Roxy Music: Country Life
Universal (Japan) UIGY-9668
Stereo Single Layer
Cardboard sleeve reissue from Roxy Music features SHM-SACD format and HR cutting from the 2014 DSD master, using the UK original analog master. Comes with an obi faithfully replicating the one in the Japanese edition LP.
Review by Rick Kosmick - May 18, 2015
I consider Roxy Music's "Country Life" as an excellent album ranging from some great songs and rounded out by others that fall into the very good category. This is a quality release from 1974 played by exceptional musicians with tunes based mainly on the strong songwriting skills of Bryan Ferry. This album saw Roxy Music moving further away from its art rock roots to more pop/rock sensibilities. Although this SHM SACD version should be a winner, it falls a little short as explained in the following review.
When I first listened to this SACD of "Country Life", my first impression was a muddy bottom end. I also noticed the upper range was not as 'open' as I would expect from a SACD release. So, I played this disc 6-7 times with the volume turned off as SHM SACD sometimes seem to open up as noted by other reviewers on this SA-CD.net site. Well, I listened to this SACD another 5 times (before committing to this review) and I did not note any discernible change in the sound.
I will start with the bottom end issue. The bass for the most part is flabby/bloated which lacks a consistent definition. The drums sound is dull and generally seemed buried or muffled. But I do want to be clear this sound was not awful; rather, it has this muddled quality that holds back the capabilities of the lower range.
What about the openness to the upper range? In assessing audio quality, I always look at the three categories of detail, transparency and soundstage; however, this SACD of Country Life is average at best for each category that cannot be considered sufficient for the best in high fidelity recordings. I would describe the audio on this album as dense sounding for the most part. Although it has a pleasant warm analogue-type quality, the higher frequencies also sound a little rolled off.
I will reference a few songs based on audio qualities of this album. The opening track of "The Thrill of It All" is a great rock song that sounds constricted with Bryan Ferry's vocals noticeably pushed back in the mix (also evident on other tracks). My favourite song "If It Takes All Night" has a superb R&B flavour with Ferry cooly spitting out the lyrics and a nifty sax solo by Andy Mackay that falls a little flat when it should explode. It is only on the number "Out of the Blue" that this SACD shines when the dynamics expand in the upper end as Phil Manzanera's guitar stretches out and soars sonically (but hampered by the lower range issues).
I compared the remastered 1999 release (encoded with HDCD) of "Country Life" to the SHM SACD. As per the liner notes, the SHM SACD was DSD flat transferred from the UK original analogue master tapes. I initially focused on the differences: the 1999 version (I listened in HDCD) had evident compression; it had a narrower soundstage; there was a boost to the bass (perhaps to mask it's shortcomings); and it had a very bright tone with a digital edge. Needless to say, the SHM SACD was notably superior to the 1999 version as it exhibited a nice warm (with a touch of brightness) and smoother sound even with the aforementioned limitations.
What about these limitations on the SHM SACD? It is here the 1999 version took on greater importance as I looked for similarities. Well, the bottom end and upper range issues were the same for both the SACD and 1999 release. The obvious common link is the original master tapes. "Country Life" was engineered by John Punter (assisted by 4 others) and, it is my guess, decisions were made on the original mix that resulted in these restrictions and murky production. Roxy Music and John Punter produced this record so band members may have played a role in these mixing decisions.
The only solution, at least as I see it, is a remix of the original multi-track tapes. I am aware Steven Wilson has remixed the first Roxy Music self titled album in 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround that is rumoured for release in 2015. It is my personal hope Mr. Wilson will eventually remix 'Country Life'..... these recordings deserve the upgrade.
In summary, this SHM SACD exposes the limitations of the original analogue master tapes. To keep in mind and above all, this is an splendid album from Roxy Music with improved audio on this SACD. If the listener has modest expectations for higher fidelity, this Universal Japan SHM SACD can be enjoyed as the best version of "Country Life" that has been released to date.
Copyright © 2015 Rick Kosmick and HRAudio.net