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Blue Man Group - Audio Print E-mail
Tuesday, 13 February 2001

Blue Man Group
format: DVD-Audio
label: Virgin Records
release year: 2001
performance: 9
sound 8
reviewed by: Richard Elen

Image Adventures in plumbing....

You’ve seen them on the Intel Pentium TV commercials, but if that’s all you’ve seen, you have no idea at all of what Blue Man Group is all about. That was certainly my impression: I’d seen the advertising in Vegas for the live show at the Luxor, and I was vaguely aware of the fact that, since 1991, they’ve had an off-Broadway show running to extensive acclaim. But I had never really heard them.

This, the group’s debut album, was originally issued on CD in 1999. Now it has emerged, remixed for 5.1, on a DVD-Audio/Video disc. It’s a two-sided disc with DVD-A one side and DVD-V the other, much like a DVD-video release with pan-and-scan on one side and letterbox on the other – but watch out, because on this disc (or at least my copy) the version playing is the one labeled on the bottom of the disc, not the top as is usually the case. In other words, if you want to hear the DVD-A side and place it in your player with the words "DVD AUDIO" face up, you’ll experience the DVD-V side instead.

Blue Man Group is about drums – lots of them, mainly hand-crafted instruments, often enormous, sometimes tuned, made from industrial materials, especially long lengths of PVC tubing played with what look like table-tennis bats. These instruments have strange names that give a little idea of their provenance: names like Drumbone, Backpack Tubulum, Drumulum, and more. There are also plenty of regular drums, too. The ensemble is completed with some Chapman Stick bass work and sundry electric guitars, zither - and in one case synths and samplers - to create a quite unique experience.

Though my first inclination after having heard this album is to want to see Blue Man Group live at the earliest opportunity, I understand that the album is a good deal more than an audio rendition of the live show. Certainly, there are six people credited in the liner notes rather than just three as one might have thought from seeing images of the Group, and the multiple layers built up in the excellent surround mix would be difficult to craft in a stage show without some pre-recorded material.

The sound is exhilarating, exciting and infectious. It is impossible to resist the urge to crank the level way up and bathe in the solid rhythmic energy of this album. Many of the tracks crossfade into each other (or would do if my player wasn’t unaccountably inserting brief pauses between tracks) to produce a smoothly flowing experience that travels through various changes of instrumentation, emphasis and even tempo, although it must be said that the entire album has a very well-defined repetitive style, and that style is essentially delivered, with variously different instrumentation, throughout the work with few exceptions (one being the closing track, "Endless Column"). There is quite enough variation to avoid even a hint of boredom, though, and the overall energy and inventiveness of the Group really carries you along, supported by inventive use of surround.

In general, the front stage on this recording is used to create a foundation for other parts to exploit the surround capabilities of the system. A few things flash around the room, or are orchestrated into a repeating sequence that skips from speaker to speaker; overdubbed percussion thunders in across the rear and the overall effect is extremely satisfying in surround. Alternatively, sometimes you find the heaviest elements in the cut are to the rear, with interweaving guitars (sometimes almost Fripp-like and at other times more reminiscent of the Ventures!) and other instruments play with the front space. Sometimes the guitars aren’t interweaving at all: they’re right in your ears, for example, as in the track "Drumbone."

The track order on this disc appears to differ from the original CD, though it is substantially similar, with the addition of a four-minute bonus 15th track, "Last Train to Transcentral," which differs substantially from the rest of the album. It’s a solid techno number with synths, multiple samples – crowds, gunshots and vocals – plus a Vocoder-processed lead voice. Interestingly, it’s a 24-bit, 48 kHz recording, rather than the 24/96 that the rest of the DVD-A side exhibits, and it is in a program group of its own, accessible from the main menu and not by stepping forward from the preceding number. The mix is also a little uneven, but despite some minor shortcomings, it could be described as, dare I say, the most "commercial" track on the album.

The two sides of the disc appear to offer identical content, and because of the nature of the material, it is rather difficult to tell them apart. There seems to be a little more HF clarity and bass definition on the DVD-A side, but it takes so long to compare the two that I could be fooling myself. There are also some additional video features, including some humorous video interview footage on the Blue Man Group and its founders.

This album is an exhilarating surround ride, an outstanding album made all the more immediate and powerful through the effective use of surround. A great experience and a definite "must-have" for your growing DVD music collection.

Reviewed by Richard Elen

Read the Blue Man Group stereo CD review here...

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