Monday, July 30, 2007

Vinyl Face-Off - Black Sabbath Paranoid

Alright, folks, I'm now officially at that point where I'm becoming picky about my vinyl purchases. It's fine to grab some old records for a buck or two, but sooner or later, you're going to want some quality, heavy vinyl. This is where reissues come in.

Currently, for whatever reasons, I'm on another one of my intermittent Black Sabbath kicks. I'm really not a heavy metal fan - the proper response would be, "ugh" - but Sabbath became the gold standard for every underground guitar band of my generation, including hardcore punk, thrash, and Seattle grunge. That's where my experience comes from. So let's take a look at Sabbath's signature album, their second - Paranoid.

I first bought this album on CD, then upgraded to an old '70s Warner Bros record, one with the palm trees. The vinyl, was, as you would expect, a dramatic improvement over the CD, but the record itself was extremely lightweight. Very light and flappy, and standard for a lot of '70s albums. This means you can't ever play loud, which pretty much defeats the whole point of listening to Sabbath. So I decided to get one of the current reissues from the Uptown Cheapo.

The Contenders - Earmark, NEMS, Rhino

Earmark is the most easily available records around here, and I suspect it's the same wherever you live. The label is Italian, a joint venture between Get Back Records and Sanctuary. All of the '70s Sabbath albums are available, and come in a variety of weights, from standard vinyl to 180 gram. I've bought a few Earmarks, including Vol. 4, Sabotage, and Never Say Die.

NEMS is a UK label founded in 1976 and only ran until 1983. They were beset with troubled finances and collapsed, despite the advantage of having the Sabbath catalog and some other bands. I think Sanctuary eventually got the rights and the name, but I could be mistaken. For one thing, they continue to issue vinyl under the NEMS label, instead of Earmark. For another, the vinyl on both labels are very different. NEMS is still available on shelves with the gold "180 Gram" sticker.

Finally, Rhino. Rhino is one of the better record labels for music fans, especially for vinyl junkies. They reissued Paranoid, with the Warner label, which is currently their only Sabbath release. There remains some hope that the other albums will be reissued at some future point. Paranoid is also issued on 180 g vinyl.

1) Album Packaging

Earmark - In the interest in fairness, I haven't purchased the Paranoid album on the Earmark label, but I have several others, so I can vouch for the packaging. This is one of Earmark's strengths. Gatefold packaging is included, and the vinyl is clear white. The paper has that glossy waxy quality, which I really don't like too much, due to fingerprint smudging. But this sort of thing is pretty common these days. Finally, the record comes wrapped in a plastic bag, instead of the standard paper.

NEMS - This is the one area where NEMS loses out. The album cover is not a gatefold. Just a standard record cover. I'm one of those who tends to prefer the gatefold album covers, provided that the band actually earns it. It's a declaration of quality - hey, kids, this album is a notch above the rest. Simply Vinyl's Nevermind, for example, doesn't have a gatefold. That's just scandalous. If any album has earned its gatefold, it's Saint Cobain's Nevermind.

Anyway, all a matter of preference. The NEMS cover has the glossy finish, which I've mentioned earlier. A sturdy paper sleeve is included, which is nice.

Rhino - Now this is the best of the bunch. The packaging is with the Warner Bros label, the colors are bright and vibrant, and the gatefold is included. The paper is sturdy, heavy, and, most importantly, not coated in wax. It's nice and dry. Best of all is the paper insert which holds the record. It's padded. Great job.

Winner: Rhino

2) Analog or Digital

Earmark - Now this is the real make-or-break issue for audiophiles, and it should be a deal-breaker for you, no matter how new you are to collecting vinyl. Analog is the original sound of the music, the original sound that appeared on those old records. Digital is what you hear on Compact Disc or your iPod. It's not a recording of the original sound waves, but a computer sampling of those sound waves. It's a simulation of sound.

Why is this important? Digital sampling loses much of that original sound wave. That means a lot of the music is lost. You're getting less music, smaller music. Vinyl records have a much wider, deeper sound than CD's, and the analog recording and mastering is the key to vinyl's celebrated "warmth."

Now for the bad news. The Earmark albums are digital. As I understand it, all of their albums are taken from digital masters, mastered and pressed by GZ Vinyl in the Czech Republic. This plant, according to the Steve Hoffman forums, usually master from manufactured CD's, and cannot even cut records in analog.

The really bad news? Earmark has reissues of Motorhead's albums in addition to Sabbath. Boo! Do you have any idea how hard it's been to find old Motorhead records? Sorry, Earmark, you're out.

