics has been introducing some very intriguing high-end audio gear over the last year or so.) To put it succinctly, the new 1200 sounds like a $4000 'table. It possessed none of that dark, closed-in sound of the older model. It sounds wonderful in every way. I heartily approve.

I'll get into more detail in a future Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

2L Recordings' Fingergull on CD/SACD Hybrid

It's Christmas Eve here in Western Colorado, and I'm doing what I'm usually doing this time of year--getting ready for the Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas. It seems like every year the show is held earlier and earlier in January. I think most years we have to leave for the show the day after New Years' Day, and this year is no exception. So while everyone else is gathering around the mistletoe and getting some high-quality holiday lovin', I'm going through boxes in the garage, fretting about last minute shipments and spending an ordinate amount of time selecting music for the show.

I do have one advantage this year--I have a boatload of CD/SACD/Blu-ray audio discs from 2L Recordings in the review pile right now, and most of it sounds like wonderful demo music to share with the Vegas crowds. But after several years of attempting to choose appropriate music for my exhibit rooms, I've learned a few things. First, you have to choose music that will show off your system. Since all of the loudspeakers I'm using at the show are two-way stand-mounted monitors, I probably shouldn't bring Tool, System of a Down and the 1812 Overture to The Venetian.

Second, you have to pick music that keeps people in your room. That part is tricky. Because no matter what type of music you choose to play in your room, somebody's not going to like it. And they're going to tell you they don't like it. Then they're going to tell you to play one of their favorite pieces of music in the world, and they will throw a fit if you didn't bring it along to the show. If you don't even know who the artist/band/performer is, you might have to take a shot in the chops.

I'm thinking about this as I listen to Fingergull, a new album of sacred choral music that's based upon the arrival of a holy blood relic--in this case, a drop of Christ's blood--in 12th century Norway. (Fingergull is subtitled In festo susceptionis sanguinis Domini, which translates to "The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ came to Nidaros.") Anne Kleivset and her Schola Sanctae Sunnivae chorale have joined together to produce the first full recording of what is now known as The Holy Blood office, and even a heathen like me can feel the reverential awe in every single voice. The commitment to such a deep and thorough exploration of this music cycle is far more passionate than in most recordings you'll hear this year, and there's a point where all that emotion comes to the forefront and makes your heart skip a beat.

But will that play in Peoria or, better yet, the noisy and crowded halls during CES? That's certainly a gamble. Morten Lindberg of 2L has sent me numerous chorale recordings over the last few years, and they were all superb and, dare I say it, inspirational. These various recordings convey why I like sacred music so much--it isn't about the message, but the heart and soul of the messenger that matters to me. For the record, I can't think of a single recording that will let you absorb both the individual vocal contributions and the whole so easily. I think much of it has to do with the Ringsaker Church where it was recorded. By now you know that most 2L Recordings are captured in beautiful Norwegian churches, but I think this is the first one I've heard from this specific church. There's a balance to the warmth of the inner walls and Morten's skill at capturing all the detail within that warmth that is absolutely stunning.

I want my fellow CES attendees to get that. In reality, I expect wisecracks like "What, is this is a church?" That's not the point. Every time I review one of these recordings of sacred music, which of course is very different than sacred recordings of music, I tell myself that I probably won't be that into it. I mention the chasm between the purpose of the music and what I will ultimately extract from it. When it comes to these 2L recordings, however, I always leave the experience knowing that I felt something deep, something that's probably better left under the surface.

But if you're at CES and you want to hear massed vocals in an old church that will sound exactly like the real thing, come up to me and say the magic word: Fingergull.