From Quark to Quasar
I rarely review music or recordings in these pages. I'm not interested in validation or refutation of my musical listening choices. However, I do tend to write fairly often about the production values behind both live and recorded sound; it is with this outlook that I approach a review of "From Quark to Quasar", a compilation released by my friend George Koumantzelis on his Aeolian Music Works label.
First of all, I have to say that I love the honesty of these recordings. I really like the sense that these are verbatim recordings of real performances. There are lots of little cues that tell the listener that these songs were actually recorded as performed by the artists rather than assembled piecemeal by a technician. To me, this is the way music should be heard: as performed. I am so tired of hearing music that has been filtered through some kind of weird perverted engineering process to remove every breath, every bit of background noise, every misplaced note, in fact every single cue that would tell the listener that the recording was made by musicians rather than anal-retentive recording technicians. Think back to the excitement you experienced the first time you heard Led Zeppelin I or Wheels of Fire, both of which were thrilling because of the occasional imperfection.
That's not to say that From Quark To Quasar is not well-recorded, nor that the performances are sloppy. The CD captures a musical aesthetic that originates from a time and place which has sadly been left in the dustbin of history by the music industry. These performances would have been right at home, and warmly received, at the Fillmore West under the direction of Bill Graham or Chet Helms. The musical forms are simple - mostly blues-based or modal vamps - but there's a joyous unselfconscious sense of experimentation that permeates every tune.
The fact that the form and style of the music pays homage to an earlier time, though, does not mean that the music sounds dated. While the guitars hew fairly closely to the classic psychedelic or ancestral heavy metal distortion sound (think Jorma Kaukonen and Jimmy Page), other musical elements are decidedly modern sounding. Imagine mixing slap bass with psychedelic guitar and keyboards. And one of the guitarists (although named in the credits by location in the stereo field, my listening setup is mono by default) cuts loose with bursts of shredding that would have turned Alvin Lee's head back in the day.
The recording quality is pristine, not in an engineered-to-the-point-of-blandness kind of way, but in the sense that it captures every nuance of the performance. If you listen closely, you can hear past the instruments to the performers themselves. All of those subtle cues that get cut from modern recordings by noise gates and digital editing - the hand on the strings just before a blistering solo, the spoken cues from one musician to another, even some of the chatter before and after a take - are all there. Ironically, rather than detracting from the quality of the music - as conventional wisdom would have one believe - these little sonic cues reinforce the sense that this is music played in the moment with joy and spontaneity.