REVIEW: ZZ TOP – THE COMPLETE STUDIO ALBUMS 1970-1990…

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One of the biggest tragedies in the practice of “remastering” happened in 1987. It was called The ZZ Top Six Pack. This was a time when many titles were not yet on CD. Instead of putting out the original versions of their early albums, the band chose to have these albums remixed. In doing so, extra processing was added to the vocals, extra reverb was added, and worst of all, some of the drums had either been fully re-recorded or overly heightened with reverb to sound like electronic the drums of the Afterburner era. Now I love Afterburner, but I’m not a fan of re-writing your musical past. Those albums are a bit of your own history. Those of us who were too young to experience things the way they were the first time are lucky enough to have the chance to go back to experience it through the recorded medium. Many have lambasted the Six Pack as a blight on the face of ZZ Top history. Worse yet, the standalone CDs were originally made with these “new” mixes. yet allowed to carry the original pressing dates. In 2006, Tres Hombres and Fandango! were given a proper restoration and remastering that they deserved. That left ZZ Top’s First Album, Rio Grande Mud and Tejas in the dust. El Loco was featured in the Six Pack, but the consensus seems to agree to it being the original mix, and that it already had reverb (this was 1981 after all).
Flash to today. It was announced that a new ZZ Top box set would be released restoring all of the original mixes. But was it all we had been hoping for? Not quite. After unboxing this attractive little box set I found that were were many pros AND cons to this set. I will break them down for you below. First of all, an album by album list:

ZZ Top’s First Album
Ahhh! Yes! YES!! The original mix! It’s a little muddy and gritty, but then I’m sure with this being their first 1970 album, the vinyl edition has this same grit. A comparison to the tracks featured on Rancho Texicano (the most recent hits collection with fully remastered tracks) shows these to be differently mastered mixes. This one is a bit more quiet, but not too quiet. Rancho‘s mix has a slight bit more clarity and punch. So why the difference? The *lack of liner notes* leaves this a mystery. My guess, since I’ve seen HD audio versions of these early albums on HDtracks.com, is that these avoided compression and so they are slightly quieter, much like Mobile Fidelity releases.

Rio Grande Mud
Also the original mix and almost the exact same sentiments as above. Not the same mastering as Rancho Texicano. Possibly this is also an uncompressed quieter mix? Again a lack of details or a booklet does not help here. But the album is solid early blues rock boogie.

Tres Hombres and Fandango!
An A to B comparison reveals these are cut from the 2006 remaster editions, therefore they are not consistent with the first 2 discs. But the sound is amazing. However the bonus live extras were left off that accompanied the separate remasters. Tres Hombres has a gatefold. Fandango! does not (but I thought it did originally- I don’t have it to check).

Tejas
This is one that I was happiest to get in its original mix. Maybe I love it so much because it is because this is the redheaded stepchild of the ZZ catalog. I actually sought out the vinyl and the difference to the Six Pack version is night and day. A stoned bluesy funky desert driving album should not have shotgun electro-drums.. this one has a 3-way fold out like the vinyl.

Deguello and El Loco
No remastering here. These are the same mixes as previously available. Not that they are bad, but comparing to Rancho Texicano there is quite a difference in quality. What a wasted opportunity here.

Eliminator
This is the 2011 remaster plucked straight from the Deluxe Edition release. It does contain the original album mix of “Legs” and not the short single dance version. The sound quality on this is astounding but it is so much louder than the previous albums so there’s some glaring inconsistency now.

Afterburner & Recycler
Not remastered. Not even a tiny bit. Major letdown here. As an 80s kid, Afterburner was the second ZZ Top album I knew, and I wore out my cassette. This was one of those 80s discs that was originally mastered so badly that there’s very little bass. A comparison to Rancho Texicano‘s tracks and it’s *very* clear what remastering could do for this album. Recycler wasn’t near as bad, but it could have used that extra boost in clarity and bass.

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THE PACKAGING:
On the outside, this looks as nice as The Smiths Complete box set from 2 years ago. That one also had a nice clamshell outer casing. Inside though, this is of the same ilk as all of those cheap album collections that have been popping up at Walmart and the like. The sleeves are very flimsy cardboard, like that of the sleeve of a sturdier UK 7″ sleeve. The printing on Afterburner is faded, which kills the brightness and shine of the original picture. And unlike the Smiths set, there’s no book. No liner notes. Just replicas of the LP jackets (and not accurately reproduced like The Smiths Complete box.. there are track numbers, not sides). Some of us still care about liner notes!

THE DISCS:
The discs are as generic as it gets. They all look like the font type from standard 1980s Warner Brothers CDs, but with a black ring instead of red. On a couple of the discs, even a tiny chip of the foil is gone on the very edge. So these were made *very* cheaply.

THE BOTTOM LINE:
The set is a mixed blessing. If you had these before, you are paying $40 (if you get it on sale right now at Amazon) for three original masters you didn’t have and 7 discs you probably did. I am happy that I have those three albums, but unhappy to have been duped into having the rest and giving up identical sounding versions in jewel cases that at least had an inner sleeve. Why not just remaster all of them? Half of it was already done for the Chrome, Smoke and BBQ box set. The music however, is all very good stuff. It’s nice to trace the band’s evolution. $40 for 10 albums is a hell of a deal if you don’t have them, and these are the best editions of the albums released thus far, so it’s a good bargain. But please please please Mobile Fidelity… release gold discs of the remaining non-remastered albums!

You can get your copy HERE for only $39.98 and free shipping at the time of writing this!

Here’s some vintage ZZ vids:

“Chevrolet” Live in 1976…

“Heard It On The X” Live in Germany 1980…

“Got Me Under Pressure” and “Gimme All Your Lovin'” Live on “The Tube” 1983…

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5 comments

  1. Good review. But to my opinion the Tres Hombres master is different than the 2006 CD. It’s softer, lesser punch. Maybe better but on my MP3 the 2006 master sounds better. Fandango sounds te same indeed. Then I read that on the complte First Album the stereo channels are reversed. I checked it and indeed.They are reversed. a mirror image to the original LP and the CS&BBQ box set. Also the second side of Rio Grande Mud and the first side of Tejas have reversed channels! A bit sloppy indeed by Warner/Rhino. I swapped all the reversed tracks with Audicity and put them rightly on my MP3 player. But the CD’s remain incorrect. A Pity. Hopefully they will release these albums individually rightwise, one day.

  2. mp3 suck as hell
    lossless only plz

    1. Depends what player you have. On my Creative Zen MX the MP3 tracks sounds fine to me. But I agree: CD quality is better. I have of course the original box on CD.

  3. Anonymous · · Reply

    Thank God for this product. As a staunch ZZ TOP dicsiple, it gives me great pleasure to look at the little cd replicas next to all ten of my LP’s. I’m once again one up on the average fan.Yessssssssssssss!!!!!!

  4. Hey – great article. I’m like you- I was subjected to the CDS in the 1990s growing up. My solution – buy the cassettes! They had the original mixes on them. I actually resorted to burning the cassette mixes on to CD- using a good quality Yamaha CD/HDR unit. So for years I played the CD with the tape hiss and all! They sound great actually. Until now and I have the HD Tracks versions.

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