- These Double Plus (A++) sides of Neil’s amazingly well recorded 1975 Masterpiece are guaranteed to floor audiophiles and Neil Young fans alike – exceptionally quiet vinyl too
- Zuma captures a kind of garage band purity that makes practically any other studio album you own sound processed and desiccated in comparison
- For a hard-rockin’ Neil Young album with Demonstration Quality sound, you’ll have a hard time finding a better choice than a Hot Stamper pressing of Zuma
- A Must Own Top 100 Title – just drop the needle on Danger Bird or Cortez the Killer to have your mind blown!
Can any one artist lay claim to TWO of the BEST SOUNDING rock albums ever made? Neil Young can!
After the Gold Rush and Zuma are DEMO DISCS and SUPER DISCS of the highest order, right up there with Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, the other two albums by a single artist that deserve to be placed on that rarified plane.
The fact that Gold Rush and Zuma both involve Neil Young is doubtless not an accident. I would be very surprised to learn that he was not intimately involved with every aspect of the recording of both masterpieces, from the miking to the final mix and every step in between.
Presenting The Zuma Magic
Hot Stampers are all about finding the pressings that present the master tape at its best. Notice I did not say “represent” the master tape, because the master tape may have faults that need to be fixed, and the only way to do that is in the mastering.
The presentation of the music is, of course, a matter of taste. We make judgments about the way we think the record “ought” to sound, based on what we like or don’t like about recordings in general. Audiophiles listen for different things and ascribe to them higher and lower relative values based on their own preferences; we do the same.
What outstanding sides such as these have to offer is not hard to hear:
- 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 1975
- Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
- Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
- Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space
- The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.
Raw and Real
Zuma captures a kind of garage band purity that makes practically any other studio album you own sound phony in comparison. This is clearly a recording of a bunch of guys playing together live in a room, a room which happens to be a studio but could just as easily have been somebody’s garage. It has a kind of loose feel; there’s a sense of real communication between the players. Much like great jazz musicians, they’re completely in tune with each other. Drop the needle on any song at random and you can tell right away that these guys have been together for a long, long time. This is a real band; this ain’t no Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The sound is as RAW and as REAL as it gets. It’s about as far from Deja Vu as you can get, except for the one song on that album that really does sound like a band performing live in the studio: Almost Cut My Hair, which has slowly over the years become my favorite CSNY track, mostly because it really does let them sound like a REAL BAND. If you love that sound as much as we do, you will absolutely love Zuma.
The whole album has that sound, with rock solid bass (the kind that all the best Neil Young records always have); explosive dynamics; superb transparency; extended highs; some of the best sounding drums and guitars you’ve ever heard; clear, correct, unprocessed, lifelike vocals and choruses… I could go on but I’m guessing you get the picture.
This is it folks. For grungy guitar rock it just doesn’t get ANY better than Zuma.
What We’re Listening For on Neil Young’s Amazing Zuma Album
- Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.
- Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
- Then: presence and immediacy. The vocals aren’t “back there” somewhere, lost in the mix. They’re front and center where any recording engineer worth his salt would put them.
- The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
- Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
- Tight punchy bass — which ties in with good transient information, also the issue of frequency extension further down.
- Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
The Track Listing tab above will take you to a select song breakdown for each side, with plenty of What to Listen For (WTLF) advice.
Don’t Cry No Tears
Listen to the way Danger Bird opens. Each instrument, one by one, slowly, deliberately, one could almost say haltingly, feeds into the mix, until the churning guitars give way to Neil’s spare vocal — fatalistic, doomed, already resigned to some fate he barely understands. Even though the song has just begun, you sense that Neil feels a weight and a darkness bearing down on him, that it’s ongoing, that it’s already started, that somehow you’re coming into it in the middle, well after the weight of it has begun to crush and perhaps even kill him. He knows the story of Danger Bird all too well.
It’s as powerful and intense a piece of music as any I have ever experienced; sublime in its simplicity, transcendental in effect. You feel yourself swept along, an out of body experience that you can’t control. When Neil launches into the first of many guitar solos the sense of journeying or exploring with him the imaginary musical world he is creating is palpable. He doesn’t seem to know where it will lead and neither do you. There is no structure to reassure you, no end in sight, only the succession of notes that play from moment to moment, first tensing, then relaxing; cresting, then falling away.
Music has the power to take you out of the world you know and place you in a world of its own making. How it can do that nobody knows. Whatever Neil tapped into to make it happen on Danger Bird, he succeeded completely. If you’re in the right frame of mind, in the right environment, with everything working audio-wise, a minute into this song you will no longer be sitting in your comfy audio chair. You won’t know where you are, which is exactly where you want to be.
The Power Of Live Music
To accomplish this feat the sound has to be right. As always this is the rub. If you’re an audiophile these transcendent experiences tend to be prompted by transcendentally well-recorded music, the kind that allows you to forget you’re listening to a recording at all. So many recordings call attention to their shortcomings that the effect quickly becomes unsustainable.
Of course I’m using the word “recording” inaccurately above. We don’t really know what the recording sounds like. All we have are pressings, and the sad fact of the matter is that most recordings are ruined in the mastering and pressing phase. How else to explain how a record like this can sound so amazing yet the average copy sounds just average? They’re both made from the same “recording”, the same two-track mix, possibly even the same “master tape”, although that designation has lost much of its meaning. (Multiple tapes are labelled “master”, but there can be only one real master tape in the sense that we use the term: the master is the first generation two track mix. Everything after that is a copy of one kind or another.)
Pardon My Heart
Lookin’ for a Love
Cortez the Killer
This is the Danger Bird for side two. Everything you read about Danger Bird in our commentary is true for Cortez the Killer
Through My Sails
Having apparently exorcised his demons by releasing the cathartic Tonight’s the Night, Neil Young returned to his commercial strengths with Zuma (named after Zuma Beach in Los Angeles, where he now owned a house). Seven of the album’s nine songs were recorded with the reunited Crazy Horse, in which rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro had replaced the late Danny Whitten, but there were also nods to other popular Young styles in “Pardon My Heart,” an acoustic song that would have fit on Harvest, his most popular album, and “Through My Sails,” retrieved from one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s abortive recording sessions.
Young had abandoned the ragged, first-take approach of his previous three albums, but Crazy Horse would never be a polished act, and the music had a lively sound well-suited to the songs, which were some of the most melodic, pop-oriented tunes Young had crafted in years, though they were played with an electric-guitar-drenched rock intensity. The overall theme concerned romantic conflict, with lyrics that lamented lost love and sometimes longed for a return (“Pardon My Heart” even found Young singing, “I don’t believe this song”), though the overall conclusion, notably in such catchy songs as “Don’t Cry No Tears” and “Lookin’ for a Love,” was to move on to the next relationship. But the album’s standout track (apparently the only holdover from an early intention to present songs with historical subjects) was the seven-and-a-half-minute epic “Cortez the Killer,” a commentary on the Spanish conqueror of Latin America that served as a platform for Young’s most extensive guitar soloing since his work on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.