Friday, November 30, 2012

CCI Visits the Arizona Audio Video Club

"Interesting and professional guests!"

That's how Colleen and I were described by the members of the Arizona Audio Video Club after we were the invited guests at their November meeting on the 28th. Both of us thought, "Wow...we've never been called that before." But we'll take it. We've also never attended an event like this before, but I have to admit it was a lot of fun--even though we didn't know what we were going to talk about once we were standing in front of the packed conference room at the Phoenix Airport Marriott. We decided that Colleen would talk about CCI--who we were, how we got started, and what lines we carried--and I would describe the system we brought and play some music. I was warned that there were many engineers in the club so I knew I'd have to be ready to explain all of the technical aspects of the gear we brought. I did a lot of homework.

We kept the system as simple as possible because we knew we'd only have a couple of hours to set-up the system and make it sing in the rather large room. One person seemed surprised that we didn't bring a turntable since I'm a "vinyl guy," but that would have been too much to assemble. Instead, we brought the Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier (27 wpc, single-ended parallel ultralinear pure Class A amplification that uses 6550 valves in the output stage, $6495), the Unison Research CDE CD player ($3895 plus $225 for the optional optical DAC) and the new Secondas from Opera Loudspeakers ($3995 per pair)--finished in a beautiful gloss white. We also had a pair of the new little Opera Mezzas ($1495 per pair) on hand. Both pairs of speakers were the first in the US, so it was a real treat for the members.

The system was wired with Cardas Audio Clear Light speaker cables and interconnects, Cardas Audio Golden Reference power cords, and Audience jumpers for the bi-wireable Secondas. Steve Wooten, president of AAVC, provided a PS Audio line conditioner. The rack was from Quadraspire.

I then played three cuts for the members: "Midnight Sugar" by the Tsuyashi Yamamoto Trio from The TBM Sounds! sampler, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" from Halie Loren's They Oughta Write a Song... and "1 Speed" from Dean Peer's Airborne. The system sounded surprisingly good in such a big room; it's amazing how a group of warm bodies can tame the resonances in a big open space. Then Steve Wooten (pictured here) took over and allowed members to play their music. Bill Coombs of The Sweet Spot, our dealer in Phoenix who helped to put together the event, commented and how quiet and attentive the members were during the demo...much more than usual. Afterward we received several emails from members telling us how nice the system sounded.

Colleen and I would like to thank Bill, Steve (who treated us to a great dinner beforehand) and the members for a wonderful event. Special thanks go to another member, also named Bill, who brought a pumpkin pie cake that was the real hit of the evening. Almost every email we read said, "Great sounding system...and that cake!"

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Up at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is up at Perfect Sound Forever--it's my annual year end wrap-up, the 14th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. Read it here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

CCI Visiting the Arizona Audio Video Club Next Week

CCI is proud to announce that Colleen and I will be the featured guests at the November 28th meeting of the Arizona Audio Video Club! We are demoing the Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier, the Unison Research Unico CDE CD player and the Opera Secondas (the same white pair that recently received rave reviews in both AV/ and TONEAudio). Guests are welcome as long as they RSVP at Event starts at 7pm at the Phoenix Airport Marriott, 1101 N 44th Street in Phoenix. See you there!

Kenneth Karlsson's The View Was All in Lines on Hybrid CD/SACD

From an unbridled pounding on the keys to gentle, deliberate notes strung singularly and allowed to decay naturally, Kenneth Karlsson's new recording on 2L is a virtual tutorial on how a piano should be reproduced. I've always found it challenging to evaluate hi-fi equipment based on solo piano recordings; you have to search for delicate clues such as the notes traversing across the sound board in a believable way, or the soft pedal work that transforms the nature of the notes and how they interact with the room boundaries of the original venue. Some recordings make this incredibly easy--my Three Blind Mice jazz LPs accomplish this with aplomb--but a vast majority of these recordings often obscure the sounds that a large wooden musical instrument makes and concentrate on the notes and only the notes.

