FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 44
Neil Young's Archives Volume 1: One Small
Step for Neil; One Giant Leap for His Fans
An iconic 12-disc box set ushers in Blu-ray as a serious digital audio format
How many flavors of digital audio now exist? Too many. Just listing them and trying to explain the differences is like a dissertation in species diversity with asterisked statements about lossy algorithms and watermarks. We can envision the early days of CD like a poster of an early reptile. The lines of evolution leading from 16 bit, 44.1kHz have bifurcated again and again. Growth in the digital age is relentless and serpentine culminating in a nest of in-laws and cousins, some compatible, others not. All fighting to gain the greatest market share. Dumbed down from CD, we have MP3 which itself comes in many flavors including AAC and Apple Lossless. Minidisc is a vestigial format. Then we have HDCD—just CD resolution despite the involvement of Pacific Microsonics. Digital audio evolved beyond CD into areas that helped usher in a more fulfilling and realistic aural experience, most notably DSD, marketed to us as SA-CD. Now we have various flavors of lossless PCM as well as supposedly lossless PCM-based encodes like Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio.
Hopefully it was music and not audio geekdom that got us into this hobby. And few giants loom larger in music than Neil Young. At one point, it looked like his archives might appear on DVD-Audio, the format positioned against SACD. But both formats suffered setbacks against each other and more alarmingly against the onslaught of downloadable low-resolution music. First Napster took off—why pay when you can pirate. Then Apple announced iPod and iTunes, and thoroughly schooled the music industry in how to market pop tunes in the digital era. The shockwaves went far and wide. Audiophiles began to realize that aside from a slow, steady stream of classical appearing on SACD, audio resolution seemed no longer a priority. But then Blu-ray came along and the implications were immediately clear, especially to boutique labels like Norway's 2L that recently began issuing its impressive recordings in two-fer Blu-ray/SACD packages.
Neil Young Archives: Volume 1 was more than a decade coming—a release in search of a medium. Young himself explains why that perfect medium is Blu-ray in an entire page on his website. "The sound and picture quality is unparalleled. It is the highest definition available and allows you to get more detail in the listening and viewing experience." But the real news about Young's first volume of archives is that it goes beyond sound and sight. It sets a high watermark for the way artists can connect with their fans and collectors. The depth and breadth of content included is illuminating and impressive. Few Neil Young fans are aware of some of the material included here, such as a killer, previously unreleased version of the rare song, "Bad Fog of Loneliness" with solid backing by The Stray Gators, the band featured on Harvest. But even if you are, the way the archive is re-mastered, assembled, presented, produced and packaged (both physically and digitally) makes it a must-have for Neil Young fans.
Heart of Gold
At its essence, Archives Volume 1 is a very intimate look at Young's early career in music, scribbled lyrics, news clippings, photo stills and footage. Sometimes the included video and pictorial content, along with the artwork and other archival material, seems too personal. But personal connection bordering on intimacy is what Neil Young's music is all about. His songs are often nakedly emotional with messages about love, loss, loneliness and longing and his vocals in the upper register are disarming, with heavy emotional impact. So the personal nature of the video and photo archives matches that of the songs. To put all this content together in one box is a crowning achievement, by emphasizing the re-mastering and presenting the immense volume of material with excellent attention to detail. It is even more amazing to realize that another 35 years worth of Young's career awaits archival treatment for release in subsequent archives boxes.
The Neil Young Archives is a project that Young and Warner Music have been discussing for well over a decade as the "definitive, comprehensive, chronological survey of his entire body of work." Covering Young's output from 1963 to 1972, volume 1 includes his earliest recordings with a Canadian band called The Squires; his output with Buffalo Springfield (a band that also features Steve Stills and Jim Messina); the subsequent collaborations with Crosby, Stills and Nash; a couple of concerts that have recently been released; his classic solo albums, including his self-titled debut, his collaborations with Crazy Horse on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After the Goldrush and with the Stray Gators on Harvest; a few rare and unreleased tracks; and the promise of even more material downloadable and made available only through BD-Live capability.
