Fleetwood Mac – ‘Say You Will’ A DVD-Audio review by Patrick Cleasby

With the greatest respect to Dishwalla and Bryan Ferry, the brand new Fleetwood Mac album ‘Say You Will’, released in the U.S. tomorrow, is one the most momentous high resolution new releases yet, being the first DVD-Audio disc to gain an (almost) simultaneous release with the equivalent CD on both sides of the Atlantic. (The U.K. release for CD and DVD-A is two weeks after the U.S., on the 28th April). This one has to go well for Warner Bros., to compete with the column inches and impressive sales racked up by the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ SACD. Strangely, however, the existence of a DVD-Audio version has not been highlighted on the band website, nor in the advance publicity for the album’s release at the beginning of the year. Were they hedging their bets in case it didn’t make it?

What is also apparent is one of the possible downsides of a ‘day and date’ DVD-Audio version, namely the issue of whether suitable added value content can be included when production is on an aggressive timescale. The simple answer is that on this DVD-A there isn’t any. High Fidelity Review will contact the producer of this disc, David May of Warner Bros., to investigate this, but the likelihood is that if timescales aren’t the issue, data space is, as this album clocks in at a CD-filling seventy-six minutes. However, the disc is a DVD-9, so there should be plenty of bits to spare for a gallery at least, but here we have nothing; no lyrics, no credits, nothing. This is made doubly galling since the CD is available as a special edition with an enhanced bonus CD containing several live and cover tracks and video material not found here. Despite the DVD-Audio disc being competitively priced at CD level, the ‘completist’ fan will no doubt have to spend twice that fifteen dollars (or pounds) to get all those tracks. This lack of any supplementary material means ‘Say You Will’ is the first DVD-Audio title from a major label to receive the dreaded High Fidelity Review Blue Duck score in that particular category.

Of course, what I am presuming is that the label-less test pressing I have here is identical to the actual release [it is, the commercial release has no extras either -Ed]. Unfortunately I also have no sleeve, so any writing, production and mixing details are culled from press releases and Internet research, and I will refrain from commenting on lyrical concerns. The album was produced by Lindsey Buckingham and the stereo and multi-channel mixing was done by Mark Needham, whose background as Chris Isaak’s engineer of choice has included creating the sound for ‘The Chris Isaak Show’ which is broadcast in 5.1.

The disc has simple moving menus, with 24-bit stereo PCM instrumentals from ‘Destiny Rules’ and ‘Peacekeaper’ playing in the background. The songs display a single studio still per track when playing, and in DVD-Audio mode you can navigate to the tracks menu without stopping the playback, for what it’s worth. In DVD-Video mode, there are none of those more recent high fidelity options like DTS surround or 24-bit Linear PCM stereo, just Dolby Digital 3/2.1 and 2/0.0, although at the unusually high two-channel data rate of 448kb/s, with even those instrumental snippets being downgraded to Dolby Digital 2/0.0. I will not comment on these tracks except to say that on a cursory listen they seem to be serviceable facsimiles of the MLP tracks, with top and bottom ends and more complex instruments sounding compromised by the lossy compression. Again, I assume that the bit budget could not afford the preferable less lossy and lossless versions.

Fleetwood Mac cognoscenti have known for some time that following the flurry of activity generated by the MTV Unplugged which became the ‘The Dance’ album and DVD five years ago, Christine McVie decided to retire from active service with the group. Much of the publicity surrounding ‘Say You Will’ has glossed over this, along with the two studio albums made by different line-ups after Lindsey Buckingham’s departure from the group following 1987’s multi-million selling ‘Tango in the Night’ album, effectively implying that this studio album is the true follow-up from the “true” line-up. Although Christine’s perfect pop songs and delightful singing are missed, a four piece which consists of the twin Fleetwood/(John) McVie and Buckingham/Nicks axes is pretty close to the real thing.

Just as Fleetwood Mac’s other mega-selling album ‘Rumours’ was followed by a more left-field double album in ‘Tusk’, the glossy 80s pop rock of ‘Tango…’ has been “followed” by another lengthy and varied collection. Indeed, the verdict of Mick Fleetwood is that in many ways this album reflects the dense and multi-layered ‘Tusk’. Above all this is more of a Rock than a Pop album, with screaming electric guitar solos everywhere. Fleetwood attributes this to the boys working in Power Trio mode while Stevie was away on the ‘Trouble in Shangri La’ tour. On the other hand, Lindsey Buckingham observes that the shift in the group dynamic caused by Christine’s absences skews the feel toward that of the legendary “Buckingham/Nicks” album. Until Ken Caillat’s search for the missing multi-tracks of that album results in the production of a DVD-Audio version, I will have to reserve judgement on that, never having heard the album, but this disc definitely feels different to what has gone before.