To hear how a piano sounds in a live, unamplified space, you need to hear more than the unfettered notes. You need to hear how the pianist interacts with this large music-making machine, and that's why so many classical music lovers appreciate artists such as Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett, among others. Breathing, body shifts and grunts are something that are experienced by the listener during a live performance, and these biological additions influence how the notes project into the room. Kenneth Karlsson doesn't hum or squirm in a distracting way, but his measured breathing becomes as vital to these performances as the piano. Throughout this difficult, challenging music, he wrstles with wood and metal and ivory and produces a sound that moves beyond the organic and becomes utterly convincing in every way. You'll hear the music ebb and flow through every breath.

A vast majority of the splendid 2L Recordings are Scandinavian down to their bones, and here Karlsson presents the work of two noted but relatively under-represented Norwegian composers, Asbjorn Schaatun and Rolf Wallin, to expose non-Scandinavian audiences to the terse expressionism of these modern figures. These pieces are the polar opposite of pastoral, and feature jarring, naked atonalities that project agitation, confusion and regret. Karlsson tempers this music with something more familiar--two pieces from Arnold Schoenberg. As Karlsson states in the liner notes: "I felt there was something missing...I wanted something more spontaneous and less premeditated than the rest of the music." He included Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstucke--a piece that was written in a single day--to celebrate its centennial, and to show the contrasts with the contemporary works by the other two. Those expecting something to cleanse the palate between Schaatun and Wallin will be surprised at the seamlessness in the transitions, and how exemplary of a choice this ultimately was.

This is the first recording I've received from Morten Lindberg that featured neither the Blu-ray audio nor vinyl formats. As I mentioned with the Buene piece I reviewed a few days ago, my playback capabilities concerning redbook CDs are far more sophisticated than with Blu-ray so I'm experiencing a more realistic sound. When it comes to sheer piano, I don't believe I've heard better from CD. My touchstone for realism continues to be a handful of vintage LPs I own (RCA Shaded Dogs and the aforementioned TBMs), but this is an amazing recording that will show off your system and further cement 2L's reputation as the vanguard for 21st century classical recordings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Barry Brusseau's The Royal Violent Birds on LP

The first song on Barry Brusseau's new album, The Royal Violent Birds, is an unmitigated mess. "Pig Frost" starts off all grungy in a pop-ish way, embellished with a woefully distorted electric guitar, and the song barely gets through the first verse before it collapses in a feedback-saturated heap. It's a surprisingly brave and atypical choice since everything afterward is relatively serene, thoughtful and straightforward. Brusseau, a singer-songwriter based in Portland, is avuncular in both countenance and voice, and his deep and plaintive baritone seems so at odds with his contemporaries that it comes off as completely refreshing and honest. Once you get past the first minute or so of cacophony, you'll be treated to a feast of mature, slightly spacy and disarmingly gentle music.

Brusseau has stated in interviews that he's a bit shy about the "imperfections" in his voice, but since when do we want our folk singers to croon like Perry Como? With the delicate and downright beautiful musical choices that run through the heart of this album, Brusseau is firmly in lullaby mode, even if he seems like the type of bedtime storyteller who may prompt you to sleep with one eye open. He delivers lines such as "Will you get me out of here, and will you rub my feet/Don't you know I will my dear, you are my one complete" (from "Homesick Yawn") with such measured caution that you may wonder if this album is a 45rpm pressing. (Yeah, I checked to make sure, and it isn't.)

Once you acclimate to the sheer innocence of his lyrics and voice--which together are just a stone's throw from Daniel Johnston's neighborhood, in a noticeably saner subdivision--there's the richness of the music. Brusseau firmly believes that less is more, but close inspection of his minimalism reveals unexpected touches, from the Michael Nyman-esque horns in "Love & Adoration" to the hints of synthesized glass harmonica swirling in the velvety black backgrounds and the earthy emotions suggested by Aubrey Webber's cello. Brusseau's guitar playing is also as spare and haunting as his voice. He's enthralled with his pure and simple melodies, and through the repeating of these phrases his music becomes hypnotic--and at the same time always interesting. By the time this relatively brief album has concluded--with a softer and more complete reprise of "Pig Frost" that's available only on the LP--you'll feel like you've taken a midnight stroll through a beautiful garden that may or may not be a cemetery. (The titular feathered friends turn out to be here to collect our souls after we've passed away.)

