Peter Gabriel – ‘So’ 25th Anniversary Immersion Box Set Review
4 ½ Stars (****1/2)
By Anthony Kuzminski
When Peter Gabriel unleashed So on the public in May of 1986, it became a touchstone record listeners and peers studied and stood in awe of. The rich and textured layers proved to be ear candy for musicologists as they sat in disbelief wondering how he constructed such splendor. It is still a record people marvel over; So was built from the ground up with alluring hums and tremors from not just world music, but from soul, r&b and pop as well. What’s most fascinating to me is that Peter Gabriel was closer to forty than thirty at the album’s release and yet after hanging on the fringes of the mainstream music industry, he didn’t just break through with So, the wind with which he arrived tore the hinges off the door. So how did the former prog-rock front man of Genesis create a critical and commercial smash? You can now find out in an anniversary edition of the album featuring six discs, two LP’s and a sixty-page book. Like most multi-disc sets, it has its fans and foes and I will address it all here. So is the Pet Sounds of the MTV generation; a record filled with pop majesty and yet it plunges into the deep end of the ocean psychologically and consolidates not just Gabriel’s influences but his appreciation for world music into an indescribable color of sound. Not only are we listening to it today, but we still sit in awe at the depth of the arrangements and at the ethereal radiance of Gabriel’s vocals and lyrics.
The 2012 Remastered Album
I am happy to report that the remastered CD housed within the large box is the definitive statement of the album. Back in 2002 when Gabriel’s catalog received a much overdue remaster treatment, they brought the record into the 21st Century. A common thread in most remasters post-1995 was increasing treble levels and making the albums louder so they would jump out of the speakers at the listener. The cymbals were sharper, vocals pierced the listener’s senses and guitars took off like Top Gun fight planes. The 2002 edition of So was a significant upgrade from the existing CD so it was with great hesitation that I listened to the anniversary remaster. However, I am happy to report that the 2012 edition is probably a more understated yet vivid representation of what was intended. Listening to both versions back to back, I can say there are faint differences with more bottom end present (i.e. deeper bass, drums are thunderous rather than clashing). The 2002 remaster was done by Tony Cousins, however, for the anniversary edition, Gabriel re-engaged Ian Cooper who originally mastered the album at the Townhouse Studio in 1986. Gabriel and Cooper listened carefully to the original half-inch master tapes and were surprised at how it has held up over time. In a fortunate turn of events, Cooper had kept his original notes from 1986 and despite advances in the technology during that time; they did not change much with the new prism converters but offered a clearer definition at the top end. So what does that mean? It means the album has been given a modern day treatment and cleanup without sacrificing the sound for MP3 players. Listening to “Red Rain” it is immediately evident. The cymbals and drums snapped at a higher pitch on the 2002 remaster, whereas the percussion now feels as if it is in the room with you. The changes are inconspicuous but perfect. When the Beatles remastered their albums in 2009, it had a positive effect on the touching up of other classic albums. It no longer became about making the records louder, but by tightening the sound so that it captures the heart of the record when it was initially recorded. If you have not upgraded your copy since the original 1986 release, So is a rare wonder of a record where simply the remastered sound makes it worth a second purchase.
