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Home arrow Reviews arrow Albums arrow Roger Waters: Amused to Death - 2015 surround mix
Roger Waters: Amused to Death - 2015 surround mix Print E-mail
Written by Ed Lopez-Reyes   
Thursday, 06 August 2015

Roger Waters - Amused To Death 2015Roger Waters' Amused to Death has just been released in a variety of formats, including a 5.1 surround sound version found on Blu-ray and (just about to be released) on SACD (Super Audio CD). Our review here of the 5.1 surround sound version of Amused to Death is partly adapted from an original review of its world premiere at Princeton University last year.

In a discussion about 'presidential candidate' Donald Trump, political columnist Matt Bai wrote recently of the many ways in which the tycoon's candidacy reminds him of social critic Neil Postman's admonishment of increased susceptibility to 'programming'. Bai made reference to Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, the book that served as a major source of inspiration for Roger Waters' album, the similarly titled Amused to Death.

Today, that work is eerily topical: Amused to Death could not have been re-released at a more relevant time.

Released this past July 24th, the 5.1 surround sound mix of Amused to Death was actually premiered at Princeton University on April 14th of last year. The press at that event walked away with a universal sense that James Guthrie's work on Roger Waters' epic album made it sound so contemporary and new it would be difficult to describe to anyone outside the three or four dozen that were privileged enough to be there.

What the audience heard that day at Princeton University was as close to a final, published product as you could get before the actual release just a few days ago; a "pre-manufacturing" or "pre-production" version of the album just before it went into mass production. No surprise Guthrie found the delays of more than one year, which were caused by a number of issues including Waters' work on The Wall Live film and competing promotional endeavours, understandable but 'very frustrating'.

At the Princeton University event, Guthrie explained that Amused to Death is an album that took about four-to-five years to put together – overlapping a great deal of change in recording technology, which meant that (given the recording period) Waters worked his way from analog to digital sources: going from 24 to 48 tracks, and eventually to a Sony 3348 multi-track recording system. As a result, Guthrie knew he faced an unusually complicated project in remastering the album – he even warned Waters they would not know if they really had a project until they were deep into the endeavour.

Having to gather sources from all these scattered tapes in the United Kingdom was part of the challenge – and one that Waters and Guthrie agreed to pursue largely as a result of fan interest: in fact, the reason a 5.1 surround sound version of Amused to Death is now complete is that, following an announcement that an SACD version of the album would be released, Guthrie was flooded with requests for the 5.1 surround sound product. Guthrie explained: "I told Roger this had to be done with the art alone in mind; we couldn't count on it being profitable." Yet, when you listen to the final result, it seems it should command reasonable financial success: the album has been reworked in a way that truly transcends time and elevates its status as a Waters accomplishment along the level of The Wall. Guthrie is credited with delivering the same transcendent element to The Wall itself so his accomplishment here is a continuity of his unique brand of work – and everyone from audiophiles to even the most casual fans will be able to appreciate this in Amused to Death viscerally.

On this new version of the album, the music and the effects breathe. The distribution of vocals, relative to the instruments and the effects, deliver an immersive experience that is much more emotive and engaging – lifting each track from "song" status to a more substantive piece within a larger, dramatic structure. If you purchased this album in 1992 and have played it on occasion since, you will be blown away by how different the 5.1 surround sound experience is… and how NEW it really sounds.

The album has aged well… you could make a case the album HASN'T aged though in truth much of that should perception should be credited to the actual remix. The melodies, the structure, the sound effects, the composition – and the production quality – have always been great. The 5.1 surround version unleashes its full potential and gives you a sense of novelty that is rarely matched in re-mixes, re-releases, and re-masters.

This accomplishment can be attributed to two people and the teams they surround themselves with: Roger Waters and the calibre of musicians on the album, as well as Guthrie and assistant engineer Joel Plante. This synergy sustains the Pink Floyd brand and is the reason Guthrie has become such a prominent player in his production role for the band. In a sense, what Storm Thorgerson delivered in terms of imagery, Guthrie delivers in terms of production quality, improvements (that will continue evolving as technology advances), and overall audio-visual gate-keeping.

