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David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & Spiders From Mars Print E-mail
Monday, 29 September 2003

David Bowie

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & Spiders From Mars
format: Hybrid SACD in Surround
label: EMI
release year: 2003
performance: 10
sound 8
reviewed by: Ben Shyman

Image David Bowie became a mega rock star with the release of his glam-theatric Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars. The creation of plastic rock star Ziggy Stardust in the context of one of music’s most exhilarating, sexy and progressive albums of all time was totally unique. In 1972, Ziggy Stardust hit the scene along with many other great albums, including Harvest (Neil Young), Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones), Madman Across the Water (Elton John), Chicago V (Chicago) and Close to the Edge (Yes). To this day, there remains something totally unique about Ziggy Stardust that keeps it popular; it’s arguably Bowie’s best. Every song on Ziggy Stardust is a classic and the sheer ingenuity and highly progressive nature of the music and arrangements lends itself perfectly to a multi-channel remix on SACD.

Right from the beginning of listening to “Five Years,” I became aware of the musical treat that the multi-channel remix of Ziggy Stardust would offer. The snare and bass drum originate directly center behind the listener and move gently into the front channels. The piano and acoustic guitars are well balanced, creating a mix that is clear, smooth, thick and ready for Bowie’s emotional vocals. As I paid more attention to the details in the mix, I wanted to listen to “Five Years” again and again, constantly discovering nuances that are less prominent in the original release. In fact, I felt this way many times during the entire album. I loved how “Five Years” ends just opposite how it begins, with the image of the snare and bass drums fading from center front to center rear.

“It Ain’t Easy,” which features Rick Wakeman on harpsichord, is one of my favorite tracks on Ziggy Stardust, a stylistic triumph in multi-channel. The song begins with Wakeman’s natural-sounding harpsichord in only the front left and rear right channels, Trevor Bolder’s deep bass guitar in only the front left and right channels, the snare drum in only the front right channel, and Mick Ronson’s acoustic guitar in only the rear right channel. The center and rear left channels are silent until Bowie’s vocals emerge in all channels after several music-only measures, although he is precisely imaged front and center. The transparency of the mix is excellent here, especially during the chorus, where background vocals become more prominent and many of the instruments move through different channels. I was intrigued during the second verse where Wakeman’s harpsichord is now front right and rear left instead of front left and rear right, as it is during the song’s beginning. Very clever indeed.

I have two criticisms of the sound quality of Ziggy Stardust, both of which are highly evident on the album’s title track. Firstly, as the back cover of the jeweled case proclaims, Ziggy Stardust is “To Be Played At Maximum Volume.” While the album definitely sounded better to a point as I played it louder, the mix frequently broke down at lower volumes where instruments became lost in the music’s complicated arrangements. Listeners may not find listening to Ziggy Stardust at lower volumes to be as satisfying an experience as at higher volumes. While perhaps this is most appropriate, I sometimes like to listen late at night, when music at 100 dB is not acceptable in my New York condo. Ziggy Stardust sounded fuller, more exciting and simply better at high volume. Secondly, a more controversial criticism regards the acoustic rhythm guitar track on the album, especially on the title track. My Revel Performa M20s are highly revealing speakers, sometimes bringing to bear every flaw in the mix. I found the acoustic rhythm guitar thin and bright on “Ziggy Stardust”, especially at high volume, and there were times where I wished it was less prominent and more developed into the mix. While this could be a function of flaws in the original master or in the remix itself, I found it distracting at times.

Ziggy Stardust concludes with the dramatic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Unlike the title track, I found the acoustic guitar to be more natural and pleasing here. The bass drum is deep and tight and if you have a properly tuned subwoofer or full range speakers, there is no doubt you will feel it in your chest. The highlight of the mix on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” are the strings and Bowie’s saxophone combined with the background vocals, which chant “wonderful” from the rear channels, all of which give the track and the album a most deserving dramatic ending.

I spent considerable time listening to Ziggy Stardust in two-channel stereo during my recent review of the Morel Octwin 5.2M speakers, as well as in 5.1 multi-channel stereo with my Revel Performa set-up. There is little doubt this is a great-sounding and fun disc. Ken Scott and Paul Hicks at Abbey Road Studios should be commended for their work. Remixing a near-perfect performance like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust for multi-channel SACD is an extremely challenging endeavor, if for no other reason than the possibility of degrading the bond and the musical relationship that Bowie and his fans have fostered thorough Ziggy Stardust over the past 30 years. In this case, however, the clarity of SACD and the bold and tasty nature of the multi-channel remix works extremely well and should no doubt please fans and heighten the Ziggy Stardust listening experience that millions have come to love.

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