Judge Victor Valdivia knows the cold-hearted orb that rules the night: It's his alarm clock, and he hates it.
Nights in white satin,
Of the generation of British prog-rock bands who emerged in the late '60s and early '70s, the Moody Blues were maybe the hardest to pin down. Unlike Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, or Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues didn't have a showboating instrumentalist, didn't compose 20-minute epics, and didn't rely on elaborate stage shows full of pyrotechnics, convoluted sets, or fancy costumes. Their songs were lushly orchestrated and atmospheric but for all the spacey lyrics and intricate arrangements, they were essentially radio-friendly pop songs, not especially long and packed with easily accessible melodies. The band may have been one of the first rock bands to write and record with a symphony orchestra on their 1967 album Days of Future Passed, but at heart they remained a pop group with a prog sensibility, a combination that made them a bit odd even then. Of course, by today's standards, such an idea is downright peculiar, which is why The Moody Blues: Threshold of a Dream: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 is a frustrating release.
To be sure, for Moody Blues fans, this DVD is a must. Recorded in August 1970, at the famous British music festival that also saw landmark performances by the Who, Jimi Hendrix, ELP, and others, it's a performance from their classic years that definitely captures what the band looked at sounded like at the time. In the interviews that accompany this set, one of the band members remarks that this was the band's peak period, and he's probably right. Here's the set list:
The songs are taken from the five albums the band recorded between 1967 and 1970, the period most fans agree were the peak years for the Moody Blues. Only two years after this concert, the Moody Blues disbanded and would not reform until the late '70s. By that point, the band had jettisoned all of their orchestral ambitions and had become a straight-ahead pop-rock band, so for most fans, this is really their more celebrated era. The show includes versions of some of their biggest hits, especially their most famous song, "Nights in White Satin," a song so evocative that it surely triggers memories of some kind in anyone who hears it. The performance itself is only about an hour long (there were a few more songs performed at the show, but some of the film hasn't survived), so the DVD also includes interviews with various band members discussing both the performance and the band's history up to that point. Plus, as usual, Eagle Rock has done a sterling job of presenting this concert technically. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is sharp and clear with no noticeable flaws. Both 5.1 audio mixes, Dolby and DTS, are staggeringly loud. The Moody Blues are hardly volume merchants and this performance is nearly forty years old, but it will still rattle your windows. There are no extras, but the interviews serve as a welcome preamble to the concert without interrupting any songs. For longtime fans, then, this is a must: A long-lost performance of the band in its prime delivering the classics in top-notch technical quality and with some interesting interviews for context. What more could they ask for?
At the same time, those who are not diehards may find this DVD much less enthralling. There are two key reasons for this. First and foremost is that, to put it bluntly, the Moody Blues are just not that gripping a live act. Yes, they play their hits and play them well, but even by the pre-MTV standards of the era, they lack a forceful stage presence. Say what you will about the overblown excesses of their prog-rock peers, but once you see ELP's Keith Emerson firing cannons at the audience, riding his organ like a mechanical bull, and then throwing knives at it, you're not likely to forget who they are. The Moody Blues, on the other hand, just…play. Stolidly, and politely, they play. The band is clearly too pop-oriented to indulge in the macho razzle-dazzle that their contemporaries did, but given that the band members had been recording and touring for at least five years prior to this concert, they could have at least worked a little harder on their performance skills.
The other problem is, in some ways, not entirely their fault. The Moody Blues' music is probably the most orchestrated of all the prog bands, but this made it the hardest to reproduce live. The band certainly couldn't tour with the fifty-piece orchestra they used in the studio, but unfortunately the technology of the era didn't really allow them to replicate their music either. The rich-sounding synthesizers that seamlessly recreate the sounds of a full orchestra were not available in the early '70s so the band was forced to make do with a Mellotron, the prototype for synths that used tape loops to recreate sounds. Unfortunately, the Mellotron sounds rather thin live, so even with the loud audio mixes, these renditions of the band's orchestral songs lack the punch of the original studio recordings. Longtime fans will be willing to overlook this flaw, but other viewers looking for good versions of the band's hits will be less likely to do so.
Threshold of a Dream, then, will probably have limited appeal. For longtime fans, this is easily a must-buy; you'll never get another opportunity like this again. For everyone else, however, this is not really essential. If you heard "Nights in White Satin" somewhere and are curious about the Moody Blues' music, it would better to invest in a good CD anthology, such as Gold, rather than this disc. It's so unsatisfying to all but the band's biggest fans that it may make you less interested in hearing their other songs.
Call it a split decision: not guilty for hardcore fans, guilty for everyone else.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
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