This could partly be due to the origins of this project as a Buckingham solo album nine years ago or so, and although some of the less conventional tracks here could sound like solo material, the consistent thread of the unmistakable Fleetwood/McVie rhythm section ties the whole together as a coherent and remarkably well sequenced – for such a long program – album.

Having said that the album is well sequenced, it gainsays one of the cardinal rules of that skill by putting one of the relative duds first up. ‘What’s the World Coming To’ is a fairly drab and bland mid-tempo strum, and is probably not melodically memorable enough to become a single.

As we start to get new albums in high resolution from the get-go, we are faced with the issue of whether to listen to the stereo track or the multi-channel mix first. I elected to go for the 24-bit 96kHz stereo first, but off-put by the flatness of this first track, I switched back to the beginning in surround, looking for more interest. I should really have persisted, as the rest of the stereo mix is actually immensely satisfying, and in my notes track after track bears the words, “good”, “great bass”, “solid” and “punchy”. I have not heard the CD, but for the same price you would be insane not to go for the DVD-A if only for the superior resolution of the version of the stereo mix found here. I would, however, like to check with the CD, as some of the fadeouts seem a bit brutal on both the stereo and surround mixes.

The long genesis of this album meant that the mixes had to be knitted together from over a hundred ProTools tracks as well as from analogue and digital multi-track machines, which might also account for the stereo track only being 24/96, as the early elements of this recording would almost inevitably have been done at lower sampling rates, and certainly not at 192kHz.

Returning to the surround version of the album, my first observation is also my main reservation in terms of the recording fidelity. Some recording engineers have started to mutter about the loss of richness arising from the prevalence of ProTools recording (essentially the issue is in the quality of the analogue to digital converters used) compared to the classic days of analogue tape recording, and even in the heady world of Fleetwood Mac, it cannot be denied that the 24/96 transfers of the aged and worn multi-tracks of ‘Rumours’ somehow seem less harsh and more full than the top and bottom end exhibited here. It’s almost a game to guess which parts of the recording were analogue in origin.

The surround mix is also less adventurous than Mr. Caillat’s mixes for ‘Rumours’ and much less adventurous than Mr. Schiener’s mix for ‘The Dance’ DVD-Video release. This isn’t a reference disc to excite the DVD-Audio novices with wild pans or discrete instrumental or vocal placements. There are not that many discrete events at all, and a couple of occasions where you are left wondering why backing vocals and percussion weren’t placed more in the rears to give variety to the mix. The surround speakers are used to give greater depth to Buckingham’s traditional multi-layered backing vocals and swathes of guitar by “pulling” them out of the 2D stereo plane.

A common practice for the more straight-ahead rockers is to heavily reinforce the conventional stereo placement of the rhythm section and the lead vocal using the centre, which can lead to Mick’s kit sounding very “boxed in”. Effects-wise, Buckingham/Nicks vocals in left and right placement, or stereo pans from left to right to centre have more presence in the surround mix compared to the stereo.

Second track ‘Murrow Turning Over In His Grave’ sees the musical pendulum swing from the conventional to the esoteric. Lindsey’s vocals are distorted, and not for the first time I am left longing for a lyric sheet, but the instrumental is powerful, with guitar and vocal layers all around.

Illume (9/11)’ is the first Stevie lead vocal, an impressively dense and loopy piece that is more an incantation of incredulity at the events of that fateful day than a structured song. The sub adds a nice bass swoop into the spoken word section, and the outro has a positively Frippertronic guitar solo. This track has a lovely tight bottom end in its stereo version.

Thrown Down’ is a more conventional Nicks number, with great McVie bass, a neat guitar figure threading all the way through, and keyboard sounds that hark back to the ‘Tango’ era. ‘Miranda’ is a Lindsey vocal with some great eastern-tinged guitar licks, and for the first time, some metronomic percussion placed in the rears. The cowbell here forces your toe to tap Again there is a rippling guitar solo reminiscent of Robert Fripp.

