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Thread: An audiophile ranks and reviews every MM album solely on sound quality. [NERD ALERT]

  1. #21
    Man Who Fell From Earth A Gruesome Discovery's Avatar
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    #4 HOLY WOOD (IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY OF DEATH)
    Dynamic Range: 6 (You maniacs; you blew it up! Damn you; damn you all to hell!)
    Overall Production Grade: B-

    THE LOWDOWN: Holy Wood's production shares many similarities with both Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals. Like MA, there's a certain old-school vibe present throughout, though it's a warmer, dirtier sort of vintage sound in contrast to MA's cleaner, glitzy opulence. Like AS, there's a malevolence perpetually hiding around the edges; distorted ambiances and otherworldly noisescapes sometimes stepping into frame in a most unnerving way, like some nightmarish shadow figure. Holy Wood is “The Even Darker Side of the Moon”. “Let It Bleed To Death”. “The Black Album” (if Spinal Tap hadn't already taken that, and then Metallica a decade later).
    ...At least, it would be those things, production-wise (remember, I'm not saying ANYTHING about the actual songwriting here, just the studio stuff), but unfortunately we are now entering the 21st century, where the Loudness War has gone full nuclear. This album is a sad casualty of that, but I do consider it the best sounding of the "way too loud" era. There's a certain cleverness to some of the mixing here, as if it was known ahead of time that this album was destined to be interred in a tiny 6dB box for all eternity. Or maybe a lot of this was done at the mixing stage, with the all-too-common bus compressor doing the lion's share of the squashing. Either way, a great disservice has been done to a great-sounding recording, but let's go in for a closer listen.

    THE MIX: I like to use a lot of adjectives that are traditionally reserved for visual media to describe sounds. Things can sound “bright” or “dark”, “clear” or “murky”, “shimmering” or “muddy”; and things can take on different “colors”. Color is a major component of Holy Wood, and one thing that at least lessens the damage of the overcompression; there's too little contrast in volume, but there is a certain contrast achieved by changes in colors, shades, and tones. Tonal shifts are the saving grace here, and the album is full of them. The individual parts are too loud, sure, but the juxtaposition of tonal opposites does serve to provide some impact. Take “A Place in the Dirt”, which consists of very “quiet” verses abutting very “loud” choruses. In actuality, every part of this song is very loud and lacking in delicate dynamics, but the changes in tone do create forward momentum and keep things interesting. A solitary dry vocal comprises the verse, the lows filtered out to lighten the tone; but a bright, deep vocal punches through the chorus, swimming in atmosphere. The drums are “darkened” with a lowpass filter and various effects in the verse, but allowed to bleed out in full “color” during the heavier bits. The verse guitar is clean(ish) and occupies very little tonal space, but in the chorus it becomes a formidable wall of sound. The impact would be even more cutting were volume dynamics preserved, but this is pushing the limits of what can be done to create such moments at these ridiculous levels.
    The songs that fit this color-shifting dynamic fare well here; “Target Audience”, “In the Shadow of the Valley of Death”, “The Fall of Adam”; their structure, arrangement, and instrumentation help them to survive the onslaught. “Burning Flag”, “Lamb of God”, and “The Love Song”, conversely, maintain more consistent “color” throughout their running times and fall victim to The God That Eats Dynamics.
    The sounds on this album themselves, though – damage aside – are beautiful. The entire disc sounds as though it's made on old, possibly decrepit gear; you can smell dust giving way to smoke on the hot amplifiers and the metallic oxidization of the mixing console's transformers. Flakes of rust fill the air on every hard snare hit. The synthesizers' cacophonies are warmer and more rounded in comparison to the sharp and cutting tones on Antichrist, further building the “vintage” motif. And the ambient sounds are given a far more important role than just “stuff that sounds cool in the background”; the allegedly real thunderstorm in “The Fall of Adam” and the sounds of firearms being cycled, cocked, and dry-fired being prime examples of using non-musical sound to enhance the mood and feel of a composition.
    Bass is a little less prevalent here than on previous Manson outings. It's still the primary driver for some of the songs (“President Dead” being the most obvious example), but the reins are often given over to the guitars. “Target Audience” is almost entirely guitar-driven, along with “The Fight Song” and “The Death Song”. The tones are, for the most part, great, and the playing is very tight and precise.
    Vocals are interesting here; there's a level of intimacy on some parts that hasn't been heard on a prior MM record. Manson absolutely SEETHES in the verse to “Target Audience”, pulling in close to the mic for the sharpest barbs. Aside from the choppy vibrato effect on “Valentine's Day”, the vocals tend to be pretty dry in terms of modulation effects, instead relying on reverberation for space and mic technique for texture.
    It's the overall mix that really shines, though. I feel like I've said this about every album so far, but the mixer did a commendable job combining the disparate and often bizarre sounds into coherent mixes, but here he goes a step further and imbues consistent, pleasing, and thematically relevant tones to the whole affair.

