For a band that made change a centerpiece of their ethos, Daniel Amos (DA) sure had a heck of a lot of it. In 1984, with the arrival of the third of their ambitious four album cycle The Alarma Chronicles, Vox Humana landed on the band’s fifth record label (at this stage they only had six albums, so you can see how dynamic these changes were).
A song on the album seemed to telegraph a general dissatisfaction with change for the sake of it, even as the overall band sound was now dominated by synths. “(It’s The Eighties So Where’s Our) Rocket Packs” said, in knowing fashion, the promises of progress have been that it would facilitate human interaction, with all the pesky barriers and time-killers removed by modernity. Instead, modernity dulled the ability to communicate at all. Not only did the technology of the future not come to pass as spectacularly as the b-movies promised, what little did advance made it all worse, not better.
That’s the connective tissue for the whole of the album which takes inspiration from movies and television of the ’50s and ’60s and asks the question, “Are we any closer to the ideal, or are we just channel surfing?” The opening “Travelog” makes that concept explicit as the character of the seeker flicks from station to station to find not solace but a form of anesthetic and spiritual…something. “When Worlds Collide,” “As The World Turns,” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” crystallize the concept through strategic name-drops.
The album itself sounded completely of its time, pushed ever so farther to the edge, as was primary songwriter Terry Scott Taylor’s wont. Let’s not forget that the early ’80s was the first generation of pop music that fully embraced the artificial sound of synth. It was not used as secondary atmosphere pads but as THE main instrument in the mix — think of Gary Numan’s icy, metallic compositions or Men Without Hats’ (God help us all) “Safety Dance.” Thanks to keyboardist Rob Watson, Vox Humana‘s keys could be both psychedelic and a bit menacing. This worked fine for the times and, with a bit of placement restraint, still does.
The album never had an easy time of it in the discography. Already the band had strayed past the point of return from their country rock origins, and several initial fans had no issue with saying, “No thank you.” With the winnowing of the base, DA had fewer but more devoted followers who enjoyed the next sharp left turn. The labels, on the other hand, probably saw diminishing return on investment, thus providing the instability of those years. Further, it took a longer time for the album to finally make it to CD toward the end of the decade, and when it did, it was an utter botch job. Tracks cut off halfway and bled into the following track. The song “It’s Sick” was the victim of karmic typos and was inadvertently retitled “It’s Slick.” The biggest drawback was that the point of pushing the synths up to 10 in ’84 was now lost. The music, indeed, became a bit too slick for its own good.
After finally getting an appropriate CD authoring for the album’s placement in the Alarma Chronicles compilation, and subsequently being illegally sold separately on Ebay, we now at last have Vox Humana Deluxe Edition, promising to right the wrongs of a fickle industry and a fractious consumer base. Does it succeed?
The booklet of the 2-disc set faithfully reprints the lyrics, credits, and the Chronicles insert that was in the vinyl LP at the time, and “remastered” is the word used to signify the newness of it all. Listeners who are familiar with the material will get a different, more surprising interpretation. It sounds like the initial recordings were also remixed, as Tim Chandler’s bass is far more present, and the guitars rise to the top overall. Pushed a bit back is the percussion, mostly synthetic percussion, from Ed McTaggart. Synths resume, whenever possible, the “pad atmospheric” role we might be more comfortable with now.
Is it better? Definitely. I can say with little hesitation that this is the version I will listen to above all the others. Even the echoes and reverb that bathed the original mix seem tamped down, and nowhere is that more evident than in Taylor’s vocal harmonies and in the apocalyptic closer “Sanctuary.” While it’s nice to have the bonus cuts and alternate mixes found on disc 2 of the set, the real reason to own it is because Vox Humana finally gets the respect it has deserved all this time.
It is not faithfully representative of the era from which it came. That may be the sticking point for other longtime fans who are trying to recapture the glory days when albums like Vox Humana came out almost every year and did not require elaborate funding strategies to make them happen. I spoke with two of the release’s executive producers who assure me no remixing was done with the original recordings, that this is merely what you get when you have an expert engineer equalizing the final output. I believe them wholeheartedly, but the end result still sounds like a massive amount of positive work was put into bringing Vox Humana up to spec.
But fans can be odd sometimes, looking for a feeling, not necessarily “the best something can be.” What these songs gain from considerate and careful (not wholesale revisionist) treatment, they might lose for those merely seeking a nostalgic trip. There’s not much I can say to assuage that feeling other than the old version is now irrelevant and probably found for dirt cheap online. If you’re okay with blatant flaws, go for it. But for those who have appreciated these tunes for decades but wish they weren’t so…dated, you’re never going to get a better version of it than the Vox Humana Deluxe Edition.
Now that the bar has been set, the companies involved with these re-releases totally have their work cut out for them with Alarma Chronicles Volume 4: Fearful Symmetry, but that’s a story for another day.