British musician/producer Steven Wilson has remixed more than fifty classic albums into 5.1 surround over the last decade, but his work on cult British progressive-rock act Gentle Giant’s back catalog stands out as particularly exemplary. It certainly helps that the band’s music, characterized by dense contrapuntal arrangements and layers of complex vocal harmonies, sounds almost as if it was composed with immersive audio in mind.
For me, Wilson’s 5.1 remix of Free Hand represents a new benchmark in immersive audio production. This music is perfectly suited to a three-dimensional presentation, and he’s made the most of every opportunity to engage the additional speakers in a way that’s both extremely entertaining and true to the original two-channel mix.
“Just The Same” opens with the finger snaps bouncing diagonally between the front left and rear right speakers, while piano fades in from the back left corner and the drums come thundering from upfront. Derek Shulman’s voice fills the entire listening space, with the main vocal isolated in the center speaker and the double-tracked parts assigned to the rears. The rears are kept busy throughout the entire song with sax blasts, synthesizers, and percussion.
Naturally, I was most excited to see how “On Reflection” would translate into 5.1 surround. It’s presented in a similar fashion to “Knots” in Wilson’s 2015 5.1 remix of Octopus (1972), with a different voice in each corner of the room. When all the vocalists sing the phrase “all around” in unison, their voices begin to rapidly swirl around the room. This is absolutely a demonstration-quality track for anyone with a 5.1 setup.
“His Last Voyage” is another highlight, with Kerry Minnear’s vocal harmonies weaving in-and-out of the back corners while the lead stays locked to the center speaker. The gorgeous acoustic guitars are completely isolated in the rears, while the rhythm section stays upfront.
As with the 2014 CD/Blu-Ray edition of The Power & The Glory (1974), the combination of Wilson’s uber-aggressive surround mix with the psychedelic animated visuals yields a truly engaging immersive experience.
In addition to the new stereo & 5.1 remixes, Wilson has also created a Dolby Atmos remix of the album. Though the limitations of my current stereo setup prevent me from auditioning the Atmos mix, the idea of isolated instruments and voices emanating from behind and above the listening space does sound rather enticing.
Immersive music fans may recall that Free Hand was previously reissued by EMI in a CD/DVD set way back in 2012, featuring the long-lost and never-before-released 1975 quadraphonic mix of the album. Though I commend the Alucard team for once again including the quad mix in the new CD/Blu-Ray reissue, I was disappointed to find that they opted to re-use the 2012 mastering, credited to Peter Mew, rather than a new flat transfer from the analog master. The 2012 mastering suffers from dynamic range compression and what many fans suspect is a channel assignment error, given that the lead vocal frequently appears suspended between diagonally-opposite speakers.
Finally, I took the opportunity to compare the original 1975 stereo mix with Wilson’s 2021 stereo remix. Though I’m not familiar enough with the album to notice more subtle changes, I did find the low-end to be quite a bit more powerful on the remix. I also noticed that vocals have been treated with more reverberation than before, most notably at the beginning of “On Reflection”.
I really can’t praise this release enough. It’s inexpensive, loaded with every possible permutation of the album (1975 stereo mix, 1975 quadraphonic mix, 2021 stereo mix, 2021 5.1 surround mix, 2021 Dolby Atmos mix, 2021 instrumental stereo mix) on a single disc, and features elaborate visuals that only serve to strengthen the immersive experience rather than detract from it. Every surround music fan should have this set in their collection.