Two years after Robert Reed released Sanctuary, a homage to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, he is back with a fantastic follow-up. I don’t usually start by commenting on the music, but Sanctuary II is riveting, and far surpasses the depth of writing heard on his previous release, Sanctuary. Musically everything flows together and I find Sanctuary II to be a very uplifting dynamic album.
Like it’s predecessor, the album is produced, engineered and mixed by Reed, who also plays most of the instruments himself. However, for this new album he has brought in legendary drummer Simon Phillips who played on Mike Oldfield’s Crises release, and has played drums with other industry giants including Toto and the Who. Once again important contributions to the sound of Sanctuary II has been provided by the “Tubular Bells” production team of Tom Newman and Simon Heyworth.
The sound quality of this album is impeccable, and since effectively every part is tracked separately, isolation between instruments is perfect, allowing for a phenomenal discrete multi-channel mix. Each instrument sounds extremely vivid and natural, with just enough space to comfortably breathe. The pieces are filled with plenty of dynamic range, and Phillips’ drums absolutely cut through with a wonderful impact.
The DVD has three hi-res options, a MLP Lossless 24bit / 96kHz Stereo version, and either a MLP Lossless 24bit / 96kHz 5.1 or DTS 24bit / 48kHz 5.1 surround version. Of course, the MLP Lossless 5.1 codec sounds way better than the DTS version, which was just like my impression when I reviewed Sanctuary back in 2014. For those who must listen to the DTS codec, they’ll find it leans to the bottom range, lacking top end clarity, and misses the punch and space that are so easily heard on the MLP version.
I am convinced that Reed envision Sanctuary II to be played only in surround. Literally every part is so perfectly balanced, giving every channel something to sing about practically the whole way through. This is surely a sweet spot experience made for multi-channel enthusiasts like myself. However I can’t always agree with every aspect of a mix, it is artwork after all. Shortly after the first part begins, Reed’s sizzling guitar blares from the center channel. The guitar was so in my face, that I initially thought something was screwed up with the channel levels on my equipment. But, I confirmed that the stereo layer presents the penetrating guitar in all its dynamic glory, the same as heard on the surround sound mix!
On the other hand, Reed has pulled off some really tasty uses of the multi-channel sound stage. From time to time various parts swirl around the room, or momentarily appear in one channel during a short musical phrase, and then bounce to another channel for the follow-up phrase. I always have loved this kind of ear candy, finding it keeps me fully engaged with the mix, much like a video montage for the ears. Painting with sound seems to be part of Reed’s goal, both musically and spatially. Yes, another thumbs up vote for surround sound audio.
For listeners who don’t yet have a surround sound setup, the range and openness of the MLP Lossless Stereo version still makes this version compelling enough to own. The CD simply is devoid of dynamics and resilience. Basically very thin compared to the MLP 24/96 stereo codec found on the DVD. Plus you’ll get a cool CD of extras that include unreleased tracks, remixes and alternative mixes by Tom Newman. The problem is finding where to buy a copy of the 3 disc special edition. Initially it was a little hard finding the 2CD/1DVD set, but now it is readily available along with a vinyl version for the audiophiles among us.
While the DVD contains some promo videos, listeners don’t need a monitor to start the disc in MLP 5.1, just some patience. Once loaded, just press enter, and you are on your way. Another side note is I much prefer the packaging of Sanctuary II over preceding release. It is extremely easy to get the discs out of the sleeve, compared to having to fumble with, and probably adding fingerprints, when pulling the disc out of the Sanctuary double disc package.
For fans of Mike Oldfield, Megenta, Kimpendium, and of course Robert Reed himself, this is a must have deluxe set. It is very reasonably priced, and strongly recommended for progressive rock and surround sound enthusiasts. Sanctuary II is simply a joy to listen to.
2 CD / 1 DVD special edition with 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. Also available on vinyl.