You probably all realize by now that I’ve been trying to grab as many of the Steven Wilson-remixed/remastered CD/Blu-ray/DVD-A sets as possible. Having come somewhat late to the game, I’ve found some of them to be nearly impossible to find, and often cost-prohibitive when I do come across them. It had appeared to me that many titles from the British band XTC were definitely nowhere to be found, when last October, I stumbled onto the CD/Blu-ray set of Drums and Wires on the Import CDs website. Buoyed by that discovery, I started searching like mad for the other available XTC titles, which at this point includes Black Sea, Drums and Wires, Skylarking, Nonsuch, and Oranges & Lemons. I was pretty distressed to find information on a Steven Wilson website where he referenced his remix work on the albums, and his personal disappointment that the multi-track tapes for English Settlement have yet to be located. WTF – I freaking loooove that album!
From October into November, of 2021, I had zero luck tracking down any of the other available albums, and just about gave up. About a month ago, however, I did a random search for Oranges & Lemons, and that led me to an Amazon listing for the CD/Blu-ray set! Expecting it to be sold out, I clicked on the listing…and the seller was Import CDs! I raced to their site and was amazed to find that all the XTC CD/Blu-ray sets had been re-pressed and were again available. You wouldn’t believe how quickly I pulled the trigger! To top things off, no master tapes had yet been located for English Settlement; however, another version of the masters had been found, and the album was now available on CD. All of the above are on XTC’s own Ape House label, and the CD/Blu-ray sets are truly outstanding in every way. My listening is limited to strictly stereo at the moment, so no comments are forthcoming about my impressions of the surround mixes, but most everyone on the boards seems to love them.
In my usual fashion, I don’t base my impressions from disc playback – I rip the stereo CDs with dB Poweramp software, and use a combination of DVD Fab and DVD Audio Extractor to rip the Blu-ray discs to get the 24/96 stereo files. The CDs typically include multiple bonus tracks, and the Blu-ray discs in this series have a wealth of available options, with many of them in uncompressed PCM 24/96, which goes for the multichannel tracks as well. The sound quality of Steven Wilson’s remix/remasters is superb, and in my experience, exceeds that of any digital disc version preceding these releases. All come very highly recommended! I’ll start with three of the titles I’ve grabbed and continue with the rest in the next issue.
I also have been doing all my listening with the new Gustard X26 Pro DAC and C18 Constant Temperature Clock unit. I’ve been futzing about with various clock cables, trying to determine which is best for ultimate fidelity (it does make a difference). I’m pretty sure I’m just about there, and the sound I’m getting is truly astounding!
XTC – Drums and Wires (Steven Wilson remix/remaster)
With the release of 1979’s Drums and Wires, XTC had gelled into the lineup that would remain constant for the next three albums. In addition to principal songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, Terry Chambers was added on drums, and Dave Gregory joined on guitar. Chambers would make it through 1982’s English Settlement, getting the sack soon afterward, but the core trio of Partridge, Moulding, and Gregory has remained consistent ever since. And since XTC – not at all unlike the Beatles – stopped touring completely in 1982, they’ve been perfectly satisfied to use a stable of studio musicians to fill their drum and keyboard needs.
At the time the group entered the studio for Drums and Wires, bassist Colin Moulding was quoted as saying that they were tired of all the quirky nonsense from the earlier records and were ready for a “more straight-ahead pop” sound. The group was impressed with Steve Lillywhite’s production work on recent records for Ultravox and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and he was quickly recruited for the Drums and Wires sessions. XTC reportedly told Lillywhite that they wanted a drum sound that would “knock your head off.” First up they recorded Moulding’s “Life Begins at the Hop,” and the label liked it so much they immediately released it as a single. Colin Moulding is basically the “junior” songwriting partner – being not nearly as prolific as Andy Partridge — and he was quite surprised that his song was chosen as the album’s first single. “Life Begins at the Hop” became XTC’s first-ever single on the British charts. While it wasn’t included on the original album release, it has since appeared on every other version of the record.
