I’ll come clean, despite an envied live reputation across Europe, before writing this review I hadn’t experienced any more than a couple of songs from Sjako! the band whose latest Super Audio CD, entitled ‘Page’, is the subject of this piece.
Sjako! are Richard Heijerman (drums, percussion and ‘preproductive’ marimba), Thus Vermeulen (bass and vacuum soul, whatever the heck that is) and Wouter Planteijdt (guitars, vocals, samples and loops). Ask anyone about their musical style and they’ll usually be lost for words, but perhaps that is just as well because trying to pin these guys down is fraught with difficulties; Sjako! is group that it proves impossible to pigeonhole, aside from stating the obvious in that they hail from the flat lands of Holland.
Rob Becker of Turtle Records, the Dutch label that is responsible for the release of ‘Page’, tries his best by way of a few liner notes, but I fear unless he’s being deliberately cryptic, something has been lost in the English translation. He does get across the fact that Sjako! have been around in one form or another for over two decades and that this recording represents a return to their roots of drums, bass and guitar, with or without English-language vocals.
The compositions on this album were only briefly rehearsed before the sessions commenced, which apparently left plenty of room for “experiment” and improvisation. It’s rock meets jazz meets blues meets folk meets experimental meets…
All the music on this disc was captured live and ‘unplugged’ and is delivered on a two-channel, hybrid SACD disc. There’s a backward-compatible Red-book 44.1kHz 16-bit PCM layer and a ‘high-resolution’ DSD layer for those suitably equipped. The disc is presented in one of Turtle’s unique gatefold cardboard packages, a design I’m not personally fond of because when extracting the disc from its little sleeve it’s almost impossible not to put grubby finger marks all over the playing surface. Never mind all that “Perfect Sound Forever” nonsense, the entire Compact Disc media family should be treated with the utmost care, especially when they’re the dual-layer variety.
‘Harm’s Way’, the soulful song that opens the album, sets the tone both for the quality of the performers and the fidelity of the disc. For what is supposed to be a live, ‘as-is’ recording, there is little sense either of the presence or immediacy one would expect, or for that matter an impression of any obvious acoustic space, the recording environment appears particularly dead and lifeless. The vocals are forward in the mix but percussion has a distant quality – the quietest drum kit I’ve ever heard – and bass possesses an uneasy, unstable quality, once again without any of the ‘kick’ you’d anticipate from a live performance.
The disc’s second track is livelier, drum-led and comes closer to jazz improvisation, especially in the lead guitar solo three minutes into the track. A great performance that ends just one step away from powerful rock, but another flawed recording. The drums once again caught my attention, this time because of their soundstage width. Perhaps due to non-ideal microphone placement, elements of the kit are spread from far left (the smaller, rack toms) to far right. The result is uninspiring and, if you use any live unplugged performance as a reference, somewhat unnatural.
‘Port Belly’ is a quieter track full of small percussive delicacies but they’re often lost in the mix, while the short and eclectic ‘Howlin’ with the Wolves’ could also have benefited from a more precise recording – here the drums sound as through someone has thrown a blanket over them, while placement is another muddled area with riffs appearing so far wide of the soundstage as to be almost over your left shoulder.
The title track is a return to the style of ‘Harm’s Way’, but with a more mainstream feel, yet here there are hints of DSD high frequency instabilities in the cymbal splashes that are not apparent on the Red-book layer, the only time I noticed anything objectionable that could be put down to the delivery format itself.
‘Orleans’ Kiss’, a funky, catchy piece performed with real verve is another example of what is a hit-and-miss recording. The piece opens with an up-front drum riff, it’s got punch and dynamics, but seconds later when vocals and guitars enter the mix the drums are pushed so far back into the room as to be a shadow of their former self. The problem is readily apparent if you compare ‘Orleans’ Kiss’ to the later ‘Marimba Foot’, a track that is purely percussive for its entirety and features a great drum solo from Richard Heijerman that alone is worth the price of admission. Here the drums are kept up front – although cymbals are still lacking in ultimate splash and presence – and not relegated to a distant afterthought.
The penultimate track is the misleadingly titled ‘End’, a piece consisting mainly of acoustic guitar, yet none of the character of the instrument has been captured, only the spirit of the performance. Strings have a dull, thin ring and it’s almost impossible to determine their variety; the instrument sounds too sharp to be using classical strings, but not bright enough to be using an acoustic ‘folk’ string or the likes of blue steel.
The real ending is ‘Bstrct’, and an odd one it is too. Random organ notes and a collection of sound effects that combine into a piece with ‘modern art’ leanings. Not my cup of tea at all, but a closing piece that certainly grabs one’s attention if for no other reason than its detachment, both musically and stylistically from the remainder of the album.
To summarise, as a recorded work, ‘Page’ is disappointing throughout. ‘Marimba Foot’ is the exception, but as far as the remainder of the disc goes, there are intimate vocals, those of ‘Sober’ for example, some inviting guitar parts but woolly bass and those increasingly distant drums. Again, ‘Marimba Foot’ aside, there are only marginal fidelity differences between the DSD and Red-book layers, the former offering a little more air, possibly, but it’s a close run thing and that in itself should be an illustration of this SACD’s shortcomings. Interestingly, for those who pick up on such tragically technical references, the equipment used to produce this disc includes a dCS 904 high-speed A/D converter, a dCS 954 D/A converter and a dCS 972 format converter. All three can handle Sony’s Direct Stream Digital format, but why use a D/A converter at all if not to run the recorded material through some analogue post-processing, and why was a format converter required? Strange…
The issues surrounding the mix and the disc’s fidelity are both particularly unfortunate because I’m sure I would have enjoyed the core performance from Sjako! more had my attention not been continually pulled away from their musical mastery by problems with the recording, but such is the nature of the beast. There’s no escaping the fact that the band have created a unique fusion of styles and done so with real success, but that their talents haven’t been afforded the treatment they deserve, at least not in SACD terms.