Acoustic Sounds

Tom Waits

The Black Rider



Tom Waits - The Black Rider

Label: Island / UMe

Produced By: Tom Waits

Engineered By: Tchad Blake and Gerd Bessler

Mixed By: Biff Dawes

Mastered By: Chris Bellman

Lacquers Cut By: Alex Abrash

By: Malachi Lui

May 1st, 2024



Tom Waits’ Eccentric ‘The Black Rider’ Also Ruined

30th anniversary edition is expectedly mediocre

Before fully diving into the crap reissues of 2024, my review pile still has some crap 2023 reissues that are still sitting here. So to get them out of my way, a review is better late than never, right?

Even for Tom Waits, The Black Rider is eccentric if not downright weird. He was already making odd records, but at least Bone Machine or Swordfishtrombones have identifiable rhythmic structures and some coherent melodies. Here, you’ve got intentionally grating train whistles and William S. Burroughs guiding you through what sounds like an early 20th century rendering of hell. More than any other Waits album, The Black Rider must be heard as a full record to even make sense; otherwise, it sounds like some raving lunatic is about to attack you.

Started in 1989 but completed in 1993, The Black Rider features Waits’ songs from The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, a theater production based on the German folktale “Der Freischütz.” Robert Wilson directed the play from the story adapted by Burroughs. In this telling, a clerk tries to marry an old hunter’s daughter but first must prove his worth. Unable to successfully hunt, the clerk makes a deal with the devil for some magic bullets (the stipulation being that the devil controls a few bullets). The clerk impresses the old huntsman, but unintentionally kills the bride with the last shot. Burroughs compared the magic bullets to heroin, and the play’s ending obviously alludes to him accidentally killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, in 1951.

Tom Waits and Greg Cohen worked on the music, with a few lyrics/spoken contributions by Burroughs (the rest by Waits). No matter the context or lack thereof, The Black Rider is utterly bizarre yet often captivating. It’s not a rock album, rather a dark, hilarious, and somewhat chaotic experimental European cabaret record that prioritizes ominous horns and particularly unusual percussion over guitars or drum sets. The most conventional it gets is when Waits sounds like a deranged 1920s jazz singer, like on “I’ll Shoot The Moon,” “Lucky Day,” or “The Last Rose Of The Summer,” the latter being this album’s closest thing to Rain Dogs’ “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” Otherwise, Waits spends the record telling segments of the story, growling his way through these eerie soundscapes of droning horns and hellish percussion. Sometimes he sings traditionally organized lyrics, other times he rants his way through paragraphs of his or Burroughs’ writing. It’s certainly an acquired taste, and definitely not the Waits album to start with, but for more patient listeners, there’s plenty to dive into.

Like the rest of Tom Waits’ recent Island Records catalog reissues, Chris Bellman mastered 192kHz/24 files of The Black Rider (marketed as a 30th anniversary reissue, though more a coincidence than a specific commemoration) from which Alex Abrash cut lacquers. For this and Bone Machine, the only original pressings were UK imports that now command very high prices, and just like the recent Bone Machine reissue, this was a greatly missed opportunity. The Black Rider’s original CD master by Ken Perry at A&M Studios wasn’t perfect, but this vinyl reissue is worse. Everything sounds as if plastered to a wall, with any dynamic delicacy and instrument physicality lost. Bass is a congealed mess, and the whole presentation is annoying and dull. And as expected for a 56-minute single LP cut to lacquer, Abrash’s cut is extremely quiet (though not to the extent of Bone Machine) and the 180g Precision black vinyl pressing is fairly noisy, albeit not too distracting.

Bellman’s 192kHz/24bit files sound different than the original CD and arguably better, but that depends on preference. On the hi-res stream/download, the high frequencies sound more natural and there’s more bass, but the midrange is slightly yet noticeably boosted in a way that clouds everything up a bit. Still, textural nuance is better and some of the harsher sounds are less grainy. There’s no sonically perfect version of The Black Rider, but whatever mastering you prefer, stick to digital since I doubt the UK original LP is worth the $200.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: B0037067-01

Pressing Plant: Precision Record Pressing


Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 180 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: 192kHz/24bit Remaster

Presentation: Single LP


  • 2024-05-01 07:16:55 PM

    Come on wrote:

    Not sure if this is correct, but in Discogs the Holland pressing of Bone Machine is mentioned as the EU original and the UK and German pressing as variants.

    • 2024-05-01 08:11:02 PM

      Come on wrote:

      Heck, I just realized by some google work, you must be about 18 now? I Thought you’re still quite young but at least 10 years older…I have to read/write with different eyes now, you’re a smart young guy!

      • 2024-05-02 05:02:31 AM

        Ronan O’Gorman wrote:

        Malachi, thanks for another insightful review.

      • 2024-05-02 11:22:38 AM

        Michael Fremer wrote:

        He's 18. We met when he was 12 and already an outstanding writer and perceptive listener. The first review he asked to write was of the "lost" John Coltrane album. I said, "You're 12 years old. What perspective can you possibly bring to this?" A few days later in came the review prompting me to ask, "Did you really write this?" He promised he did without help. It needed a bit more background, which he provided and a few days later it posted. Tone Poet Joe Harley texted me: "Damn, that's what I would have written". Malachi wasn't a big fan of the record, explaining in his review why it wasn't originally released.

        • 2024-05-02 01:05:29 PM

          Come on wrote:

          Yes, I just saw one of your videos of the 12 year old time. It’s frightening. A bit as with some thoughts about KI…what happens if this gets even more perfect. And…does mankind have most advantage of it if used for music reviews ;-) Looking around on most of today’s YouTube music review offers says yes. I bet those parts of experience, personality and certain skill, which this kind of doubtless intelligence can’t immediately cover will grow fast, too. I now know why you’re positively biased.

  • 2024-05-02 12:42:45 PM

    FransZappa wrote:

    Now that we have any age and/or knowledge issues out of the way, this is my 2 euro cents. These reissues/remasters are a total mess I agree. But ... this Black Rider is not the worst I must say. Here on my Linn LP12 Akkurate en 300B amp with LaScalas and assorted it sounds pretty decent .... which Bone Machine and Rain Dogs and Trombones most definitively don't. Open and spatious but there will be definitely better records out there but if this one is missing from your collection get these magic bullits .... we all have those days we can't hit for shit

    • 2024-05-02 03:59:32 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      you're right that this isn't the worst of these reissues--my 6/10 for sound vs. the 5/10 for 'bone machine' reflects that. still, it's worse than the CD.

      as for the 'rain dogs' reissue, michael sent me transfers of 'jockey full of bourbon' from the original US pressing and the reissue (i have a NM US original in my own collection). the original sounded much better of course but i didn't think the reissue sounded awful.

  • 2024-05-06 04:04:46 PM

    Jeff 'Glotz' Glotzer wrote:

    The only thing worse than these albums being re-released like this is them doing them AGAIN, and getting it right! I will be SOOOO PISSED, as they don't have my number nor name to send me free copies of each! What a fucked situation.

  • 2024-05-16 06:39:26 AM

    Harry Prenger wrote:

    I don't think there's anything wrong with the sound of this reissue. It is just not a state of the art recording but rather a more subtle chamber music that fits the lyrics and themes. Considering the artistic motives, this is an album that really sounds excellent.