Donald Fagen – ‘Kamakiriad’ A DVD-Audio review by Patrick Cleasby

Hot on the heels of the exemplary DVD-Audio version of the latest Steely Dan album ‘ Everything Must Go’, Warner Strategic Marketing are today releasing the DVD-Audio of Donald Fagen’s second solo album to the US market. The UK release follows a month or so later on the 28th July.

Kamakiriad’ was first released a full ten years ago in the summer of 1993 – doesn’t time fly? At the time it brought to a close a period of almost ten years since Fagen’s brilliant solo debut, (and the last Dan-related album to be produced by their close colleague Gary Katz), ‘The Nightfly’. Fagen had been afflicted with writer’s block for most of that time – the sum total of his recorded output during the period being a couple of tracks on the ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ soundtrack.

Kamakiriad’ was also notable for marking the full rapprochement on record of Fagen and his former Dan partner-in-crime, Walter Becker, who was roped in as producer, bassist and guitar soloist once Fagen became insecure about producing himself. (They had previously appeared together on the Gary Katz-produced Rosie Vela album ‘Zazu’ – an obscurantist choice of a fine candidate for the multi-channel high-resolution treatment if ever there was one). In actual fact, as the interview on this disc reveals, they had first reconvened for writing purposes shortly after ‘The Nightfly’ in the mid-eighties, completing the instrumental for ‘Snowbound’ around that time. In the wake of this album and Becker’s reciprocally Fagen-produced ‘Eleven Tracks of Whack’, they went out on the road, were persuaded to call themselves Steely Dan again, and the rest is Grammy®-winning history.

Of all the albums in the Steely Dan-affiliated canon ‘Kamakiriad’ is the one which divides the devotees. Some acclaim it as one of their favourites, some find it somehow lacking after the all round perfection of ‘The Nightfly’. I must confess that I was in the latter camp myself, along with many of my friends and family. The album is therefore ripe for reassessment in its new multi-channel mix. As usual the mix has been completed by 5.1 and Dan mixing regular Elliot Scheiner.

The disc is very attractively presented, with the sleeve insert including a 1993 Billboard piece and a ‘now’ Fagen retrospective sleeve note, as ‘The Nightfly’ DVD-Audio does. However it does not include lyrics, which the CD sleeve did. This means that DVD-Video users will not be able to read lyrics as they listen – for them lyrics (and the fifteen-photo gallery) are only accessible from the extras menu. They also get the customary Dolby Digital stereo and 5.1 tracks, as well as the surround mix in DTS form.

The navigation of the disc will be familiar to those used to the other Dan and Fagen discs. On loading, an animated version of the sleeve art introduces itself, and the rest of the menu backgrounds are just as attractive (flick through the lyrics screens quickly to get a windscreen wiper effect!). In DVD-Audio mode the MLP tracks are once again switchable using the audio button, and lyrics and gallery are accessible as each track plays.

The extras here are top notch – all from 1993 we have the quirky videos for ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ and ‘Snowbound’, the former starring Rick Moranis, and an eleven minute electronic press kit, presented here as a ‘Making of…’. The videos are great to see for the first time, as ‘The Chart Show’ in the UK was unlikely to show Donald Fagen videos, even ten years ago. It is a shame that they are only presented with Dolby Digital stereo sound – on ‘The Nightfly’ the ‘New Frontier’ video had Dolby Digital 5.1. The EPK is great – the usual laconic Becker and Fagen interviews, plus Moranis on the set of the video. All have crystal clear and very high bit rate encoding – it is a joy to behold ten year old supplementary elements looking this good, but it is a shame that the EPK has not been chaptered.

As others have already noted, it is also a shame that the musician’s credits are not accessible while each track plays as they are on the Steely Dan discs. However I reserve my strongest criticism for the fact that the opportunity was not taken to include those soundtrack tracks and the two original B sides from this period as bonus tracks – I would love to hear ‘Century’s End’ in 5.1. Robin Hurley says that this was not considered, but I tend to agree with him that owing to the conceptual nature of the album, Fagen may have demurred if asked. ‘Kamakiriad’ is, at least superficially, a sci-fi story of a man driving a bizarre car/greenhouse combination across a ravaged futurescape, but that is really just a backdrop for Fagen to hang his usual hang-ups and in-jokes upon.

This DVD-Audio is a classic example of one of the main problems facing 5.1 remix projects of albums made in the early days of digital recording – how does one update a recording made in 16-bit 48kHz resolution and make the best use of the 24-bit 96kHz available in 5.1 DVD-Audio?

