The MAWA label is a recent addition to the DVD-Audio family; based in Potsdam, MAWA Film und Medien is Germany’s largest provider of what they call “DVD entertainment” via distribution, licensing, authoring, technological development and their own record labels.
In partnership with companies such as Avenue Music, Cine Plus Music and Classic Arts Music, MAWA plan to release numerous DVD-Audio discs, of which ‘Ambra, Honour and Glory’ is the first (the second is a selection of Chopin piano solos performed by Burkard Schliessmann).
Before going any further, it is important to make one thing perfectly clear; there are two distinct versions of this disc, one DVD-Video and the other DVD-Audio. The former contains video sequences from the Fascinating Nature Archive and Gogol Lobmayr photography to accompany each track, alongside a choice of either Dolby Digital or DTS audio. On the other hand, the DVD-Audio version contains only high-resolution MLP audio – both stereo and 3/2.1 at 96kHz 24-bit – but absolutely no DVD-Video content. So, not only is the disc lacking anything more than a basic track list (thereby earning the title an HFR blue duck in that category), it cannot be played by anything other than a DVD-Audio machine. To add to the potential confusion, the high-resolution variant actually ships in the same packaging as the DVD-Video alternative, so it is erroneously labelled as having both Dolby Digital and DTS audio. Oh, and before anyone writes in to ask, this isn’t a player incompatibility issue, there simply isn’t a VIDEO_TS directory on the disc.
So, now that all the bad stuff is out of the way you’ll be wondering what ‘Ambra, Honour and Glory’ is all about. Essentially, it is a collaboration between two composer/producer brothers, Giorgio and Martin Koppehele (or Cope to use their English-speaking alias). Their musical style is drawn from many diverse influences and classical training, but in a nutshell could best be described as intelligent electronica with depth and complexity, meets world music.
‘Ambra, Honour and Glory’ offers up a fascinating mixture of elements from many different cultures; Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, European and Native American to name but four. It is intended to be a musical journey around the world – India, the Antarctic, America, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand – and therefore features a diverse range of guest artists, Mongolian group Ujanga for example, together with singer Alisha and numerous Fairlight library samples, one of which showcases the Welsh chorister Aled Jones.
The theme of a continually evolving journey is maintained by the disc’s authoring; each song runs seamlessly into the next rather than being a series of stop/start tracks. It is however, worth mentioning that this may be an issue for some DVD-Audio players, models from Panasonic for example, that force silent gaps between tracks, but those in possession of correctly behaving machines should not experience any issues to impact the smooth-flowing experience.
The production was surround-orientated from the get-go, so unlike many titles that are conceived as stereo and then re-mixed for multi-channel, ‘Ambra, Honour and Glory’ was always intended to be an enveloping experience. Even so, the presence of a dedicated stereo track is always welcome, especially for headphone listeners or those who remain two-channel die-hards, and this case its fidelity is outstanding.
However, it is in the surround mix that the true spirit of the title can be found. ‘Ambra, Honour and Glory’ is no shrinking violet when it comes to using all the channels on offer, the mix is aggressive with large contributions from the surrounds, LFE and to a lesser extent centre. The latter is at times forgotten, phantom left/right imaging is used predominantly when the lead is instrumental, but it does contribute to both predominant vocals and spoken passages. There are segments, such as the slowly faded-in percussion of ‘Paradise Lost’, that I feel would have benefited artistically from a more aggressive use of the centre, but it makes many strong contributions elsewhere. The album is said to be a ‘7.1’ production, but nowhere is that annotation explained other than in a couple of German PDF files on the Ambra web site. I’m hopeless with German and can hardly understand a word, but either way it is a curious claim because there simply aren’t any consumer eight-channel delivery formats or decoders, unless one includes the matrix extensions to 3/2.1, such as Lexicon’s Logic 7.
Either way, listen out for deliberately ear-catching rear events, the snare drums and circling spoken French of ‘Inner World’ being just two examples of many. I found the spoken passages especially attractive, perhaps in a large part due to the alluring continental accents of the female performers who at times whisper ‘sweet nothings’ from over one’s shoulder.
As was the case with the two-channel mix, the fidelity of the surround alternative is also excellent (flicking between the two is as easy as pressing the ‘Audio’ button on your remote control). When samples are used it is often easy to spot variations in resolution, but here, even with individual elements scattered into the four corners of the room, the presentation is remarkably even-handed. High frequencies are smooth and without the slightest hint of undue noise, the midrange is dynamic and open, while the tuneful bass thunders away from the LFE channel. In fact, the low frequencies can be remarkably deep and tactile in quality, especially during ‘Inner World’ and ‘Eye of the Storm’, but more on that in a moment.
After a deceptively benign opening, the music really gets into gear with ‘Spirit of Silence’ where a strong, pulsing midrange that extends out into the middle of the room mixes with reversed spoken vocals and Mongolian overtones.
There is another spoken lyric during ‘Signs of Love’, a song that layers Indian themes reminiscent of Enigma, complex percussion and Martin Koppehele’s vocals, who sounds uncannily like Mike Oldfield from the ‘Heaven’s Open’ era of the early 1990s.
Next up is ‘Walking in the Air’, certainly the strangest track on the whole album. I’m not making this up, it really does feature a sample of Aled Jones singing the hit song from Channel 4’s traditional Christmas cartoon, ‘The Snowman, which was written by Howard Blake, set against a techno beat and more spoken female prose from Alisha. Yes, I know that on paper the combination seems nightmarish, but somehow the pure vocals and driving beat work well together. However, one of my few criticisms of the disc involves this track, specifically the rapid and erratic panning of Jones’ vocals during the latter part, which to my mind is the only example of surround gimmickry on the whole album.
Following the mystical, operatic ‘Dark Ages’ and the big, swirling chords of ‘Into the Deep’, which are similar in tone to the opening of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, comes a track entitled ‘Interlude’. It is too long to be a real interlude and is a force to be reckoned with in isolation being a combination of jazz funk with a hint of Yanni and Vangelis. ‘Interlude’ ebbs slowly into ‘Paradise Lost’, the melody of which was drawn from a traditional Mongolian folk song, but oddly enough reminded me of elements from the soundtracks of ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. Now there’s a strange combination.
My favourite track on the album, ‘Inner World’, comes wrapped up between ‘Metamorphosis Part I’ and ‘Metamorphosis Part II’. It begins with another “come hither” French vocal that is quickly followed by a catchy and enveloping synthesised melody, interspersed with a jarring solo snare drum that shatters the soundstage with all the delicacy of a stick of dynamite. Vocal samples follow in the style of Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Zoolook’ to round out a thoroughly impressive and engrossing few minutes.
Two driving backbeats usher in the title track, another big, layered production with strings and choral samples. Next up is the imposing ‘The Eye of the Storm’, and it is here one really has to take care of one’s playback chain. The track opens with thunderous bass that slowly circles around the room… and that means loud, deep low frequencies in all five primary channels. Never was there a better argument for comprehensive DVD-Audio bass management, or a better advertisement for five full-range loudspeakers!
The fifty-five minute disc ends with a stately, grandiose track entitled ‘To Dusk’ that is packed full of layered melodic chords, however the piece ends rather prematurely, the last descending (circling) sounds being cut off abruptly before they have decayed completely.
In conclusion, if you are open to new, experimental music and enjoy a lively, engaging surround mix, then ‘Ambra, Honour and Glory’ will be right up your street. The fidelity is excellent throughout and some tracks, ‘Inner World’ for example, easily qualify as demonstration material. Only the total lack of supplementary content and a DVD-Video layer count against the title, otherwise it is heartily recommended.