I had to endure more than a few trials and tribulations before I could finally get my hands on Bill Bruford’s limited edition box set, Seems Like a Lifetime Ago. I missed out on the first run of boxes, which sold out much faster than the now-retired drummer anticipated. I also nearly missed out on the second (and final) run, despite pre-ordering a copy two months ahead of its release. But fortune finally smiled upon me, and a box found its way to me.
The excitement of opening my new box (thank you, Burning Shed) was tempered slightly when the edge of one of the box’s flaps gave me a nasty paper cut on my index finger. The writer in me hoped aloud being cut wasn’t some kind of bad omen.
Well … I’ll get back to that. Let’s focus on the positive first.
The box set commemorates the music of Bruford, one of my favorite progressive rock bands of all time. The band’s run was relatively short, lasting from 1977 to ’80. But there can be no doubting the impact of the music made by Bruford, bassist Jeff Berlin, keyboardist Dave Stewart, and guitarist Allan Holdsworth. It continues to resonate as some of my favorite — and most influential — of the era.
The band (which also included vocalist Annette Peacock on the first album) was far from flashy, which is why the box’s simple black cover with gold embossed lettering makes perfect sense. It is, by far, the most understated of all my box sets.
The interior houses a 16-page LP-sized booklet featuring a well-written essay on the band by Sid Smith (who also contributed wonderfully to the King Crimson boxes); a small faux poster advertising a double bill featuring Bruford and Brand X at The Venue in London (what I wouldn’t have given to see that show); and two promotional photos of the band, one of which features The “Unknown” John Clark, who replaced Holdsworth on guitar for the band’s third studio and live album.
I’m not a big autograph hound, but it was still pretty exciting to see a numbered certificate of authenticity among the other goodies, signed by Bill Bruford himself. I have box number 1751. I wonder how many boxes were actually produced? My guess is 2,500 to 3,000. That keeps it plenty special for anyone who has one.
The interior is equally frill-free, with four housings cut out of the foam rubber backing. Each housing contains CD packagings commemorating Bruford’s three studio releases — Feels Good to Me, One of a Kind, and Gradually Going Tornado — and a fourth package containing a previously unreleased performance from The Venue and a CD featuring snippets from the band’s potential fourth studio release. Each package does a great job a demonstrating where the band was in its development during that period.
The first two studio releases have been remixed by Jakko Jakszyk and Bill Bruford. And here’s where my (minor) griping begins. While the new stereo mix managed to pull new sounds from the original recordings, I still found the overall sound slightly wanting. As I listen to Feels Good to Me, I find myself asking the same question repeatedly: where’s the top end? The original mix had more “air” in it. What I mean is, there was more treble, giving the sound a nice sense of balance. My speakers sounded like I was hearing the band in a nice, open studio space.
The new mix robs me of that treble, and pushes the sound down a bit. The top end has nowhere to go, like sound absorption was put on the ceiling. Instead of a nice open space, the band sounds like it was recorded in a broom closet. Holdsworth’s guitar, appropriately dominating in the original mix, has been pushed back. It blends in where it should stand out. One of my favorite moments from the album, the outro to “Back to the Beginning,” is also muted. Holdsworth, Berlin, and Stewart are making the nastiest sounds, which never fail to make me smile. Now they sound almost like an afterthought. What a pity.
Just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I played the DVD containing a remaster of the ’78 mix. I heard the difference immediately. Maybe the 5.1 surround mix will bring the sounds I’m missing back to the fore. I’ll let you know after I get a 5.1 system. I also wish the overall mix had been just a bit louder. Bruford was not a lounge act. Their music should rattle a window or two.
Still, it’s a great deal of fun tracking this band’s growth. While they were never tentative, the band’s chemistry and confidence becomes more apparent with each subsequent release. This is most evident by the time of the Venue gig, recorded on May 5, 1980. A highly competent band recorded The Bruford Tapes (presented remastered in this box set) in 1979. But the Bruford of 1980 absolutely owned its material, and kicked it square in the ass! Had I been in Brand X, I would have been deeply worried about having to follow Bruford, had that been the case. I was particularly taken by Clark, who sounds much less like Holdsworth’s replacement, and much more like himself.
Like any rehearsal material, the ideas on the session disc are hit and miss. I’m fascinated by the process that goes into making music, so it would have been very interesting to hear where these ideas might have ended up. Alas, the “business” end of the music business consumed Bruford, and it was not meant to be.
When I thought I wasn’t going to get a copy of this box set, I decided to read the Amazon reviews, to see what I was missing. Based on what I was reading, I wasn’t missing as much as I thought. The dominant theme was that this particular box set was for Bruford “completists,” and not casual or new fans. To be honest, that’s pretty fair. I’m glad to have the remasters. I’ll learn to live with the remixes. The Venue gig — even with its semi-bootleg sound quality — would have made a nice stand-alone release. Hardcore Bruford fans should seek out this box. And hurry! Casual fans would do just fine with the original releases.
Did the paper cut mean anything? I’d say it represents a slight metaphor for the Bruford box: there are slightly annoying aspects, but it certainly won’t prevent you from enjoying yourself.
I have the first three Bruford albums and absolutely love them. Not being a completist I don’t go for box sets or deluxe versions with bonus tracks and out-takes. And now, thanks to this review, I can rest easy knowing I haven’t missed out on anything essential from Bruford. Then again, if I ever get the chance to compare the originals with the Jakszyk/Bruford remixes I’ll be there like a shot.
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