Simple Minds: New Gold Dream (DVD-Audio) Review
Originating from a Glasgow punk band called Johnny and the Self-Abusers, Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill formed Simple Minds in 1978 and moved into experimental avant-garde pop with progressive and Krautrock influences through early albums such as Reel to Real Cacophony (1979), Empires and Dance (1980) and Sons and Fascination (1981). By the time the band came to record New Gold Dream (1982), they had picked up the pop sensibilities of Giorgio Moroder’s Euro-dance rhythms and the sophisticated poise of Roxy Music, also being explored by the more experimental pop bands of the 80’s, Propaganda and Japan.
After New Gold Dream the band would go on to greater success, breaking in America with their single Don’t You Forget About Me from John Hughes’ film The Breakfast Club before going on to rival U2 and fill stadiums and with tediously drawn-out bombastic anthems recorded by the then in-vogue radio-friendly producers, Steve Lillywhite, Jimmy Iovine and Bob Clearmountain (see the review for the DVD-A of Once Upon A Time). Simple Minds are still active as a band with a new album Black & White due to be released in September 2005. New Gold Dream however is the sound of a Simple Minds at their peak, their tendency towards excess restrained here under the lush, warm, sympathetic production of Peter Walsh, focussing the songs into tight arrangements, yet allowing them space to breathe, improvise and explore the soundscapes they operate within.
New Gold Dream is remastered and remixed for 5.1 sound by Jeff Levison and released on DVD-A format, but has a number of other high-quality sound format options that will make it compatible with most DVD set ups, including DTS 5.1 and PCM Stereo. As I am not equipped to test out the DVD-A track, this review is based on the DTS mix. Each of the surround mixes is 24bit at a 96K sample rate, the PCM Stereo 16bit at 48K. The video aspect of the disc is in NTSC format and the DVD is not region encoded.
Someone, Somewhere In Summertime
Colours Fly And Catherine Wheel
Promised You A Miracle
Somebody Up There Likes You
New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84)
Hunter And The Hunted
King Is White And In The Crowd
In Every Heaven
The DTS mix of Someone, Somewhere In Summertime lifts Charlie Burchill’s chugging, echoing guitar out more clearly in the mix, but the drums are almost completely submerged, losing the considerable impact they have on the song. The bass is similarly heavy and unclear. This muddiness of bass and drums in the mix is unfortunately prevalent throughout the album. Jim Kerr’s echoing vocals are reasonably distinct, at least as much as they ever where, making use of the rears alongside Michael MacNeill’s keyboard flourishes. The poor quality of the rhythm section aside however, this captures the character of the original song very well.
The bass is a little more solid in Colours Fly And Catherine Wheel, but as if Kerr’s vocal mannerisms and mumbled delivery weren’t already incoherent enough they are practically reduced to solfege here in another rather muddy mix.
The springy keyboard riff of Promised You A Miracle holds the song's structure together, but otherwise it’s a mess in 5.1 with no clear directional sounds, just echoing from the front speaker out and swamping everything in reverb. This is very disappointing.
In contrast to much that has gone before, Big Sleep’s vocal is clearer than I’ve ever heard it on album before, and with the keyboards pushed to the rear speakers it has much more room to breathe – at least until Derek Forbes indistinct bass arrives in. Burchill’s guitar however also benefits from the wider mix, the chiming, echoing chords flitting from rear speakers to front in between the Kerr’s chanted refrain. “Where did you go, immaculate friend?”. The brooding, ambient magnificence of the song is intact here on one of the best mixes on the DVD, although the crashing punch of the drums is sadly toned down.
Things continue to improve with the airy, floating dreamscapes of the instrumental Somebody Up There Likes You, Derek Forbes’ bass coming to the forefront with some Mick Karn-sounding fretless bass frills. Burchill’s guitar soars and chimes, coming through much clearer than on the stereo mix of the track.
This in turn sets the mood perfectly for what used to be the opening track on Side B of the vinyl version of the album, the title track New Gold Dream (81, 82, 83, 84). A pulsing, rumbling track, this sounds quite different in 5.1 and there is perhaps too much going on for the mix to handle. Underlying layers of keyboards and occasional flourishes are practically swamped by the thumping, muffled bass, which even drowns out the punch of the drum and percussion tracks, while Burchill’s guitar echoes somewhere off in the distance. This sounds a complete mess ...but, it pulls together somewhere around the “81, 82, 83, 84” mid-section and Kerr’s vocals sound better and clearer here than in any of the other tracks on the disc. What the poor mix can’t disguise though is just how good this song still is – six minutes of sheer brilliance.
