by Tom Johnson
I have owned four copies of this album — that is to say, three versions of it four times. The first time was the day it came out, September 3, 1991, bought shortly after a college class got out, and then I drove quickly to a friend’s place where she put up with me giving it a quick listen. And then, just a couple songs into it, the power went out. Time ticked by as we waited for some sign that everything would spring back to life, but no such luck would come my way. The disc was firmly lodged in the player, being mid-play as it was. Solution? Buy another copy. That’s the only rational way to approach the possibility of missing out on a new Rush album on release day. “Rational” if you’re a young Rush fan with too much money on your hands, probably. That was copy number two, and it made sense at the time. It’s not a classic in the traditional sense, but give it a chance – it’s a better album than most people think it is.
Number three was more than a decade later when Atlantic Records saw fit to remaster the album in 2004, and Rush fans rejoiced, hoping this might solve some of this album’s now legendary “thinness” and “brightness.” Producer Rupert Hine is nothing if not an aficionado of clean, bright sound, and Roll The Bones exemplifies his vision. In relative terms, then, the remaster provided a little lower-end ooomph but the album lost a little of the sparkling “air” it had, which is a bit of a shame. But it became my go-to disc just because of the slight boost of badly needed meatiness.
And that brings us to now, on the verge of the 20th anniversary of Roll The Bones, when audiophile label Audio Fidelity has undertaken their own remaster of this overlooked Rush entry. Simply put, if you didn’t like what Atlantic did seven years ago when they remastered it, you may enjoy this. Indeed, there are definitely some things to love about this remaster. Immediately upon listening, I was surprised at how open and clean it sounded – much more open and clean than the remaster. Decay on Neil Peart’s cymbals, such a delicate sound and still very faint, is much more noticeable and life-like. Detail and texture is more prominent – Geddy Lee’s voice is fascinating to listen to as there is more “grit” in lower register passages, and even things like Peart’s kick drum seem to have more “there” there.
But – and there always has to be a “but,” doesn’t there? – this one’s for the real audiophiles out there. Audio Fidelity’s version is for those who really get off on the tiny details, the ones who hear things no one else does, who own the very best audio equipment and know why it’s the very best. And this “but” is because, as an audiophile release, the alterations are minimal, but rewarding for extremely close listeners. For casual listeners, and I even include diehard Rush fans in this, they either won’t hear much change or won’t like what they hear.
One big difference between the original Atlantic issue (and ensuing remaster) and Audio Fidelity’s remaster is how narrow and flat it sounds, which I suspect is due to there being very little compression used – if any. Dynamic range compression has gotten a bad reputation over the years from being over used, and used badly, but it’s always been a part of music production. Labels like Audio Fidelity, and Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, among others, have made a small niche for themselves selling “remasters” that are much closer to the raw master tapes than what most consumers buy. The truth of it is that most, ahem, “normal” people don’t like the way these sound, preferring instead plumped up, brightened artificiality. (It’s okay, I understand. To use a different analogy, most cameras don’t produce the most realistic colors in their pictures, but they’re still beautiful pictures.) But audiophiles eat this stuff up. With really good equipment and, more importantly, really good ears, flaws in standard recordings caused by the mastering process are easily revealed – things that these audiophile labels work hard to minimize or eliminate all together. For most people, listening in their car, or through low-end ear-buds at work or on the subway, this stuff may not make even the slightest impact, but what they will notice is how “light” the music is because it hasn’t been compressed to even out the volume.
Here, on this new release of Roll The Bones, listeners will hear immediately that the sound is indeed lighter and quieter, and the soundstage is thinner than either previous version. But it’s all to better show off the album’s immaculate recording, which does get a bit muffled in the Atlantic pressings. This is where you can revel in the tone of Geddy’s maturing voice, or the textures of Alex Lifeson’s guitar, or the layers of keyboard washes that are now magically so much more discernible from one another. With regard to those keyboard washes, what’s funny is that once you hear them here, you can’t help but notice them in the other versions, too. It just took this delicate audiophile edition to separate them out. And that’s a key thing about these reissues – while most prefer the louder, less subtle counterparts, without these audiophile releases, some of the beautiful art of the mixing engineer is completely destroyed. This is a way to hear music in a way before label politics and market pressures force sometimes destructive changes. Sometimes it’s subtle, as here, sometimes it’s incredibly revealing, but it’s usually rewarding for the really good listeners.