When I first thought about trying to write reviews, I thought it might be something fun to do, which it is. For the most part, as a nice bonus, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality and diversity of material that I’ve been fortunate enough to review. That’s not to say that I’ve loved everything, though. While I am guilty of loving music to a near-addiction level – my online playlists are somewhere up around a total of 250 gigabytes – there are many albums I’ve reviewed and enjoyed for what they were but that haven’t made it into my personal collection.
Why am I mentioning all of this? The release that this review is ostensibly about has managed to do something no other review item has ever done: leave me nearly speechless. That’s not a figure of speech, by the way. From the moment I first opened the box it was shipped in until this week, I’ve been struggling with how to write about something so lovely that it basically doesn’t need words.
What I’m talking about is Rhino Entertainment’s amazing box set of Chicago’s studio albums from 1969-1976, named “Quadio” due to the fact that each of these classic albums have the added dimension of 4.0 channel quadraphonic sound as well as the more traditional stereo mixes, both in remastered high-resolution format. Over the space of nine Blu-ray audio discs, Rhino has managed to present a band I thought I knew and loved in a way that makes me realize I’ve never truly heard these albums as they deserved to be heard.
Their debut album alone, Chicago Transit Authority, in 4.0 surround, was enough to make me sit down and try to figure out where all that music was hiding in the stereo mix. Throughout the years, I know I’ve heard this album and its two big hit singles “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Beginnings” many, many times, and yet my jaw hit the ground as the Blu-ray disc started spinning in my front room for the first time.
Seated in my giant comfy chair, it felt as if the band was positioned all around me – in the round, as it were – only the round was my cluttered living room. There, off to one side were the insanely visceral horns of Lee Loughnane and James Pankow. Off to the other side danced Robert Lamm’s keyboard wizardry along with the guitar and bass symphony of Terry Kath and Peter Cetera. Behind me, despite the fact that I know there is a wall there, Danny Seraphine’s drumming, providing a nice tight foundation to everything.
Truth be told, the music makes me very aware of how inadequate this review could ever hope to be.
No matter how many times I listen to the nine Blu-ray discs that make up this amazing release, there are simply too many “did you hear THAT?!” moments to mention. Case in point? Is there anyone out there who has listened to Chicago that doesn’t know “25 or 6 to 4” nearly by heart? Here on this release Lamm truly shines as the powerful punch of the brass section literally settles into the background of the sound, which allows you to hear some truly nice guitar playing that is basically nowhere to be found on the traditional stereo mix.
For a less musically talented band, being able to reconceive the sounds within the songs physically and rhythmically could have turned this kind of release been a box set of cheap sonic “tricks” designed to fool the listener into thinking the extra money it costs to buy the “enhanced” version of an album was well worth it. For Chicago? It allowed them to physically stretch their performances out to see just what was possible with the sound.
As much as the Beach Boys or Beatles are given credit for expanding the expectations of what a song or sound could be, Chicago – especially on these early albums featured in this box set – knew how to bring dimension into play within the dynamics of a song. You think “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” or “Strawberry Fields” sounds amazing in your headphones? Press play on “Wishing You Were Here” from Chicago VII. Oof.
Granted, that might be cheating a bit, as three Beach Boys actually add to the harmonies on this particular song, but you’ve never heard them quite as viscerally on their own records as you do on this amazing quadraphonic mix.
Listening to these mixes, I wonder why – at least on some level – that this 4.0 format didn’t gain enough traction to still have some (other) recordings released this way. The thought itself has me itching to go and see whether there were any quadraphonic symphony recordings released throughout the format’s history. Perhaps there weren’t many bands capable of not only understanding the possibilities of the format itself, but actually being able to musically craft a multilayered sound that would shine in that environment.
In the end I know I’m rambling. The reason why I’m rambling is because this box set has simply thrilled me to a point where I’m not quite sure how to reattach the sensations it created in my mind with the corresponding words that are in my literary toolbox. What Chicago created by originally recording in this unique format and what Rhino Records has achieved in remastering and presenting it to us anew in this release is something quite unique among the music I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to and review.
Hell, it’s something unique among the music I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to in my life.
From the music to the box itself, Rhino Entertainment has created something special here. From the individual albums being presented as if miniature versions of the original vinyl issues – down to the lyrics, posters, and the Iron-On patch included in Chicago VIII – it’s stellar.
If you have a Blu-ray player and a surround sound home stereo system – or even a decent sound bar – I greatly encourage you to give this a listen and see if you can provide me with the words I should have used.
Until then, I’ll stick with “Wow!” and maybe “Buy this now!”
Reviewer’s note: What would have been “Side 02” of Chicago II as well as “Colour My World” on Chicago IX seems to have been included in mono, rather than stereo. The quadraphonic mixes are correct, though, and “Dr. Rhino” in an email response assured me that they “are currently producing replacement discs.” He did not have a specific date for when they would be available but promised to update on their website as soon as he did have that information.