I'm a huge fan of Red Hot Chili Peppers. I love everything about the band and its music. From Anthony and Flea who let their freak flags fly, to drummer Chad Smith who seems like the average dad at a little league game. Then there's guitarist John Frusciante. He is the Keith Richards of RHCP. The uninitiated look at Flea and Anthony as the driving forces of the band, while the diehards view Frusciante as the catalyst of its best music. Much like Richards, Frusciante has battled drug addiction, been on death's doorstep several times, and turned things around to produce incredible music.
My three favorite RHCP albums are Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication, and the just-release Unlimited Love. It's no coincidence that John Frusciante was heavily involved in all three. Also heavily involved was Rick Rubin, who produced all three albums. In years past, I've been critical of Rubin for producing some of the most dynamically compressed albums I've ever heard. I've come to realize my criticism is that of an uninformed outsider, armchair engineer, and wishful audiophile. The view from the top is always the best. My view of albums is usually from the bottom, pressing play and hearing the final result.
Dynamic range compression is an artistic choice. Rubin understands, as much as any audiophile, the results of this compression on the sound of an album. When he, the band, and mastering engineer elect to compress the music beyond what I consider acceptable, they do this as a creative choice. Nobody at any record label is going to tell Rick Rubin to juice the sound of an album a bit with more compression. Based on his commercial success, he and the bands he works with, can do what they like.
What did RHCP and Rubin like, with respect to dynamic range and sound quality, on Unlimited Love? According to RHCP bassist Flea, "For you audiophiles out there, the new rhcp record is mastered directly from the tape we recorded it on, no computers, no lame compression or limiters." Based on the roughly 35 times I've listened to the entire album, start to finish, I absolutely love what they've done musically and sonically. Right now I'm on a new album high, and rate Unlimited Love as the best album the band has ever done. However, I fully expect to come back down and settle this album into one of the first three positions in the RHCP catalog.
Audiophiles should keep in mind that dynamic range on its own is not an indicator of sound quality. It's one objective metric we can use to look at music with our eyes. That said, I much prefer to listen and feel the music. I'd take the most dynamically compressed RHCP music playing on an AM radio, over the ultimate in high dynamic range, high resolution, perfect pitch, singer without heart and music I can feel.
Lets dig into Unlimited Love. After listening a few times to the album via Qobuz streaming, I purchased the 24 bit / 96 kHz download. I like the album so much that I just had to own it. The opener, Black Summer is simply fantastic. Frusciante's guitar is unmistakable. Listening to it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. The way he plays and his tone are sonic treats for the ears. I also love the phrasing Anthony Kiedis uses with the lyrics on this track. Black Summer has dynamic range "scores" of 10.8 LU (R128) and 6 DR.
I focus a lot on Frusciante's contribution to this album, but it isn't lost on me how much Flea's masterful musicianship plays in ever song. Flea reminds me of an accomplished jazz bassist with endless control on this album. The track Aquatic Mouth Dance is full of super tight bass lines and even features Flea on Trumpet. Someday I wish Flea would play Chet Baker in a movie. I don't know why, it's just something I'd love to see.
My favorite performance by Flea on the album is the track named It's Only Natural. I crank this one on my Wilson Alexias at home and on the stock radio in my Subaru. I can't get enough of it. The backing vocals on this track are also lovely. They float in the air, adding another dimension to this track. The vocals juxtaposed to Flea's bass, and Frusciante's ethereal guitar solo, make this track the hidden gem / deep cut that everyone should have on their playlists. That said, I'm not a playlist type of guy, I listen to entire albums. Listening to this entire album is a feel-good experience to say the least.
Switching back to John Frusciante for a minute, I couldn't believe my ears when I heard his vocals on the chorus in the track The Heavy Wing. He sings the chorus solo. Wow, his voice immediately grabbed my attention. I'd never noticed how unique and solid his voice is, on any previous RHCP release. I'm sure that's my own inattention, but man, I'm now listening for him on other tracks and albums.
The other half of the RHCP rhythm section mustn't go without accolades. Chad Smith manages to make me love his drumming on this album, without really standing out. Listening to every track, I love the groove and the signature Smith beats, but he doesn't shout "Hey, look at me!" In a band with a bassist named Flea, perhaps the guy with the ultra-generic birth name of Chad Smith, is perfectly comfortable in the pocket, laying down the right drum tracks for each song. In a way Smith reminds me of Ringo Star in that he just lays down what's right for the song. But, at the same time he reminds me of a lighter-handed John Bonham rolling through his drum kit on the track The Heavy Wing. I'm certainly no music historian or percussion expert, but these are the musical connections I make when listening to Smith throughout Unlimited Love.
Unlimited Love is full of what some may call hits, Black Summer, Aquatic Mouth Dance, The Great Apes, These Are The Ways, Bastards Of Light, One Way Traffic, and The Heavy Wing. However, as much or more musical satisfaction can be derived from the deep cuts, of which I'll only name It's Only Natural. The rest are for each person to discover, while listening to this new classic Chili Peppers' album, Unlimited Love.