By the time Al Stewart broke through commercially and had his first top ten album, he had been making records for ten years. Originally part of the British folk scene, Stewart was included with artists such as Nick Drake, Bert Janesh, and John Renbourn. However, Stewart was not content to be pigeonholed as a ‘folk artist,’ and beginning with his debut album (Bedsitter Images, 1967), Stewart experimented with his sound and over the course of six albums, grew to the point of enlisting Alan Parsons to produce his seventh studio album, Year Of The Cat.
While there are trademark Stewart traits to the album, especially the historic stories told through songs, this album was much smoother and fell into the category of easy listening rock rather than folk. Parsons was able to capture everything great about Stewart and augment it with smooth production and incredible arrangements. The end result was a classic album with the iconic and perennial favourite song, “Year Of The Cat.”
The album opens with a more traditional Al Stewart song, “Lord Grenville,'' about Elizabethan sailor and explorer Sir Richard Grenville, but moves swiftly into new styles and sounds from Stewart in the form of the melodic and catchy “On The Border.” Although the song has its lyrical origins in Basque Separatist movement and the conflict that was occuring in Rhodesia (as it was known in 1976), Parsons made excellent use of Stewart’s backing band to arrange the song and this results in producing a much more commercial sound.
A great deal of credit must be given to the core backing band of the album, which included Peter White (guitar), Tim Renwick (guitar), Stuart Elliot (drums), George Ford (bass) and Peter Wood (keyboards) who co-wrote Year Of The Cat. There are numerous other musicians, but at the core of the album it is this group that interprets Stewart’s songs and elevates them to a whole new level.
Although this album has been reissued in the past, this box set is something very special. Along with the addition of a concert (Seattle, 1976), which sounds quite good and is a wonderful supplement, Alan Parsons has remixed the album for 5.1. It is a stroke of genius to have Parsons remix the album, not only because he is the original producer but also because he knows how far to push and alter before losing any of the original beauty. Here, Parsons wants the fan to have a very different listening experience with the album, rather than create a whole new album.
The album sounds fantastic in 5.1. The space Parsons creates between the instruments is nothing short of spectacular, and the end result is almost like being in the middle of the mixing session of the album. Everything is crisp, clean and clear. Stewart’s vocals are nothing short of stunning and the entire listening experience gives a new appreciation of this classic album. Listen to previously mentioned “On The Border,” “Flying Sorcery,” or “Broadway Hotel.” They have never sounded better. The mix breathes new life into the original recordings, and although the songs are remixed, Parsons did not vastly change them.
Stewart, Parsons and the fine folks at Esoteric Records have produced a magnificent box set. The book included with the set is informative and interesting. Stewart goes into explanations of each song and it makes for entertaining reading but also provides the listener with a deeper appreciation of each song. It is a shame that the bonus outtake from the album (the very enjoyable “Belsize Blues”) and concert were not mixed for 5.1 surround sound, but this is a very small complaint. Overall, a brilliant anniversary edition of a classic album.