The year 2010 marked the 40th anniversary of the passing of two Rock icons of the tumultuous nineteen sixties — Jimi Hendrix and a month later Janis Joplin. And just like Jim Morrison the following year and decades later Kurt Cobain; all disappeared prematurely at age 27, leaving fans with many "What if's..." Each brought their own contribution to the scene but of the four, Hendrix stands out most in creative innovations and sheer virtuosity.
Any music collector worth his or her salt knows the huge amount of Hendrix material one can find at your favorite record shop but the irony of it all is that the vast majority of them are bootlegs of live shows and lesser outtakes in rather poor sound. The sad reality is that the guitar 'wizard' released four albums during is lifetime, only one of which was a live date. But to assume that he was studio shy, nothing would be farther than the truth. On the contrary Hendrix was extremely prolific as a creator in front of the mike as well as behind the glass.
Without 100% certainty but in all probability Valleys of Neptune would be that -- long awaited -- fourth studio album. Most interesting is the direction Hendrix was leaning towards at the dawn of the new decade. Slowly but surely the heaviness of his 1967 groundbreaking debut Are you Experienced as well as the following year's psychedelic experimentalism of Electric Ladyland were losing ground to a groovier 'toe tapping' vibe.
Blues Rock and R&B — that is real Rhythm and Blues and not what passes for the 'distorted' meaning tossed around nowadays — is front and center, with proto-funk rock and subtle psychedelic touches here and there, conveying pretty much the 'new sound' Jimi was aiming for. The latter eventually taking shape in live form on the 1970 Band of Gypsys posthumous release. Extrapolating, it is now easier to justify the 'musical heritage' link sometimes associated with Prince - post Purple Rain (Warner Bros) era that is - regarding the real King's successor, thanks in no small part to Valleys of Neptune. Indeed both singer/guitar player/composer/performer protagonists never did embrace the status quo, preferring instead to explore new boundaries and along the way reinvent themselves. Under the supervision of original recording/mixing engineer Eddie Kramer assisted by mastering/cutting engineer George Marino at Sterling Sound and thanks to Experience Hendrix L.L.C. headed by Janie Hendrix, we can now get a glimpse into the future-past with a level of sound quality that will surprise many.
The gatefold jacket while not qualifying as deluxe is nevertheless of high quality. The cover art is an original watercolor painting by the man himself dating back to 1957. Inside is the song listing including personnel and studio recording dates. On that point, all were recorded between February and September 1969 with the exception of track 2 on side B, initially recorded in May 1967 with additional recording done exactly twenty years later. Also inserted is an eight page 11" x 11" booklet with great b&w and color photos of Hendrix live and in studio plus one of the band. With detailed info about the unfolding events happening at the time, along with the personnel changes leading up to the Band of Gypsys live concert recorded at the Fillmore East, the generous packaging is to be commended even more so at the very fair retail price.
Each 180g LP is housed in a clear paperless sleeve and pressed at RTI. All sides were perfectly flat, black and shiny with the exception of side D having a bit of visual scuff marks, the latter not audibly detectable; in fact the surfaces were noise, tick and pop free. The cutting level is perfect, not too low nor too 'hot' (excluding side D which seems louder), giving sufficient dynamic head room and excellent S/N ratio. The album side lenght, groove, and 'dead wax' spacing is well chosen for the cutting speed and musical content.
The double album opens with none other than "Stone Free", Jimi's first song 'put to wax' under The Jimmy Hendrix Experience comprised of Hendrix on guitar and vocals, bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Initially the B-side of "Hey Joe" - their first single in December 1966 - it remained a show favorite and was re-recorded in April and May of 1969. This in fact is the third version and fits more in the rhythm & blues style than his earlier works, though it ends on a psychedelic note. Audiophile wise, my first impression was very positive. The sound is warm, guitar is nicely present, great punch with the kick drum beating strong in the mix, making it very groovy. The ride cymbal has a nice natural shine resembling the real thing; the bell top is particularly well captured, which is all too rare.
Next up is the title track "Valleys of Neptune" from September '69 that with its psychedelic overtones rekindles at times Dylan's "All Around the Watchtower" covered the year before. Again the mix is perfect; guitar and cymbals are well captured; the rhythm pairing of Redding and Mitchell impresses with good bass; snare and kick drum lead to a very organic sound.
"Bleeding Heart" — an Elmore James original — starts out with a blues guitar intro that leads into a fast pace R&B cover. The sound while still quite good is a bit too soft in the highs leading to a lack of detail and slight compression of dynamics in the top end.