    STANDOUT MOMENT: The track “In the Shadow of the Valley of Death”. The drums being absent and the bass being scarce for most of the song makes for a powerful ending when all elements converge.

    WEAK POINTS: There's a lot of them, unfortunately; pretty much any moment where the album needs to punch up to a higher level, but can't because it's already too loud. Take the bit in “Valentine's Day”: “Flies are waiting...”. Then when the chorus kicks in, it should burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid man and knock your ass out of your chair, but no; it's impotent. This happens in “The Love Song”, “Burning Flag”, “The Nobodies”, “Disposable Teens”, “The Death Song”, all over the damn thing.

    FINAL THOUGHTS: So we have our first fantastic mix that's truly been ruined by overzealous mastering. I should reiterate that I'm only reviewing the CD here. I do own this on vinyl; it comes in at DR10, and it sounds SO. MUCH. BETTER. Night and day. Maybe some day we'll get a digital release that measures up to it.
    Last edited by A Gruesome Discovery; 01-06-2017 at 10:09 PM.
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  3. #22

    Join Date: 06.22.14
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    Well shit. I've already lost some theoretical dollars.

    Gruesome, man, you've made valid and put into the most perfect learned words the weird shit I always kinda sensed when listening to that record. These reviews put sense to the primitive instincts of the ear. You're a prof for the masses.

    Would've sworn EMDM had to be next. By my own bias I prefer HW by leagues and miles. I'm only going by the shitty Sony stereo system I picked up at a Best Buy years back, but when I listen to EMDM, that record always stood out as being so radically against the volume wars of the age and since. The depth, the tiniest little noticeable tweaks and twerks, the spaciousness and ambience. Interested to hear your insight into that record, and all the rest.

    This is now primetime. Which album will it be next?

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  5. #23
    Enname's Avatar
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    Color is a major component of Holy Wood, and one thing that at least lessens the damage of the overcompression; there's too little contrast in volume, but there is a certain contrast achieved by changes in colors, shades, and tones.
    The colour (it acts almost like a chiaroscuro in places) and sounds are incredible. I have always enjoyed how it managed to sonically reflect that warm, decaying decadence presence all the marketing and album work. Even if I am always a bit saddened that more often than not I am chasing to hear them properly, especially if I am stuck with shitty quality headphones and a digital copy. In particular the way the colour interacts with layering around the vocals right at an individual song's climax - I am looking at you Nobodies. But oh well, the fact that the album still is almost tangible in terms of aural 'flavour' and colouring is really worth everything else. It is in the end what sets the mood of the whole piece, and backs the intricate detail to be chased. That and the vinyl exists to experience it far more fully.
    Quid ignorantia sit multi ignorant.

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  7. #24
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    Edit: wrong thread, delete.

  8. #25
    Man Who Fell From Earth A Gruesome Discovery's Avatar
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    #5 EAT ME, DRINK ME
    Dynamic Range: 6 (Beyond the pale)
    Overall Production Score: C

    THE LOWDOWN: Recorded by just Manson and Skold, with Sean Beavan handling the mix, this is a "back to basics" outing with some surprises.

