Bear with me. It jumps and skitters around, but it’s about the new remix (from scratch!) of Jethro Tull’s 1972 album Thick as a Brick, it really is.
Some years ago when my band, Attic of Love, was recording it’s extended length album “Lessons,” we booked time with a guy named Bob (name changed to protect, as they say, the innocent) in his little studio in Albany, New York.
Now we all liked Bob a lot. He was a cool dude. He had nice equipment in his bitchin’ little studio. And, well, he liked us. An engineer gets big points for that. He’s the go to guy in the middle of the night during mix-down when you start obsessively questioning every note and you need someone to stroke your ego and tell you, no it’s all just great, just fantastic, the best thing since the stonework of the Pharaohs. But Bob struggled with some serious disabilities. Most of the time we ignored his disabilities, pretended we didn’t notice, the same way you wait politely when someone with a stutter speaks to you, or hold the door for someone passing you in their wheelchair. We were nothing if not sensitive guys back then. (Right.)
What were those disabilities? Two forms of the most insidious love: One for a woman. And one for weed. I have nothing personally against either, in fact I’m happy to partake from time to time of at least one. But Bob’s attachment to these two intimacies quickly became problematic for us — especially during the mix-down of the album.
Tricky situation. We’d be listening to a song, pointing out little adjustments here and there, and suddenly our engineer had vanished.
“So, Bob, I think that right here the guitars are a little too brittle sounding…”
“Where’d Bob go?”
“Dammit, he was right there a second ago.”
A quick search of the studio (okay it was basically one room, but it’s a tribute to the extent of his disabilities that he could be so hard to find inside one room) would eventually find him curled up in a corner sucking away on one or the other of his two obsessions. Or he’d be wearing that poor girl like a hat. Or a full form body suit. Sometimes you couldn’t see him at all, you just looked for the densest mass of smoke, walked toward its center, and started grabbing bodies. Then we’d have the awkward task of extracting him, toothpicking his bleary eyes, propping him up back in his engineer’s chair, gently repositioning his artist’s hands over the soundboard, and reconvening the session.
“So, Bob, I think right here the guitars are a little too brittle sounding…”
Working through such distractions could be challenging, and actually extended the production time of that album by… good lord, I don’t even want to say.
But it wasn’t just lost time. Sometimes it was lost work, too.
“Better Use of Silence” is the somewhat facetious title of what ended up being the fifteenth and final track on the album. The producer on our previous album had once critiqued our songs by saying we needed “a better use of silence.” Maybe what he meant was that we should shut the fuck up, but at any rate it became a catchphrase within the band, and so it had to be a song. I was fond of the song because I wrote the lyrics in free verse. I don’t think anyone does that much.
One night we spent a good eight hours straight mixing that song down, and by the end of the night it was just right. It was bright and dark, and crackled with life. It was polished and raw. Everything just came together, gelled. It was the greatest experience of synergy I’ve ever known, as disparate parts meshed to create a powerful, greater, whole. I remember us all being excited about it. Bob ripped a test copy to listen to for the next few days and I brought it home.
Back at the house when I popped it into the stereo I had goose bumps. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Someone listening with me said: “Wow, I didn’t realize how emotional that song was.”
So we returned to the studio with renewed enthusiasm and got to work on finishing up the project.
Funny thing at the studio. When we fired up the board, Better Use of Silence was lackluster and rough. The rhythms sounded strange, the instrumentation seemed uneven, didn’t quite feel right…
Somewhere in the haze of smoke and distraction, all that work was gone. Bob insisted we were listening to the mix with which we had left off, but we all knew it wasn’t true. And try as we might, within the limited amount of time we had to finish the album mix, we never quite managed to recreate that previous mix. Maybe we got close. I mean I like the track as it is, and all. It’s all right. It’s just not what it was. Not what I know it could be.
The new release of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick… well, it’s all right. It’s just not what it was. Not what I know it could be.
Here’s the deal. Thick as a Brick is one of those timeless albums that’s so unique it sounds like it could have been recorded this year or 40 years ago (which it was). And the original sound engineer had his hands full. Not only is the album one uninterrupted song, but its just a mess of eccentric instrumentation. With all the overdubbing on this album, the five piece band extended it’s instrumentation to multiple electric guitars, multiple flutes and vocals, acoustic guitar, lute, organ, piano, harpsichord, tympani and glockenspiel in addition to drums, saxophone, violin, and trumpet. Robin Black, the engineer, had his work cut out for him, but all said he did an astonishing job.
Then this new version of the album was released for its fortieth anniversary. The original audio tracks were taken and remixed entirely from scratch, by non other than Steven Wilson.
If you don’t know who Wilson is, he’s the guy who’s apparently taken it upon himself to single-handedly redeem the progressive rock movement of the seventies, and bring it up to date respectability. Not only has he been recording fine albums both with his band Porcupine Tree and as a solo performer, but he’s also a brilliant studio engineer, a technophile whose mixes in 5.1 surround sound have won awards. And so he’s been going through several iconic bands of the past (King Crimson, ELP, and Jethro Tull), refurbishing the audio up to modern standards while making every effort to retain the aesthetic position of the originals.
His first Tull project, a remix of Aqualung, was astonishingly good. It resurrected music I’ve loved since I was a kid, but thought I’d never be able to listen to again.
So it was with very high expectations that I listened to the new improved Thick as a Brick.
There are definitely some positives. The quality of the overall sound is better; the richness of tone brings out details in the performance that might have been missed. And the main problem with original–an unfortunate discrepancy in sound quality (and pitch!) from side A to side B–is eliminated. But after that, the better use of silence syndrome kicks in. And it becomes clear the difference between good and brilliant can all be in the mix.
There are inexplicable misses like important flute riffs that almost disappear in the mix. There are questionable decisions like emphasizing the wrong vocal track, or not balancing them adequately to get the blend of the original. And then there are more subtle gaffs that actually do more damage:
Some instrumental passages must have been a bitch to mix, truly. In the original, they work, building to orgasmic levels of improvisation, each part contributing synergistically to the whole. In the new improved mix these passages almost come off as uneven and disjointed. On the second half of the album there’s a cool flute/drum solo that just falls apart in the new mix because the flute line goes too long, where in the original it was cut off in a place that made aesthetic sense. And then at the end of the drum section—where it builds and builds and builds in the original mix to increasing volume and intensity, the tympani gradually thundering in a crescendo that explodes into the ecstatic catharsis of Hammond organ— in the new mix it builds unevenly, the tympani coming in too abruptly. It’s a disappointment every time I hear it.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good. It’s still one of my all-time favorite rock albums. I’m even still a fan of Steven Wilson.
But for future projects of this sort, I’m begging you Steve, and you too Ian, please listen carefully, and remember A Better use of Silence.