Side B takes it down a notch with "Hear My Train a Comin'", a heavier blues rock not that far apart of what The Doors presented at times; even some double kick drum recalls Led Zep in their earliest years. The coda plays out with a raucous ending. This track has more top end cymbal than the previous one, snare drum conveys lots of snap while kick shows great articulation producing superior dynamic range for a rock recording. Lacks just a bit of bottom end but a good mix altogether. Once again engineer Eddie Kramer knew what he was doing.
Originally recorded May 1967, "Mr. Bad Luck" incorporates some very original writing. Twenty years later — almost to the month - Mitchell and Redding upgraded the original drum and bass parts, in effect overdubbing Hendrix's guitar and vocals. The sound is warmer and has superb low grunt rarely encountered in rock music. The tone is perfect with sweet detailed highs and a lightning fast 'snap' on the snare and toms. In my opinion this is the best track of the album for sound and music followed closely by the previous cut and the opening "Stone Free". Worthy of 'Demo Quality' for sure.
"Sunshine of Your Love" a hurried instrumental cover of Cream's 1967 heavy rock classic pays tribute for their appreciation of Britain's original competing Power Trio. The song structure is quite modified starting with a 'chicken scratch' guitar break taking center stage while a build up, first of percussive conga occupies the right channel followed by bass on the left plus drums and electric guitar. The main riff returns at 'twice the speed', this time augmented by fuzz distortion effect. Here we are presented with a dirtier sound and the mids are more up front.
Side C introduces a heavier blues rock with the piece "Lover Man". The sound is more compressed, guitar a bit loud and aggressive, cymbals are dirtier, making it one of the two worse sounding tracks of the album, though still musically satisfying.
"Ships Passing Through The Night" recorded April 1969 fits more the heavy rock mold and has a coda that strangely resembles but predates Van Halen's "Eruption" by eight years. Sonically this is another enjoyable cut with lots of deep 'grunty' bass. The lowest bass notes are particularly strong in the mix; this rarely heard as well as felt on record, giving some semblance to the real thing. Generally warm but unfortunately a bit compressed also.
"Fire" is well known and made its initial appearance on the band's 1967 debut album. The version included here dates from February '69 and is both a bit longer and fairly faster than the — already speedy — original. On this occasion the trio is in 'full groove mode', swinging and rocking as if they were playing the third set of a live show but without the cheers and applause of a real audience. Even better than the original, the main riff is doubled extending the measures from four to eight. The mix is well balanced with a raw sound approaching garage rock.
Just like the prior track, "Red House" could be found in earlier form on Are you Experienced; a slow twelve-bar blues instrumental at first with the guitar up front. The bass, kick and snare drum are dry and lack harmonics lending hardness to the sound. The level seems cut louder and the sound is surprisingly and unfortunately on the cold side, quite strange given the general warmth up to this point. This provoked some unwanted listener fatigue. Also some 'high frequency screaching' type distortion can be heard on the left channel, this obviously not in any way an artistic effect. Overall this is the worse sounding track. Too bad for it remains an interesting song.
Same thing with the instrumental "Lullaby for the Summer". Also cut louder, there is definitely dissonant tape distortion in the highs, noticeable on snare fills, bringing much hardness. A lack of bottom end does not help either.
Lastly "Crying Blue Rain" starts out smooth bringing some temporary respite for the hurting eardrums of the last two cuts. Like "Mr. Bad Luck" it too incorporates bass and drum overdubs recorded in June 1987. Musically it recalls at times "Hey Joe" but feels more 'jam like', changing tempo - the pace rocketing faster and faster to reach full speed — sounding improvised and a bit psychedelic. And again bottom end is weak plus the sound is more compressed.
This is the only side that disappoints on many fronts and could have been left behind or at the very least, better matched in tonal balance with the high level of quality of the first three sides. Personally I would have preferred the first nine songs spread out on four sides of roughly 11 minutes each, cut at 33 1/3 or 45 rpm for greater dynamic range and realism and discard the rest.
In conclusion, minor quibbles aside, Valleys of Neptune is a worthy successor to Electric Ladyland and in so doing begs the question: what great gems would have sprung from this guitar prodigy and musical visionary had life not ended so young? We may never know that answer but thanks to the dedication of a few we can now get some better sense of understanding. On another level, it also reaffirms that Eddie Kramer is one of the all time best rock engineers and producers to be found; as the saying goes, he 'gets it right In the Mix'.
For those who may have apprehensions regarding the choice of George Marino as remastering engineer — as I had after listening to the disappointing AC/DC reissue Box Set and dismissing side D of Valleys — you can cast your fears aside immediately. I assure you on this and the few other Experience Hendrix/Legacy releases I've heard, Marino is certainly on par with the general high quality one would expect with the remastering duo of Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman; leaning more on the 'warmth and groove school' than the 'transparency and detail school' which I believe is more satisfying in fun factor at least in rock and blues.
Sound Quality: (sides A, B & C)
Sound Quality: (side D included)