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All Roads Lead to Avalon

All Roads Lead to Avalon

Between 1972 and 1982, British Roxy Music released eight studio albums that were so influential it’s hard to imagine how pop music would have evolved without them—certainly it would have been less interesting and less colorful. Roxy’s output was consistent enough that career-spanning compilations would seem to be in order. In 2012 Virgin released The Complete Studio Recordings, a 9-CD box set that included a disc of B-sides and other ephemera. Given the resurgence of vinyl, wax was bound enter the picture, and 2015’s The Studio Albums contained eight platters that were remastered at half-speed by Miles Showell at Abbey Road Studios. A recent slate of reissues shares some provenance with The Studio Albums, but read carefully. This year half-speed masters by Miles Showell and Abbey Road Studios have again entered the marketplace—but that’s because the Abbey Road team remastered the vinyl a second time. As with the box set, these albums were cut from high-resolution digital archive files transferred directly from the original master tapes, but these aren’t carbon copies of the box set. According to Martyn James, “The new cuts are taken from the masters that Miles created for the 2014 box set, but they were brought up to date and cut on a different lathe, using new, updated software and equipment. The new lathe that Miles is now using is of a much better quality and therefore Miles was able to deliver a superior cut to the 2014 titles. Additionally, we moved all of the studio albums from GZ to Optimal for these new cuts. It is our belief that Optimal press and produce the best vinyl in Europe (if not the world).” Instead of combining all the titles in a box set, Virgin/UME is making each LP available individually. Rather than spring for a deluxe edition, then, consumers can pick and choose their favorite titles. 

Roxy’s eponymous debut album (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973) are products from the early days of glam rock, when flamboyantly dressed musicians tried to create music as outrageous as their outfits, but even within that framework Roxy carved out a unique sound. At times Bryan Ferry sang like an off-kilter fifties rocker, an impression that was enhanced when he pounded out rock ’n’ roll chords on an acoustic piano, and a rhythm section propelled by drummer Paul Thompson offered a firm foundation. It was the layers sprinkled over top—the handiwork of Eno (synthesizer, tape effects), Andy Mackay (saxophones, oboe), and Phil Manzanera (electric guitar)—that threw a curve ball into Roxy’s sound. Some instruments seemed antiquated while Eno’s synth sounded as futuristic as it looked, and the sounds coming out of those instruments were tweaked in every which way. The front-line instruments sometimes battled for the foreground, yet it says something about the level of artistry involved that, in spite of all the chaos, the whole thing sounded very musical—and fun. Rarely is music this hip so playful.

After Eno departed, the multi-instrumentalist Eddie Jobson assumed a key role for the next three studio albums, Stranded (1973), Country Life (1974), and Siren (1975). Along with electronic keyboards, Jobson played electric violin, which, like Andy Mackay’s oboe, gave an old instrument a modern twist. Gradually the band became more polished and streamlined. In part the more straightforward sound might have been a natural progression, but Roxy also made a clear attempt to broaden their audience, especially in America, which was slow to pick up on quirkier groups from across the pond. The leadoff single from Siren, “Love is the Drug,” has radio-friendly written all over it, but at the same time it’s so Roxy Music, with lyrics so deliberately corny (“I say go/She says yes/Dim the lights/You can guess the rest”) that there’s no way Ferry could sing them with a straight face—which tells us that Roxy played the radio game on their terms.

Roxy Music was one of many veteran bands to lose their spark in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The lethargy of Manifesto (1979) and Flesh + Blood (1980) was underscored by some uninspired covers, including a version of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” that never leaves the ground. At times during Flesh and Blood you hear a group feeling its way toward a new sound but never putting all the pieces together. The first few bars of “More Than This,” the leadoff track for the next album, 1982’s Avalon, tells us where the music was headed. Immediately the dreamy, seductive spell is set, and that mood is sustained throughout the record. 

For reasons that quite possibly have to do with the original recordings, while listening to the half-speeds I noticed an uptick between the sonics on Roxy’s eponymous debut album and their third LP, Stranded. (I still haven’t been able to get my hands on a half-speed of For Your Pleasure.) What I’ll dub the three “middle-period albums” (Stranded, Country Life, and Siren) impressed me musically and sonically, with high marks for the level of detail emerging from inside the grooves. The new half-speed version of the best song on Siren, “Both Ends Burning,” sounded cleaner and much more open than it did on the original US pressing, and Eddie Jobson’s keyboards had a stronger presence, which in turn brought a more sinister tone to the song. And while the highs were more pronounced, the half-speed also boasted a firm, clearly defined bottom end, including John Gustafson’s aggressive bass lines. By comparison, Manifesto and Flesh + Blood sounded anemic and less open.

Finally, I was quite fond of the half-speed of Avalon. Listening to “The Space Between,” I was impressed by the full, detailed, and vivid sound leaping out of the grooves. If the same song on my Robert Ludwig-mastered original US pressing of Avalon packed slightly more of a punch, well, remember, that’s setting the bar quite high. Also, on an album that contains a thousand small details, it impressed me how minutiae like the incidental percussion on “The Space Between” came through with so much clarity on the half-speed. That attention to detail characterized the half-speeds in general and deepened my appreciation of several titles, including Avalon. I’m greedy—I want the Ludwig-mastered original of Avalon and the half-speed. For thirty bucks a pop, you can afford to be greedy too.

Tags: MUSIC ROCK

By Jeff Wilson

This will take some explaining, but I can connect the dots between pawing through LPs at a headshop called Elysian Fields in Des Moines, Iowa, as a seventh grader, and becoming the Music Editor for The Absolute Sound. At that starting point—around 1970/71—Elysian Fields had more LPs than any other store in Des Moines. Staring at all the colorful covers was both tantalizing and frustrating. I had no idea who most of the artists were, because radio played only a fraction of what was current. To figure out what was going on, I realized that I needed to build a record collection—and as anyone who’s visited me since high school can testify, I succeeded. Record collecting was still in my blood when, starting in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati Public Library book sale suddenly had an Elysian Fields quantity of LPs from people who’d switched to CDs. That’s where I met fellow record hawk Mark Lehman, who preceded me as music editor of TAS. Mark introduced me to Jonathan Valin, whose 1993 detective novel The Music Lovers depicts the battles between record hawks at library sales. That the private eye in the book, Harry Stoner, would stumble upon a corpse or two while unraveling the mystery behind the disappearance of some rare Living Stereo platters made perfect sense to me. After all, record collecting is serious business. Mark knew my journalistic experience included concert reviews for The Cincinnati Enquirer and several long, sprawling feature articles in the online version of Crawdaddy. When he became TAS music editor in 2008, he contacted me about writing for the magazine. I came on board shortly after the latest set of obituaries had been written for vinyl—and, as fate had it, right when the LP started to make yet another unexpected comeback. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling to document all the record companies pressing vinyl. Small outfits were popping up world-wide, and many were audiophile-oriented, plus already existing record companies began embracing the format again. Trying to keep track of everything made me feel, again, like that overwhelmed seventh grader in Elysian Fields, and as Music Editor I’ve found that keeping my finger on the pulse of the music world also requires considerable detective work. I’ve never had a favorite genre, but when it comes time to sit down and do some quality listening, for me nothing beats a well-recorded small-group jazz recording on vinyl. If a stereo can give me warmth and intimacy, tonal accuracy, clear imaging, crisp-sounding cymbals, and deep, woody-sounding bass, then I’m a happy camper.

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