Written By: Alex-Fi
2014 was an interesting one with respect to fidelity. I of course reviewed a number of abysmal sounding records due to Loudness War engineering practices, but I also had the pleasure of listening to some killer sounding records too. And even though I thought this year was by no means a break out for dynamics, I definitely see a trend of artists considering more than volume when they enter the studio. Time will only tell.
In any event, I would like to formally debut our “Best and Worst Sounding Records” of the year list as a new Angry Metal-Fi staple. And since year end lists have to come in units of ten (don’t hate the player, hate the game), this list is going to name the top five best and worst sounding records of the year.
Now listen, I’m quite aware of the fact that if you don’t like an album musically, a high DR score isn’t really going to sway your overall opinion of it, nor does it automatically mean the record sounds sublime. Conversely, if you’ve had one particular record on heavy rotation throughout the year, then obviously its brickwalled master isn’t preventing you from enjoying it either. That’s why DR scores were left off this list intentionally, since it’s not the score that makes or breaks a record, but its sound. Ok, enough talk, let’s get to it. Drum roll, please.
Opeth // Pale Communion – One of my main gripes with Angry Metal Guy’s awesome review of Pale Communion was his glib comment about its production. He equated it to “…just icing on the cake.” Uh, more like winning the lottery if you ask me. [I keep telling you, you need to get out more. Seriously. – Dave] What I found most impressive about Pale Communion is that it’s so tonally balanced, no one sounds out of place yet everyone in the band is clearly and accurately accounted for. Couple that with Paschal Byrne’s wonderful master, which doesn’t muck with Wilson’s already incredible mix and this album epitomizes great production. Whether you’re a fan of Opeth‘s new musical direction or not is frankly immaterial to the discussion at hand, since no matter how hard you try to deny it, they have never sounded this good. Period.
Horrendous // Ecdysis – When Damien Herring of Horrendous emailed me about what his production plans were for the band’s yet to be titled sophomore release, he set my expectations extremely high. Thankfully, he delivered in spades. But don’t take my word for it. Many people have noticed how killer Ecdysis sounds, including AMG staffer L. Sauder in his fantastic review. But I actually think Ecdysis was summed up quite nicely by a fan, Chris Cox, off of the record’s Bandcamp page, “Against a backdrop of over-produced and comically extreme death metal, Horrendous stand out as an authentic, powerful, and talented act. They emphasize songwriting and masterful production over speed and loudness, and the result is a record with real depth—conceptually, emotionally, and aurally. This is top-shelf death metal, and an album I keep coming back to.“ Couldn’t have said it better myself Chris!
Nightingale // Retribution – While the Century Media mandated mix is solid despite industry standard compression levels, as with last year’s Witherscape release, Dan has again included a digital version of the fully dynamic vinyl mix on the CD. And Dan “The Man” Swanö spared absolutely no expense (or frequency range) in articulating Retribution’s artistic vision. This ’80s inspired goth rock beast simply sounds superb in vinyl mix form, with gobs of tastefully infused synth coupled with a gorgeous melodious sheen. If you are looking for a record to just rock out to, this is the one.
While Heaven Wept // Suspended at Aphelion – Steel Druhm said it best in his exhaustive review of While Heaven Wept‘s latest, “The sound is phenomenal, with a clear intent to deliver a rich dynamic experience with real peaks and valleys. Founder Tom Phillips remarked that he was well aware of the ‘Loudness War’ prevalent in music these days and wanted to deliver an album audiophiles could get behind. Mission accomplished, Tom.” Mission accomplished, indeed. Keep in mind that before this release, While Heaven Wept records were just more victims of the Loudness War. But not on Suspended at Aphelion, as Philips has completely embraced a minimalist approach when it comes to compression and brickwall limiting on this record. Now their dense orchestration and large scale compositions have room to breathe, resulting in a record that just sounds and feels that much more alive. Definitely one of this year’s best sounding releases.
Omit // Medusa’s Truth Part I – This choice I suspect might be more controversial among AMG staffers and readers alike, but Dave and I both stand by it. In Noctus‘ in-depth review of Omit‘s Medusa Truth Part I, he both lauds and criticizes some of the production choices made on the band’s second full length outing. But I submit that most of Noctus‘ criticism were really aesthetic disagreements with Tom Simonsen’s mix rather than actual technical deficiencies in the recording itself. The fact is this album sounds incredible, and to my ears, it was clearly Tom’s intention to not bring the guitars to the fore in an effort to both highlight Cecilie Langlie’s brilliant vocal performance as well as maintain a certain melodious subtly throughout. Regardless, this record absolutely deserves your undivided attention, and if Noctus‘ great review didn’t convince you to listen to it, hopefully adding it to this list will motivate you to give it a spin.
