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Review: Pink Floyd, “The Wall: Immersion Box Set”

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By the way, which one’s Pink?

A record executive poses that wry musical question of Pink Floyd in “Have a Cigar,” a brief, humorous respite on the band’s elegiac 1975 album Wish You Were Here.  The ever-ambitious group would actually answer that wry question with The Wall, 1979’s sprawling double album.  The psychedelic Dark Side of the Moon and reflective Wish You Were Here both invited listeners to create their own stories in service of the albums’ impressionistic concepts, largely dealing with isolation and absence.  The Wall found primary songwriter Roger Waters making his concepts more explicit than ever before in telling the tale of Pink, who endures a traumatic childhood (including a deceased father, an overpowering mother and torment at the hands of his classmates) and builds bricks in his own personal wall with each painful event. Pink overcomes this to become a rock star, but finds life no easier as an adult, and continues building his wall as each relationship crumbles. Only after an unsettling, violent onstage performance does Pink look inward.  He places himself at the center of a hellish trial and finds the inner strength to tear down his wall.

We may never know to what degree Waters was working out his own demons in song, but The Wall has remained potent onstage, on film and on record in the ensuing years.  It now receives its most grandiose treatment yet via the latest of Pink Floyd’s Immersion box sets.  The 6-CD/1-DVD The Wall: Immersion (EMI/Capitol 5099902943923) follows the format of the DSOTM and WYWH sets, meaning that it’s equal parts revelatory and head-scratching.

At the box set’s centerpiece (and also available as a stand-alone 2-CD set and part of a 3-CD Experience Edition) is James Guthrie’s remastering of the original album on two compact discs.  Guthrie’s remastering is again exceptional, bringing out the details in the band’s intricate playing as well as the production of Bob Ezrin, Roger Waters and David Gilmour.  What the Immersion box lacks as compared to the two previous sets is any kind of high-resolution mix on DVD or Blu-Ray, and that is the box’s most significant loss.  The surround mixes included on DSOTM and WYWH offered the chance to hear these albums in a completely new light, indeed more “immersive” than ever before.  Although a surround mix is reportedly in the works for The Wall (and any audio DVD or Blu-Ray release would likely include a high-resolution PCM Stereo track, as well), the lack of one here makes the Immersion Box Set less than definitive.

Of course, the music of The Wall is as haunting, narcissistic, exploratory and bold as you remember.  Although the libretto by Waters is more concrete (no pun intended) than in the past, the album’s style is a clear continuation of the sound explored on previous albums.  There’s the familiar Floyd brew of sound effects (chirping birds, crying babies, crowd noises, etc.), brief dialogue snippets, fragmentary songs and big stadium-ready rock anthems.  It’s always been among The Wall’s most striking attributes that the concept of building the wall onstage is inherent to the album itself.  The very first notes of “In the Flesh” serve as a theatrical Overture and the foundation of the concert framework itself, with Pink inviting (or taunting?) the audience to hear his tale.  From the outset, The Wall invites comparison, too, with another famous rock opera, Pete Townshend and The Who’s Tommy.  Both Pink and Tommy are confronted with the difficult reality of life in post-WWII London, and both have to confront the consequences of their parents’ own failings.  Waters has said that he wrote The Wall about the loss of his own father, but over time, the album has resonated as a meditation on war and loss in general.  A dark worldview permeates The Wall as Waters uses each tool in his songwriter’s artillery to bring these characters to life.  “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” is ironically titled, as Pink recalls “there were certain teachers who would hurt the children in any way they could…even as it was well known [that] when they got home at night, their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives.” Yet Waters’ vocal doesn’t betray a hint of sentimentality or even sympathy for those he describes.

Don’t get too comfortably numb…just hit the jump to continue reading!