NEMS - All the NEMS records are from 1976, so obviously everything is analog. I would assume, also, that their masters are based on the original UK Vertigo masters. The Vertigo records are hailed as the gold standard by Sabbath fans, and routinely sell for high prices on eBay. Then again, the issue of Black Sabbath and record labels and who owned what is a nightmare. That was one of the things that finally destroyed them in the late '70s.

Rhino - Rhino's Paranoid reissue is based on a US tape copy, which is analog. For Sabbath fans, it's important to know that all the records and CD's are ultimately taken from two original lines - Vertigo in the UK, and Warner Bros in the US. Warners are considered to be a step below Vertigo, and Paranoid in particular has a couple problems, which we'll look into. But, for now, Rhino is analog, and gets a pass.

Loser: Earmark

3) Sound Quality

Earmark - Again, I haven't sat down with the Earmark version of Paranoid, but I do have three other albums. I've discovered there is a certain level of consistency with their releases, so the sound quality is the same level throughout. Unfortunately, as we've learned, Earmark is digital. This becomes apparent when listening, and I've found Earmark to be the weakest of any bunch.

In my experience, Earmark records sound bright and crisp, but perhaps too harsh and loud. It's like the contrast on a photo has been turned up. The various sounds don't integrate too well, and this is a calling card of digital music. Analog music will be far more subtle, and the various instruments will mesh together perfectly. Earmark's Vol. 4, for example, is far weaker than NEMS' Vol. 4.

NEMS - This is where the NEMS really wins out. It's fantastic in every way. This was the third Paranoid I purchased, after the old '70s WB and the Rhino reissue. I wasn't sure what to expect, or if it could top the Rhino version, but it does. It's close, but I think this version is slightly better. Everything is just silky smooth.

The volumes on everything are just right. You can crank the noise up and blast your eardrums and your speakers, but the sound isn't needlessly loud or sparkly. It's integrated, subtle. Paranoid is possibly the best sounding of all the Sabbath albums, since they're still a young band, and the songs have a live, jazzy feel. They haven't become drugged-out rock stars obsessed with studio perfection yet. This means you really get to hear all the instruments perfectly and appreciate the masterful musicianship.

Rhino - Ah, this is a close one. I loved the Rhino version when I took it home. It really is a step above those flimsy old '70s records. This record is LOUD. The bass and drums just kick you in the gut, and it's a terrific rush. However...(long pause), I've found the little flaws and weakness continue to grate on me as time wore on. Let me explain.

The Rhino Paranoid is based on a US tape copy, which means that certain flaws that were always present on the original WB records are present here. For Paranoid that means some odd volume drops on the first side, particularly with War Pigs and Iron Man. Just great - the two best songs on the album. The volume is strangely quiet for the first three minutes of War Pigs, and then you can hear the volume being cranked up, where it remains for most of the album. It's really strange, and it's one of those things that just grows into manias in my mind. Iron Man, I think, also has some volume flux in the beginning, for some weird reason.

This brings me to the second big issue - the vinyl itself. It's loud. It's really loud and scratchy. I'm surprised, frankly. Perhaps I've just become spoiled by The White Stripes' Icky Thump, which is probably the best-sounding vinyl record of all time. But then the NEMS vinyl shatters this myth. That record is perfectly quiet, wonderfully so, while Rhino's vinyl sounds like static. That can be a problem for an album like Paranoid, which relies upon loud and quiet segments to play against one another.

Finally, the matter of the bass and drums. The rhythm section has been boosted a bit for this record, and it's really a matter of preference. For me, it was a thrill upon first listen, but NEMS is so perfectly integrated, that I've come to prefer that version. Again, it's a personal choice for you, and not something that would make or break.

Winner: NEMS

Final Choice - Which is the Best Paranoid?


I'd say this is a close choice, but I find myself happier with it as time goes on. The only real knock against NEMS, I suppose, would be that it's not gatefold. Big freakin' deal. It's the best-sounding of them all. Heck, the NEMS version of Vol. 4 is equally masterful, so they really knew their game. I really wish I could find other Sabbath albums on their roster. This is the purchase I'd recommend. You'll end up paying $10-15, a great bargain. Maybe I should get a backup copy for when this one wears out.


Logendran said...

Great review. This puts me in a spot. I love aesthetics as much as sound quality. I was about to get the Rhino as I do not know much about NEMS. But now, need to think a bit. Was the original release a gatefold?

Dave Ono said...

I bought the NEMS Sabbath Bloody Sabbath over the weekend. It is a gatefold, and also sounds fantastic. Latter in the day I saw they Rhino, and even tried to return my NEMS copy to get that one. Thankfully the store would only offer store credit so I'm happy to have the NEMS. Now to find other Sabbath on NEMS.