Thus far the reasonable option taken on discs such as ‘The Nightfly’ and REM’s ‘Automatic for the People’ has been to retain the 48kHz sampling rate of the original but make use of the advantages of working at 24-bit depth, a fine justification of which is to be found in one of long time Dan engineer Roger Nichols’ recent EQ columns. In my view the results have been of reasonable fidelity, but not the same richness and dynamic range as found on maximum resolution DVD-Audios such as ‘Everything Must Go’.

Many were expecting the same handling here, and indeed the sleeve (at least for the US version) indicates 48kHz 24-bit stereo and surround. However, once in the machine the disc indicates both tracks to be 96kHz 24-bit. This finding prompted a round of enquiries with Robin Hurley, the producer of this disc, and ultimately Bob Ludwig, who mastered it. It transpires that the discrepancy is deliberate, despite the possibility that it might confuse eagle-eyed punters. As Nichols’ article indicates, the work on the transferred multi-tracks was done at 48kHz 24-bit; for this reason both Robin and Elliot Scheiner feel that the disc should be billed as being at this resolution – a position which I fundamentally endorse, with some punter-confusion-related reservations. However, the reason for the tracks appearing to be 96kHz 24-bit is that the completed Scheiner mix, in common with the revised ‘Gaucho’ remix for the forthcoming SACD, was finalised to six tracks of two-inch eight-track analogue tape. As Scheiner has noted in a Surround Professional article, this practice allows for the reworking of the completed mix in future putative higher resolutions, without going back to the ageing source elements. Of course it also means that any of his completed 5.1 mixes are completely platform-independent and could just as easily be produced in either of the competing high-resolution formats, or both.

On receiving the 5.1 master on his preferred format, Bob Ludwig naturally mastered it at the highest possible resolution for multi-channel DVD-Audio, and hence the resulting MLP files are 96kHz 24-bit. Does any of this really matter? Purists may quibble about the redundancy of an analogue stage, but I have spoken to artists who like their computer-recorded albums to go to mastering on two-track analogue just so there is one leg of that fabled analogue ‘warmth’ in the whole chain.

Well, as we say in the UK, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I have to say that this disc convinces me more than ‘The Nightfly’ did, and that is one of my favourite albums. Despite the fact that the 44.1kHz 16-bit CD should not have been hugely inferior to the 48kHz 16-bit original, mastering technology has advanced a lot in the last ten years, and the MLP stereo track here, while not devastatingly superior to what is still a very fine sounding CD, has considerably more punch and depth in certain areas, such as the boxy snare sound on ‘Snowbound’.

But it is with Scheiner’s surround mix that this disc really impresses. Devotees of his previous Dan-related mixes will know what to expect. While staying within the rules and retaining the super-dry vocals and drums of the original stereo mix, the new mix opens out the complex layers of the stereo mix and spreads them around the room. The instrumental and backing vocal placements are never predictable, and are not gimmicky, although the finger clicks in the intro to the first track ‘Trans-Island Skyway’ circle the room nicely. There is also a great sense of space in the bridge of this track, with percussion in the rear.

Much like ‘Everything Must Go’ this is an album tied together by Becker playing bass and guitar solos throughout. Those bass sounds are fantastically deep and rich and much more accurately conveyed than they are by the CD, particularly the popping on ‘Countermoon’ and on the synth-assisted ‘Springtime’.

Personally, I found that the opportunity to follow the lyrics on-screen as the music played allowed me to enjoy the album much more than poring over a tiny CD booklet, especially when coupled with the tip-off from the new sleevenote and the EPK that much of this stuff is an allegory for mid-life crisis and partner paranoia. You also can’t miss the way in which the surround mix allows you to appreciate great textures, which you just don’t get in stereo. The perfect example of this is the magical and very musical penultimate track, ‘On the Dunes’, which has great bass playing with a fabulous warm tone. The surround mix is subtle, with digital synth pads all around, but some vocal-answering guitar fills playfully coming from the right rear. ‘Snowbound’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ are also very tastefully done, although some might find the overhead percussion distracting in the former. Even the slightest song, ‘Florida Room’, with such great life in its horns, is so good in surround that you wouldn’t wish to return to stereo.

Fans should obviously rush out and buy the DVD-Audio version of ‘Kamakiriad’; it is more difficult to recommend it as the starting point for the uninitiated – and the third generation of Steely Dan fans should be starting to listen around now – I would suggest they start with ‘The Nightfly’, jump up to date with ‘Everything Must Go’, and then work backwards to ‘Kamakiriad’ via ‘Two Against Nature’. All four are, sonically-speaking, superbly well-executed DVD-Audio discs, and you can’t say fairer than that.