    THE MIX: Raw and dry. Gone is the sweeping production and atmosphere found on older releases, replaced by a direct and up-front sound. There's very little reverb in the mix; sure, it's used for effect here and there, mostly on drums, but there's no single “master” ambiance tying the whole thing together into a cohesive unit. That's a stylistic choice, and not so much a flaw, but back-to-front spatial placement is of utmost importance when you've removed volume dynamics from your palate.
    Let's talk about this back-to-front placement for a moment. It's easiest to think about this as you would the composition of a photo; you keep your subject in focus, so other elements in the background and foreground tend to blur. You're setting a “stage”. This is done in a mix as well. I've already mentioned positioning mix elements on a left-to-right field using panning in the Mechanical Animals analysis, but we've also got a foreground/background dynamic to utilize; things can be “brought forward” or “pushed back” to give a sense of depth to a mix.
    The simplest way to accomplish this is with simple volume; things you want pushed into the background are mixed lower than things in the foreground. Very basic, although in this case we're battling hard limiting that's trying to push the foreground elements backwards while bringing the background elements forwards. There's also the use of reverbs, delays, and time-based effects to create a sense of “depth”. Giving an instrument a little more reverb “pushes it back” into the mix. Think about something that sounds “far away”, like a tree falling in the distance. Your ears tell you that it's far away not only by its lower volume, but also the smearing of the sound caused by “echo” and “reverberation”.
    What about vocals, though? Those are the focus of most mixes, yet you hear some amount of reverb on vocals more often than not. Why would they want to push those into the background? Well, a vocal that's absolutely swimming in reverb will indeed be pushed further back, and this can sound neat sometimes (or it can also sound like the Billboard Top 10 Singles circa 1986). But you can use it to make a vocal actually sound more present by delaying the reverb a bit - shifting it forward in time (this is usually the knob or key labeled “pre-delay” on electronic reverb units). This way, the dry vocal arrives at your ear first, followed immediately by the reverb or “echo”. You hear the singer's voice, followed by the ambiance of the room, which makes it sound like you're close to the singer and also gives information about the size of the room you're in and the volume of the singer's voice.
    Why am I going on about front-to-back staging? Because EMDM has very little. This can often make a recording sound more intimate, as if the band's in a small room with you in the middle, but for that to work you really need to preserve some dynamics, or the whole thing just sounds flat. And that's what we've got here. The intimate setting makes perfect sense; we're pretty much hearing an album recorded by two guys in a room. It's raw and upfront, and they did a good job with that, but the lack of dynamics flattens it out too much and kind of ruins the effect.
    That's not to say it's all bad. There's some non-traditional guitar tones here that are neat; pretty harsh, but goes along with the “give no fucks” style of production. And the relatively massive amount of guitar solos compared to other MM albums do sound fairly dynamic; you can tell a “loud” note from a “quiet” one, which is essential here. At least something has some dynamics.
    Bass is lacking, and this is a problem. There's bass there, but not enough to properly create a throughline over the course of a song. There's a lot of synth bass, sometimes just covering the sub-bass frequencies, so it's not exactly thin but an important performance element of the rhythm section is largely missing. The songs with strong bass are the ones that sound most balanced, such as “Heart-Shaped Glasses”, although the song with the loudest bass, “You, Me & the Devil Makes 3”, is also the biggest mess.
    Synths and sound effects play more of a supporting role than in previous outings, but that's not to say their importance is diminished. This album has a lot of little sonic touches that the listener might not hear on the first or second listen; I'm still finding little bits here and there that I never noticed. The album isn't swimming in atmosphere like Holy Wood, but it has its own richness that can be appreciated by paying close attention.
    Vocals are at least double-tracked with stereo hard-panning, and all vocals are up-front and dry. The multitracked vocals are extremely tight; at times, it sounds like some sort of chorus effect, until you detect a very slight difference in phrasing or timbre on one side. That's actually pretty impressive. The level stays pinned throughout the album, which works for Manson's voice but doesn't help the dynamics issue one bit.

    STANDOUT MOMENT: “Just a Car Crash Away” and “If I Was Your Vampire” seem to sound the deepest here, while still sounding intimate, so depth and intimacy are not mutually exclusive. The opening drums in IIWYV sound great; the kick is mixed almost like a death metal kick – fat lows, no low mids, and a sharp click up top. The snare has a wonderful delay effect on it, with each delay tap treated by a rising filter and some sort of pitch shifting effect. It's very cool and adds texture.

    WEAK POINTS:
    Picking out specific “weak points” is getting harder as the list goes on, as we're now discussing overall weak sounding albums. I can point out some specific moments where all I can do is sigh and mutter “...god dammit”. They happen in every single song, usually right when verse transitions to chorus, but I think the clearest example comes early in “Putting Holes in Happiness”. Listen carefully to where the first verse shifts to the first chorus; the song's going along, sounding ok, and we hit the line “Ways to make the tiny satisfaction disappear...” (do not let the irony of this line be lost on you). On the first downbeat of the chorus, the kick hits hard, triggers compression, and the sound of the whole song gets sucked down. “Sucked down” is the best descriptor I can conjure for this; you can visualize the song “deflating” right on that beat as the volume level sinks. This is a moment where it should soar to new heights, not be spanked down. It's frustrating. And this continues for the rest of the album; any time the song sounds like it's about to break free, it hits the electric fence and recoils in pain.
    “Evidence” is worthy of mention for the same issue, but it's even worse here due to a tonal shift that does not play well with this sort of dynamics reduction. Again, verse going into the chorus; shit's about to get real and then... thud. But in this case, we actually lose a lot of the bass as well, which further weakens the chorus. This is sort of the opposite of how the superior-sounding Holy Wood does it; there, the bass would have been light or absent in the verse, only filling in the low end in the chorus. That's really the only way to escalate something when we're dealing with these insane levels, and “Evidence” is a great example of doing it ass backwards.