Live in Athens 1987 DVD and 2CD
If you opt out of the big deluxe box set, the streamlined 3cd set is still a worthy purchase. It contains the new remaster of So along with the first official live album from the tour recorded in Athens, Greece in October of 1987. Considering Peter Gabriel has made a point of having a live release to compliment, every tour except this one is peculiar. My gut tells me that he simply was so busy with projects like Passion (the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ) and recruiting artists for the 1988 Amnesty International tour that the idea of a live album fell by the wayside. This sin is remedied with a glorious two-disc set that captures the time and place and more importantly houses some of the definitive versions of these songs. Gabriel just finished his Back to Front world tour which we covered but what I wasn’t fully aware of was the 1986-87 concerts were performed solely by five musicians. Gabriel took to the stage with four backing musicians; Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes on guitar, Manu Katché on drums and David Sancious on keyboards. Considering the complexity and layered sonic splendor of So one would imagine the band had a hard time recreating these songs onstage or that the live versions lacked the warmth of the record. Amazingly, each song sounds every bit as entrancing and several classic Gabriel songs are fleshed out. The recording was reconstructed and the entire show is here in spectacular sound. Often many acts go back to grab a live recording and the sound is deficient or wasn’t properly recorded so the end product often doesn’t reach its full potential, but this one does. The accompanying DVD is available exclusively on the box set and it may be worth purchasing for the disc alone. Despite the fact that some of this footage has appeared on VHS releases, this is the full time the entire show has been available in any form. It was directed by Michael Chapman, a longtime associate of Martin Scorsese’s (who executive produced the film) and whose work as a cinematographer on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are mouth gapingly great. Chapman knows how to use a camera and he uses his talents to bring out the best in the picture. What makes its inclusion surprising is that it had to be restored and reconstructed. When they began this process a few years ago, they were not sure, if the footage would be suitable or even if the whole concert was intact. Over 150 reels of original 35mm negatives were painstakingly assembled, cleaned up and remixed in 5.1 sound. The result is beautiful with little wear being shown. It was filmed in 1987 and does not have the technical advances of the last decade behind it, but the camera work is spacious capturing the performances and crowd. The performances of “Family Snapshot”, “Intruder”, “Biko” and “In Your Eyes” are definitive. The footage of “In Your Eyes” from this performance was used as the promotional video in 1989 when the song was given new life through the film ...Say Anything. As discussed elsewhere in the box, “In Your Eyes” became the concert tour’s penultimate song stretching past the ten-minute mark. Youssou N'Dour is on hand to lend his vocals and the breakdown of the song before a rising finale is one of the greatest live performances of any song ever. “Solsbury Hill” is blissful, “Games Without Frontiers” is mystifying, “No Self Control” evokes noir, “Intruder” is thundering, “Family Snapshot” is spirited, “Shock the Monkey” is playful and the arms-to-the-air chant of “Biko” will shake you to your core. You can only tour behind a new record once. When you do, you take the enthusiasm, the energy and the freshness of the new songs with you, which are why acts should document every tour. Live in Athens 1987 is more than merely a document of a tour but a comforting, enlivening and spiritual live experience; an essential live album and DVD on all accounts.
The most intriguing element of the box is the So DNA disc. One of the standard features of these more elaborate special editions is digging to the past for demos and early versions of songs. When the Who released Quadrophenia last year, the deluxe box set had two full discs of Townshend’s original demos with his vocals. Listening to those original demos, I was awestruck at the intensity within. They were good enough to have been the final album and the nuances and inflictions in Townshend’s voice took us into his tortured psyche. Since most of Gabriel’s completed songs going through an evolution that sometimes take years, he could not simply just release partial demo versions. Instead, he decided to let the listener witness the birth and progression of all nine songs. This is a tricky predicament because often only the most fanatical would be willing to listen to boom box demos and partially constructed songs. In my years of collecting bootlegs, one of the ones I was most excited about trading for was an eighteen disc collection of Let it Be outtakes by the Beatles. Considering the dozens of songs written, recorded and rehearsed on these tapes was, suppose to be a revelation, instead, it proved a tireless effort just to make it all the way to disc eighteen. I listened to it once and have never gone back to it. Fully aware of the tedious nature early recordings can give, Gabriel unearthed all of his tapes, demos and unmixed records for So and magically has created a disc that may be the most educational look into the making of an album ever released.
Carefully mixing bare bones cassette tapes with demos eventually coalescing into more fully realized versions of the songs could not have been an easy feat. That being said, Gabriel and his team masterfully has constructed something that is unparalleled in the music business; a snapshot of the evolution of an entire album. "Sledgehammer" opens with its riff performed on a piano with a drum machine in the background as Gabriel makes up melodies with incomplete words. It morphs into a demo with heavy keyboards then to a more fully realized take with still unformed lyrics and then converges into a different take of the song featuring the closing of the song. It is interesting to hear Gabriel in such command of the music and melody, but to struggle with the lyrics (as documented in the Classic Albums DVD). The early music to “Don’t Give Up” has a downcast tribal rhythm that I had never noticed in my hundreds of listens to the song and “In Your Eyes” (which had over ninety completed and mixed takes) lasts over ten minutes as he takes us through the diverse shuffles and rhythms as they found their way around the song. Never before has an artist taken the listener into the genesis of an album like this. It is a wonder to behold and is something that will be played more than once. It is only available on the deluxe box set and this along with the live DVD are probably enough to warrant the purchase.