The Wall offers Gilmour (guitars, vocals, synthesizers, clavinet), Waters (vocals, guitars, synthesizers), Richard Wright (organ, piano, electric piano, synthesizers) and Nick Mason (percussion) each ample opportunity to shine, musically.  Of those big, crunchy anthems, “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2,” with its rallying cries of “We don’t need no education” musicalized a sentiment universal to kids of all ages. “Comfortably Numb” may the band’s most beloved song of all, with its dazzling guitar solos, sweeping orchestration and lyrics that are both relatable and opaque.  The vocal interplay between the song’s co-writers Gilmour and Waters is deft.  Yet both songs work within the context of the rock opera and as stand-alone songs.  Melodically the palette is diverse, from the painful and sad “Goodbye, Blue Sky” (“Did you ever wonder why we/Had to run for shelter when the/Promise of a brave, new world/Unfurled beneath the clear blue sky?”)  as Pink recalls the past, to the slick and attractive rock of “Young Lust” as he plunges headfirst into the hedonistic rock-and-roll world: “I need a dirty woman/I need a dirty girl…”

Muscular riffs abound as objects shatter in the harsh “One of My Turns,” and again Waters cleverly turns a cliché on its ear with “Don’t Leave Me Now.” Despite its title, it’s far from a tender plea, with a disturbing air of melancholia and looming violence: “How could you go?/When you know how I need you/To beat to a pulp on a Saturday night/Ooh babe, don’t leave me now.”  Although The Wall is by nature a big album, the band doesn’t shy away from quieter and more minimalistic moments; “Is Anybody Out There” marries virtuosic guitar with subdued orchestration.  But it’s those grandly theatrical moments that have earned the album its place in the pantheon, whether the all-too-short but stirring “The Show Will Go On” or the combative “In the Flesh” in which the deluded rock star viscerally attacks his audience: “If I had my way, I’d have all of you shot!”

The ethereal and often chill-inducing backing vocals were provided by a group including Toni Tennille and Beach Boy Bruce Johnston as well as the Islington Green School Choir on the iconic “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.”  A chorus plays an integral role in the most operatic track on the album, “The Trial,” with its shouts of “Tear down the wall!”  The album’s coda, “Outside the Wall,” presents an almost-moral about the need to make human connection in blunt terms: “And when they’ve given you your all, some stagger and fall…After all it’s not easy, banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”

The third and fourth discs of the Immersion set are dedicated to the 2011 remaster of Is There Anybody Out There?  The Wall Live, first released in 2000 but recorded in 1980 and 1981 in London.  The live concerts actually restored a couple of songs (“What Shall We Do Now,” “The Last Few Bricks”) to the album sequence, and of course the band took the opportunity to stretch their muscles in concert, extending solos and instrumental portions with ease.  The prohibitively expensive cost of the tour (due to the actual construction of The Wall each and every night) prevented it a larger life; the concerts were only performed 31 times in four cities, and contributed to the acrimony that saw Waters depart the band shortly after.  The content of the two live discs will be familiar to longtime fans of the band, but listened to back-to-back with the original album, provide a different but equally valid interpretation.  Waters is currently touring The Wall as a solo artist.

The true treasure of The Wall: Immersion can be found on the fifth and sixth discs.  Work in Progress premieres over two hours’ worth of demos, exposing the development of the album at almost every stage.  The album that became The Wall was crafted in stages, including an original demo from Waters that was presented, nearly in full, to the band.  Then a series of band demos were recorded, as well as demos by Gilmour of the melodies that became “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell.”  Gilmour’s wordless vocalizing on “Numb” is quite affecting, and the song’s development can be traced through multiple demos including early versions as “The Doctor.”  The recording dates of each track aren’t indicated, making it into a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to fit together, but a close listen to the seven divided “programmes” over the two CDs reveals a number of rewards.

The Work in Progress tracks, though, present a bit of a dilemma.  The first 14 minutes of the first disc (22 tracks, considered Programme One) are devoted to excerpts – many running just seconds’ long – of Waters’ original demo recording.  It’s difficult to get any sense of the first conception from 20-second snippets; just four of Waters’ tracks (“Prelude (Vera Lynn),” “Is There Anybody Out There?,” “Vera” and “Bring the Boys Back Home”) are heard in full later in the program.  This material deserves to be heard in full, and as presented here, seems like an appetizer for a future release rather than a vital part of an in-depth box set.  Some songs were all but finished on the initial demo (“Mother,” “Another Brick in the Wall”) but just when a standout track gets interesting (a different approach to “Run Like Hell,” to name one), it cuts off abruptly.