Red Rover’ is a more experimental piece in 6/8 with processed Buckingham vocals, and no kit or conventional McVie bass. There are some nice distant backing vocals in the “Take you over…” section at the end, and frenetic finger picking and percussion throughout.

Say You Will’ is the obvious single, in the classic Stevie lead mode, with a Lindsey slide solo which is reminiscent of David Lindley’s sound on his early solo records. ‘Peacekeeper’ is a mid-tempo rocker, with Stevie harmonising nicely against Lindsey. Both Mick and John put in classic characteristic performances, with Fleetwood’s non-fill fills evident towards the end. ‘Come’ is a great track in 3/4 with a deceptively delicate acoustic verse and a monster Zeppelin jam-ish instrumental in the chorus with echo vocals. Lindsey lets rip with a wicked overdriven solo with very metal trills and bends. It’s almost pastiche, but one senses with Buckingham that it is all just playing with the textures in his palette. The surrounds bring out the organ backing in the heavy sections nicely, and the left-right-centre vocal pan in the intro works nicely in surround, but even in the stereo the delayed guitars sound beautiful here.

Smile at You’ is a good Stevie track with great trademark walking bass and glissandi from McVie, and lovely, spectral, split stereo Buckingham/Nicks vocals in the chorus. The ticking percussion would surely have compelled more from the rear? ‘Running through the Garden’ is a good Stevie Pop/Rocker with a wonderful peg bass-line, and some nice percussion in the rear. ‘Silver Girl’ is one of Stevie’s fallen angel ballads, with keyboards which are so 80s that this track could have featured on ‘Rock a Little’. The surround mix brings them out nicely.

Steal your Heart Away’ is a more straightforward mid-tempo Lindsey track with a big Wilburys strum which almost seems bigger on the surround than the stereo. There is a great choir of Stevie backing, and a tastefully simple acoustic guitar solo. It is not really single material.

Bleed to Love Her’ kicks off the five track purple patch which ends the album. Lindsey sings, there are millions of chorus-ey guitars all around and the whole thing is driven along nicely by the bass and a guitar harmonic adornment in the rears. ‘Everybody Finds Out’ is a driving uptempo Stevie rocker with a jaunty bass-line and some more 80s-ish keyboards. ‘Destiny Rules’ is in mystic Stevie territory, with Lindsey on Dobro backing. The backing vocals here would surely have benefited from being spread out into the rears. When the bass kicked in I smiled because it was so predictable, but it was so predictable because it was so right! As Fleetwood has said, McVie is Fleetwood Mac.

Say Goodbye’ is a close-miked Lindsey whisper over Big Love-like rapid guitar arpeggios. These are given great depth by the surround mix. Along with ‘Red Rover’ one of the most interesting tracks here, both sounding more like Buckingham solo efforts. Finally, Stevie’s ‘Goodbye Baby’ is a perfect lullaby on which to end the album, with a chiming dulcimer-ish loop. Great stuff.

Of course one man’s good multi-channel mix is another man’s nightmare, but in this household the surround mix of a DVD-Audio disc is almost listened to by default. It is very rare for a DVD-A aficionado to say this, but at the present time I have yet to be convinced that I would rather listen to the 5.1 mix than the stereo. There is nothing to make me think “it’s better than the stereo because….”

Say You Will’ is a good album which tends towards greatness over its last five tracks. Personally I think the tracks sit together well, and so the long length does not concern me greatly, although some may feel fat could have been trimmed to allow for bonus material or higher resolution DVD-Video segment tracks.

As it stands, this is a perfectly serviceable no frills DVD-A that has got to be a vast improvement over the 16-bit 44.1kHz version you’d get from the CD, even though I haven’t heard it. I doubt the absence of extras is going to stop any Fleetwood Mac fans getting hold of it, but extras might have swayed a few floating voters. We will just have to look forward to Mr. Caillat’s DVD-Audio re-releases of ‘Fleetwood Mac’ and ‘Tusk’ later this year and hope for more archival gems as per ‘Rumours’.

This may not be the killer app for DVD-Audio that Linkin Park’s ‘Meteora’ or Madonna’s ‘American Life’ might have been if they had been ready for Day and Date release, but despite the absence of Christine McVie it does sound like a genuine classic line-up Fleetwood Mac album which should repay repeated listening. The next one should be along in fifteen years or so…