For years, fans of ZZ Top’s earlier, less-synthesized albums suffered with the Six Pack. Basically what happened here is that ZZ Top had so much commercial success with their synth-pop/fake-drum-infused Eliminator and Afterburner albums that they decided to go back and inject that sound (along with some horrible ’80s-era digital reverb) into their earlier, more spare and organic-sounding work. Hence, the Six Pack – which took their first five albums plus their seventh (sparing Deguello, for some lucky reason) and made them sound like Eliminator-style bonus tracks. This travesty occurred right as the CD era was hitting its full stride, so for about 20 years the only versions of those first albums you could purchase on CD were filled with those ghastly remixes.
The tide started turning in 2003, when their boxed set Chrome, Smoke and BBQ featured the original mixes of tracks from those classic albums for the very first time on CD. (You vinyl fetishists never had a problem finding the original mixes…) Then, a reissue campaign seemed to follow with Tres Hombres and Fandango being reissued in Expanded Editions with live bonus tracks…and all the studio takes were the original mixes. The mastering on these sets, as on the boxed set, was done by legendary mastering engineer Bob Ludwig. We were in good hands, right?
Yep. Until they fast-forwarded to reissue Eliminator in time for its 25th Anniversary (dang, that record industry just loves those date-related cash-ins, don’t they?). This time, the mastering was handled by Pat Kraus, and was everything a modern remastering should not be: unceasingly loud, incredibly ear-fatiguing.
Now, after five years of catalog silence we get ZZ Top: The Complete Albums 1979-1990 – every single album in their original mixes, packaged as mini-albums, at a price that rounds out to less than 5 bucks a disc. Can’t get better, right?
Not so fast there, Sparky.
These Complete Albums sets have been the newest reissue wave in the music industry for the last few years. I believe Sony/Legacy pioneered the concept with catalog-spanning sets from Billy Joel, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley and others, each with nice packaging, fact-filled booklets and uniformly excellent mastering from their stable of sonic crusaders including Vic Anesini, Mark Wilder and Joe Palmaccio. So, Warner Music followed suit – and proceeded to water down the concept in the process. Their versions have nice-looking boxes, but once you open them you’re greeted with flimsy cardboard sleeves, bordering-on-blurry graphics, no booklets, liners or mastering info, and they seem to utilize whatever masters they can cobble together quickly, whether it’s the most recent remaster, or the oldest original ’80s CD master, or a convoluted combination of both.
This ZZ Top set is a Warner Music box through and through. Nice box, blurry sleeves, and more botches than corrections on the mastering.
One thing they did get right: they are indeed the original mixes throughout. BUT, the entirety of ZZ Top’s First Album, the second half of Rio Grande Mud and the first half of Tejas all appear to have their channels swapped. If you compare those tracks to the original vinyl releases, or the same tracks as they appear on the Chrome, Smoke & BBQ boxed set, you will notice that what you’re used to hearing come out of the left speaker or headphone is now coming out of the right, and vice-versa. How does this happen? Especially to the half-albums where one full side is correct? And how does it not get CAUGHT? (Hint: betcha Bob Ludwig would’ve figured it out…)
It appears someone remastered the First Album, Rio Grande Mud, Tres Hombres, and Tejas specifically for this box. (Can’t tell you who…no liners, no booklet!) The 2006 Fandango remaster (by Bob Ludwig) appears to be re-used here, but without the bonus tracks, and the 2008 Eliminator ear-bleeder was re-used here as well – again, no bonus tracks. Deguello, El Loco, Afterburner and Recycler seem to have their original ’80s-’90s masterings “recycled”. And Tres Hombres is a true original – it’s not the 2006 Ludwig remaster, and it’s not the Six Pack obliteration. It seems to have the same characteristics as the high-definition download currently available at HDTracks.com. Huh? Why would you single out Tres Hombres for that and not use the most recent Ludwig remaster? Or conversely, why not just use the HDTracks masters for everything? How about some uniformity in sound here?
The argument seems to be that in order to keep this set as a “budget” reissue, nothing new could be done in terms of mastering – ergo, the scraps-and-heaps nature of grabbing whatever they could find in the vaults. I call “bull” on that. Get someone in-house (who’s already on the payroll) to properly remaster everything…not just rip-and-reload, make it uniform. And get someone involved with the band or the original recordings to listen and quality-check that the speed, channel orientation, and takes are all correct.
I’m torn. I love that this set exists. I love that the first seven albums all now appear in their original mixes. I love the price. I can live with the slip-shod packaging.
But I hate those mastering mistakes.
Too bad ZZ Top’s back-catalog didn’t follow them to RCA in the mid-’90s. Sony/Legacy would’ve done this set right.