When it was announced just over a year ago that well-known British musician/producer Steven Wilson had remixed Ultravox’s classic 1980 album Vienna in stereo & 5.1 for it’s 40th anniversary, I was immediately intrigued. Having grown up in the United States in the early-21st century, both the band and the album were completely unfamiliar to me. However, being a huge fan of Steven Wilson’s 5.1 remixes for other artists such as Jethro Tull and XTC, I decided to sample the album via streaming and almost immediately became a fan. I was particularly drawn to the song “New Europeans,” with its choppy guitar hook and swirling synthesizers.
Vienna was the first in a series of successful albums that featured Midge Ure on lead vocals and guitar, replacing original vocalist John Foxx. Ure’s foreword in the 12x12 booklet included with the set recounts how the band was essentially broke at the time of his recruitment and used the most basic equipment during the making of the album. Despite the rough beginnings, his tenure would ultimately yield the band a string of hits throughout the decade such as “Vienna” (1980), “The Voice” (1981), and “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” (1984), culminating in a performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert.
I suspect that re-imagining Vienna in 5.1 was a difficult task given that the album isn’t all that sonically-layered and wasn’t recorded with surround sound in mind. Steven Wilson (the man referred to by Sound & Vision Magazine as the “Once and Future Surround King” back in 2014) managed to find extremely clever and entertaining ways of deploying the rear speakers without altering the feel of the album.
The separation of the various instruments and voices in the 5.1 mix is so extreme that, at times, it almost feels like the listener is intruding on the recording sessions. “Private Lives” kicks off with the main rhythmic elements arrayed across the front speakers and the lead synthesizer riff screaming from directly behind the listener. The multiple vocal harmonies that make up the “Passing Strangers” chorus have each been steered to a different corner of the room.
Wilson has also made liberal use of motion in the 5.1 soundfield, with synthesizers and guitars wildly roving around the room in nearly every song. Some may be quick to label this as gimmickry, but it’s merely an expansion of the same motion that occurs in two dimensions in the original stereo mix. For instance, the synthesizers that swirl from left-to-right in stereo during the chorus of “New Europeans” now rotate all the way around the listener in three dimensions.
In addition to the incredible 5.1 mix, the DVD in the box set also includes Steven Wilson’s stereo remix and producer Conny Plank’s original stereo mix in high-resolution 96/24 PCM. Toggling between the two different interpretations of the album is interesting. To my ears, Wilson has improved the overall tonal balance (the original mix seems rather muffled by comparison) and slightly altered the width of the stereo image.
If you enjoy surround music, particularly the experimental type of mixes that aggressively engage the rear speakers to create a “center of the band” perspective, you simply must have this album in your collection. I can only hope that Steven Wilson will continue his collaboration with Ultravox in the coming years and remix the rest of their ‘80s albums in 5.1 surround.