Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. For today’s article we’re taking a trip to 1979 Lebanon and rating the first in a series of reissues of albums by Ihsan Al Munzer.
Lebanese composer Ihsan Al Munzer is a major figure to those immersed in the world of collectable Middle Eastern rarities. He proved prolific from the release of his 1979 solo debut ‘Belly Dance Disco’ – reissued here – through to the mid ’80s and onwards. All of his vinyl releases today command a premium but it’s this album that commands the largest prices, with the best examples fetching £150. Musically, this walks the line between Lebanese musical tradition and the then-unfolding world of electronic innovation. Fully instrumental, ‘Belly Dance Disco’ eschews vocal parts for lead synthesizers which pick out strong, distinctive melodies to the backing of beautifully performed traditional rhythms and classically-influenced string parts. Proceedings sometimes veer towards the kitch – especially on the ostensibly self-penned ‘A New Candle’, which has a melody most would recognise as ‘Happy Birthday’ – but the album remains entertaining and vividly unique throughout.
As with many of the BBE reissues we’ve written about here on Vinyl Corner, their edition of ‘Belly Dance Disco’ has been released as a double LP. The original pressing was issued as a single LP – unsurprisingly, considering its 36 minute runtime – but there is a sound basis for spreading this over two discs for the rerelease. The basic science is that shorter LP sides lead to superior quality; this improvement is only furthered if the records are cut at 45 rpm. Some of BBE’s earlier double LP reissues were only cut at 33rpm, but with their recent titles they’ve taken the wise decision to switch to 45rpm pressings and the results are some of the best sounding titles they’ve ever released. Recorded in Lebanon in 1979, ‘Belly Dance Disco’ is, by its nature, something of a rough ‘n’ ready recording. It’s beautifully performed but, as with most Middle Eastern recordings from the era, the equipment it was recorded on was not capable of producing audiophile-grade recordings. Even so, we have no doubt that this must be the best the album has ever sounded. The remastering is detailed and lively; it brings out a realistic tone in the percussion and the strings and synths pop with an immediacy. The overall soundstage might be mastered a little on the bright side of neutral but that suits these unique, immersive compositions well. As with all of BBE’s pressings, the records have been pressed by Germany’s Pallas. This is brilliant news, as anyone who’s heard one of their LPs will attest. Pallas operate to perhaps the highest standards of any pressing plant in the world and their pressings can almost unilaterally be relied upon to sound fantastic. ‘Belly Dance Disco’ is no exception to this rule; the records are pressed on heavyweight black vinyl and sit flat and warp-free on the platter during playback. The surfaces are also clean and sleek, avoiding the visual pressing defects that lesser plants all too often leave on their records. Playback itself is also superb; the noise floor is low across all four sides and surfaces are equally free of defects such crackle, popping or clicks. The near-flawless playback combines with the strong sonics to make this a dream reissue.
Just as with the sound quality and vinyl pressing, it’s clear that BBE have gone the extra mile with the packaging and presentation of this release. ‘Belly Dance Disco’s original amusingly quaint cover art is reproduced in full, even including the original manufacture & distribution credits and copyright dates. Such thorough adherence to the original pressing is enough in itself to please collectors but BBE’s upgrading of the original release’s single sleeve to a high quality gatefold is even better. The chunky, eye-catching spine is enough to make this stand out on even the busiest record shelf and the newly-penned essay on the inner gatefold is a welcome and informative addition. A series of images of Al Munzer across his career also proves educational. The records are found in generic non-polylined inner sleeves. While, naturally, we would always prefer polylined inners to be included with every release from new, BBE have kept the price point very reasonable on this release considering the abundant quality elsewhere, so the lack of polylined inners is understandable. As it is, the inners included here are loose-fitting anyway, so the records can still be safely removed with ease. The label designs have an elegant simplicity about them but it is worth nothing that they erroneously list the playing speed as 33rpm. As discussed earlier, the playback is actually at 45rpm but, for those previously unfamiliar with the album, it can be particularly confusing as it actually sounds pretty good at both speeds.
‘Belly Dance Disco’ has been a sought-after relic for years now, so BBE’s first-ever reissue arrives not a moment too soon. As per usual, theirs is textbook work and they have reissued this material to the highest standard possible. The pressing is fantastic, the remastering is sensitive and the packaging and presentation is also excellent. Highly recommended.
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