A Grand Edition to Prop Up its Mortal Remains
It would require much hubris of me to suggest that I have any more to say about this album than has already been said. I was born 12 years after the release of the record, and I’m writing about it 33 years after its release. Scholars with many more credentials than I have analyzed pink Floyd’s discography. The hooks of tracks like “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Hey You” are known better by people who lived through this album. As devoted of a progressive rock fan I am, I am in a position that critics much greater than I once occupied. To say the least, making a comment about this record made me pause.
Yet as I looked through the extensive box set that EMI crafted, I realized that there really was only one thing I could say about the album. Once I had looked through the photography that gives a beautiful snapshot of the extravagant live shows for the album, listened to the demo tracks that thoroughly show the nascent stages of what would become the album, and once again read the album’s lyrics, one sentence summed it all up:
The Wall is a masterpiece.
It’s an underwhelming statement, I know. The statement is especially underwhelming given all of the stops EMI pulled out in the production of the Immersion edition of this legendary concept record. But that was all that needed to be said, and the simplicity of that statement by no means undercuts the complexity of The Wall. After 33 years, the record’s criticism of institutional corruption, its depiction of angst and loneliness, and most of all the music remain as powerful testaments to the legacy of Pink Floyd. While The Wall may not be the band’s finest moment (I would argue that title belongs to their 1975 release Wish You Were Here), it is still a great moment, and further evidence of the band’s consistency in their 1970’s LPs. My primary focus here will be on the bonus material found in the Immersion box set, as much of what I have to say about The Wall has already been said. Before I do that, however, I’ll speak a little to the album itself.
The word “remaster” can be misleading; some albums that are “remastered” may not have needed the remastering job in the first place. Some classic rock LP’s I’ve heard actually sound better in their dated form, much in the same way that some older films don’t look good on Blu-Ray because of how the pristine quality reveals all the flaws of the older film. The 2011 remaster of The Wall avoids this entirely, managing to keep the original quality of the recording alive while also incorporating crisp new audio quality. The difference isn’t something that will blow you out of your seat in comparison to the original; in a lot of places it’s subtle, but still noticeable. I own a good copy of The Wall on vinyl, and in comparison, this remaster is a clear improvement.
The easiest area to see the improvement is in the quality of the guitar tracks. The riff on album opener “In the Flesh?” introduces the album powerfully, and on this remastered version it sounds (what I imagine is like) the first time. The guitar tracks sound great on this remaster, but often each song will have a track that stands out. Immediately following the killer guitar on “In the Flesh?” is the crystal clear drum production of “The Thin Ice”. My favorite track of the remaster is “Young Lust”, which sounds the most invigorated of all of the songs. The mix retains a strong continuity in quality, which is impressive given the amount of material that constitutes this double album. I could go on and on about how brilliant each track is, but that would take us away from the real draw of this box set, which is the bonus material. If you’re reading this review, you’ve likely heard “Another Brick in the Wall” (in its various iterations), “Comfortably Numb” and “Hey You”, though you haven’t heard them like they’re done on this album.
The additional CDs that come with this box set include the two-disc live album Is There Anybody Out There? (initially released in 2000), two discs of demos, and a bonus DVD featuring a documentary about the live shows and some music videos. The live album is great, but by including this alongside the visual and art materials, it makes you realize how much you needed to be there to truly experience The Wall. Part of what makes this Immersion edition so great is how it shows that The Wall is much more than a mere concept album: it’s an extravagant stage production, a philosophical critique/satire, and a collection of art pieces. Paradoxically, this also makes listening to the live recording a yearning experience. As I watched the documentary “Behind the Wall”, I was frustrated watching concert footage that showed the audience members sitting. I thought to myself, How the hell could you sit through a show like that?!
The demos are where the immersion really kicks in. Many might not listen to all of the demo tracks; most are pretty short and at times uninteresting. But the benefit of the inclusion of these tracks is that it shows the length to which the band took to record the album. Being a guitar player, I noticed the various tones the band experimented with prior to the final album’s recording; David Gilmour’s demos are particularly interesting in seeing the development of the tracks.
Behind the Wall is the strongest feature of the supplemental DVD, which is by far one of the best parts of the box set. The film is a thorough document of the goings-on of the live shows, which, mildly put, was extensive. The premise of the stage performances of The Wall involved slowly building a brick wall in between the performers and the audience. That wasn’t the only deception, however; when the show opened, the band members weren’t even on stage. Instead, musicians in lifelike masks performed, with the band members coming in later. (Which naturally prompts the immortal prog query, “...is this where we came in?”) The documentary doesn’t stop at chronicling The Wall; it spans as early as Piper at the Gates of Dawn and goes beyond The Wall as a record to Alan Parker’s legendary film based on the album.
And finally, to the art materials. There are some curious collectibles: a scarf knitted to look like the titular wall, coasters, and marbles being the oddest of the lot. (Silly as it is, the scarf is quite comfortable.) The really relevant material comes in the oversized album booklet, featuring photos of the album art as well as the live concerts. A faux backstage pass and concert ticket are also included, which serves not only as a relic of a past, but also as a reminder that what you’re about to listen to isn’t merely an album. Listening to the album while looking through the art materials is the best way to capture what The Wall truly is: a concept album of the highest order, one that is a clear progenitor for future concept albums. The ghost of The Wall echoes in the artwork Hugh Syme did for Dream Theater’s Octavarium, and the unique live shows are a clear influence on progressive outfits like Tool, whose penchant for highly artistic, strangely distant live shows is evident in the work of Pink Floyd.
While I’ve addressed all of the best parts about this box set, in truth the past many paragraphs are but the skeleton for what could be a much longer exposition. This is an incredibly thorough re-release, and there’s a lot to take in from the moment the cover is lifted off the box. EMI could have made this a gimmicky, overpriced package, but they didn’t. Sure, the scarf and marbles may be a bit much, but what is included is absolutely worth the box set’s high price tag. This is extravagant precisely because The Wall is such an extravagant album. The album runs almost an hour and a half. It spawned a whole film and multiple theatrical live shows. Like most concept albums, it isn’t one most people casually listen to. As its title implies, the Immersion edition truly takes us into The Wall, reminding us why over 30 years later it has attained the legendary status it has. It’s by no means a perfect album, but one cannot talk about progressive rock concept records without mentioning The Wall. The album that Pink Floyd made in 1979 marked a milestone in progressive rock, and this box set captures everything perfect and imperfect about the album. When long after its release we’re all still singing along to the multiple singles that came from the album, it’s clear that this is a unique recording amongst concept albums. The Wall exemplifies both the album as an art form while also having some brilliant individual moments.
Had this box set fallen prey to the follies of re-releases, it could have been a forgettable brick in the wall of the band’s career. It isn’t. It is The Wall.