Various Artists – ‘Awaken’ A DVD-Audio review by Stuart M. Robinson

Electromatrix continue to push the DVD-Audio format towards new musical genres with the release of ‘Awaken’, a collection of original works by some of America’s leading and most promising drum and bass, jazz and bass, layered loop and hip-hop artists. Electromatrix describe the album as “…beats and breaks scientifically created for surround sound and DVD”, which really doesn’t do justice to what is an elaborate and groundbreaking disc. This is a production not just about the music and the idea of a dawning, futuristic reality, but also modern conceptual art and its integration into the whole.

Awaken’ is backed by DVD-Audio pioneers and Electromatrix parent company 5.1 Entertainment, was recorded at their studios in West Los Angeles and benefits from many of their best surround brains, including executive producers Richard Dashut and John Trickett, mixing engineers James Stone and Claus Trelby and mastering engineer Gary Lux.

The disc opens with ‘Terraform’ by Divine Styler and what is a fairly eerie male spoken part, Styler himself. It’s a minimalist track in artistic terms but it does boast some of the disc’s most powerful low frequency energy, especially from the LFE channel. There isn’t a sense of anything particularly high fidelity about the track however, but this is due to the deliberate curtailing of high frequency energy because as soon as the disc’s second track begins – ‘Futuristic Island’ by APL – up pops all the vibrancy and life DVD-Audio can provide.

Yet it isn’t until ‘Observation Link 213’, the third track, that the disc really takes off, it’s an eclectic mix of off-beat (literally, not figuratively) drum and bass which pulses from channel to channel, underpinned by a subtly drifting female vocal that adds real depth and atmosphere to the recording.

Another experimental tour de force is ‘Time Bomb’ which features a sensual circling vocal – “naked bodies” and “sex through electronics” – that is accompanied by a throbbing bass-line, fast percussive drive and oodles of LFE grunt which is used to emphasise the beginning of each musical bar.

Energy’ uses the multi-channel pallet with similar experimental success; the track is one of the disc’s mellower pieces, “sombre” as DJ Motive8 describes it, and is vaguely reminiscent to a chill-out ambient mix of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by The Art of Noise.

The final track, ‘Antarctica’, is another worthy of a special mention; it’s a themed mixture of moods, a distant, enveloping soundstage and a low-frequency component that has to be the deepest and most powerful I have heard from DVD-Audio to date. Don’t be fooled by the track’s gentle nature – there is enough bass energy to give all but the most competent sub-woofers a serious headache.

The surround mixes on the disc vary from subtle, ‘Terraform’ and ‘Harnessing the Power’ for example, where much of the action is in the front half of your room, to the more adventurous, the second group being far more prevalent than the first. More distant backing vocals circle the listener during ‘Futuristic Island’ and the spoken parts of ‘Time Bomb’ are similarly adventurous.

All of the surround mixes serve to greatly enhance each artist’s contribution, they’re never gimmicky or distracting and really do move the musical genre forward to the next level. While all the tracks have merit and can be enjoyed in their two-channel guise via a dedicated 96kHz 24-bit mix, they all sound rather flat and lifeless after one has experienced the multi-channel presentation, regardless of the stereo version’s technical merits. Unusually, on the DVD-Video layer Electromatrix have encoded the two-channel mix using 448kb/s Dolby Digital, an abnormally high data rate for stereo material.

The fidelity of the 96kHz 24-bit MLP is also excellent, once you get past the deliberate absence of high-end during the first track. The piece with the least sonic ‘sparkle’ is ‘Surrounded’, it appears moderately stifled in terms of dynamic range compared to the remainder of the disc, but this is only a minor nit-pick for want of any obvious shortcomings. Bass is deep throughout and there is lots of it, especially from King Britt’s ‘Awaken’ remix of the aptly named ‘Depth’, Divine Styler’s ‘Terraform’ and the awesome ‘Antarctica’ by Mount Cyanide, so watching your sub-woofers dance across the floor provides additional entertainment. The midrange also appears uncoloured and the high-end free from any annoying instabilities or harshness.

The 3/2.1 448kb/s Dolby Digital mix is outstanding too and holds up well against its MLP counterpart. Differences between the two are subtle and relate only to soundstage depth and envelopment. Bass is equally adept (helped by Dolby Digital’s ability to carry a wide range of frequencies in the LFE channel) but the lossy track doesn’t have quite the same midrange punch. It’s a close call however, and it would be an overstatement to suggest one format vastly outperforms the other.

The 5.1 Entertainment production team has also done a wonderful job with the disc’s extras. During playback one can select from either a mixed media or art gallery slideshow with drawings and photographs from Skiller, Nic Nak, Rapid Fire, Patina Green, Linda Crespo and more, both of which are themed to the artist or track and works of art in their own right, as in fact are the navigation menus from primary disc illustrator Kofie. Then there’s the typical set of 5.1 Entertainment loudspeaker set-up routines but sexily revamped to reflect the contemporary look and feel of the disc and a set of extensive production credits.

But just when you think things can’t get any better, one discovers a sub-menu entitled ‘The Box’. Here you can ‘Meet the Artists’ with biographies, photographs and audio/video extras; sequences by Listen Deep (a six and a half minute split-screen time-lapse montage depicting Kofie creating an example of the disc’s graffiti/aerosol artwork), behind-the-scenes production footage, Rabbit in the Moon performing ‘Decade’ live and Mount Cyanide’s ‘Antarctica’ music video. There are also interviews with the Awaken crew, programmer/producers Divine Styler, DJ Motive8 and Nowhereman (a.k.a. Nobody). They provide some fascinating insights into the inspiration and production of their tracks, from the ProTools mixing procedures to the moods conveyed.

In the ‘Audio Extras’ section there are no less than seven additional tracks running thirty-two minutes in total, so it’s almost a complete album in its own right. The mini play-list includes; Divine Styler ‘Soundquest’, Xilent Xage ‘Observation Link 213’ (remix), Omid ‘Shade of Blue’, DJ Motive8 ‘Energized’, King Britt ‘Contemplation’ (King Britt funke mix), Poet Named Life ‘Favored by the Fog’ along with two excerpts of tracks by Nowhereman, ‘Outbreak’ and ‘Syde Tryps’. All are presented in two-channel 48kHz 24-bit PCM, so while they don’t benefit from the surround mixes of the remainder of the album, all have a fidelity head start. The ten minute remix of ‘Contemplation’ is my personal favourite; it’s got the feel of a George Clinton groove, albeit without a horn section, closely followed by the unusual acoustic-influenced ‘Favored by the Fog’.

I did experience a few menu glitches during playback on a Toshiba machine, the disc stalling after the opening Electromatrix logo, but they could be overcome by entering any title or chapter directly and did not manifest themselves on any other player, DVD-Audio or -Video.

Awaken’ is a mightily impressive disc, even if you’re not a hardened hip-hop or drum and bass fan. The surround mix is enjoyable and the fidelity of the DVD-Audio layer, either in surround or two-channel form is first-rate, especially if you’re a bass-freak. However, this disc offers so much more, the project as a whole deserves particular praise, from the artwork through to the additional tracks and artist interviews. Highly recommended.