Written on the 12th of February 2014
Well well, I feel a bit lazy (I mean, more than usual) so this time I’ll talk about a band I don’t have to research much about, as it’s one of my favourites and I already know a few things about them. The Alan Parsons Project is a prog rock/soft rock/whatever you want to call it band which is atypical in some aspects, as you will see.
First of all, the band didn’t have many regular members. It was basically Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson surrounded by a bunch of session musicians (although some of them were regulars, like Ian Bairnson and his distinctive electric guitar, singer Lenny Zakatek and Andrew Powell and his orchestral arrangements). In most songs, it was Eric who would have the idea for the song and then Alan would give it a shape, as he was an audio engineer. Quite a good one, in fact: previously to the birth of the Project, he was involved in the making of The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon (Pink Floyd even credit him as an important contributor… he was paid 35 dollars a week though… ok, that meant more back then) and Atom Heart Mother, and Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat, amongst other albums.
Parsons and Woolfson met in 1975 at Abbey Road Studios. Once both men were there, they saw each other immediately… because they were the tallest men in the room. They would soon start their partnership, which would last fifteen years, in which ten albums were produced. However, there would be no concerts during those years, as they remained a studio band. Only after their separation would Parsons start touring, using the songs born during their time together, while Woolfson dedicated himself to musical theatre.
Their first album is, if not the best, one of their two or three best ones. Tales Of Mystery And Imagination- Edgar Allan Poe is a true masterpiece, although you may have to read some stories by Poe first.
As in the next four albums, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination opens with an instrumental. Or almost. I mean, in A Dream Within A Dream, first it’s Orson Wells who says a few words, while some instruments start stirring slowly in the background. Then he stops and a haunting instrumental begins. Instrumentals are probably the best and most distinctive aspect of The Alan Parsons Project. While some of their (sung) songs sound a bit like cheap 80s pop, their instrumentals are just different from anything else you’ve heard.
If you listen to a few APP instrumentals, you’ll realize that they often use the “layer on layer” technique, that is, one melody with one instrument, then the same thing again but with another instrument and melody, then three instruments, etc.
So after this superb beginning, Edgar Allan Poe comes into scene. If you haven’t read any of his stories, you should. Dark and creepy. Rivers of ink and sheets of paper that turn into moments of unbearable tension. In short, good stuff. The following song is The Raven, which transforms into music the poem with the same name (in case you want to read it, this is the link http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Poe/Raven.pdf). Unknown fact: this was the first rock song to feature a vocoder. You don’t know what’s that? Google it, that’s what I did!
The next song is The Tell-Tale Heart. If you haven’t read Poe’s story, this will probably be just a good-ish rock song. If you have, it’ll be an amazing adaptation. I’ll explain the story in a (hopefully) concise way, but, oh, I do need to spoil the ending, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The narrator is nuts but he tries to convince everyone that he’s totally sane. He kills an old man he supposedly loves just because of his “vulture eye”, dismembers him and hides the little pieces under the wooden floor of the old man’s room. When the police questions him in that very same room, he thinks he’s hearing a ringing noise… the old man heart is suddenly beating louder and louder, or so he thinks, so he admits having killed him. Arthur Brown sings like a real madman here, and the moment when the heartbeats are begun to be heard (at about 2.53 in the video) is great.
The following two songs/stories are The Cask Of Amontillado and The System Of Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether. I’m overexplaining things too much already, so I’ll keep it simple this time: more adaptations, cool music, please do listen to them. Both have a instrumental part in the end (great orchestra in the first one). The System’s instrumental part includes bits of the melody from the two first songs in the album.
At this point it looks like Parsons and Woolfson wanted more “grandeur” and decided to do a five-song adaptation of The Fall Of The House Of Usher. The five parts are Prelude, Arrival, Intermezzo, Pavane and Fall. The first, third and last part are not proper songs, but rather Andrew Powell’s orchestra attempting (successfully) to put you in an appropriate mood. On the other hand, Arrival and Pavane are superb songs… I especially love Arrival, which begins with the sound of rain and a church organ and continues with a wind effect made by a synthesizer. Magical melody. Haunting. Damn, I love this album.
The last song is To One In Paradise, a dreamy melody taken from one of Poe’s poems. It’s almost scary how Parsons and Woolfson combine a sweet melody with those lyrics (they would do it again in the future, and now that I think about it, the same thing happens in The Cask Of Amontillado).
One year later, in 1977, Parsons and Woolfson would change Edgar Allan Poe for Isaac Asimov. The title of the album is I Robot (does anyone know Asimov’s book with the same name?). I haven’t personally read any books from Asimov apart from the first part of the Foundation series, so this time I can’t play the pompous wannabe cultured guy and explain what makes the songs better than they seem. The album is still very good, although I prefer Tales Of Mystery and Imagination.
The sound here bears a rather strong ressemblance with a lot of Pink Floyd stuff, which isn’t that strange, as Alan Parsons worked for them a couple of times. The opener is also the title track: I Robot is a six minute song in which the British duo just nails it. Well, the first minute and a half is not a big deal, more like mysterious sounds with no discernible melody, but after that it’s mindblowing. As in their first album, there’s a melody played by one instrument and little by little new melodies and instruments are added. Give it a try… sounds monotonous and boring at first? Now think about this: the melody that starts at about 1.40 and the one that starts at about 2.10 have totally different rhythms (or is it my imagination?) and the song still doesn’t fall apart. I don’t know, maybe I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but I think in normal circumstances the song would be a total mess and instead it’s brilliant! Ok, I’m getting overenthusiastic and you probably think it’s still boring, here’s the link, feel free to bash me.
The whole CD is pretty psychedelic, and the thing is I don’t like when stuff gets really psychedelic, it just doesn’t make sense to me. Well I’d call it psychedelic, maybe you would use another word. Anyway, two songs are “too psychedelic” or whatever you want to call it, and thus they are pointless (to me). Those are Nucleus and Total Eclipse.
But let’s rather talk about the good songs. Breakdown’s last seventy seconds (the vocal choirs) are totally epic… Freedom, freedom, we will not obey/ Freedom, freedom, take the wall away/ Freedom, freedom, we will not obey/ Freedom, freedom, take them all away… robots talking about humans? I don’t really care, the song’s great (I’ve always been more of an instruments guy, I often don’t pay much attention to lyrics and I’m terribly dumb with metaphors and stuff like that).
Some Other Time is pretty cool too… The Voice is nothing special but it has a funny part when it gets all funky… oh, Day After Day (The Show Must Go On) definitely sounds like Pink Floyd. Actually a song from Pink Floyd’s The Wall is called The Show Must Go On, although I don’t think there’s a connection or anything like that.
Almost done, I just want to mention a couple of songs. Don’t Let It Show is beautiful, although I think the instrumental epilogue doesn’t really fit there. A matter of taste, I guess. And finally there’s Genesis Ch.1. V.32. The last track on the album may have a strange name for some. It did for me, until I read why. In the story of Creation, the first chapter of Genesis has only thirty-one verses, so it looks like this instrumental (which is simple but great, by the way) represents the following verse, the creation of Robots.
I’ll probably post something about the next two or three albums of The Alan Parsons Project next week. Also, I may post a bunch of not so well known romantic (kind of) songs on Friday for Valentine’s Day, it depends on how much time I have.
Bonus track: as I said earlier, Alan Parsons worked with Pink Floyd in, amongst others, Atom Heart Mother. Here’s my favourite song of the album: