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Great Prog Rock Concerts on Blu-ray and DVD

September 7, 2009 By Dennis Burger

Progressive Scan
Take your home theater to new heights with these phenomenal prog rock concerts on Blu-ray and DVD

It’s snooty. It’s often dissonant. And if you try to tap your foot to it, you run the risk of dislocating your shoulder blades.

But there’s just something about progressive rock that makes for the perfect home theater demo, whether you’re into this often obtuse genus of music or not (and for the record, I very much am).

Maybe it’s the way the larger soundscape of a surround sound setup offers greater access to the often-impenetrable compositions. Who knows? Who really cares? All that matters is that any one of these delicious discs is sure to leave you, your guests and your home theater huffing and panting when all is sung and done.

Return to Forever: Live at Monteux 2008Return to Forever: Live at Monteux 2008 (Blu-ray)
Best Chapter: 5—“Song to the Pharaoh Kings”

Yeah, I know I’m probably picking a serious fight right out of the gate by labeling the quartet of Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White as “prog,” but genre-shmenre: The band’s catalog is filled to the brim with unbridled musicianship, unconventional rhythms, unusual tones and timbres and—let’s be honest with ourselves here, RTF fans—more than a teensy bit of pretension.

If that’s not prog enough for you, I don’t know what is. And if the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on this bombastic Blu-ray disc doesn’t blow the grills right off the face of your speakers, I don’t know what will.

Check out the epic “Song to the Pharaoh Kings” to see what I mean.

If, anytime soon, you should happen to find deeper, richer and lower bass than the thunderous rumbling issuing forth from Corea’s keyboard during his percussive intro, I will lick a goat and post photographic proof on hemagazine.com [Can we get that in writing? Oh, wait. -A.C.].

After a few minutes of wicked noodling on Corea’s part, Di Meola’s sumptuous guitar cuts through the captivating cacophony like a double-edged sword made of maple syrup from another dimension. That’s quickly followed by Clarke’s bass and White’s drums rolling in like a gentle ocean wave loaded with firecrackers. The mix falls beautifully, inexplicably into place. Which place, I’m not entirely sure—but place, nonetheless.

Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua: Live at Yoshi’s, featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip (DVD)
Best Chapter: 4—“Fred”

I have to admit, I’ve never been to the Bay Area’s legendary Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Japanese Restaurant. I can’t vouch for the quality of the food, and for all I know the wait staff has a habit of licking the chopsticks. But I do know the acoustics are astounding. I know this because the 5.1 surround sound mix on this spectacular DVD is downright delectable.

 Live at Yoshi’s, featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy HaslipDon’t expect the mix to smack you on the tush and call you Fanny, though; this simply isn’t that sort of experience (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instruments aren’t just thrown about willy-nilly. Instead, the surround channels work together to create ambient atmosphere.

And not a wimpy, fluffy, pseudo-reverberative sort of processed ambience, mind you. I’m talking about a spicy, simmering bouillabaisse of sound, spooned with a splash into the boxy bowl of your theater room.

The reflections from the cymbals and hats in Wackerman’s kit somehow manage to waft around the rear of the room with pinpoint precision, tracing out the nooks and crannies and recreating the walls of Yoshi’s all around you.

And if your system is doing its job well, Haslip’s bass groove should tiptoe right on the line between subwoofer and main system speakers, flirting with each so coyly that you’ll never really know where its attention is directed. Pasqua’s incomparable keyboard work comes in between the waves and paves a road at the front of the room. And then, just when the walls are on the verge of bursting at the seams, Holdsworth’s guitar zaps through the front soundstage like a legato lightning bolt on greased roller skates.

Close your eyes and you’ll find yourself transported right into the room with this blistering quartet. While you’re there, try the miso soup and let me know how it is, will you?

Zappa Plays Zappa (DVD)
Best Chapter: 1 & 2—“Black Page #1” & “Black Page #2” (Disc 2)

If you want someone to swat your posterior and dub you some variant of Frances, though, who better than the offspring of Frank Zappa? Dweezil and company light up the stage in this stunning tribute, ripping through some of Frank’s most cherished numbers with style, panache and very nearly too much talent for one poor little 5.1 mix.

Zappa Plays ZappaCue the second disc in this sensational set and if your guests aren’t slack-jawed and stuttering by the end of the second song, one can only assume that you didn’t find your custom installer in the Services & Sources section at the back of this fine publication.

I know I’m breaking the rules of Show-Offs by refusing to limit the selection to just one track, but I wouldn’t be doing Frank justice if I didn’t thumb my nose at convention just a little, would I?

The first part of the number features Bill Hulting on percussion, Joe Travers on drums and guest Terry Bozzio on what can only be described as Drums to the Tenth Power. They tear up Frank’s intricate, undanceable rhythms in a surround sound mix that evokes the unruly, mescaline-fueled dreams of a schizophrenic cuckoo clock, with your head shoved right through the cuckoo hole.

Then, for “#2,” guest guitarist Steve Vai joins Dweezil and the rest of the band onstage to concoct a saucy brew of beats, melodies and harmonies that seem to explode out from between the molecules in the air more so than the speakers in the room. You’ll hear polyrhythms emanating from places where no transducers reside.

You’ll feel the bass, horns and guitar squeezing and sliding by one another like Tokyo subway commuters at rush hour. And if you listen hard enough, you might even hear Frank sit up in his grave and whisper, “That’s how it always sounded in my head, man.”

Live at Monteux 2003 Yes: Live at Monteux 2003 (Blu-ray)
Best Chapter: 9—“Clap”

As much as it pains me to do so, I’m going to have to set aside the motion metaphors and onomatopoeia for our next selection.

This laid-back set from one of progressive rock’s iconic groups has its ups and downs, sure. And even at its best, the surround mix is sort of the audio equivalent of a mullet (business up front; party—well, crowd noise, anyway—in the back).

While the mix may not rearrange your furniture, the fidelity of the recording certainly puts this one firmly in Show-Offs territory, beautifully capturing the music and vocals with richness and nuance. Even when the stage is full and the arrangements are dense, every note rings out with the utmost clarity.

But this disc’s best offering, by far, is Steve Howe’s solo acoustic jam on “Clap,” from The Yes Album. The sound here is simply stunning: the midrange pours forth from the front channels like the meringue on top of my grandma’s legendary banana pudding, with the sparkling high notes subbing for the light drizzle of honey she always put on top. And the...

Wait, what was I talking about? If you’ll excuse me, I’m famished all of the sudden.


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