    FINAL THOUGHTS: I like this album, and I like its rawness even if I prefer a more professional, artisanal approach. It's got some glaring flaws in tone and direction, and of course (say it with me now) the dynamic range, but it's different and different is OK. Remaster this shit soon.
    Last edited by A Gruesome Discovery; 01-07-2017 at 09:37 AM.
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  10. #26
    Man Who Fell From Earth A Gruesome Discovery's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Justsomeguy View Post
    Would've sworn EMDM had to be next. By my own bias I prefer HW by leagues and miles. I'm only going by the shitty Sony stereo system I picked up at a Best Buy years back, but when I listen to EMDM, that record always stood out as being so radically against the volume wars of the age and since. The depth, the tiniest little noticeable tweaks and twerks, the spaciousness and ambience.
    Interesting! I don't really hear much of that on EMDM; it sounds very dry to my ears. There is certainly space there, but it's a tiny space, which I think works in favor of the album's overall theme, but doesn't come through as well as it would under better circumstances. The drums do have a lot of atmosphere, but they're kind of sitting all alone in that atmosphere; the rest of the tracks are in a completely different space.
    I definitely hear and measure some serious loudness, though. I didn't touch on this part, but the individual song sections don't suffer as much as they do on other albums; there's some life there. Those transition points, however - verse to chorus, etc - really get slammed. Once you're past those, I can see how this fares well against the other albums in this loudness range.
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  11. #27
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    I agree with what you're saying so far, and I was wondering what your thoughts were on the SAY10 bit that's out there?
    Also, what do you ascribe the vinyl version of HW being better to?
    And does this go for all the other albums (if you own the vinyls)?

  12. #28

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    Alright, really interesting reads here. I love the discussion about sound quality and dynamic range because to me more often than not the albums and songs I find myself liking more is the ones that also have the best mixing on them. I think especially in the case of the Tryptych albums this is important because they are meant to be listened to as one piece, so if you have an album that is loudness wars right to hell, you get listening fatigue. Could you imagine if ACSS sounded like GAOG, I find it hard to believe it would have sold what it did. Despite the amazing song craft and themes, it would have been hard to sit and listen to and by the time you got to songs like Antichrist Superstar, you'd be mentally tuning out the harshness. Instead the album is just ramping up then. Agree completely about the beauty of the chorus kicking in for ACSS and how effective the loudness is there because everything else before it hasn't been brickwalled to shit.

    As for Holywood I see one member here doesn't think much of it or it's fans haha, but to me I agree whole heartedly that it is a fantastic mix and of all the material in Mansons catalog would benefit the most from a remaster. The band Rush released the album Vapor Trails in 2002 and the album was plagued by a terrible mastering. It was so horrible it was near the top of the fans wishlist for future projects. The band did eventually release a completely remastered album and the difference was truly incredible. Pretty much any albums released from 2000-2008 or so are damn near unlistenable to me. I agree totally with the Holywood vinyl being far superior. I am one who enjoys the sound of vinyl more than digital releases to begin with, but Holywood is such a noticeable improvement that I seldom listen to that cd anymore. Listening to the Tryptych on vinyl is pretty impressive over all, and there is very little improvement I can imagine happening across all three albums.

    Also, I agree with MA being the best sounding album. The sound is so slick and clear. As for Dissassociative, it might be my favourite mix on a Manson song, listening to that with a proper stereo is just an immersive experience. There is so much going on in that soundscape that without a proper DR it would be an absolute audio shit show, but thankfully that isn't the case at all. By the way, what is with the people not hearing the 4,3,2,1 in that song? To me it was as clear as day the first time I heard it and in subsequent spins (and because I'm a tool) I would quietly use my fingers to count that down. One day a friend asked me why I was doing that and I said I was mimicking the countdown and they were like what countdown? so I showed him and it was like pointing out the Northern Lights to someone, he had never noticed it before. Since then I've seen countless people across Manson sites ask what countdown people were talking about. Is this like the audio version of that black and blue dress or something, wtf?