The LP pressing, which was mastered by Timothy Stollenwerk at Stereophonic in Portland, is also a bit of a revelation. It's not as quiet as some, especially toward the ends of each side, but the sound quality is deep, quiet and natural. Within these quiet songs you'll be able to walk around in the huge soundstage and turn over every stone and see what's underneath. The vinyl itself is also noteworthy--it's thick, possibly 180 grams or fairly close, and the contrasting halves of the disc will remind you of a black-and-white cookie. This is the first LP I've received from the folks at Gorbie International Records, and it's quite an impressive effort. I look forward to hearing more from their catalog.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes on Blu-Ray Audio, CD and SACD

My own journey through classical music followed the proper chronological order. I started with Vivaldi, Bach and Boccherini in college, got caught up in the Mozart craze when Amadeus came out in 1984, skipped completely over Beethoven and Schubert and was deeply into Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich by the time Reagan left office. By the end of the '80s, I was confronted with the prospect of following those dark, atonal charms of Schoenberg, Bartok and Berg before I stepped back, exhausted, and let my mind wander and relax with the minimalism of Glass, Nyman and Arvo Part (especially Arvo, who understands the secrets of the universe).

But the single piece of modern music that had the greatest impact on me was Kevin Volans' modest and relatively brief White Man Sleeps. The final movement is novel because the conventional string quartet become so guttural and percussive, and therefore so unconventional. The instruments sound like hornets circling a fallen nest, menacing and swirling and trying to figure the next step. That piece showed me how far the boundaries of so-called "classical music" could be stretched. It's been twenty-five years since I first heard that piece, and nothing has sounded that strikingly innovative since--until Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes.

That bold recommendation comes with a plethora of caveats. This is supremely adventurous modern music that will probably appeal to a very narrow range of music lovers; you will not sit back and relax and listen to it with a langorous grin on your face. It's edgy, violent and startling, and you will jump out of your seat at least once. Buene (pictured below) has composed this music with the intention of capturing images of urban decay, stark industrial architecture, chaos and the ultimate surrender to organic forces. I can easily imagine hearing this music while walking through the ruins of an industrial city in the middle of the night, alone, fear rising up through my legs and into my gut. When I hear the slow, agitated bend of the notes played by the string section, I can almost see the rats running along the power lines. When the percussion strikes loudly and suddenly, I imagine rocks being thrown through the windows of an old deserted factory. Maybe it's me, accidentally knocking over some relic that crashes onto the ground, reminding me that I shouldn't be there. If I had composed Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes, I probably would have called it Places You Shouldn't Go at Night by Yourself.

I've made this music sound joyless, frightening, inaccessible and maybe even a tad annoying, but it's actually exhilarating in many ways. Because it's from 2L Recordings in Norway, it sounds spectacular. As performed by Cikada, a ten-member Norwegian ensemble conducted by Christian Eggen, PC/EL is an incredibly detailed recording that will allow you to easily decipher the individual instruments on the stage and how they interact with one another. This level of musical fidelity is absolutely essential to the interactive feeling you'll have while listening. Ten minutes in, you'll be looking over your shoulder to see who's following you. This is a challenging musical piece, and many of you will not get through it. But for those who are constantly searching for the envelope's edge, this will be an exciting, agitating, nerve-wracking and occasionally lyrical experience--and you can also use it to get those last stubborn houseguests to finally go home.

One more note: I've been admiring 2L Recordings and their commitment to delivering truly unique titles that focus on amazing sound quality and exceptional value. Well, Morten Lindberg has upped the value a notch by including an SACD/CD hybrid disc with the Blu-ray disc. I pulled out the rather hefty booklet from the case, and lo and behold there was another disc beneath it! I then went through all of the previous 2L Blu-rays to see if they all had a hidden disc and only one--Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations--had it. (The upcoming David and Bathsheba also has the bonus disc.) That allows me to hear these incredible recordings on my high-quality CD player as opposed to the cheap Samsung Blu-ray player--and yes, the CD rules and yes, it's an unfair comparison. But it's much easier to make the jump to a new digital format such as Blu-ray audio when companies such as 2L give you this many choices.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Electric Shepherd's The Imitation Garden on CD

