What does Michael Sterns sound like?
Synth-based compositions that sound celestial and like an orchestral Tangerine Dream.
The review of Micheal Sterns – Chronos 2022 Remaster Original X-86 Ambisonics Mix
Chronos is one of my favourite films that was a prelude for Ron Frickie before he embarked on his Qatsi trilogy of movies. If you haven’t seen any of these films before, they are nonverbal movies that present images from around the world to you simply underscored by music. I find them powerful and to this day their time-lapse photography impresses me. Chronos was where the genesis of those Qatsi films really took shape. As the music was made whilst shooting the movie, composer Michael Sterns was an integral, integrated part of the design process. This makes the score for Chronus such a treat.
The movie is underscored in its entirety and the album reflects that with a runtime of 43 minutes – the same as the movie. Sterns wields his synths like an absolute beast across its runtime but the key here is in the title. There are two remasters launching at once. One is the traditional pressing remaster, not referred to here. The second is a mixed stereo recording for Ambisonic surround encoding. What does that mean? It means this mix is a true stereo sound and it breathes new life into these songs.
The opening sci-fi synths that straddle meditative and wonderment of ‘Corridors of Time’ and ‘Essence and the Ancients’ are transformed. Their synth pads pan and spread like brushes of paint across your speakers. All the little analogue percussive elements occur all around your ears instead of distinct channels. For some genres, this would less impressive but when you have ambient symphonic synth strings, this stereo panning gives extra weight and gravitas. The bells of ‘Angels, Bells and Pastorale’ ring out in full stereo glory as the relaxed and glassy bell tones ring out triumphantly.
With those first three tracks taking up over half the runtime, the other five tracks are shorter but work just as seamlessly. ‘Escalator’ is the first of two frenzied accelerator moments. Synths explode into a surge through space and time and again hearing just how the sound cascades out in stereo amplify what was a more contained sound originally. ‘Voices’ features distant choirs hidden hauntedly behind ambient cooling synths. Both here and in the flute-led ‘Portraits’ there is a gentle shimmer of jingle bell sticks or rainsticks and their stereo echo adds to the ‘pause for breath’ atmosphere these songs portray. This switches up heavily for the dramatic ‘The Ride (Finale)’. The cinematic timelapse of vehicles in movement in the city is met with a deep bass rhythmic organ and celestial sci-fi shimmers. Whilst it is more restrained than some of the future Qatsi work to follow, it makes a very fitting finale here as this work is more ethereal and reflective. The closing ‘Credits’ recalls some earlier motifs to round off a beautiful album.
‘Chronos’ is a great soundtrack and Michael Sterns created an excellent body of work here that works with or without the movie. I was unsure if having a surround-styled mix would really make a huge difference but it does. The impacts of key synth notes hitting melodic horizons just land bolder and heavier when they pan across your ears in the way they do here. Remasters often feel like a cash cow to me but this one bucks the trend. I’m glad I bought this version. 40 years on and it is like listening to it for the first time again. Superb.
Recommended track: Essence and the Ancients
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