British musician/producer Steven Wilson has remixed dozens of classic albums in 5.1 surround sound and now Dolby Atmos throughout the last 10-15 years, but his work on cult British progressive rock act Gentle Giant’s back catalog stands out as particularly exemplary in my view. 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.
Their eight studio album Interview (1976) is the latest entry in the series, issued on a CD/Blu-Ray set from the band’s label Alucard Music on June 16. The Dolby Atmos mix is also available to stream on Apple Music.
It’s not difficult to pick up on the band’s growing frustration with the music press in the album’s sardonic lyrics, particularly the title track which pokes fun at the kind of mindless cookie-cutter questions they were asked over and over again in radio interviews (“What are your plans for the future?” “Who does the writing?" “Who came up with the name of the band?”).
While perhaps not as strong an effort as its predecessor Free Hand (1975) – which was crowned winner of IAA’s 2022 Listener’s Choice Award – I found that Interview does at least retain more of Gentle Giant’s unique musical identity and trademark ‘weirdness’ than its follow-up The Missing Piece (1977) or any of the subsequent albums.
The band’s more eccentric leanings (the dissonant harmonies, odd time signature changes, extended percussion interludes, etc) start to become less-and-less prevalent in their last three albums, perhaps as part of an ultimately fruitless effort to gain more popularity. 1977’s The Missing Piece is a bit of a transitional work in this regard, with more commercially-viable songs like “I’m Turning Around” front-loaded while the experimental material like “Winning” or “For Nobody” was reserved for side two.
As for Steven Wilson's typically excellent work on the immersive mixes: whereas I found myself preferring the dedicated 5.1 surround option of Free Hand over the Dolby Atmos mix, I think the Atmos mix is the clear winner this time around.
The more straight-ahead rock songs like the title track and "Timing" are surprisingly front-heavy in the 5.1 presentation, keeping the rhythm guitar & keys upfront with the drums while the Atmos mix often moves those parts to the side speakers. There are also fun moving passages in the Atmos version (the bell chimes in the title track, percussion in “Give It Back,” keys in "I Lost My Head," etc) that remain static in the 5.1 mix.
The title track kicks off with the radio sounds drifting from rear to front in the height speakers, then explodes into full immersion with the rhythm section largely upfront and the alternating rhythm guitar & organ parts hard-panned into the side speakers. Derek Shulman’s commanding lead vocal cuts through from the center channel, while keys appear in the rear surrounds and bells drift around above during the quieter interlude.
Things then slow down for “Give It Back,” with Shulman’s vocal raised from the center speaker into the front heights while its double appears from the side channels. “Design” is a showstopper, with percussion bouncing between the side speakers while the band’s a capella vocals appear exclusively in the height speakers.
“Another Show” again features double-tracked vocals from behind, plus keyboards moving between the rear and rear height speakers. Backing vocals are split wide in the rears for “Empty City,” while the guitar solo swirls around the height channels.
My favorite track on the album, musically and mix-wise, would have to be the explosive closer “I Lost My Head.” This song perfectly encapsulates both sides of the band’s songwriting, with an acoustic intro underpinned by Kerry Minnear's delicate vocals eventually giving way to a ferocious rock ending led by Derek Shulman. During said ‘rock section’, synthesizers swirl around all four top speakers while backing vocals appear exclusively in the rear heights.
The Blu-Ray also includes the rare quadraphonic mix of the album, likely prepared by Chrysalis for release on CD-4 LP and quad 8-track – as was done for other artists on the label, such as Jethro Tull – but ultimately left unissued until the 2012 CD/DVD edition of the album.
The quad mix is unfortunately presented in the same flawed state as that 2012 release, with the incorrect channel assignments and far too much dynamic compression. You probably won't want to bother with this after hearing the amazing new 5.1 & Atmos mixes.
As with prior entries in this series, I was glad to see the fun video animations directed by Noah Shulman are back. “Interview” and “I Lost My Head” are synced to the band’s 1976 live-for-TV performances filmed at the ITN house, but I particularly liked the one for "Another Show" featuring a montage of newsreels showing the band’s travels while on tour.
They've even rectified the one misstep on the Free Hand Blu-Ray edition, which is that said videos were viewable only with the stereo & 5.1 mixes. This time, you can listen to the Atmos mix with video too.
As with the 2021 Free Hand reissue, I really can’t find any fault in this release. It’s inexpensive, loaded with every possible permutation of the album (1975 stereo mix, 1975 quadraphonic mix, 2023 stereo mix, 2023 5.1 surround mix, 2023 Dolby Atmos mix, 2023 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.