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Gavin Greig [userpic]

Mono :: Stereo :: Aero, or, 5.1 Revisited

November 18th, 2004 (09:32 pm)
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According to Jean Michel Jarre the future of music is 5.1 surround sound. At this stage in the game, that may well elicit a "Well, duh!" from my gentle reader, but a certain lassitude in committing to a particular technology is understandable, particularly given that M. Jarre is old enough to remember the commercial triumph that was quadrophonic sound.

Anyway, Jean Michel has gone about committing by recording what is effectively a greatest hits album. It has more new tracks than the average greatest hits album (three as opposed to one-if-you're lucky), but it is a greatest hits nonetheless. What's a wee bit different about it is that it has been entirely re-recorded, from the ground up, in 5.1 sound and is released in a dual DVD/CD package at a normal album sort of price.

Apparently it is the first album to be entirely recorded for 5.1 sound (as opposed to coming off the concert mixing board, or being reconstructed from the masters for 5.1). I'm a bit surprised to hear that, and I'm not quite clear how that makes it entirely unique and special, but of course I accept that it does. (Oh, OK, I'll cut him a bit of slack - it probably does make a difference artistically, as the freedom to build the sound picture the way you want will be less restrictive than recombining original recordings made without the same depth of field in mind.)

JMJ propounds the pleasures of the burgeoning aural dimensions in his sleevenotes and in a multimedia manifesto to be found upon his web site, and he proposes that the progression of technological naming proceeds from Mono, through Stereo, to Aero: in order to express the spatial extension of the sonic experience. By an astonishing coincidence, Aero is also the name of the album.

Actually, I find the Aero label kind of appealing as a slightly less geeky way of talking about surround sound, but I think the chances of it catching on are slim!

Musically, it's quite fun. The old material, while reconstructed, is faithfully reconstructed - he's dug the 1970s vintage synthesizers out of the attic to play tracks from Oxygene and Equinoxe and the 80s ones for Les Chants Magnétiques, Zoolook and Rendez-Vous. We also get a Souvenir From China and a chunk of 1993's Chronologie.

Perhaps the most impressive consideration though, for those of us who work in the technology industry and know what real-world backup procedures are all too often like, is that he's managed to reconstruct anything at all from Zoolook. I've seen it said that Zoolook is the most heavily sampled album in the industry. From context, I'm fairly sure that they meant lots of other artists have sampled Zoolook; but Zoolook itself, released a full twenty years ago, is almost solid wall-to-wall samples of the human voice, played through the usual battery of sythesizer products - and a very strange sounding album it is as a result.

The big question must be, does the spatial expansion add anything worthwhile to the sound? And the answer is, I think, a qualified "yes". A number of audio "scenes" - a wacky selection of sem-abstract sound pictures - have been interspersed between the tracks, and they are a bit distracting. However, the knife-edge the album balances on is perhaps best demonstrated by discussing the DVD's visual content.

You can choose to listen to the DVD with or without the visual content, and to be fair to Jarre his recommendation is that you listen without. After watching it through, I would have to concur. Seventy-five minutes of music are accompanied by a single take, extreme close-up and brightly lit, of the eyes of Anne Parillaud (a French actress best known as La Femme Nikita) listening to and responding to the music. It's amazing how uninteresting and devoid of readable emotion an isolated pair of deep blue eyes can be after a while, though it was a bit disconcerting when I stood up at one point and they followed me!

Uninteresting though they were, I felt they actually detracted from the music by providing an unnecessary focus which flattened the experience. I tried listening without (employing the cunning technical trickery of closing my eyes for a bit) and that was when the spatial mix of the music really kicked in. Nice, but I question whether the presence or absence of a visual focus should be what makes the difference.

The DVD and CD come in a single CD box which can be found on the music CD shelves, not with the DVDs. The DVD can be listened to in DTS, Dolby Digital or stereo, while the CD contains the stereo version for playing on old tin boxes.