Billy Cobham – ‘Spectrum’ A DVD-Audio review by Buzz Goddard

Jazz-Rock fusion fans know Billy Cobham from his solo albums as well as his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis. With his explosive style and enormous drum kits, Cobham was more than able to hold his own while everyone around him was spewing out riffs as if they were paid by the note. Frustrated by fellow band members’ lack of interest in his compositions, Cobham cobbled together an eclectic group of musicians to perform on an album of his own compositions. The resultant album, ‘Spectrum’, is generally acknowledged as one of the finest fusion albums and perhaps the best of Cobham’s career (so far).

Originally recorded at Electric Lady and mixed in London at Trident Studios by Ken “All Around Objective Ear” Scott in 1973, Spectrum was remixed in 2001 at Tweedle Music in Rome. The surround remix credits Cobham as executive producer with surround design by Filippo Bussi and mix assistance from Antonio Arena.

All selections were written by Cobham and the core band featured fellow Mahavishnu Orchestra alumnus Jan Hammer, rocker Tommy Bolin on guitar, and session stalwart Lee Sklar on bass. Two compositions, ‘Spectrum’ and ‘Le Lis’ feature John Tropea on guitar, Ron Carter on bass, Joe Farrell on flute and sax, Jimmy Owens on flьgelhorn and Ray Barretto on congas.

The surround mix compliments the music well. While the most obvious facet is the use of reverb in the surrounds to give a sense of envelopment, there is occasional use of the surrounds to emphasize a particular musical event. Billy’s kit is spread across the front speakers, typically the snare in the center with its reverb in the other channels, the rest of the kit is panned across the front left, center and front right.

Generally, solos are placed in the front hemisphere with keyboard vamps and rhythmic parts floating out into the room. Leads often have left or right forward placement with reverb echoing behind the listener. Lee Sklar’s typically reliable bass anchors it all together with the low end in the fronts as well as the LFE. There is decent but not subterranean depth with no boominess. There isn’t an attempt to create an image of the players live, although the core tracks sound like they were recorded live in the studio.

From the opening when he chuckles and counts out the intro, there is no doubt this is Billy’s album. He and Hammer take off on ‘Quadrant 4’. Bolin’s solo makes it clear from the outset he’s not a jazz player turned fusionist. Quite simply, he rocks. He plays electric guitar with abandon; whammy bar, wah pedal and Echoplex all deftly controlled in a perfectly structured solo.. It is easy to understand what Cobham saw in Bolin and serves as a testament to what a major talent Bolin was.

Stratus’ begins with ephemeral audio zephyrs panning and floating about the listening area. A Moog sample and hold module drills against Cobham’s drums up front.
A couple of tasty reverb hits are panned full rear giving a wondrous sense of space.

‘Snoopy’s Search’, a short synth intro, will test the 360 degree imaging capabilities of your system. Careful system setup, including painstaking level and delay calibration, as well as attention to acoustics will be rewarded with smooth pans and interesting movements that help make much more sense of the sonics then the two channel version is able to.

The familiar funky groove of ‘Red Baron’ is complimented by some clever note twisting at the climax of Jan Hammer’s solo and the 5.1 mix nicely accentuates the modulated tones. In the two channel mix they are highlighted with a little movement and reverb. The 5.1 mix pops them onto the listener, letting his synth reach out and hammer you.. Good fun!

Overall the sonics are decent. The sound is compressed and veiled without the bite and snap of a more modern recording but it is better then most other rock recordings of that period. At higher volume levels (I believe it is illegal to play this disc softly in most states) the drums provide a nice visceral impact. While the drum sound lacks the impact of his later recordings like ‘Warning’, Cobham is a very strong drummer and one gets a sense of the power on his snare hits (which occasionally have an extra jolt of reverb applied to the surrounds for emphasis).

Expecting little more then a pleasant trip down nostalgia avenue, ‘Spectrum’ has proven the worth of the DVD-Audio concept to me once again. The remixes help make some of the synthesized sounds more interesting and involving. The transparency of the 96kHz 24-bit medium helps reveal some of the more subtle interplay. There is a short interview with Cobham which provides insights into the original recording process (disappointingly nothing on the 5.1 remix however). The extras help bring the listener closer to Cobham’s vision, adding a dimension not possible even on the 12” album sleeve (and certainly missing in a standard CD packaging).

It’s great to hear the artist revisiting his creation almost three decades later, resisting the temptation to alter the performances and instead focusing on involving the listener more using current technology. Going back to the two-channel mixes creates a feeling of loss. The fidelity is still there, but we’re listening through a window, not sitting in the space with them.

Fusion fans will do well to revisit this music via the 5.1 DVD-Audio format. Drummers, electric guitarists and electronic keyboard players will be able to hear some amazing performances much more clearly. The surround mix serves the music well. Recommended.