The album kicks off with Moulding’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” which is undoubtedly one of XTC’s best-known songs. Moulding was really beginning to make an impression on the critics and the record-buying public with his songwriting abilities at this point. Terry Chambers’ drums, along with Moulding’s solid bass line, punch through the song’s opening and set a perfect template for the rest of the album. Partridge contributes a total of eight of the albums’ 12 songs, but the tunes that seem to really have gotten everyone’s attention were those penned by Moulding: “Day In Day Out,” “Ten Feet Tall,” and “That Is The Way,” in addition to “Nigel” and “Life Begins at the Hop.” Moulding might have been overshadowed by Partridge’s sheer number of compositions, but his were almost always equally memorable (or even more so). That’s not to deny the talent of Partridge, who contributed quirkily poppy tunes like “Helicopter,” “Reel by Reel,” and “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty.” The duo has often been compared to Lennon/McCartney, and I really do feel that’s a spot-on comparison.
The 24/96 FLACs I ripped from the Blu-ray disc sound better to me than any previous digital version of this album I’ve known for decades. Steven Wilson remastered it at a perfect level, with plenty of dynamic range, and his remixing is superb here — Drums and Wires has never sounded so good. The Blu-ray disc includes an almost shocking array of extras, including high-res tracks of the original studio album in both stereo and multichannel, along with 11 bonus tracks available for each version. A DTS HD Master Audio surround track is also included, so if you’re into surround, they’ve got all the bases covered here! In addition, the set offers multiple bonus features, including the remixed album as instrumental-only tracks; the original album mix remastered in 24/96; and a plethora of other bonus tracks, rehearsal tracks, and videos, although not all of those are in high-resolution audio. Still, this is Drums and Wires like you’ve never heard it before – very highly recommended!
Ape House Records, CD/Blu-ray 2-disc set
XTC – Skylarking (Steven Wilson remix/remaster)
XTC experienced a bit of a commercial lull following the success of English Settlement, and their next three albums (1983’s Mummer, 1984’s The Big Express, and 1985’s 25 O’Clock by The Dukes of Stratosphear, an XTC spinoff group) didn’t sell to the record label’s expectations. Reportedly, XTC were threatened with being dropped by Virgin Records if their next record didn’t sell more than 70,000 copies. The label also was said to have expressed that the group perhaps sounded “too English,” and recommended they work with an American producer. Among the choices that were offered, the only name Andy Partridge or Colin Moulding recognized was Todd Rundgren, and reportedly guitarist Dave Gregory had been particularly impressed with Rundgren’s self-produced Hermit of Mink Hollow, and insisted that they choose him.
The band arrived in early 1986 at Rundgren’s Utopia Sound recording studios in upstate New York with 20-plus demo tapes they’d put together, and Todd Rundgren took a listen. The tracks had a very different feel compared to previous XTC albums, with a mellow and more lush aesthetic, almost like a continuation of the vibe from the Dukes of Stratosphear album from a year earlier. Rundgren proposed doing a concept album of sorts, where the songs would essentially flow into each other, helping to bridge the contrasts of Moulding’s more contemplative tunes and Partridge’s poppy anthems. Despite well-documented tensions in the studio between Partridge and Rundgren, the album was completed in June of that year. Again, the lead single from the album was a Colin Moulding tune, “Grass.” Skylarking streeted in November, and only reached Number 90 on the UK and Number 70 on the US album charts. However, Skylarking enjoyed significant airplay on US college radio, helping to boost its sales. Virgin Records apparently decided not to drop them after all. All was not well, however, with the album’s sound quality…
All of the comparisons to the Beatles notwithstanding, Skylarking was undeniably XTC’s most Beatlesque record, and has ultimately gone on to become the band’s most popular and highly-regarded album. The album spent 29 weeks on the US charts and got a lot of traction from the song “Dear God,” which was not only popular on college radio, but also benefited from a video that ended up winning Billboard’s Best Video award. The video was also nominated in three categories at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards. “Dear God” was originally only released as a single, but thanks to its overwhelming popularity, Skylarking was quickly re-pressed to include the song.
The high-res 24/96 ripped FLACs sound superb – not to flog a dead horse here, but these rips I did from the discs are so very much better than any previous digital version of the album. The Blu-ray disc contains the now-expected metric ton of extras – including a very curious one. Most people who follow XTC are probably aware that in 2010, Skylarking was reissued in a Corrected Polarity Edition that reportedly compensated for problems with the original master tape delivered by Todd Rundgren to the studio. Apparently, both XTC and Virgin Records were unimpressed with the sound of the original master, and requested that Rundgren resubmit a remixed master tape. And then a third one, after the record label expressed their dissatisfaction with the second tape. A disgruntled Todd Rundgren complied, but also quit the project for good after the third master tape was completed. The third version was the one eventually chosen for release, but the band was less than ecstatic about the sound quality, complaining that it had no bass, very little top end, and a particularly muddy midrange.
