A Tale of Two Strange Loops
Like I’ll bet many of you, I discovered Mithras‘ On Strange Loops via Mark L.’s fantastic review of it over on Angry Metal Guy. In his review back in October, Mark described Loops as “the most warped and transcendent death metal 2016 has yet produced,” and now with just a few fleeting moments left in the year, I still can’t find any real flaw in that assessment.
Unfortunately, Loop’s production choices leaves a lot to be desired. Clocking in at a abysmal DR4, but really a DR3 once you take out the instrumental track “The Last Redoubt” out of the picture, Loops sounds like one hot garbled mess. The problem here is that Loops, like many of its tech death contemporaries (*cough* Ulcerate *cough* -Dave), falls into the very common production trap of over leveraging compression and brickwall limiting at the expense of clarity, transients, and any real bottom end to speak of. The net result is a record that sounds overly aggressive at first listen but then soon loses its muster as your ears adjust to the shock and awe campaign that is being waged against them. Tracks also tend to bleed through since the combination of the lack of dynamics with all the levels being matched makes every track sound exactly the same even when they shouldn’t.
This style of production has become almost the de rigueur of the metal industry, which is why so many tech death metal records like Loops score so low on the TT. But unlike a lot of its contemporaries, Loops production choices were not an artifact of some third-party engineer making choices on behalf of the band. In fact, this record was recorded, mixed, and mastered by none other than the band’s co-founder and lead riffsmith, Leon Macy, who also happens to be the resident sound engineer at Dreaming Studios in the UK. I had a few on and off conversations with Leon about Loops and though we fundamentally disagree about its production choices, he was very open and honest about why he made them. Ironically, he was already working on an alternative high-res, FDR version to appease fans who felt it was way too compressed to really enjoy in a single sitting. And Leon delivered as promised by releasing on Christmas Day a 24-bit/44.1kHz alternative FDR master via Bandcamp that clocks in at a healthy DR9. So how does this FDR version stack up to the original?
The truth is the higher dynamic range score does indeed help, particularly with accentuating transients like in the opening crashes of the track “Time Never Lasts,” as well as giving the album an overall slightly more robust bottom end. However, after listening to the FDR version for a better part of a week, I’ve concluded that Loops suffers from Fallujah Syndrome™.
If you recall, the problem with Fallujah’s The Flesh Prevails wasn’t really the master, it was the mix. And Angry Metal Guy hit the nail squarely on the head in his review of the still unreleased DR10 alternative version of it when he wrote the following, “So why do we need a DR3 master? If the DR10 master is just as brutal, only with a wider spectrum and more dynamics even when the mix is geared for a loud mastering job, I’m not sure what the purpose of an overdriven master is.” The same can be said for Loops.
Unlike like the new Avenged Sevenfold or Witherscape albums, which were designed to be dynamic from the ground up, Loops wasn’t, and as a result, its FDR master doesn’t really net the same pay off as you would expect giving the large jump in measured dynamics. Sure, it certainly sounds more alive and I still prefer it overall, but the differences here are no where near as profound as they could have been if the album was re-recorded to sound dynamic from the get go. Leon too even subtlety admits this fact when he describes the new master as “an alternative listening experience” not a better one.
In the end though, the gist of AMG’s words still rings true today: if Loops’ DR9 FDR master sounds almost as brutal and in-your-face as the DR3 one, why have the DR3 one at all? And extrapolating that logic even further: why compress the mix in the first place since it leaves a recording with a lot less options at the mastering stage and makes mastering for vinyl that much harder? Regardless, Mithras‘ On Strange Loops is still one of the best records to come out this year and I highly recommend buying the FDR version of it even if you own the original. It’s better, even if marginally so.