Fallujah // The Flesh Prevails – Before you ask, no, I don’t have a vendetta against this record. But the fact is this record sounds like crap – plain and simple. Look, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck…you get the picture. I encourage you to read all of AMG’s reviews of The Flesh Prevails, both the standard master one as well as the higher DR10 one too. Pay particular attention to the comments section where a lot of excellent discussion took place between staffers, fans, and the band’s engineer Zach Ohren. Yet with all that has been said at this point, the truth is even with Zack graciously offering a higher dynamic master to AMG staffers, I contend this record was ruined the day he and the band mixed it. The only bright side of this whole affair is hopefully the band and Zach will take the criticism they received to heart and re-evaluate their production goals the next time around.
Allegaeon // Elements of the Infinite – Allegaeon‘s Elements of the Infinite is one of those records that makes me literately cry. This is bar none the best Allegaeon record to date, and its success on the Billboard charts [What is this “Billboard” you speak of? – Dave] is a testament to that fact. But you know what else is a fact? This record sounds so compressed you don’t even need to see the DR score to figure out what Infinite’s production is all about. To tell you the truth, around track four is where I start to get a headache because of how badly this record is bricked. What’s even worse, because of Infinite’s obvious commercial success, I suspect the next one will sound just as bad. It’s a darn shame too because this album could be so much more with just a few points of dynamics added to the mix. C’est la vie.
Anaal Nathrakh // Desideratum – At this point, my expectations are set so low when a new Anaal Nathrakh record comes out, it’s almost not fair to put Desideratum on this list to begin with. Look, I fully accept that Hunt and Kenney are professional provocateurs, whose aural medium consists of black, industrial, grind, and everything in between as Grymm outlined in his most excellent review. I get that. Yet when all your songs are Skrillex loud, the level of depth each song can convey diminishes substantially. And once you get past Desideratum’s initial shock value, the whole record comes off as just one homogenous wall of noise, where every track bleeds into the next to the point where they all become one big blur. It’s a darn shame too, since both of these gentlemen are clearly very talented, but they’ve got to understand that volume only carries weight when it used effectively, not splattered all over just for loudness sake. Until then, these guys are doing what everyone else is doing, which isn’t very shocking at all.
Insomnium // Shadows of the Dying Sun – If there was just one record this year that is an absolute poster child for the Loudness War, it’s this one. Shadow‘s mix and master makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. None. Yes, they play melodic death metal, but as Steel mentioned in his review, this album clearly relies more heavily on its gothic, melodic elements than its death ones. Yet the master sounds more akin to the Anaal Nathrakh release above it, with most tracks sounding washed out and lifeless. I suspect though that if these gentlemen actually bumped up the level of dynamics by a few points, not only would Shadows sound an order of magnitude better, but Steel‘s review might also come up by at least half a point too. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
The Devin Townsend Project // Z2 – It is with a heavy heart that I have to put this album on this list (or at least on this half of it), both as someone who absolutely adores anything Devin Townsend touches and who has had the pleasure of meeting the man in person on several occasions. But unfortunately, here we are. When Fisting Andrew Golota gave Z2 a shellacking in his review, what he didn’t know is that the promo he was digesting doesn’t even remotely sound like the final CDs. Why? Well, it seems there were a few discrepancies in the mix late in the game and as a result, HevyDevy took it upon himself to compress the living daylights out of it. The net result is Z2 sounds terrible compared to the highly dynamic promo that went out for review. You’re right, this isn’t even close to the worse sounding record of the year, but Z2 serves as a bittersweet reminder of just how much sway the Loudness War has on artists even established entities like Devin Townsend. Obviously, it’s his music, which means it’s his prerogative to compress this record into oblivion, but I truly believe years from now HevyDevy will look back at this decision with a lot of regret.
In the end, the main impetus behind a subjective list like this is really to get you in the habit of critically listening to metal. You may agree or agree to disagree with our assessments above, but if you critically listen to just one of the records on this list, it served its purpose well. Happy New Year!