Many fans were skeptical of the set because of the numerous cancellations. Others lamented the box's emphasis on material already available. But seeing and hearing the contents, the skepticism is soon put to rest. When I first got the set, I realized what a serious project Neil Young Archives: Volume 1 really is—the physical size of it is a good indicator. After tearing the shrinkwrap off the gargantuan box and perusing the packaging and 12 discs that are included (10 Blu-rays, one CD and one DVD, featuring the concert at Canterbury House), I decide there is no reason to start at the beginning—a disc of very early and mostly inconsequential tracks that will be of interest to fanatics and serious collectors. Instead, I remove disc 4 from its mini-LP style sleeve and slide it into the Playstation 3.
I click the controller to play the first track and suddenly I find myself back in 1969 with Danny Whitten (guitar) Billy Talbot (bass) and Ralph Molina (drums). The rugged backing of Crazy Horse churns away with hand-claps and a hard rock rhythm that shapes itself into a driving vamp set against a basic melody. Neil Young's own distortion-laden Gibson Les Paul is clearly audible in the mix—a riff instantly recognizable as Cinnamon Girl. I've heard this tune countless times on radio, vinyl, CD and even at a couple of Young's concerts. But as I feasted my ears on the lossless 24-bit, 192kHz PCM delivering rich guitar cords, hi-hat shots, muscular bass and those trademark vocals sung by Young and Whitten, it was like hearing Cinnamon Girl for the first time. An audio purist, vinyl-head and general advocate of high resolution digital, Young took great care in preparing his early material for this set. What a fantastic way to rediscover the early output of one of rock's greatest rock artists.
Setting the Stage
Neil Young's early career can be approached in the context of Bob Dylan's enormous influence. Dylan spawned many disciples, from singer-songwriters like Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and James Taylor to rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Donald Fagen and even Jimi Hendrix. All credit Dylan with inspiring their songwriting and vocal style. But of all the Dylan disciples, Neil Young had the longest and arguably the most successful career. Early on, he shamelessly channeled Dylan, as in the nine-minute 25-second The Last Trip to Tulsa from his self-titled debut. Even before that, Young's career had taken off with his first breakthroughs in the legendary band Buffalo Springfield. He collaborated with the supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash, further assuring his status as one of the premier rockers and singer songwriters.
Young's high-pitched, plaintive vocals and songsmithing skills earned him a succession of hits, radio staples, chart-climbing albums and a dedicated fan base. By the end of the '60s, he was recording edgier rock with heavy riffs that eventually earned him the nickname "Godfather of Grunge" and spawned disciples of his own, such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. But like the constantly changing Bob Dylan, Young is versatile. He appears equally at home in country-twinged 3/4 waltzes with evocative peddle steel guitar as he was in hard rock or a solo acoustic setting. The versatility served him well in the dramatic world of rock. Guitarist Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse died in an overdose on November 18, 1972, and Neil sought to minimize the time he wasted dealing with addicts when it came to music. As Whitten's heavy drug use affected the recording of After the Gold Rush, Young created a new group with a country-western feel called The Stray Gators, with whom he recorded Harvest. And that is where volume 1 of the archives leaves off.
All 128 tracks worth of this content is available on nine Blu-ray discs in 24-bit 192kHz two-channel stereo PCM. Each disc comes in its own mini-LP style sleeve with custom artwork, all housed in a case that fits into the humongous box. Twelve of the tracks are hidden and nearly 60 have never been released before—including alternate versions, mixes and previously unreleased songs. The discs do not follow Young's beloved albums, and unfortunately there is no way to play the tracks in their originally released sequence. At least not that I could figure out by the time this review was published. The exact discography of Archives Volume 1 is outlined at the end of the article.
A Vinylesque Experience
Overall, the sound of Neil Young Archives: Volume 1 is detailed, refined, open, extended, warm, airy, forward and generally fantastic. This set marks the first Blu-ray content I have encountered—and one of the few examples of digital audio anywhere—that made me feel like I was listening to audiophile-caliber, heavy vinyl. The re-mastered material has a holistic or organic quality that is almost always lacking in digital audio. This commitment to quality and detail benefits the entire spectrum of sounds throughout the dynamic range and pays off instruments to their fullest. A large part of the reason for the audio performance of the set is that a Pacific Microsonics Model Two A/D converter was used to produce every track. Pacific Microsonics, the company behind HDCD, was known for its legendary team of engineers—most notably Keith Johnson, who won multiple Grammy awards for recording. Johnson coauthored several patents covering optical-disc technology that are the basis of digital video and audio discs.
