In these early days of DVD-Audio, there are precious few releases of contemporary recordings; the current catalogue consists mainly of ‘vintage’ 1970’s titles where quite understandably, the fidelity on offer isn’t quite up to today’s standards.
Steve Stevens’ ‘Flamenco A Go-Go’ is one of the few exceptions; it hails from the DTS Entertainment stable and was recorded/produced in 2001. Say what you like about the scurrilous marketing tactics of DTS, the company has to be commended for pushing the boundaries of multi-channel music and for a steady stream of releases on DTS music disc. For those of us who have been extolling the virtues of multi-channel music for many years, once they got past the early crop of ‘ping-pong’ surround mixes DTS Entertainment have been the 5.1 music standard-bearer.
However, even in the age of DVD-Audio, DTS are not immune to a little creative marketing. The ‘Flamenco a Go-Go’ disc carries three different audio formats; two-channel Dolby Digital (so the disc conforms to DVD-Video specifications and is fully backward compatible), 3/2.1 DTS and 3/2.1 Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP), the latter only being available to those with a DVD-Audio machine. While the inlay card does a commendable job of describing the three formats, only one carries the moniker ‘Master Quality’. It won’t take a crystal ball for you to guess which; of course it’s the lossy, throw-content-away DTS track, not the true loss-less all-content-preserved 48kHz MLP track, the option that does indeed offer the closest representation of the original ‘master’, at least in terms of ‘quality’.
So don’t be misled by the packaging, good as the DTS track is (more on that later), if you want to obtain the highest possible fidelity from this disc, a venture I assure you is worthwhile, be sure to select the MLP track when offered the choice.
Even though his biography features work with the Thompson Twins, Michael Jackson and the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack (for which he won a Grammy® for the ‘Top Gun Anthem’), Stevens is perhaps best known as Billy Idol or Vince Neil’s guitarist, so you’d expect ‘Flamenco a Go-Go’, only his second solo project, to be an album full of screeching, hard guitar riffs. But as the name suggests, the rhythm and lead guitars here are exclusively acoustic and convey a Latin, Iranian or even Japanese tone, a huge departure from the Billy Idol work demonstrating that Stevens is a man of talent and depth.
Although his first experiences of the guitar were of a flamenco ilk, Stevens developed the unique style of this album largely in isolation by experimenting in his own home studio – laying down accompaniment tracks and playing along – having been inspired by a concert given by flamenco virtuoso Paco Delucia. In the Oldfield vein, ‘Flamenco a Go-Go’ is largely a solo project, Stevens plays most of the instruments and there are precious few collaborators, Howard Jones and the percussionist Greg Ellis being the most noteworthy.
What results is an album with an almost unique style; it reminds me of Acoustic Alchemy’s ‘Blue Chip’ only without the jazz influences, or Jesse Cook’s ‘Gravity’ performed with greater vigour.
The album isn’t typical flamenco in the purest sense – as someone who spent a good portion of their youth studying guitar it was instantly apparent to me that neither the structure nor rhythms are rigid enough – it’s a more contemporary, dynamic and powerful collection of musical styles, some of which are almost impossible to describe. If you’re a flamenco connoisseur then the disc may not be for you (it would be akin to Beethoven’s 5th played on bagpipes) but if you’re not sure you like flamenco, give it a shot.
The disc opens with the title track, a loud, fast and furious piece full of rhythm guitars and a powerful bass-line, but later pieces are gentle, melodic and flowing (almost classical in style) while here and there we have Iranian vocals, courtesy of Azam Ali. Ali was educated in India, lending another edge to hear vocal talents, and has worked with Greg Ellis before as one half VAS, the name given to their Los Angeles-based collaboration.
Ali is featured upon ‘Our Man in Istanbul’ one of the standout tracks; it’s my guess that the piece is an homage to the 1970’s spy-thriller genre given the brief use of a Michael Caine sample during the closing fade and other pertinent vocal interludes, but the specific movie is anyone’s guess. Perhaps someone will write in and tell me.
The originality of the disc does tend to wane as it progresses and a number of the later tracks are ‘difficult’ to listen to (they’re not your average verse/chorus/hook/chorus formula) but this is the type of music that tends to grow on you. Invest a little time in the work and you’re likely to be highly rewarded.
In terms of fidelity, the disc’s DVD-Audio soundtrack is a clear winner, although many of the pieces are incredibly complex and the sounds of fast, rhythmic guitars notoriously difficult to resolve, each element of the mix remains crystal clear throughout. One is treated to an intimate portrayal of Stevens’ talents, an engaging experience in which even the most cloth-eared listener will be hard pushed not to become involved.
The DTS track suffers slightly muddled high frequencies at times, of particular note given just how important they are to Stevens’ music, but the failing is only obvious when one compares the lossy DTS track to the loss-less MLP. In isolation, the DTS mix is outstanding, just not the ultimate choice in terms of disc fidelity.
The two multi-channel mixes on the disc are fairly aggressive, the surrounds, centre and LFE channels are in use throughout and there are many discretely placed events, most notable being the opening of ‘Feminova’ where we’re told that this is an “Ideal recording for stereo… stereo… stereo…” (from all five channels) to circling guitars and ‘effects’ that swoop from the surrounds through to the front of your room. Aggressive they may be, distracting they are not, at no point did feel that any of the surround events had been added just for the purposes of gimmickry, they’re there simply to enhance the rich sonic experience that the album conveys.
2/0.0 Dolby Digital is available as an alternative, present to retain DVD-Video compatibility. Unusually (for two-channel material) the bitrate is 448kb/s, so the fidelity outstanding, I really couldn’t tell it apart from the two-channel Compact Disc 44.1kHz 16-bit PCM version, at least not in terms of audible compression artefacts. Kudos to DTS for not handicapping their rivals with 192kb/s or less, but it is unfortunate that the mix is two-channel as the limited number of channels cripples the outstanding multi-channel artistry of the disc.
There are a number of extras including in-vision credits (mostly to our friends at DTS), ‘The DTS Story’ a brief introduction to their work and a video of Stevens performing ‘Dementia’ live on stage, which is available to both DVD-Audio and DVD-Video players. It allows you to put a face to the music, and it comes as quite a shock. Stevens is a tall figure dressed all in black with painted nails and pierced lip, a cross between Phil Lynott (without the moustache) and Ronnie Wood, and yet there he is, conjuring the most wonderful sounds out of an acoustic guitar. If you’re an old fuddy-duddy, don’t watch the video until after listening to the album, it’ll colour your judgement.
Undoubtedly ‘Flamenco a Go-Go’ is one of the finer examples of DVD-Audio software currently available. The music and artistry of the performer are both outstanding, as is the fidelity of the disc (remember to select the DVD-Audio track) and the multi-channel mix. Highly recommended.