  13. #29

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    Quote Originally Posted by A Gruesome Discovery View Post
    Interesting! I don't really hear much of that on EMDM; it sounds very dry to my ears. There is certainly space there, but it's a tiny space, which I think works in favor of the album's overall theme, but doesn't come through as well as it would under better circumstances. The drums do have a lot of atmosphere, but they're kind of sitting all alone in that atmosphere; the rest of the tracks are in a completely different space.
    I definitely hear and measure some serious loudness, though. I didn't touch on this part, but the individual song sections don't suffer as much as they do on other albums; there's some life there. Those transition points, however - verse to chorus, etc - really get slammed. Once you're past those, I can see how this fares well against the other albums in this loudness range.
    After reading your review, I can absolutely hear now what you're on about. I definitely get the 'back to basics' dryness and intimacy of the recordings. I always said that EMDM sounded like the house band of Satan's personal lounge club. Particularly in songs like Red Carpet Grave, They Said That Hell's Not Hot, Are You the Rabbit, and a few others, I definitely hear this 'beyond the max' dark garage-ey feel, particularly being a uniquely guitar-driven album within Manson's catalogue, though I always saw that as an intentional maneuver, and it is. After listening to HW and EMDM back to back, your reviews make a ton of sense. My ears sort of deceived me into focusing on what's recorded over how it's mixed or mastered. When I'd listen to a song like Evidence, or Eat Me Drink Me, or Just a Car Crash Away, I heard the dryness and messy distorted crunchiness, particularly in choruses or in the vocals overall, but I could also hear the velvet, the satin, each individual vocal track, the echos of the smallest components, the wavering drippy slowness, like a sex scene out of a movie.

    Admittedly I rarely listen to the singles or single-sounding songs on that record a bunch, I loved this album for it's slow purple-blood-bleeding moments of slow pulsing vulnerability, but I definitely get the utter fuckup of certain transitions and levels before and during choruses that you mention. I don't think I'd listened to Heart Shaped Glasses in about two years, same goes for Putting Holes in Happiness. The approach taken overall definitely works with this album, but I can see there's massive room for improvement if only in certain crucial regards. After HW, this is an album that definitely deserves a remaster, even if it's just a large tweak of glaring problems.

    Also, adam_777, I know right!? I don't know how some people are listening to that tune, but the 4,3,2,1 is clear-as-day, even if it's a component within the beautiful clusterfuck of sound around it. In my few posts on this forum, the one thing I do recall mentioning is my love of that song. Depending on the day or my mood, Disassociative is quite often one of my favourite Manson songs if not the favourite, both musically and lyrically. What comes after that countdown is indescribable, an utterly immaculate explosion of the soul, a beautiful glittery chaos of stripped bare emotion. I place it with some of the greatest musical moments in the history of recorded mainstream rock music. Some may piss all over me for that statement, but I just do. It's up there with the end of The Wall.

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  15. #30
    Man Who Fell From Earth A Gruesome Discovery's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Skull View Post
    I agree with what you're saying so far, and I was wondering what your thoughts were on the SAY10 bit that's out there?
    Also, what do you ascribe the vinyl version of HW being better to?
    And does this go for all the other albums (if you own the vinyls)?
    I liked the SAY10 clip, but haven't heard it on decent speakers yet. I have high hopes, though, based on the personnel involved. I loved TPE's sound, at least I did until (((spoiler!))).

    The thing about vinyl is that it actually has less available dynamic range than a CD; vinyl has about 80dB, whereas 16-bit digital audio has about 96dB. I think the reason why vinyl often (but not always) gets a more dynamic mix is that, quite frankly, normal people don't buy records. They cost a bit more, they're impractical, and every time you play one, you're doing some small amount of damage to it. Weirdos buy records because they like the sound, therefore when a release goes to vinyl, the mastering house plays to their target audience and goes for utmost quality instead of maximum loudness.
    CDs and MP3s/AACs are made for the masses. People will be listening to them in their cars, on earbuds while jogging or on a train, or in other noisy places where it may be desirable to have heavily limited audio. You can't listen to vinyl while doing any of those things, so there's no real reason to limit them so severely.
    There's nothing inherently special about vinyl in my opinion, it's just that the goal for a vinyl pressing seems to be "make it sound good", whereas digital tends to be "make it sound louder".
    Holy Wood sounds better, I suspect, because there's two different masters; a good one, and a loud one. The good one went on the record.
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