The Model Two provides 192 kHz sampling, and is considered to be the best converter ever made in terms of neutrality and linearity. In the case of Archives Volume 1, tremendous care was taken in remastering each track. For example, the live material on disc 3 was compiled from the original 2 track, ¼" master tape reels, which were recorded at 15ips. Tape speed was found to vary by 4% overall and as much as 2% during playback of a single song. Unfortunately, this problem couldn't be solved in the 192 kHz realm and audio restoration techniques had to be used to solve these inconsistencies and bring the audio to the correct pitch. The HDCD 24-bit 192kHz digital transfers were edited and then sample-rate converted to 24-bit 96kHz for audio restoration. Finally, for Blu-ray, the audio program was upsampled on the Pacific Microsonics Model 2 processor, resulting in the 24-bit 192kHz Blu-ray master.
The real triumph of the re-mastering is that it allows the music to shine through whether Young is performing solo, with just his voice and guitar, as on the live in Toronto discs, or with backing musicians. Thanks to his phenomenal ear, Young knows innately the type of band he needs to support his material. When he first jammed with Danny Whitten, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, they were with another band, but Young immediately knew he wanted to record with them and lured them away to form Crazy Horse. That same ear that brought together Crazy Horse has assured the highest quality of the re-mastered material some 40 years later on Blu-ray. The dense sound and hypnotic rhythms they created are showcased with great definition in 24-bit 192kHz PCM. The clarity and detail of the dual guitars, drums, bass and harmonies of Young and Whitten are a revelation. Their work together is showcased anew in the high resolution re-master on several of the discs, most notably the intense "Live at the Fillmore East" concert on disc 5.
The analog-like resolution allows dense passages to breathe with new life. Check out disc 8 when the full backing of the London Symphony Orchestra backs Young on "A Man Needs a Maid". The midrange appears especially open and lush, spotlighting the flutes in a sea of strings, with bells and other percussion popping out in 3D fashion. This song will never make it to anyone's top 10 list, but it is far more enjoyable in high definition. Like the video content, there is some variability in the audio quality as a result of varying recording efforts and source material. In one or two cases, the rare 45 B side tracks appear to be sourced from vinyl itself. The quality and source material of the first two discs featuring Young's work with The Squires and Buffalo Springfield are especially spotty.
Since the HT crowd adopted Blu-ray and even DVD for multichannel audio, there may be some complaints that Young did not include 5.1 mixes of his music. I am glad he didn't. There is no reason to reinvent the soundstage of this classic material by remixing it for multichannel. Young, an audio purist and vinyl aficionado, thankfully focused his efforts on re-mastering the music the way it was originally recorded and mixed, ensuring maximum quality and minimal gimmickry. Much of the content has tremendous detail to mine, so Archives Volume 1 is a good test of your system's ability to flesh out some reference quality material, from guitars heavy on reverb, sustain and the "fuzz box" used on disc 2's "Mr. Soul" to the intoxicating harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the previously unreleased live version of "Tell Me Why" that can be found on disc 6.
Not Quite Comprehensive
There is some room for criticism in the way the box is put together and even in the track selection. While billed as comprehensive, it's not. For example, the intimate song "Helpless", one of Young's best known, is only represented in the set as an alternate mix. As enchanting as this mix may be, there is plenty of room on the disc to also include the version that fans know from the CSNY album Deja Vu. Likewise, my personal favorite song that Young performs with CS&N, "On the Way Home", is unavailable in its best version. The song appears twice in the set—both versions live in Toronto (from '69 at The Riverboat and '71 at Massey Hall). But nowhere is the incredible version from Four Way Street included, with the lush backing vocals of Crosby and Nash. The version of "Ohio" on Four Way Street is not included either.