In 2010, Skylarking was scheduled to be remastered and reissued, and engineer John Dent happened to notice that there was a definite polarity issue with the tapes. Which he then fixed in the studio, and the resulting LPs and CDs were released with controversial new artwork (depicting male and female genitalia!) as the “Corrected Polarity Edition.” Rundgren has commented that it was all “absolute BS,” and that at some point during one of the album’s many transfers, someone screwed up and obviously inverted the polarity. Regardless, included on the Blu-ray disc are 24/96 files for the Corrected Polarity Edition, and I have to admit – they sound really great! That said, I encountered a quirky problem during the ripping process: because relatively few people seem to bother uploading metadata for Blu-ray rips, the available metadata is often flawed. That was definitely the case with this version of the album – some of the tracks were misidentified, and it took a couple of listens to sort things out. Anyway, Skylarking has never sounded better in a digital format. Very highly recommended!
Ape House Records, CD/Blu-ray 2-disc set
XTC – English Settlement (2016 remaster)
As I mentioned at the outset, Steven Wilson has expressed his dismay that he’s been unable to thus far locate the multi-track master tapes for English Settlement, XTC’s iconic 1982 studio release. That, of course, has prevented him from doing a full-on remix of the original tapes. Rather than do a pseudo-remix/surround mix from what’s available, he’s decided to continue the search in hopes of eventually finding the multi-track masters. Bummer, but in my research over the last six months or so, I kept seeing references to the 2016 CD version of English Settlement, which had been mastered from the original half-inch stereo master tapes created for the album’s original release as an LP in 1982. Wilson apparently discovered them during his search for the multi-track tapes.
Wilson realized the significance of his discovery, and brought the half-inch stereo master tapes to the attention of engineer John Dent, who used them to prepare an “Original Master Edition” LP release in 2016. Reportedly, Andy Partridge was so thrilled with the sound quality of the LP, later that same year he personally commissioned Dent to create a CD release. As I was researching the whys and why not’s concerning the absence of a Steven Wilson CD/Blu-ray set for English Settlement, I kept seeing references to the 2016 CD being the digital version to have in the meantime. And as I looked for that version, in the typically convoluted listings for anything on the web, I found it particularly difficult to track down that exact CD. I ended up going to the Burning Shed (UK) website; they’re the official location in the UK for most of the Steven Wilson releases. And things got even more convoluted there, with multiple versions of the CD available, but none of the general listings touting the particulars of any of them at first glance. After clicking through the listings, I finally found one on XTC’s Ape House label, and its product description proclaimed its provenance as the 2016 Original Master Edition. I ordered a copy pronto, and it got here in a little over a week.
As CDs go, the 2016 release of English Settlement is a gem, and the sound quality of the files ripped from this CD are simply amazing compared to any previous CD version I’ve owned. The booklet artwork resembles the appearance of the original LP sleeve more than any of its predecessors in my collection. But the sound quality is what really matters, and this version is head and shoulders above the rest. A note on the inlay tray reveals that this reissue marks the very first time that a CD of English Settlement has been produced from the original master tapes – every other CD version released previously had been authored from a work copy or some other source other than the original masters.
This version really has it going on, and is a must-have for XTC fans. There’s none of the “loudness wars” crap going on here – the disc was mastered at an optimum level that shows no compression (that I can hear) and allows you to hear all the details of the music clearly. My impression of previous versions of this recording is that, while the music has always been gripping and involving, the recordings seemed congested and murky, with not particularly well-defined bass. They also had a fair amount of tape hiss, but there’s absolutely none to be found here. It’s like the proverbial veil has been lifted from the music, and the recording has absolutely silent backgrounds. The opening track, “Runaways,” has a really effective strumming of multiple acoustic guitars that are suddenly crushed by Terry Chambers’ bass drum strokes, and the dynamics here are so much better than those found on previous versions. The kick drum that opens the following track, “Ball and Chain,” just shakes the walls of my house. Then there’s “Senses Working Overtime,” the classic track that probably gave many people their first exposure to XTC when they saw the constantly-in-rotation video on MTV. When Terry Chambers’ drum kit comes crashing through in the opening, the effect is absolutely jarring. Highly recommended, even if this isn’t the high-res version we all dream about!
Ape House Records CD
Header image courtesy of the author.