The sixty-five page book housed within the box is full of pictures from the So era from the recording studio to the concert stage. The book houses the four CD’s and the two DVD’s as well. I am a sucker for these as they are often from personal collections and am not overly glossy pictures from an A-grade photographer. However, looking at them and reading the words, you can smell the studio and the farmhouse Gabriel converted for the record. The story interwoven throughout the book contains overlap with the Classic Albums DVD, but there are other stories revealed here as well. Even if you only pick it up a handful of times, it was put together with great care and is worth your time to go through it. It is more encompassing that a tour program and serves as a wonderful companion piece to the Classic Albums DVD.
Classic Albums DVD
The Classic Albums DVD series is one of the great home video blessings to the world of music. The series has only improved in the last decade. The So release make be the series’ crowning achievement. The format is the same for all of them with interviews, footage and pictures of the past and the artists, engineers and producers playing back different mixes and isolated tracks. In short, it is about the music! Even when the series discussed Hysteria by Def Leppard, they focused more of the musical challenges than drummer Rick Allen losing his arm, something Behind the Music would never dream of. The aspect I found most enthralling about the So DVD is how quickly they put this album together. No one interviewed would dare say this was an album that was made quickly, but considering Gabriel took nearly six-years to release a follow-up and another ten before his next studio disc, you can say the one year writing and recording So was a walk in the park. As they listen back to certain mixes and isolated tracks, you are taken into the studio walls where decisions were made to help craft the song. More importantly, you are taken through a journey from the beginnings to the writing and recording to the videos, success and tour that followed. Each DVD is less than an hour in length for television reasons, but the bonus material is crucial as it adds on an additional hour of interviews and footage that is every bit as vital to the album’s story.
It is important to note, that Gabriel was a fringe artist who was catapulted into the mainstream with the success of So and in many ways became one of the more socially conscious leaders of the music world. There is a significant piece in the bonus section about the Conspiracy of Hope tour from 1986, which coincided with the release of So and it shows Gabriel performing to the largest crowds of his career along with U2, the Police and Bryan Adams. In many ways, it was the culmination of his career as a solo artist. When he wrote “Biko” several years earlier, he understood the power of music and took a chance to challenge his listeners as well. The song was not a success when originally released, but over time, it is one of his crucial compositions and to see the video footage of him performing it takes us back to a place and time where musicians truly wanted to make a difference…more importantly, we felt like they stood the chance of making a difference. Interviewees include longtime bassist Tony Levin, Larry Klein who played bass on the Conspiracy of Hope tour, producer Daniel Lanois who is always an affable interview, engineers, the video team behind “Sledgehammer” and Gabriel’s personal assistant at the time all recall the sessions with great clarity and enthusiasm. Above all else, the focus is on the craft of creating one of the greatest records of the last quarter century. The box includes a DVD of Classic Albums while a BluRay is available for separate purchase. There is no extra footage on the BluRay, so if you choose to buy the box, I personally feel the sound and look of the DVD is top tier so a double dip purchase is not required.
Vinyl / Downloads
There are two twelve-inch vinyl discs with the box in blue and red sleeves. The first is an 180grm So LP mastered at half speed. The reason for this is to give the optimal track listing for the record. As discussed earlier, Gabriel had intended for “In Your Eyes” to close the record, but due to the grooves and timing, it became the lead track on side two rather than its closer. “This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” was excised from all vinyl copies. This is the first time the album has been presented in full on vinyl. The second 12’’ record is a double A-side single; containing two previously unreleased tracks “Courage” and “Sagrada” and a stunning alternative version piano and bvox mix of “Don’t Give Up”. I do not know if this version of “Don’t Give Up” was created explicitly for this box or has its origins from 1986.”Courage” is a five-minute cur and a showcase for bassist Tony Levin. The cut is still rough around the edges but houses some truly rhythmic grooves. “Sagrada” clocks in at less than four minutes and is the more experimental of the two tracks. Neither is fully realized but Gabriel included them here and for good reason, as they are examples of the avid experimentation he thrives upon to create his greatest works. Besides being available on vinyl, all three songs are available as digital downloads via an exclusive code found on the box set. The entire So record can also be downloaded in a studio quality 24 bit digital FLAC files.