Maybe Young doesn't have rights to include these tracks in his archives, but it does put into question whether the set can be marketed as "comprehensive". Four Way Street was originally released in 1971, making it fair game for this set encompassing Young's output through 1972. Admittedly, these are minor nits to pick, and these missing versions could indeed surface via the set's BD-Live capabilities accessible through each disc's timeline feature. But the omissions are important to point out nevertheless.
Beyond the Music
But there's much more to the set than meets the ear. Each disc in Neil Young's Archives includes a timeline section that can be used to access yet more material via BD-Live, making it a living, breathing and theoretically growing compendium. The nine Blu-rays also include: 20 special feature videos, film clips and film trailers; 55 audio-only tracks of rare interviews, radio spots and concert banter; an assortment of interactive features such as image galleries of archival photos, news clippings, manuscripts, other documents, biographies, tour dates, complete lyrics and an interactive timeline that guides you through Young's life and career in a lot of detail. The set also contains Young's first film—ourney Through The Past—available for the first time since its original theatrical release in 1973, included on disc 10. The film is has been meticulously transferred to 1080p and features DTS 5.1 surround and 24-bit, 96kHz two-channel PCM tracks as well as archival materials, also on disc 10. In fact, all of the 10 Blu-ray discs deliver at least some 1080p content.
Another layer of video and images include photographs, concert footage and camcorder-style impromptu rap sessions. Some of this material is not easily navigated and even a bit hidden. For example, two 1.33:1 interviews are accessible by clicking the light switch in the "more" section of the Topanga 1 disc. Similar content as released by clicking a microphone in the menu page of the North Country disc. These sequences come from an NTSC camera source, of course, but Young did the best he could with the source material available to him. The attention to detail in video production is overall almost as good as the audio.
Rounding out the set is a "digital download card" housed in the impressively designed box and another important keepsake, a 236-page faux leather-bound full color book. The download card allows access to MP3 versions of all 128 audio tracks of the set, while the book includes Young's sketches and original lyrics he scribbled, a tapes database, news clippings, detailed descriptions of the music and artwork and more. Also in the set is a tapes database. The discs in their sleeves are housed in a custom holder. Another container includes Young's recently released CD+DVD set, "Live at the Canterbury House 1968". So technically it's a 12-disc box. There is also a funny little note pad from the Whisky-a-Go-Go, a prominent LA nightclub when Young first hit the scene there.
Video Impressive Too
Archives Volume 1 is first and foremost a music project, meant to serve up Young's early output in high-definition audio. The idea of analyzing the video seems a bit beside the point. It is only meant as a companion to the music, and is mostly cobbled together from old film footage of concerts and road trips presented in 480 or 1080p resolution. NTSC camcorder footage from 1997 is also included to provide interviews. Due to the scope of the archive, imagery does play a big role. Most notable on the video front is the inclusion on disc 9 of Young's film, Journey Through the Past, made available for the first time in more than 35 years. The film is pretty much what you'd expect, and while the picture quality will never win any awards, it appears absolutely film-like on Blu-ray. Great care was taken in transferring all the video content and for much of the footage I actually forgot I was watching 1080p on a plasma. It felt more like film projected onto a screen.
Contrast and color heat seem perfectly tuned. Black level is deep and dark enough to provide a dramatic sense of depth even on the sequences taken from horrible sources, bad lighting and amateur shooting. The original production values are raised a touch for Young's feature film, Journey Through the Past. The film sets Young's concert footage and backstage atmospheres alongside more unconventional footage. The images of his shows—often with Crosby, Stills and Nash—generate intensity and excitement. The source material is soft and often poorly filmed, but overall it appears above average in its debut on Blu-ray. The grain and analog noise maintain their organic qualities and never morph into digital sheen, pixelation, black crush or other artifacts. For a musician, Young went beyond the pale in demanding the best video performance of his archival material. His eye may be as discriminating as his ear.
