Exclusive Preview: Van Morrison's Legendary Astral Weeks on 180g Vinyl

Some analog recordings shouldn't be allowed be reissued on any digital format. There should be a law! You want to hear, say, Van Morrison's rococo, acoustic/folk jazz masterpiece Astral Weeks?

Well then you'd better get yourself a turntable and then you'll be allowed to listen. Otherwise listen to something else. That's how it ought to be with a record like that because you're simply not hearing what it's about on a CD and of course less so, if you're hearing anything at all on an Mp3.

The original green Warners-7Arts first pressing issued in November of 1968 or green WB Keystone label second pressing were the ones to have, at least until this reissue.

Wait until you hear it! I received a test pressing labeled 'Not final,' meaning those involved in the mastering (AcousTech's Kevin Grey and Warner Brothers' Tom 'Grover' Biery). However, even if it was released as is, it obsoletes the original in almost every way.

The original has a warm, rich, atmospheric character that draws you into its dank, distant vibe. The shaker on the opener, the insistent 'In The Beginning,' is barely present. The flute has little air, the strings are ghostly, the bass skeletal and almost ineffectual, the acoustic guitars stately, clean yet soft. As for Van, he's caught in the embrace of a warm reverb. Whether purposeful or just the original mastering chain speaking, the production works; a fact made obvious by the record's enduring status as one of the greatest albums of the rock era and the public's continued fascination with it.

The wondering minstrel created the album backed by an unlikely assemblage for a Belfast youngster who had only recently quit the rock band Them and had a hit with 'Brown Eyed Girl.'

While there were hints of what might come next on his first solo album Blowing Your Mind on Bang! Records (reissued domestically on Sundazed and in Europe on Speakers Corner), nothing could prepare the listener for the moody, syncopated, mysterious adventure Van created here with backing from a group that included MJQ drumming great Connie Kay (as MJQ fans have never heard him), flute and sax player John Payne, who may be better known for his work with Bonnie Raitt and the highly accomplished bassist Richard Davis, who's played with jazz greats including Eric Dolphy (Out to Lunch) and Andrew Hill (Point of Departure), to Barbra Streisand and Bruce Springsteen, with a stopover in the classical music world of Bernstein and Stravinsky!

Free jazz drummer and Max Roach cohort Warren Smith adds percussion and vibraharp, while Jay Berliner, who played on Mingus albums Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus, Mingus, Mingus adds those insistent acoustic guitar strums and dramatic, strenuously plucked, some might say erotic leads.

When you hear the new reissue, even if you've heard the original 100 times since it first came out, which would easily be me, you will almost jump out of your seat when you hear these familiar elements move from the shadows to the foreground. Van sounds almost introspective and delicate on the original. The reissue reveals powerful vocal dynamics within which get revealed subtle, heretofore hidden emotional nuances and instant, immediately communicated revelations as they seem to travel from Van's mind into his vocal chords and from there into the microphone's diaphragm.

There are shimmering finger cymbals on 'Sweet Thing' that I've heard I don't know how many times but suddenly here they float into the room on the exquisitely captured transient hit and decay delicately and for what seems like a really long time before disappearing. 'Cyprus Avenue' begins with a distant guitar strum above audible tape hiss when suddenly Berliner hits one strum that startlingly leaps from the speakers, almost creating a shockwave. Davis' bass plucks are finally allowed full flower, revealing a muscular expressiveness heretofore hidden in the original's echoey atmosphere.

This is the tape for better (dynamics, detail, physical and harmonic structure) and some might say for worse (literal, spotlit, 'recording-like' and perhaps almost brutally exposed). Morrison's sibilants must be difficult to get onto lacquer and they will present tracking issues for some tonearm/cartridges. I heard them cleanly but certainly possessed of a great deal of energy that might shake some cartridges from their foundations or sound aggressive on some tweeters.

The slight reverb clearly heard behind Van's voice on the original despite being buried in the murk, is less apparent on the TP so perhaps it was added during the original mastering? I need more plays to sort that one out.

Should the reissue team attempt to duplicate it or give you what's on the tape? Perhaps that's what they're grappling with. Perhaps it's something else.

Whatever the reverb decision and whatever the final EQ balance, Astral Weeks one of the great records of the rock era is destined to become one of the great reissues of the post-CD/analog revival era. Whether it's one of your favorite albums or you've never heard it, Astral Weeks belongs in any rock lover's record collection (even if it's not really a rock record) and this reissue is (or will be) the one to have!

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fork's picture

I bought the US version of this album (there is a US and a Europe version). I had a German pressing of this from Midi, which was very mediocre and this copy definitely beat that one.

I don't object, in theory, to a digital to vinyl recording and I'm on-board with Rhino pressings. Most digital vinyl is bad, but there are some good ones. The Rhino pressings of Black Sabbath and Paranoid (from the 2000's) lack the detail of the originals, but they have a tubey warmth that feels really good (same thing with 1970 from the Stooges). I think those were probably mastered from the tapes, but Rhino knows good sound.

The problem I have with this pressing is that it has a fairly high noise floor and a low signal level; I assume they should have been able to do something about the noise in the remastering.

Compared to my original US copy of Band and E Street Choir, the noise level in the track breaks is about the same and this reissue of Astral definitely has more of that digital refinement. However, E Street has a notably higher signal level, so it does a much better job of cutting though the noise to make it more engaging. With the Astral reissue I find myself wanting, but unable to cut through the noise to get to the music as soon as the needle drops. This may well be the best available version of this classic, but against my other albums that I'd classify as a 10, based solely on sound quality, I couldn't rate this one higher than 8.

For a Sound Quality of 10 with Van I'd go to the 1979, Direct-Disk (Japanese), half-speed pressing of Moondance. In a A-B comparison with this Astral reissue, the noise is at least 50% lower and the music absolutely jumps off the album, with fantastic treble extension.