The Austin Chronicle

The Dark Side of the Box Set

When the album becomes Immersion

Reviewed by Austin Powell, December 9, 2011, Music

Pink Floyd

Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol)

Wish You Were Here (Capitol)

The Dark Side of the Moon is more than a concept record. Pink Floyd's 1973 masterpiece poses a psychological evaluation.

"Are you afraid of dying?," asks bassist Roger Waters in a handwritten note, labeled "Questions for Assorted Lunatics," in one of countless bonus features included in the album's 3-CD/2-DVD/1-Blu-ray Immersion box set. "When were you last violent? Were you in the right?"

Those blunt inquiries were originally jotted on a series of cue cards, placed facedown in Studio Three at Abbey Road, and answered by nine of the band's crew members and associates. The responses helped form the narrative arc of Dark Side of the Moon, as integral and identifiable as the heartbeat that opens and closes the disc.

Reading those questions aloud – "Do you ever think you're going mad? If so why?" – remains a slightly unsettling experience, probing territory often thought of but left unspoken. The timeless appeal of DSOTM lies in the music's ability to conjure that awkward sensation.

Pink Floyd's journey to the Dark Side evolved from a series of misadventures in hi-fi: the character studies that compose the studio half of 1969's Ummagumma, 1970's orchestral concerto Atom Heart Mother, and the two film soundtracks during and after, More and Obscured by Clouds. The trajectory's easily traced on Discovery, the new collection boxing the band's 14 studio albums, which commits the same error as 2007's mini-LP replica set, Oh, by the Way, in its exclusion of rarities compilation Relics and further bonuses.

A 25-minute documentary and early mix of the album from 1973 affords the closest look yet at the immediate circumstances surrounding DSOTM, a rare full-band effort tirelessly tweaked and toured to perfection. Evocative and understated, a piano demo of "Us and Them," recorded for but cut from Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point, and organ-drone sermon "The Mortality Sequence" spotlight the band's late keyboardist, Richard Wright. "The Hard Way," scrapped from the 1973 Household Objects sound-collage sessions, engenders the playful experimentation of the era, mirrored by Waters' strikingly bare bedroom demo for "Money." Likewise, "The Travel Sequence," an instrumental chase scene between guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason, traces the development of "On the Run."

By 1974, DSOTM had earned near-universal acclaim, yet there's still a startling sense of urgency encapsulated in the live recording from the Empire Pool at Wembley in London 1974, also available on the 2-CD reissue. The pacing of "On the Run" borders on manic, alternately sounding like a helicopter, a Tibetan chant, and Krautrock. There's a nasty bite to Gilmour's vocals and astral guitar break in "Time," while "Money" flares like Halley's Comet behind Waters' snarling bass. In total, this Immersion offers nine different studio versions of the LP, but not the one that matters most: vinyl.

"You need that breathing space," stressed engineer Alan Parsons – responsible for the clock sequence in "Time" and for helping Clare Torry land "The Great Gig in the Sky" – to the Chronicle in 2008 (see "Crossing Over to the Dark Side," March 20, 2008). "People often forget that it was recorded with two distinct halves. CDs have become a continuous piece of music from start to finish, whereas we got used to the break between the sides. That was a welcomed thing on a lot of occasions. The break in Dark Side worked really well."

If The Dark Side of the Moon documented a descent into madness, Wish You Were Here reappraised it from the rearview mirror. The twin peaks to emerge from the great space race of psychedelic rock, the two albums possess an uncanny yin-yang relationship counterbalanced in every regard, right down to the packaging's visuals.

Released two years later, 1975's Wish You Were Here served foremost as an eloquent tribute to Syd Barrett, the mysterious madcap martyr behind the nursery dementia and kaleidoscopic acid wash of 1967's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and whose conflicted shadow loomed large over the band's career. Unfortunately, the Wish You Were Here Immersion reissue adds very little to the story.

A 2-CD/2-DVD/1-Blu-ray box set, it offers more audio formats than alternate tracks. Also included here, the first half of the live DSOTM stop at Wembley miraculously opens with a 20-minute suite of "Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Pts. 1-6," carried by Gilmour's suspended longing. The sullen space funk of "Raving and Drooling" and 18-minute "You've Got To Be Crazy" – early versions of Animals' "Sheep" and "Dogs," respectively – anticipate Waters' totalitarian takeover of the band. For extra effect, try pairing those with concert projections from the era that dominate the DVD supplements.

The swaggering, rough stab at "Have a Cigar" and plaintive "Wish You Were Here," featuring French violinist Stéphane Grappelli are essential only for completists, and ultimately both the Wish You Were Here and DSOTM Immersion boxes (The Wall is due next) serve as elaborate tributes to Storm Thorgerson and his design company Hipgnosis.

A modern surrealist and master of visual puns, Thorgerson continues to define – and redefine – Pink Floyd's legacy with his playfully absurd iconography. Both box sets contain custom-designed ephemera of every variety: marbles, coasters, vintage concert stickers, ticket stubs, trading cards, and even scarves. He also contributed to the photo books that accompany both releases and directed the video content. His contributions enable the band's catalog to be repackaged time and again.

"It is possible ... that all album art rests on the music, literally and metaphorically, but obviously I don't believe that," said Thorgerson before a lecture at the Blanton Museum of Art during South by Southwest 2011. "We try to do the best work we can; it doesn't matter who it's for, what the music is, or if it sells. The album cover is an extension to the music, an accent, but it has nothing to do with commerce. I kind of wished it did. Then I wouldn't be sitting here with you."

If the album is dead, Storm Thorgerson's Pink Floyd Immersion box sets make fitting tombs.

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