The picture smoothness and color timing seem to be taken to another level of accuracy because motion, color and shapes unfold in a lifelike way on the screen, as elements of the picture move and change with time. This is not to say the video is perfect. Far from it. There is a softness of varying degrees to all the footage—especially the dark concert sequences that are often afflicted with noise, haze and blur. But these problems are remarkably analog and organic. One could never call the video content "defined". But I was pleasantly surprised by the minimal flicker, strobing and banding I initially feared would plague the majority of content. Even on the NTSC material in 1.33:1, there is clearly a dedication to video excellence—an attempt to do justice to the picture and an attention to detail that is easy to see and appreciate, regardless of the merits of the source material. Several of the photos, menu images and the timeline feature of each disc show good detail and definition. The rest—not so much.
Digging into the Box
A few words should be said about the packaging and the box itself. The first thing you'll notice is it's big. You're not going to be keeping this on the shelf with your other Blu-rays. The box is fully 12 inches tall and about 7.5 inches deep and 7.5 inches wide. The second thing you'll notice is the box is sturdy. This isn't like Warner's flimsy Casablanca packaging and it's less hokey and less cluttered than the Harry Potter Years 1-5 box. It's a labor of love. One look at the book will show you why, and the contents of each disc have a similarly thought-out feel and design.
But there is room for criticism. The discs are housed in a pullout box that cracks open in the middle. Packed inside are the 10 Blu-ray discs in their sleeves. Getting the sleeves out is tricky. I have small fingers and I couldn't grab any one sleeve to pull it out without risking damage to the cardboard by pinching it too hard. The sleeves are really stuck in there. You have to pull all five out from each side to grab the one you want. Even once you have the sleeve, the Blu-ray disc doesn't easily slide out. You will have to grab the edge and pull it. For a $300 package, one would have wished for a more elegant design to simplify access to and protection of each disc. I'll be reaching for this music often, and each time I do it will be a chore to deal with the box unless I decide to keep the discs in a different case.
When it comes to the nine discs containing the 24-bit 192kHz tracks, the music is what's important, and it sounds damn good. But the video included on these discs will raise some eyebrows. Unless you enjoy watching vinyl spin around on a turntable, which is not unlike watching water boil, you will probably want to turn off your display. Full 1080p images of original Reprise pressings or reel-to-reel tapes appear, synchronized with the playback on Blu-ray. At first, I thought this idea was the silliest thing I had ever seen on Blu-ray.
But as I listened to the music from four decades ago, meticulously remastered to achieve analog qualities and as I considered Young's love of vinyl and indeed the pinnacle of audiophile fetishism that LPs have achieved, the choice of images made sense to me. Watching a spinning record makes you slow down, and brings you back to a time before the instant gratification of digital audio. Images of spinning vinyl make even more sense when you consider that in the decade of 1963-1972, vinyl and reel-to-reel tape were the only options for audio playback. Obviously, the music included in the set was initially available not on CD but on wax, and by including those high-resolution images, Young puts the listener in the right frame of mind to hear his old albums from a less frenetic time. Even the Blu-ray loading sign was a spinning 45 rpm adapter, which is nothing but an animated logo to younger Young fans who have never used a turntable.
The Early Years (1963-1965)
The Early Years (1966-1968)
Topanga 1 (1968-1969)
Live at the Riverboat (Toronto 1969)
Topanga 2 (1969-1970)
Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live at the Fillmore
East (New York 1970)
Topanga 3 (1970)
Live at Massey Hall (Toronto 1971)
North Country (1971-1972)
Bonus Content and Hidden Tracks
In a collection as unique and extensive as Archives Volume 1, it's difficult to define where the main features end and the bonus content begins. Strictly speaking, anything that isn't music can be considered supplementary. But the very nature of offering a box set implies that goodies will be included that you don't get by buying the individual albums. It takes a long time to wade through all this material. For example, the Topanga 1 disc includes an impromptu interview with Young and archivist/photographer Joel Bernstein on February 18, 1997 as they peruse contact sheets and news clippings to include in the set. Each disc has material like this. By clicking on the microphone in the "more" section of disc 8, you get a February 24, 1997 interview with Neil where he talks about writing his song from Harvest about heroine addiction and overdose, "The Needle and the Damage Done".