After checking over my last dozen or so reviews of up-and-coming indie bands, I've noticed a theme. I keep mentioning time machines, more or less, and how most of these young musicians focus on a specific year of rock as an artistic model. It's like all those 21st century teens walking around in Led Zep tees; rock and roll has folded back on itself and all innovation comes from borrowing liberally from the past and hopefully coming up with something distinctive. Once you've picked 1966 or 1971 or 1978, then it's all just a matter of whether you include The Wink. You know, The Wink is that subtle hint that tells your audience that you know it's 2012--usually conveyed through some modern studio trick such as a digital sample--just so you're adding something new to the musical history archives. But is The Wink actually The Flaw? Shouldn't you just commit to the idea that you're retro, and not come up with ways to distance yourself from your obvious influences?

Some bands avoid The Wink better than others, usually by making a particular recording sound like it was accidentally found in the vaults after several decades of obscurity. I don't think I've heard anyone pull off this trick better than Electric Shepherd. On their new album, The Imitation Garden, this psychedelic jam trio from San Francisco has emerged from their chosen time warp so remarkably intact that you'll think this is one of those '60s garage band reissues from Sundazed Records. You can almost smell the oil stains on the concrete. Do you like spacy vocals dripping in reverb, or dramatic cymbal crescendos that frame the sort of lyrical flourishes that bands like Can and The Doors used as signature touches? Well, settle into your beanbag chairs, cuz Electric Shepherd just pulled into the driveway.

I suppose if The Wink exists in The Imitation Garden, it's that Electric Shepherd's music isn't nearly as drugged out as it sounds. It's full of innovation and intelligence. The jams are challenging and metamorphic, drawing from all those decades of sound and cherry-picking those ideas that seem unexpected and yet logical. Sonny Pearce's drumming, in particular, sounds like Nick Mason after a hundred weekends of drum circles in some Hashbury park. While Mark Nelsen's vocals are borrowed from the first chapter of the Blues-Rock Singer's Primer, his guitar sounds are many--he might be one of those collectors with a room full of heavily-played Rickenbackers. Tommy Anderson's bass, reticent and supportive, is as steady as it is fuzzy.

That description sounds like at least five or six new bands I've heard this year, but what sets Electric Shepherd apart is that they are complete submerged in their musical ideas, as opposed to merely using those sounds as a strategy for defining a specific genre. In other words, these guys aren't saying "Listen to us...don't we sound like one of those cool bands your parents listened to in the '70s?" It's more like, well, these three guys started jamming together and this is the music that flowed from their fingers. While it's certainly informed by '70s blues rock and psychedelia, there is no winking in this music--just playing. While their name is an allusion to Philip K. Dick, not Kurt Vonnegut, Electric Shepherd is as unstuck in time as Kilgore Trout.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An Embarrassment of Riches at Vinyl Nirvana

I stopped by the Vinyl Nirvana website today and was surprised at how many worthy vintage turntables David Archimbault had for sale. As you probably already know, David is one of the leading restoration specialists in the US, and he always has a handful of AR, Thorens and Merrill TTs on sale. But this ridiculous...I could easily own any one of these and be deliriously happy.

First up is this rare red AR The Turntable, which David has dubbed "The Spitfire," with an SME arm and an M-H speed control. This is just $1895 plus shipping.

Next he has a Merrill Heirloom turntable with a Linn Akito arm for just $1495 plus shipping. This is one of the early Merrills, which were based on heavily-modified AR designs. George Merrill went on to make more ambitious designs, many of which are considered the finest turntables ever made.

This one really caught my eye--it's a customized Thorens TD-150 with a tiger maple plinth and an armboard that's made from tiger's maple but stained red. It's stunningly beautiful, especially those dovetail joints. It's just $995 plus shipping and comes with the legendary Rega RB-300 arm.

Finally we have a gorgeous Thorens TD-160 with a perfect African mahogany plinth crafted by David's own plinth-maker. This is about as mint as a TD-160 gets. It comes with a Rega RB-251 tonearm and is just $1295 plus shipping.