The material heard in full is quite choice, however.  Some titles are new, such as “Teacher, Teacher,” “Empty Spaces,” “Sexual Revolution,” and “It’s Never Too Late,” and longtime fans will enjoy playing musical detective as to where certain lyrics and melodies reappeared (both on Pink Floyd and Waters solo albums).  The original Waters demo of “Prelude (Vera Lynn)” reveals that Barbra Streisand almost was heard on The Wall, as a switching radio played a snatch of Streisand’s “Jingle Bells” (!) before stopping on Vera Lynn’s World War II anthem “We’ll Meet Again.”  Even in the songs’ earliest stages, Waters, Gilmour, Wright and Mason were creating eerie, evocative and atmospheric music; these aren’t strictly lo-fi demos, though that stark quality emerges on the stripped-down “The Trial.”  It’s illuminating to hear those Beach Boys-esque harmonies intact on the early “The Show Must Go On.”  The sound is also uniformly excellent, and these two discs open a rare window into Pink Floyd’s creative process.  As the programmes progress, the songs become more polished, the approach more wholly confident.  We all know the results were inspired, but this is a valuable peek at the ground floor.

The final disc, a DVD, is a mixed bag but ultimately a welcome addition to the set.  The most important component of this disc is the 2000 documentary Behind the Wall, a comprehensive retrospective at over 50 minutes’ length.  Scarfe is on hand in a 1982 interview originally produced for Getty Images.  The two shortest features are the promotional video for “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” and a beautifully remastered concert clip of “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” from Earls Court, 1980.  A restoration of the full concert’s footage has long been a hope for Pink Floyd fans, and (much like Waters’ demos) this brief snippet seems like a teaser to another, equally significant project.

The Immersion set of Dark Side of the Moon featured hardly any liner notes of any kind, just a brief recollection by designer Storm Thorgerson, while Wish You Were Here contained a historical essay by Mark Blake as well as Thorgerson’s remarks.  Alas, it’s “one step forward, two steps back,” as the only prose to be found in this giant box is a brief note by James Guthrie about the sequencing of the demo recordings.  It’s printed twice, once on the sleeve of each demo disc.  So while we get no liner notes of any kind to accompany and guide our listening journey, we do get another package of coasters, three marbles (all emblazoned with the familiar wall graphic) and a scarf that just might make you the envy of all of your classic rock-minded friends.  (Or not.)  As before, the box itself is a dichotomy.  The package is lavish in its content – from the sublime to the ridiculous, one might opine – but poorly designed in terms of actually storing that content.  There are still disc spindles on the bottom of the actual box, but the discs are housed in paper sleeves that fly around the box at will.  There are no storage tabs or slots for those sleeves, and once the loose marbles are inserted into the velvet pouch, it’s difficult to close the box again!

Three black envelopes contain collectors’ cards, Mark Fisher’s scenic designs for the touring show, and memorabilia reproductions, respectively, while the box also houses a poster of the handwritten album lyrics, a Gerald Scarfe print of the monstrous “Wife” and two thick, album-sized booklets filled with striking images of the concert production.  English cartoonist Scarfe’s illustrations are an integral part of The Wall’s legacy and are prominently featured in the Immersion box, though one wonders if Scarfe himself was approached to contribute any memories.  The Scarfe-designed puppets and animation are still a marvel to behold, but both booklets cover the same territory.  That said, it’s fun to compare Scarfe’s designs to the fully-built creations.  A third smaller, bare-bones booklet simply contains credits.

With the release of this Immersion Box Set, the first wave of EMI’s Pink Floyd reissues is complete.  The inclusion of so much unreleased material both here and on the first two boxes has been a major boon for fans, as the band members have traditionally been so reticent to dip into their archives.  That treasure trove of outtakes and alternates will likely be the lasting legacy of these box sets.  But is this Immersion box the final statement on this iconic album?  To underline the Who connection once again, for better or worse, the curious are directed to last year’s towering box set dedicated to that band’s concept album/rock opera Quadrophenia.  That weighty set covered much of the same ground as The Wall, also emphasizing its composer’s original demos, without aid of marbles, scarves or ephemera but with a 100+ page hardcover book including a 25-page essay by Townshend touching on every aspect of the album’s creation.  In fairness, Waters wasn’t obliged to provide something similar, and his music speaks volumes by itself.  But that personal, intimate diary trumps marbles and coasters when it comes to true immersion.  This set may come close, but all in all, it’s just another brick in The Wall when it could have been the last word.

Written by Joe Marchese

February 28, 2012 at 10:07

Posted in Box Sets, Features, News, Pink Floyd, Reissues, Reviews

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10 Responses

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  1. My disappointment with this set, is the lack of “What Shall We Do Now” and “Mother,” from “The Wall” movie.