Each of these featurettes offers an important opportunity for fans to connect with Young and learn more about his personality and his approach to songwriting. You may be wondering what took so long to release this material if the archival production was underway as far back as 1997. The archives was very much a project in search of a medium. Young initially showed great interest in SACD and DVD-A, but he realized the project would benefit from a higher capacity disc medium. Blu-ray and the Neil Young archives are a marriage made in technological and artistic heaven.
From my perspective, there really is no bonus content. The lyrics, booklet, archive poster, concert footage and interviews are all part of the box set. For the price tag, fans deserve every bit of it. But I'll go so far as to characterize the hidden audio tracks as supplementary material. Half of the Blu-ray discs include hidden tracks as follows.
The Early Years (1966-1968)
Topanga 1 (1968-1969)
Topanga 2 (1969-1970)
Topanga 3 (1970)
Loneliness, Loss, Love and Longing
To sum up, the first volume of Neil Young's archives is a groundbreaking release on many levels that fully pays off the range of emotions delivered by his music. Not only does it sound like pristine vinyl, with mostly solid production values, it also includes gobs of footage, rare tracks and other goodies that require a great deal of time to wade through, with many gems and moments that make it worth your while. Young deserves top honors for this ambitious set because it is seriously innovative and raises the benchmark for all artists who want to deliver quality re-masters of all their recordings. With Archives Volume 1, Young blazes a trail beyond the music itself and into a new arena. Blu-ray makes it possible, along with Young's commitment to quality and his collaborators—particularly archivist/photographer Joel Bernstein and art director Gary Burden.
Neil has created a blueprint for the way artists can connect with collectors and serious fans; a new approach for the audience to best access and appreciate the music they love. It isn't just the contents of Archives Volume 1 or the promise of subsequent volumes that makes the box groundbreaking. The real eye-opener is what this set represents in a broader sense—the real emergence of the digital age in general Blu-ray in particular as a vehicle for unlimited (via multiple disc packaging and BD-Live) access to the high-definition works of serious musicians and composers.
One can easily imagine this type of treatment for an archive of Steely Dan's output or Black Sabbath: the Ozzy Osbourne Years. A Blu-ray set is already rumored for The Beatles. If there's any truth to it, the surviving pair should hire Young's team to show them how to pull their archives together. With the range of material they assembled for Archives Volume 1, and the promise of more with BD-Live and future volumes, Young has set the standard. The box is truly an epic release. Every single one of his fans should start saving their shekels for this and future sets. As a jazz fan, I can envision the complete Blue Note output of Wayne Shorter or Joe Henderson or Art Blakey produced in a similar manner on Blu-ray in high-definition re-masters, packaged with all manner of memorabilia, music sheet sketches of the compositions, photos, concert footage, etc., etc.
Everybody knows Neil Young is a rare musician who is equally adept at intimate, heartfelt ballads with delicate acoustic guitar as he is at driving, hard rock riffs built on heavy distorted power cords. His lead guitar skills also became prodigious, escalating in complexity and intensity throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s. But early in his career, his lead guitar chops were not as good. Listen to his simple solo in "Cowgirl in the Sand" that starts out for the first couple measures as staccato hammering of a single note. He then introduces another note, and alternates between the two. But even in that solo, Young shows tremendous energy and was able to hold his own with rock's guitar gods—a least somewhat. The way his guitar skills continued to improve makes me look forward to the next archives set, volume 2. Zuma is my favorite album by Young and I can't wait to rediscover it as well as the Rust Never Sleeps material that came later.
The pitch correction on the Riverboat tape was done by Plangent Processes; we did indeed work with the 192kHz/24-bit master digitization. We also did a version with the 176.4kHz intended for CD release. Perhaps therein lies some confusion. They did indeed prefer the 192kHz version (figures), and this was resampled for the CD, as best as I can tell, using the Pacific Microsonics Model Two.
a. the name of the entity doing the work (we're the only ones who can fix wow and flutter; have done the last half-dozen live Rhino Grateful Dead releases, plus West Side Story, Close Encounters Blu-Ray, Oklahoma!, From Here to Eternity, and some upcoming big stuff we can't talk about); and,
b. the reviewer leaves the impression that the process does not work at 192kHz, which is wrong and could hurt us. In fact, we insist on 192kHz/24-bit source files in most cases.