Review Summary: Post-hardcore masterpiece gets a clean up
Let’s get something out of the way first; Satellite Years is a classic post-hardcore album and, frankly, one of my favorite albums of all time. It’s straight up a 5/5, and it innovated the way this type of music was presented in the early 2000’s. Grinding guitars? Check. Long melodic passages? Check. Complex drumming? Check. Acoustic guitars? Check. Eruptive vocals? Check. Hopesfall strayed right in their very early days from conventional songwriting and song structures, and developed their space rock persona very much since their inception.
So, my rating isn’t about the song themselves. I love every bit of it. To all intents and purposes, I am attempting to assess how this re-work of Hopesfall’s seminal album makes me feel and how does it compare to the original version. Let me also mention this is a competent remaster. As a matter of fact, Mike Watts and Frank Mitaritonna remixed and mastered the original tapes from scratch and they made It sound good. Actually, this thing sounds pretty f**king great. So, what’s the issue here?
I’ve been on board the Hopesfall-craft ever since I listened to their sophomore release, A Types, in 2004. I’ve listened and re-listened all of their albums for years now - all the way from my high school years to my (now) thirties. These songs/albums are very much engrained into my mind. So naturally, listening to a vastly different mix of this particular album is almost as entering uncanny valley; this is clearly Satellite Years, but it doesn’t sound quite like it. You see, the original album had a very rough mix and Jay Forrest vocals served as yet another instrument in what seemed to be a very unconventional post-hardcore release at the time. Outside of “Decoy Like Curves”, there wasn’t another song that had any semblance of structure. Rather, the songs started off very aggressively, then entered a riff/drum buildup to finally devolve into a blissful passage of layered melodic guitars and bass.
Enter producer Mike Watts; as the band progressed, their music became much more refined. That’s isn’t to say they abandoned the balls to the wall moments of aggression, but the moments of bliss became more prevalent and the vocals got a lot cleaner. Even though A Types and Magnetic North received their fair share of mixed reviews and reactions at the time of release, both albums (specially the latter) have gained much more appreciation as the years followed. Needless to say, it was in these final moments of their pre-hiatus status that Hopesfall saw more radio airplay and got known to general audiences. Actually, their subsequent breakup had nothing to do with critical reception but more with their then label, Trustkill records, lack of support and lack of integrity. The issue here, really, is that Mike Watts had nothing to do with the recording of Satellite Years.
Am I claiming someone can’t remix an album just because they didn’t work on it? Certainly not. Remixes and remasters are a tricky thing; they either improve an album and appease the stablished fanbase while inviting new audiences into it, or they end up half-baking its sound and, in many cases, brickwalling it for the sake of giving it a more “modern” flair. The danger in these is either changing the mix too drastically and/or missing a few key points when re-building the whole thing together from scratch. I could mention countless successful and unsuccessful remasters, but I’ll just bring a much more accurate example. Jason Livermore remixed Propagandhi’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrows Ashes from scratch. Was he involved in the recording of the original album? Not at all, but he was able to capture the exact same feel of the original and at the same time improved every single part of the half hour runtime, to the extent where many consider that remaster the now definitive version. I don’t think this is the case here.
The bad: “Andromeda” featured a very melodic secondary guitar passage around the 1:20 min mark that was essential for the buildup. Well, it is now gone. I was shocked when I realized this little piece of a larger puzzle was simply removed. A cardinal sin, in my opinion. What about the cool guitar riff jumping out from “Escape Pod for Intangibles” towards the end? Nope, it’s now on the background in favor to the vocals. This re-interpretation defeats the song’s purpose. The vocals are supposed to be muddled within the mix to create a spacey/nostalgic effect. The original version reminded me almost a 70’s progressive rock band and now it sounds like… an interlude with lush production. I also can’t forgive the dual vocal layer that is now on the forefront on “Waitress”, where it was barely even audible in the original mix. These things matter, as small as they seem.
The good: Did I mention this sounds great? Oh, yeah. This sounds crystal clear. For example, “Decoys Like Curves” is the cleanest sounding song of the album, so naturally, it benefits from this treatment. Actually, I probably prefer this version to the original and it’s the song I’ve been listening the most from this. It’s not hard to see why Mike Watts treatment works to a tee here since this was the song that forecasted the band’s direction. “The Bending” is a mighty example of a song so grand it is virtually unaffected by its new treatment. If anything, it was the most muffled song in the original mix so it was nice to hear everything as loud and clear as it is now. “Dead in Magazines” also sounds pretty good. Actually, I was surprised at how modern it still sounds and, fortunately, the acoustic ending bit jumps in this mix to pleasing results.
As much as I want to complain about the changes made with this remix/remaster, I also can’t help but appreciate some of the improvements made. At the same time, this remaster made me realize that, admittedly, this record that I hold dear to my heart may sound… dated. No, I don’t mean it in a bad way. I like dated production values. I want this to stay dated, but I also recognize it’s just me being a selfish hardcore fan of this band. If this overhaul is necessary to turn new fans to the greatness that is this record, so be it. After all, we could use some momentum right now since these group of forty-year-olds are on the verge of writing new material (fingers crossed). So, by all means, if this is your introduction to Hopesfall and if a more modern take is necessary for you to get into one of the best post-hardcore acts in existence, you are more than welcome to ride in the shuttle with us.