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Peter Gabriel - So Print E-mail
Tuesday, 29 April 2003

Peter Gabriel
format: SACD - Stereo - non-hybrid
label: Geffen
release year: 2003
performance: 9.5
sound 8
reviewed by: Jerry Del Colliano

ImagePeter Gabriel’s album So is the pinnacle of pop success for the former Genesis frontman. Leaving the odd time signatures and obscure art rock themes in the 1970s, Gabriel, along with producer Daniel Lanois, created an album that broke ground not only in creative music videos but with meaningful songwriting that passes the test of time nearly 20 years after its release.

This release of So is on the new SACD format in stereo without a hybrid layer. What this means is that you need an actual SACD player (but no surround sound system) to enjoy the music on the disc. Unlike the recent release of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on hybrid SACD, this Peter Gabriel record, as well as the others in the recent released Gabriel catalog on SACD, are not hybrids and are therefore they are useless to the standard CD player. In an SACD player, you are in for a treat.

So was one of my favorite albums when I was a teenager getting into high-end audio. I had it on CD and cassette (so I could listen to it in my mom’s Honda Accord) and have heard the album hundreds of times from start to finish. Gabriel and Lanois created a spectacular soundscape. Gabriel’s raspy vocals demand credibility from his lyrics. The “bass” of Tony Levin (an audio fan who uses Linn electronics at home) is actually created by an instrument called a Chapman Stick, which has a very unique sound that is fun to listen to and sounds good on many mainstream audio systems because it isn’t too incredibly low although it has all kinds of low-end punch.

Upon listening to the SACD version of So, I noticed something was a little off. While the SACD version is immediately better-sounding than the CD, something seemed wrong. It took me a few spins through the record to figure out that the order of the songs had been changed. In reading the liner notes, there was no rationale given, but I am sure there was a good reason from Gabriel himself. The most notable change is moving the most clichéd of Gabriel’s tracks, “In Your Eyes,” to the last spot on the album. While the change took a little while to get used to, in the end, I think the new order is better. Nothing against “In Your Eyes,” but it reminds me of weddings, so I usually skip the track. Now I don’t really have to.

While So was extremely well produced, I always felt it was recorded in a way that made certain elements sound bright, especially on the snare and (albeit limited use of) cymbals. In comparison to the CD, the SACD version sounds smoother but still has many of the same characteristics of the original recordings. “Red Rain” starts out with little ticks on the high hat and crescendos right into the first verse. Between the first drum tick and the chorus on the SACD version, I could hear the piano more clearly and the CD version as the song built up in intensity. While some of the high frequencies still sound bright, Gabriel’s vocals sound smoother than I remember and in direct comparison with the CD, it is easy to hear why the SACD is a better-sounding version of the record.

I used to work at a stereo shop in “the main line” section of Philadelphia called Sassafras in the early 1990s. There was a salesman at one of the other stores who nearly lost his job for auditioning a pair of our biggest Magnepans to an 80-year-old prospective customer at top volume, using “Sledgehammer” from So. To this day, I see nothing wrong with his business practices. However, if I were doing a demo of the track, I would use the SACD version. In comparison to the CD, the SACD allows you to hear the funky layers much more clearly and the bass is way more solid. The bird-like keyboard solo, albeit in stereo, sounds more three-dimensional in the soundstage. Overall, it’s a far better musical experience.

You likely know the other hits on the record, like “Big Time” and “In Your Eyes,” but to me what makes So so different from albums today is the “filler” tracks between the hits, which are anything but filler. If you haven’t heard the entire album of So in a while, you will be pleasantly surprised as to how good the non-radio hits are on the record. “This Is The Picture (excellent birds)” and “We Do What We Are Told (milgram’s 37)” are good examples of tracks that will capture your attention and make you glad you have the extra resolution of SACD.

So is an important and groundbreaking album from a golden era in pop music. In my opinion, it deserved to be remixed to surround sound, but who knows what forces (money, time, artists, producers, executives) kept that from being a reality. Songs like “Sledgehammer” and “We Do What We Are Told (milgram’s 37)” would be incredibly cool coming from five or six speakers instead of two. Some records don’t lend themselves to surround sound mixes that well, but So does. In the sprit of Microsoft – you never know if Universal (parent company of Geffen Records) will release So on SACD as a “version 2.0” in surround. In the meantime, I wouldn’t hold out for it if I had an SACD player already hooked up because So in stereo on SACD is worth your investment at the local record store.

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