There was some controversy when this deluxe set was announced a few months back and it was led by a website www.SuperDeluxeEdition.com. Focusing on review and details of reissues and elaborate box sets, the site had many concerns about the So contents and wrote an open letter to Gabriel, which surprisingly, Gabriel responded to on his website a few weeks later. At the crux of the issue were four key items: the lack of a BluRay option, the missing b-sides and hard-to-find remixes (released on singles back in the 1980s), the absence of So in 5.1 sound and lastly…price. In Gabriel’s response, his goal when building this box set was the give the listener the ultimate So experience. In my opinion, he succeeded wildly in creating a box that immerses one entirely into So. Now, in Gabriel’s retort, he concedes potentially making one mistake and that was the lack of giving buyers a BluRay choice. While I love my BluRay player and do prefer buying select titles in high definition when possible, I am not sure if either video presentation would have seen a huge upgrade with the option of a BluRay. It should be noted, that much to chagrin of high-def enthusiasts, the standard for these deluxe box sets is mostly DVD across the board. U2 and Paul Simon’s recent sets made the BluRay available only as a standalone purchase. Infuriating? Without question, however, in watching the live concert from Athens, I feel it looks better on DVD than the just released remaster of Secret World Live does on BluRay (still worth an upgrade due to the cleaned up film negatives). Granted, they were filmed under different circumstances and with different lighting, but the picture looks crystal-clear here and in my opinion, there is very little to complain about.
The one item I do wish was included on the box are the hard-to-find b-sides and remixes. I must confess, in U2’s Achtung Baby box set, the remixes are the one CD I have only listened to once. While it is nice to have, it is not essential to my ears. However, there are a few sought after remixes of “Sledgehammer” and “In Your Eyes” that have never made their way to the digital realm or to CD, they’re exclusively on vinyl. While their inclusion would have been nice, Gabriel can still remedy the situation on a potential b-side/remix album. While Peter Gabriel only has seven studio records to his name, he has one of the biggest bodies of soundtrack songs and alternate mixes ever released. Most astounding about these songs is that to this day they remain uncollected. I hope that one of the items he will tackle in the very near future will be the gathering of these rare songs and remixes into a collected multi-disc set.
Back when downloading exploded at the turn of the century, a few artists and companies felt there was value in releasing albums in 5.1 surround sound. While it was a valiant effort, most were released in a SACD format, which required a specific player to play the discs. When Gabriel’s catalog was remastered in 2002, they issued SACD copies of So and Us on standard non-hybrid discs. Sadly, SACD never took off so the few discs that were manufactured now go for well over $100 on eBay. The issues SuperDeluxeEdition.com appears to have had with Gabriel was he did not include a 5.1 mix is So but he included two vinyl records. In keeping the price below $100 USD, the addition of a 5.1 sound may have pushed the set above $100 and not everyone would find the time to relish the nuances of a 5.1 mix as it is not compatible with cars and MP3 players. Further, Gabriel’s essential video collection Play from 2004 has most of So in 5.1 sound. A good way to get consumers to potentially purchase Play on a BluRay upgrade would be to possibly include the full 5.1 mixes of So and Us along with the entire video collection.
I personally do not have any use for vinyl, but it is a slippery slope to go down. Vinyl aficionados would without question prefer vinyl whereas high-def nuts would love to have had a DVD/BluRay of the album in the highest quality possible. I understand the argument and personally would prefer a 5.1 disc, alas; the vinyl resurgence of the last few years makes me feel Gabriel made the correct choice here. Finally yet importantly, there were some qualms about the $99 price tag (in the US on Amazon). It is slightly higher in other markets, including the UK and Canada, but I still find the box to be a bargain. To me, I have always felt the price barometer should not exceed $15 a disc. Considering it has six discs, two records, a book and exclusive downloads, that equals ten items, at approximately $10 each. I think it is a steal and a bargain to walk away with this much music. It may not be as comprehensive as Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town box set from two years back but it still houses more new material than U2’s ten-disc set for Achtung Baby
Peter Gabriel’s So box set may not be as complete as some would like, but he has included more unearthed treats than most box sets do. Many simply provide a DVD of videos, a live fm broadcast and rough demos that may only be listened to once or twice. While the inclusion of b-sides, remixes and 5.1 sound would have enhanced the set, it is hard to complain with what it contains. We have a in-depth documentary, a one-of-a-kind audio journey through the album’s creation, a live album/DVD at Gabriel’s commercial peak and above all else, a spectacular remaster of one of the greatest and most significant records of the last thirty years. If you buy only one deluxe edition this holiday season Peter Gabriel’s So 25th Anniversary Immersion box is the one to choose.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter