Monday, 9 May 2016

AKARMA Records - Buyers' Guide

The subject of vinyl reissues is a thorny one. I've stated my ambivalence towards them before in these pages, but whatever their shortcomings, there's no escaping the fact that, unless you have bottomless pockets, seeking out original copies of every rare LP on your wishlist is a non-starter. Thankfully there are small, independent labels offering us the chance to get hold of albums (the originals of which were often released in miniscule quantities) in our favoured format, for twenty quid or less. Is it too much to ask that these labels find good quality audio sources for their reissues, put some effort into reproducing the original artwork, and pay the musicians their royalties?

One label whose name crops up regularly in debates over the pros and cons of vinyl reissues is Akarma. Confusion reigns over whether Akarma is a legitimate label, or a shady, money-grabbing enterprise dealing in pirate pressings. Interestingly, Discogs doesn't list Akarma releases as unofficial, but that shouldn't necessarily be taken as proof that the label is whiter than white. From what I understand, because the label is based in Italy, where a quirk of copyright law means that Akarma is not operating illegally by reissuing LPs without the copyright holder's permission, the label is 'legitimate'. However, acting within the law and being morally upstanding are not necessarily the same thing. There are numerous reports of artists complaining that their albums have been re-released without permission or remuneration of royalties. Sadly, the modest quantities of product shifted by small, independent labels makes chasing them through the courts financially unviable, particularly if they are based in another country.

To add to the uncertainty over the true nature of Akarma, Discogs includes a label profile written by Jo-Ann Greene for GOLDMINE, May 12, 2006 (Vol 32. No 10 . Issue 673), which reads more like an Akarma press release than an objective journalistic appraisal of the label. At no point in her piece does Greene address the legitimacy of Akarma's releases or the sources that it uses to master its reissues, preferring to give marketing manager, Guglielmo Pizzinelli, a platform for a spot of unchallenged, self-serving PR.

In a typically gushing statement, Greene asserts that you "can’t appreciate the beauty and the attention to detail involved until you actually encounter Akarma vinyl," and that "the label has gained as many high marks for art work as for the equally high-caliber remasterings, with Akarma’s releases instantly identifiable by their sheer beauty alone." I'm sure Pizzinelli couldn't have said it any better himself. What a bunch of sycophantic guff! No wonder then that record buyers continue to be confused about the legitimacy of Akarma's releases and the quality of their pressings.

Perhaps it's unfair to single out Akarma for criticism, as they are just one of the many players in the dubious reissues field, particularly as, to their credit, the packaging on their LPs is often of a remarkable quality: every nuance of the original artwork faithfully reproduced, right down to textured sleeves and embossed lettering. They put more effort into providing a desirable, tactile product than most of the major labels. It's just a shame that the reproduction of the music rarely matches up to the quality of the packaging.

Although I have every sympathy with musicians who find themselves stiffed by record companies, as a record collector, my overriding concern is for the quality of the product that is offered for sale. If the major labels were more on the ball, and weren't so contemptuous of both artists and customers, they could kill off dodgy reissue labels overnight by putting out legitimate, high-quality pressings of the many obscure albums that music fans are crying out for. A market clearly exists. Whether this would result in a steady stream of royalties for the artists is doubtful, but at least the record-buying public might get to hear reissues mastered from the original analogue tapes or, at the very least, from hi-resolution digital files, instead of from dodgy CDs or via knackered vinyl needledrops.

Buying Akarma releases is a lottery: I own one or two that, in the absence of an original pressing for comparison, are hard to fault; others are borderline unlistenable. Which of Akarma's releases is worth buying, and which should be avoided? With their large and highly desirable catalogue, there's plenty of scope for chucking cash away on a complete turkey. Please, if any owners of Akarma LPs are reading this and could take the time to leave a comment about specific titles, this post might serve as a buyers' guide for the label: a one-stop database for fellow vinyl enthusiasts interested in finding out about Akarma's mastering and pressing quality. I'll start the ball rolling with details of the titles that I own. I hope you find it useful.

Arcadium - Breathe Awhile
Single, heavy card sleeve. A nice clean, quiet pressing, but cut 'hot', so it's a pretty shrill listening experience.

Bodkin - Bodkin
Single sleeve housed in an elaborate and utterly ludicrous six panel cardboard crucifix featuring a burning goat. Plays well enough, but the source used for the master is very noisy, especially on B1. I'd happily forego the over-the-top packaging in exchange for decent sound.

Buffalo - Only Want You For Your Body
Gatefold sleeve with lyric insert. Decent sound reproduction, if a little 'flat' and digital sounding.

Earth and Fire - Earth and Fire
Gatefold sleeve. Sound is very good, but a bit brittle and digital.

Felt - Felt
Single sleeve. The sound quality is great on this LP, but there is a noticeable wow on the second of the four tracks on side one. The stylus sits rocksteady in the groove, so I assume the wow originates in the playback of whatever source Akarma used. Shoddy!

Indian Summer - Indian Summer
Gatefold sleeve. Fantastic sound. If it's a digital source, Akarma have done a good job of warming it up for vinyl. There seems to be a slight bias in output to the left channel in parts. Recommended!

Leaf Hound - Growers of Mushroom
Gatefold sleeve. Decent sound reproduction, if a little 'flat' and digital.

Room - Pre-Flight
Single sleeve. Clear, dynamic, warm airy sound. If it's not from an analogue source then whoever transferred it from digital did an impressive job. Recommended!

Salem Mass - Witch Burning
Textured single sleeve. Despite buying this new and sealed, my copy has noticeable distortion on A2 and A3, and the over all sound is a bit lean.

Still Life - Still Life
Gatefold sleeve. Nice clean pressing and convincingly fat and analogue-esque sound reproduction. Recommended!

Wizard - The Original Wizard
Textured single sleeve with textured band biog insert. Good clear, rich sound reproduction. Recommended!

Writing On The Wall - The Power of the Picts
Textured, silvered single sleeve. Nice, clean pressing. An enjoyable listen, but lacks the depth and warmth you'd expect from vinyl. A digital transfer no doubt! Cautiously recommended.

Zior - Zior
Gatefold sleeve. Sound repro is a bit 'hot' and 'toppy'.

PLEASE share your experiences of Akarma vinyl. Thanks!