Sunday, September 22, 2013

'Supersonic King'

Like all us Elton fans, I'm a very sonic reactive person. The sound, without stating the bleedin' obvious, is the main food and drink of our addiction. So no surprise then we all react with varying degree of emotions when we hear either a new Elton sound, as we have recently, or the old sounds for the umpteenth time. Each time is different, but still has that familiarity. Because Elton's albums over the years were recorded with such precision and care that Rolls Royce and their glass of water on the engine philosophy would be jealous of, we've always had the very best sonic experience. Well, 99% of the time. On the odd occasions that the sonic boom didn't quite travel, they didn't quite hang in the air as the best examples did. A topic for a future post.

As will be all topics on this album. A multitude of them, because there are a multitude of avenues to go down with this one. But today I'm going to focus on the listening experience. What I hear and how I hear it are important. Clarity and forthright expression are the key traits of the album. The lyrics evokes it, the music describes it. But focus for a minute...or the length it takes to play the album...on what we are hearing. I had this on again for the gods know how many times, and the first thing that struck me when I first heard it is how clear and precise the sound is. Incredibly fresh even today, in 1975 it was at the cutting edge of sound delivery and presentation. Helped by the best recording equipment of the day, but that only being the conduit to channel through Elton and the band at the height of their combined powers. Years of recording and touring together had culminated in the second guessing of each being the correct option, the only option. Each element knowing what the other wanted and being able to intertwine it with their own choices. It was wrote...and they then they played it.

The album is loud, Gus said so at the launch of it in 1975. The loudest at that point in the catalogue. Not loud noisy, but loud with triumphant and joy. Bernie's lyrics, some of if not the best he's ever written, need that empathetic sonic delivery to match their straightforward, no nonsense message. Wonderfully mixed, without any flashiness or effects laden tricks. Elton's voice is described as being like chocolate now, but here's its like caramel with some added nuts. Smooth layers with an underpinned crispiness. And the layers are the ingredients that make the sonic treat full of flavour, bite and luxurious after taste. There's plenty of space on the record, plenty of space after all the toppings have been added. Because each one is a vital ingredient. 

We're transported under the drums skins. Each thud is a bulls eye. Each strike of a cymbal with wood is the double top. Minimal used effects on the drums sounds only broken up when a sound like a production line at a factory marches in. The toms at times vary from full sounding fills to barrel lids being hammered tight. We're transported into the guitar amps. Each strum, pick and lick is clearly stated and felt. Rootsy one minute to bluesy the next. Aggressive Les Paul's to friendly Fenders with a chirpy, almost cheeky chatter. The bass not only linking the drums and lead like a sonic rope, but leading with as much vitality and validity as it's up front counterparts. When you hear a bass note delivered, it's a lump that hits you in the throat. One that hangs around. We're transported into a percussion ensemble that is not a wallflower, but a flowery surround on the wall of sonicness. It finds its space, holds it and owns it. The instrument choices are key to the lyrically shifts on expression. The words speak and the instruments back them up.

But most of all we're transported under the piano lid. And into the amp of it's electric companion. Because both instruments are key on the record. They're both rich. Have a classically sounding delivery. And have a powerful up front statement. The key to this success is the mixing, the breakup of sound that the two instruments provide. Both on their own and together. You listen through the album and you know you've heard the two sounds. But for a moment you have to think exactly where you heard them. The precise moments. Because the thought through of the album concept is one long story with each chapter, the thought through of the piano reflects that idea. 

The switching of the sounds, either during the transitions between tracks or during tracks where both appear, gives a consistent yet vital breakup in sound. They appear, take the reins or sit back as and when. Which is crucial when dealing with Bernie's lyrics. Their mood and feelings change, again not only from song to song but during songs, so that tone has to be reflected. Helping them to be heard. All the elements on the album have a home and a role in that house. Each element appears and disappears as and when, some like the strings and brass are only called upon for a special visit. But the sound has a general consistency throughout while having an inconsistent flow. That sounds like a contradiction, but it's a device that's used to transport us through the album with familiarity but never losing the surprise element. The sounds both uplift and steady us. The vocals are key again, especially the backing vocals. They rise up in formation, with wing tip to wing tip closeness. And fly a tight display. Glorious.

To sum up, I've not discussed the lyrics. Or the musical influences. Or even the production techniques to a great deal. What I've described the aural impact, how the various ingredients sound to me. Everyone has their own vision in their minds ear. What I hear is the zenith of delivery of the band and most importantly Elton. The very best went into the writing and recording of it. The final journey is its delivery and the ultimate cornerstone of the building up of the layers. And that is where the impact is felt most. You can be certain no half measures were employed for the final everlasting journey. Piece by piece each tier is built upon for a tower of power of song. Even now as we speak, the final fade out is still being sung out in the cosmos...


  1. The album still sounds like Elton and the band is in the room when you play it.
    Almost CD quality before CDs were made

  2. Very true, Mike. Everything from that era was way ahead of it's time.