Think of legendary guitarists and sooner or later the name Eric Clapton will spring to mind… and with good reason given his illustrious pedigree – ‘Slowhand’, ‘Just One Night’ and ‘Journeyman’ to name but three highly revered albums.
‘Reptile’, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the style of ‘Riding With The King’, although sadly without B.B., finds Clapton in a relaxed, laid-back and rather lethargic state. The disc includes a mixture of styles, from the opening instrumental samba, nominated for a Grammy® in the best pop instrumental performance category, through to blues covers, but nothing that even remotely approaches the originality of Clapton’s previous works. As much as it pains me to say it, with the odd exception, ‘Reptile’ is easy listening, woolly-jumper-wearing Clapton, an album where one overly long song rolls into the next in a monotonous way. There are only so many times the same musical or lyrical phrase can be repeated before tedium sets in, and that line is often crossed here.
The album does have obvious merits, it is in no way artificial or forced, and of course the performances are of a high standard. What we miss however, is the instrumental genius of previous Clapton recordings, there is nothing in ‘Reptile’ – from a guitarist’s standpoint – that sets his performance apart from that of your average, moderately accomplished musician.
If you’re a fan of Clapton unplugged, then there’s a good chance this album will indeed float your boat, likewise if you’re only just discovering old Slowhand or prefer his blues persona. Either way it’s probably best to judge the album on its own merits and not on what has gone before. In which case it’s not too bad…
The most interesting track is undoubtedly ‘Modern Girl’, the lyric is melancholy and yet the accompaniment strangely upbeat. To confuse the style yet further, chorus vocals have a barbershop lilt that, over the catchy string phrase backing makes for an entertaining juxtaposition. The more up-beat tracks – Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It’ and ‘Superman Inside’ for example – are also worthy of note.
Coming eight months after the CD release, as DVD-Audio discs go, ‘Reptile’ provides little to write home about, the surround presentation is mediocre (at best) and the fidelity is equally disappointing.
The 3/2.1 88.2kHz surround mix has been created by way of a simple studio ‘DSP’ mode, the surrounds carry precious more than extracted reverb and do little, if anything at all, to add to the overall experience. Quite the contrary in fact, there is a distracting amount of high frequency bleed into the left surround that confuses and muddles the soundstage as a whole. The centre channel is used largely as a ‘fill’ between front left and right and as such the centre imaging also suffers, reducing the ‘sweet spot’ and introducing all manner of time alignment problems – ‘Travelin’ Light’ being a particularly bad example. There is but one exception; the vocal of ‘Got You On My Mind’ is firmly anchored in the centre channel and as such the whole frontal soundstage benefits.
The disc contains a 2/0.0 mix (also 88.2kHz) and it is ‘cleaner’ and more precise than the surround mix. This version, processed via Pro Logic II or Logic 7, presents a more defined and enveloping experience than the poor surround show created by Mick Gauzauski (which was mastered by Bob Ludwig). A multi-channel mix needn’t be all bells and whistles, but nor should it be the modern-day equivalent of a simple Hafler matrix.
Fidelity-wise, the disc also leaves a lot to be desired; many tracks are lacking in low-end presence or depth – to the point of being anaemic – while others are decidedly muddled, vocals being indistinct and guitars an undefined mess. There are tracks with some bass, ‘Come Back Baby’ for one, and clearer vocal presence, ‘Find Myself’, but they are the odd men out. Again, the two-channel mix is superior, although it falls far short of what one would expect from DVD-Audio in fidelity terms – it is no better than CD quality – it doesn’t suffer from the compromised front/rear imaging brought about by the simple matrix surround creation.
Unlike obviously flawed discs such as Warner’s ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ soundtrack, there is nothing bad about the recording, there’s just nothing good about it either.
Given what is arguably, in Clapton terms, rather lacklustre material, for its DVD-Audio release ‘Reptile’ really needed an injection of life, either from the surround mix, the potential fidelity benefits of DVD-Audio or from both. Unfortunately, the technical presentation does not behove the musical performance and one comes away from the whole experience feeling cheated.
There are no disc extras other than a short biography. The alternative Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks are adequate, but there is nothing in the material to challenge either lossy scheme so both are all but identical to the DVD-Audio lossless MLP.
I couldn’t recommend the DVD-Audio release of ‘Reptile’ regardless of what I feel about the performance itself, simply because the disc offers nothing above and beyond what is available from the standard Compact Disc release. The surround presentation is sorely lacking and the fidelity likewise.