    John Phillips

    February 28, 2012 at 10:33

    • this is a review of the audio set, not the dvd.
      pay attention

      Drew Pfafflin

      March 4, 2012 at 19:56

  2. Good review Joe.
    I hope you are right about some of the aspects of this and the other Immersion sets providing teasers for future releases however, the fact that there is nothing scheduled after this Wall release doesn’t look good.
    If there was one group that could turn a profit from 5.1 high res mixes it would be PF (and The Beatles of course even though their first five albums wouldn’t benefit much from a surround mix).

    Bill B

    February 28, 2012 at 12:40

  3. There are always very obvious choices of tracks that should be collected in a set like this, like “When The Tigers Broke Free” from the movie and single, or the single mix of “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2”. And yet they’re nowhere to be found. I often wish they would consult some diehard fans when putting these sets together.

    DT

    February 28, 2012 at 19:07

  4. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of deluxe edition of The Wall film (and perhaps even a soundtrack!) down the road; reports seem to indicate that further candidates for reissue are at least in the discussion stage at this point.

    And DT, I agree; for completeness’ sake, it would have been great to see all relevant singles appended to each album’s Immersion sets. Maybe someone is reading…

    Joe Marchese

    February 28, 2012 at 19:33

  5. After hearing about this release a few months ago, I was all set to buy it. As the release date got closer and the contents were revealed, I became less excited. After this review… I’m not buying.
    I don’t need marbles, coasters and a scarf. What I would like to see included would be: High Resolution surround mixes, a full Wall concert DVD, full versions of the Work In Progress tracks, detailed liner notes and a nice book. I’d pay a premium price for all the additions I mentioned.

    JT

    February 28, 2012 at 21:18

  6. Can someone please explain the logic (or lack thereof) why a high-res Blu-ray was NOT included?

    Carl

    February 29, 2012 at 00:17

    • I can’t speak to the logic, but a high-resolution release is in the pipeline (whether on Blu-Ray or SACD). I just have to question the decision to have released this set now, rather than to have waited until it could be done “right,” i.e. with the inclusion of the high-res component, such an important part of the previous two Immersion boxes.

      Joe Marchese

      February 29, 2012 at 00:40

      • For what it’s worth–the first two PF Immersion boxes had the 5.1 album on Blu-Ray discs, but far less in the way of other bonus material (I’m not talking about the marbles, trading cards, etc. as all three sets appears to have an equal amount of swag). Extra material on the WYWH box was particularly skimpy outside of the high-rez mixes. I’m guessing that to keep this box at about the same price point as the firt two sets, it was simply a choice between four extra discs of audio content or the 5.1 mix, and 5.1 lost. The fact that the full running time of the album is roughly 90 minutes (as opposed to 45) may have been a factor as well.

        Hank

        February 29, 2012 at 13:13

  7. I received my copy of this box this morning and have been listening to and watching it all day. The DVD was excellent, it’s only problem being that it’s brevity left me wanting more. It was great to see the promo video for “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” after so many years. The documentary was illuminating even though I was a huge fan when the album was originally released in 1979. We are privy to far more behind the scenes info now then we were then. Rick Wright was quite obviously still hurt by his treatment when the interviews were conducted 20 years later. All the footage of the 80-81 concerts made me wish there was a full concert video released of the shows. I have heard that there are problems with the video but there seemed to be great quality in what is shown on the DVD. The “Happiest Days of Our Lives” is faded down just as the band is starting to play “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” and it’s tantalizing torture! I really wanted to see them perform it.
    The demo CDs contain much more interesting music than I had been led to believe from the reviews I had read (other than yours, Mr. Marchese). Many of the versions are quite different and should reward future listening.
    The lack of annotation in an archive type would bother me with almost any other band, but much of the Pink Floyd mystique is based on Storm’s album cover designs and visual presentation. They generally preferred to remain anonymous and allow the music to speak for itself (as long as Roger got credit, of course!) so I find the packaging to be consistent with their catalogue.
    As previously commented by others, I would have liked the inclusion of all the single versions and any tracks rerecorded for the film.
    Now I want a “Piper”/”Saucerful” box to pull together all the Syd era material (“Scream Thy Last Scream”!), an “Animals” box and a “Bootleg” -style series of live releases. I know there are a lot of great shows from the 70s that could and should see the light of day.

    Jason Michael

    February 29, 2012 at 14:03


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