David Bowie’s Low – Another Bowie Art Rock Masterpiece

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  • This outstanding copy of Low boasts superb Double Plus (A++) sound from beginning to end
  • Huge amounts of studio space can be heard on this copy, along with the Tubey Magical richness only the best Brit copies can offer
  • These British pressings (not originals by the way) play about as quietly as records from the era ever do 
  • 5 stars on Allmusic for this groundbreaking album recorded with Eno — “Low is a dense, challenging album that confirmed his place at rock’s cutting edge…”

I’ve said it on the site numerous times: I spent a good portion of the ’70s playing Art Rock records like Taking Tiger Mountain, Siren, Crime Of The Century, Deceptive Bends and scores of others. I remember being blown away when Low came out, and with this shootout we had a blast hearing just how good a killer Hot Stamper pressing can sound on the much more highly-evolved stereo system (equipment, room, set-up, tweaks, electricity, etc.) we have today. 

It’s difficult to find a pressing that gets both sides of this album right, perhaps in part because the two sides are so different. Side one of this album features the more traditional (not really the right word, but it will have to do) Bowie rockers like Sound and Vision and Be My Wife, while side two sounds more like the instrumental synth music of Kraftwerk and Eno.

What amazing sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1977
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments (and effects!) having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space
  • No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is of course the only way to hear all of the above

Original Versus Reissue

It has taken us years to do this shootout, our first since all the way back to 2011. The reason for the long delay is simple. The domestic pressings we had on hand to play were not exactly thrilling us. Even though one won the shootout back in 2011 (on one side), nowadays even the best of them are no better than acceptable, and not likely to win a shootout.

Even worse, our intuition that the British originals would sound the best also turned out to be incorrect. (In the audiophile record collecting world intuitions have a bad track record, but more than a few audiophiles — many of whom seem to be addicted to sharing their “record knowledge” on audiophile forums — seem to be unaware of this unassailably true fact.) The original UK Orange Label pressings did not sound especially good to us, so we kept looking.

Over the course of about three years, during which time we investigated every different pressing we could get our hands on, finally some good sounding copies of the album came our way. And they were not originals. The lucky owner of this copy will be one of the few to know what label the record is on, and in what country it was pressed.

OK, I suppose we can afford to be a bit more charitable than that. Here goes: the one thing we’re pretty clear on from our efforts to date is that our best Hot Stamper offerings are sure to be pressed in the UK.

If you have a copy of this groundbreaking album and were never impressed with the sound of it, we have a potential solution to your predicament — depending on our inventory — a Hot Stamper pressing. It will show you the kind of sound you never knew could exist on Low.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Speed of Life 
Breaking Glass 
What in the World 
Sound and Vision 
Always Crashing in the Same Car
Be My Wife 
A New Career in a New Town

Side Two

Warszawa 
Art Decade 
Weeping Wall 
Subterraneans

AMG 5 Star Rave Review

Following through with the avant-garde inclinations of Station to Station, yet explicitly breaking with David Bowie’s past, Low is a dense, challenging album that confirmed his place at rock’s cutting edge. Driven by dissonant synthesizers and electronics, Low is divided between brief, angular songs and atmospheric instrumentals. Throughout the record’s first half, the guitars are jagged and the synthesizers drone with a menacing robotic pulse, while Bowie’s vocals are unnaturally layered and overdubbed.

During the instrumental half, the electronics turn cool, which is a relief after the intensity of the preceding avant pop. Half the credit for Low’s success goes to Brian Eno, who explored similar ambient territory on his own releases. Eno functioned as a conduit for Bowie’s ideas, and in turn Bowie made the experimentalism of not only Eno but of the German synth group Kraftwerk and the post-punk group Wire respectable, if not quite mainstream. Though a handful of the vocal pieces on Low are accessible — “Sound and Vision” has a shimmering guitar hook, and “Be My Wife” subverts soul structure in a surprisingly catchy fashion — the record is defiantly experimental and dense with detail, providing a new direction for the avant-garde in rock & roll.

How David Bowie, Brian Eno Revolutionized Rock on ‘Low’

In a career marked by sharp turns, Low might be David Bowie’s sharpest – and most impressive. The first of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy represents both a personal and aesthetic overhaul. With his coke-crazed L.A. days behind him, the artist found new life in Europe, which offered an escape from his megacelebrity status, as well as detox opportunities and a chance to harness new sounds, notably Germany’s proto-techno “kosmische musik,” also known as krautrock. From a creative and a political perspective, Bowie saw the divided city of Berlin as “the center of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years.” His intent was to “experiment; to discover new forms of writing; to evolve, in fact, a new musical language.” That’s pretty much what he did.

Startling though it was, Low was not without precedent. Bowie had already begun experimenting with more modular, multitracked methods of song production on Station to Station. Meanwhile, The Idiot, Bowie’s first collaboration with Iggy Pop, who’d become a close friend and confidant, also led him in new directions.

But it was Brian Eno who would most help him assemble these elements into a radical new form. A fellow English art rocker also dodging stardom’s confines, Eno traded his gig as glamtastic keyboardist-cum-conceptualist with Roxy Music for less-traveled roads. His 1975 solo album, Another Green World, was a free-form masterpiece blending instrumentals and lyric-driven songs with unconventional sounds. Bowie admired it greatly.

Low began in the wake of the Idiot sessions in France, at Chateau d’He´rouville, where Bowie had cut Pin Ups. Returned to the fold was Tony Visconti, who’d been with Bowie sporadically since 1969. When asked by Bowie and Eno if he was willing to waste a month on experiments that might come to nothing, Visconti replied, “Wasting a month of my time with David Bowie and Brian Eno is not wasting a month of my time.” Visconti brought a brand-new device to the table in France: an Eventide Harmonizer, a sort of proto-sampler that captured, altered and played back sounds simultaneously. It would become a key element in the mix of Low, especially its processed drumbeats, which became a major influence on the sound of postpunk and rock.

Eno’s work is most evident on Low’s wholly instrumental second side, a good chunk of which was created when Bowie had to leave the studio for a period to deal with legal business in Paris. The haunting “Warszawa” is almost entirely an Eno creation but for Bowie’s stunning wordless vocals. Inspired by a Bulgarian boys’ choir on an LP Bowie had picked up in Paris, he and Visconti mirrored their sound in part by pitch-shifting Bowie’s voice higher.

The result was a strange and beautiful LP that terrified RCA Records, which saw it as commercial suicide compared to Bowie’s recent hits. It was indeed close to Bowie’s imagined “new musical language,” a record that helped revolutionize the sound of rock. Musicians especially felt its effects. “That particular album, that song ‘Warszawa,’ that’s when I knew music was the ultimate force, at least in my own life,” says Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, a band that would eventually work with Bowie.

In the wake of Bowie’s death, his longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar, who was Low’s musical director, could listen to little besides the album’s instrumentals. He was stunned by their collective creation from the get-go. “When I got Low, I turned off all the lights in my apartment and I turned up the systems and, man, I was in space,” he recalled. “It was awesome.”

Will Hermes

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