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Mr. Mercury's Opus
on September 25, 2012
The 4-disc set is stunning. It's an elaborately detailed release that, among other things, documents an amazing collaboration. Queen/Mercury fans know the story of how Freddie Mercury came to create this album of various duets with Spanish opera star, Montserrat Caballé. The main focus of this 25th anniversary edition is the replacing of the original synthesized score with a full 80 piece orchestra. It works. A lot of work was put into this, from trying to match the feel of the original backing tracks to replacing the faux-Japanese koto in "La Japonaise" with the real thing. You can complain all you want about the intent of this project but, to me, it finally sounds finished. As early Queen albums proudly announced, "No synths." The original version is still available but it's been solidly thrashed by this 2012 version. The people behind this project - some of whom were there when the original album was created - make a strong case for this being what Mercury would've wished for. I suppose the best evidence is a simple one: it sounds better. Mercury and Caballé sound absolutely more natural with a huge orchestra backing them up.
VERY special mention has to be made of two soloists on one song. There is no call for a Brian May-style solo on this album, since the original had no guitar work. However, "How Can I Go On" has a part for drum and bass guitar. The drums are played by Rufus Taylor - Roger's son - and the bass guitar part is played by John Deacon, taken from the original release; you don't replace or mess with something like that.
The first disc is the new album. The second disc is full of the sort of demos and alternate takes that make this release a document of how the album was created, not just a "for fans only" montage of outtakes. Among the tracks are Mercury's demos of several songs in which he sings both his AND Caballe's parts, often improvising wordless vocals for as-yet-unwritten lyrics. I won't bother you with a track-by-track description of this disc. But, there are a few surprises to anyone familiar with the album, these are not musical scraps. Hearing Caballé rehearse "Ensueño" with Mike Moran on the piano is a special treat. This is a great little art song. At a little under 40 minutes, disc two doesn't overstay its welcome.
The third disc is a DVD and it's full of treats, lots of them. Besides a smallish documentary about the making of the original album and the new version, there are very good looking transfers of the promotional videos done in the 1980s. They look good, although the original promotional video for "Barcelona" (the song) looks very mid-80s MTV-ish. More on this in a bit. As you would hope/expect, the videos employ the new orchestral score. This makes the performances of Mercury and Caballé even more vivid ("No synths!). You might say this is after-the-fact tampering and dishonest but the originals were lip-synched to begin with, so why not take this to the logical conclusion and add the new orchestral score? That's what show business is all about.
The original videos were done in the 4:3 format of 1980s television. I am grateful that this is how these videos are presented here, with one exception. When you go from a square-ish to a modern widescreen format, you either need to leave black areas at either side of the screen or chop off the tops and bottoms of the image. That latter option can completely ruin the original image (if you've seen the horrible chopped-and-stretched releases of Queen's videos by Eagle Entertainment, you'll know what I'm talking about). Universal, the company behind this release, have transferred the videos as originally shot. They look very good and the premiere of the song "Barcelona" in May of 1987 at the Ku Club in Ibiza looks spectacular, as if it were shot recently on motion picture stock, not video. You can kiss those awful YouTube uploads goodbye, forever! The three songs performed in Barcelona, in front of Montjuic Castle before a huge audience including the King and Queen of Spain, also look great, better than ever in spite of being shot on video. (Note: I watched this DVD on a 32" SONY Bravia HDTV with good speakers, so I'm pretty sure about how good this material looked and sounded.)
A minor disappointment is the presentation of the original "Barcelona" video, here called a "classic" video. The top and bottom of the image are sliced off. Besides making for a few awkward shots, this also means the video was enlarged and, folks, you just shouldn't do that with video footage from the 1980s. That is SO Eagle Entertainment! This is followed by the brief documentary about the making of the "Barcelona" original album and the new one. The DVD ends with a wonderful treat. The new score has been added to a newly edited version of the "classic" Barcelona video. In this version, alternate camera shots were used throughout and they appear to be from a much better source than seen before. It was edited very intelligently in 16:9 wide screen by the Rhys Thomas, one of the geniuses behind the 2011 documentary "Queen: Days of Our Lives" and the 2012 follow-up, "Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender." This new video has not only replaces the "classic" version in my heart, it also apologises for how it - the "classic" version - appears on this DVD.
Finally, Disc 4. It's nothing but the new score - without Mercury and Caballé - and that's practically karaoke paradise. All you have to do is be able to sing like Freddie Mercury or Montserrat Caballé.
How hard can that be?
This is more than just an upgrade to a better, more definitive version of an already wonderful album. It is an audio documentary of how that album was made. The discs are housed in a very posh book-style case. The brief essays are informative and not just giddy mushy anecdotes for the fans. It is printed on sturdy slick paper. The presentation is wonderful. For those who miss the original photos, they are included along with others we've probably never seen.
Some people have complained about the cover artwork and wondered how something that "cheap and tacky" wound up as the cover art (to an album they probably won't buy, anyway). I might not be as smart about art as Sister Wendy or the late Robert Hughes, but I'm pretty sure the splashy, vibrant cover art is an homage to Spanish painter and sculptor, Joan Miró (April 20, 1893 - December 25, 1983).
He was born in Barcelona.