As the album began to play to play at Princeton University, the absence of hiss (which was never pronounced or palpable on "Amused to Death") was impressive given the volume and range capability of the system being used to project the album in its 5.1 surround sound glory. The clarity of the crescendo at the album's onset was absorbing, but it is Jeff Beck's screeching yet bluesy and deep guitar melody, kicking in aggressively, that really smacks the listener hard about a minute and a few seconds into What God Wants, Part I, bringing home the point that this is the resurrection of a real (and under-recognized) masterpiece.

The mix makes the fuller-band-experience the star: it is much easier to recognize and appreciate the contributions made by a diverse set of artists that included Graham Broad, Denny Fongheiser, Jeff Porcaro and Luis Conte on drums and percussion; as well as Beck, Steve Lukather, Geoff Whitehorn, Andy Fairweather Low, Tim Pierce, B.J. Cole, Rick DiFonso, and Bruce Gaitsch on guitars. Each deserves to be mentioned – the remix really allows the guitar parts to drive the album's peaks and valleys. If you are a guitar player and/or fan, the surround sound remix will be spot-on. There are many other musicians that deserve praise and who can be given proper recognition following the new surround mix, such as Don Henley, whose vocals are far more noticeable on "Watching TV."

The albums peaks, after What God Wants, Part I, include The Bravery of Being Out of Range (check out Fongheiser's punch on the track: a true drum monster of a track that was exceptionally well-received at the Newport Folk Festival on the same day this re-release came out), and Three Wishes (quite possibly one of the most solid tracks in Waters' solo career and one which definitely illustrates Guthrie's intense and unmatchable attention to detail).

Another important aspect of the remix is that a number of elements were added to some tracks, e.g., in Perfect Sense, Part I and on The Bravery of Being Out of Range, bringing the album entirely back to Waters' original vision. If the listener has an ambitious imagination, these elements and many others that now stand out with greater clarity give hints of what Pink Floyd may have sounded like with Roger Waters in 1992. This may be a very personal observation – but the remix seems to flesh out bits that sound a great deal like what the classic Pink Floyd line-up may have sounded like in that period, playing on an album between A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, with Waters contributing the weight of his vision and musical prowess in the hypothetical, reunited band. Any appreciable measure of this is the result of the potential 'stretch-of-the-imagination' Waters' gigantic presence on the two pre-Gilmour era albums (The Wall and The Final Cut) and the technology of the time (1992) combined can compel, i.e., had Pink Floyd, as a quartet in the Amused to Death era, approached an album (this album?) together, at least some minor parts that this remix highlights may reflect what they may have sounded like – and it has to do a great deal with the texture it enriches. Of course, some of this is also particularly palpable in the 5.1 surround sound version which is one reason the listener should take the time to absorb that a few times before relegating the recording to more accessible and portable mediums moving forward.

The details that have been given new life in the remix frame the elements Waters brought to Pink Floyd most vividly. The additional elements, including samples of 'HAL 9000' from 2001: A Space Odyssey, (which director Stanley Kubrick had infamously declined to yield any rights for but have now managed their way onto the new remix), cement Waters' vision for this work more clearly.

The 5.1 experience is goosebump-inducing. And if you are not keen on reality TV and the general direction entertainment has taken – not to mention the escalating convergence of entertainment, politics, and news – then you will find Waters' disdain for visual illiteracy in the early 1990s a great fit today.

This is a remix that should be approached as you would a new album – the quality Guthrie delivers deserves that. Since this is Waters' most recent studio (rock) album, it still is, in many ways, his 'new one'. But with another one reportedly in the pipeline, it may be time to re-familiarize with Amused to Death and to embrace the stronger sense of continuity between the twain, which Guthrie facilitates by closing all the gaps one anticipates on account of evolving recording technology between 1992 and 2015, or whenever Waters delivers his next album (which is apparently not that far off either - and our money is on a 2016 release of this, coinciding with a tour, albeit not on the same grand scale of The Wall's recent sojourn).

Amused to Death deserves a much more prominent place in the Pink Floyd and solo band members' catalogue. Guthrie's work on the album has placed its sound and its quality in an entirely different context – a contemporary one. This is pure candy for the ears but it boasts the soul of something much more relevant. It deserves a stature commensurate with the attributes it boasts as an artistic piece but also as a thoroughly revised and fleshed out sound engineering project in this remastered state.

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