David has a few others available such as a beautifully restored AR-XA for $325 plus arm, a Thorens TD-150 with another beautiful custom base and a nearly mint AR ES-1 with a walnut base. You can see them all here. Amazing gear, David, as usual!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Souvenir Parts I & II on Blu-ray Audio

Just a couple of days ago I turned in my annual year-end wrap-up for my Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. If you follow that column, you'll know that I give out awards for Best New Release in the LP Format, Best New Reissue in the LP Format, Best Cartridge and Best Turntable. (Most years I throw in some sort of special one-time category just to make it interesting.)

For this year's Vinyl Anachronist Award for Analog Excellence--spoiler alert--I'm choosing the fantastic "hi-rez" LPs from 2L Recordings in Norway. Here's a preview of what I said in the column, which will appear on the Perfect Sound Forever website around December 1:

"I now own three of [Morton Lindberg's] “DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180 gram audiophile grade vinyl” recordings—Souvenir Part 1, Souvenir Part 2 and Quiet Winter Night—and I can’t say enough about the overall sound quality, the clean and quiet pressings, the outstanding performances, the novel arrangements of the musicians and microphones and even the recording venues, which are primarily Norwegian churches. So I award all three with the award."

I go on to add:

"I’ll also give a brief plug to the Blu-ray audio disc versions of these titles and the incredible value they offer. For instance, the two Souvenir recordings are available on a single Blu-ray at a significantly lower price. One of the Blu-ray titles, Thomas T. A. Tellefsen’s Complete Piano Works, fits over three hours of music on a single disc. Yes, they’re trying to trick you into loving Blu-ray."

In talking about the Blu-ray Audio version of the two Souvenir recordings, I'm not sure what to add. (The review of the first one is here, and the second is here.) These are truly magnificent new classical recordings that stretch the sonic possibilities of the medium. With 2L's Blu-ray recordings, however, I'm noticing the following advantages:

1. These recordings are quiet, ghostly quiet. Even CDs and SACDs sound noisy in comparison. Some audiophiles may think they're hearing less air, presence and detail in these recordings, but the vast improvement in dynamic contrasts--upon careful and measured listening sessions--will reveal the opposite.

2. When I said "Yes, they're trying to trick you into loving Blu-ray," I meant it as a huge compliment. The sheer value you get with these recordings, especially in the context of the two-fer-one deal you get with Souvenir, is staggering. If Blu-ray Audio gains popularity in the coming years, these deals may disappear. You're not going to find this high level of sonic performance for these prices anywhere else. Go Blu-ray now.

There is one minor disadvantage. I still have to make qualifications (aka bitch) about my playback equipment, the now-famous $68 Samsung Blu-ray player. I made an important discovery last week concerning the Samsung: as a redbook CD player, it absolutely sucks. I'd rather use a vintage Sony CDP-101 than the Samsung to play CDs. Unlike the Sony, which was bright and harsh in the worst digital way, the Samsung sounds muddied and muffled and furry and fuzzy with CDs. Throwing one of these Blu-ray Audio discs into the Samsung is like noon on a SoCal day in early June; the overcast skies burn off and the beautiful California sun shines through. But I still have my doubts that the Samsung offers anywhere near the same sound quality as the Oppo universal players, for instance. So the disadvantage is the sudden and expensive urge I have to invest more in this format.

Morten Lindberg of 2L keeps sending Blu-ray discs my way, however, and I don't want him to stop. I just received Stale Kleiberg's David and Bathsheba and Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes (a very strange avant-garde piece, and I mean strange in a very wondeful way) on Blu-ray, and even the Samsung can't muddy up the sheer brilliance of these recordings. Morten even sent along a hybrid CD/SACD of Kenneth Karlsson's The View Was All in Lines, so I can enjoy that with my reference Unison Research CDE CD player.

An excellent universal digital player or at least a high-quality DAC is in my near future, and Blu-ray is to blame. If you have the capabilities, take the plunge and buy at least one of 2L's releases. I think the Souvenir is the one that will convince you of the excellence of the format.