What should be a driving, chunky bass rhythm on Glittering Prize is again lost in the mix. However, some angelic backing vocals (Sharon Campbell) that I hadn’t really detected before, are clearly audible here. Again the husk of a good song can be identified here, but it feels like the soul has somehow been taken out of it.
When left on its own, the bass opening to Hunter And The Hunted can sound strong enough, but anticipating the crash of Mel Gaynor’s drums, I was severely disappointed again by how weak they are presented here. All impact is completely lost. The mix plays around with Kerr’s layered vocals, his whispers and interjections thrown backward and forward across the speakers, but this is MacNeill’s chance to shine, swirling around lush swathes of backing keyboard rhythms for Herbie Hancock to deliver his wonderful jazzy solo.
King Is White And In The Crowd is the one track that appears most noticeably remixed. I didn’t recognise the intro, with its count-in brought to the forefront and the track stops abruptly with a “yeah, that’s the one”, which has never been on any mix of the song I have heard before. The underpinning rhythm moreover is completely flat when its metronomic precision should be the structure for the other instruments and voice to work within. I didn’t like this mix at all.
A previously unreleased track, In Every Heaven, has the clearest mix on the album – drums have impact and the bass has body and definition. I have never heard this track before and its poppiness doesn’t have the same majestic quality as the rest of the album, but it is clearly of the period and fits in well as a welcome extra.
As far as the album’s transfer to 5.1 goes, I can only hope that the DVD-Audio track, which I was unable to listen to, is better than the DTS mix. Either that or my equipment is somehow incompatibly calibrated with this particular album, but I have no reason to think so, as the PCM stereo mix is much more accurate, clearly defined, and faithful to the original mix with a fuller, rounded bass and stronger, solid drums. Saying that, it never sounds as good as my original vinyl copy of the album. There is certainly an attraction to having New Gold Dream mixed to 5.1, and for one or two moments, when I really let the DTS mix boom out, it took me back like never before to the sixth-form discos at the King Arthur in Belfast in the summer of 1982, and made me want to go up and hassle the DJ to play the 12” of ‘The American’. While it replicates the muddy bass of an 80’s disco, from a strictly audiophile viewpoint, the bass and drums on this DVD-Audio DTS mix should really be much more solidly defined than they are here, and it would have made all the difference to this remix. For an album that relies on a strong rhythmic backbone, this weakness in the 5.1 mix is nothing less than criminal.
One other point to make is that evaluating an album in DVD-Audio is highly subjective and reliant on the particular strengths or weaknesses of individual audio setups. Personally, I got more accustomed to the 5.1 mix after a number of listens and found that my opinion on the mixing changed slightly depending on different external conditions. Things like the time of day and the room temperature also have a significant affect on the overall tone.
Lyrics are included for all songs except the instrumental Somebody Up There Likes You and the extra track In Every Heaven. Considering Kerr’s often mumbled delivery and obscure imagery, it is surprising that my understanding of the lyrics is pretty close with only some minor differences – what I always thought was “Eyes golden in great wondering” in Promised You A Miracle is actually “As golden days break wondering”. I think I prefer my own interpretation, although neither makes any great sense and working out your own meanings is part of the fun here. A Discography presents cover images for other Simple Minds albums, without tracklistings. Videos are included for Promised You A Miracle and Glittering Prize, in 4:3, NTSC format with both DTS 5.1 and PCM Stereo mixes. The video quality is very good indeed. There is some slight shimmering of aliasing artefacts, but otherwise they are clear, spotless and colourful. Links are provided to relevant web-sites.
New Gold Dream isn’t a perfect album, at least not in terms of it being made up 100% of 9 perfect songs – some tend to drag and show less sparkle or imagination – but as whole this is a magnificent album, one of the defining albums of the whole 1980’s music scene, wonderfully coherent, influential and, most importantly, standing the test of time better than any other album from this period. This is one of the best albums ever recorded and, although for the most part the 5.1 mix is woefully inadequate, New Gold Dream still sounds as brilliant and timelessly fashionable as it did back in 1982.