picture via Amazon
I was not introduced to The Alan Parsons Project until I was twenty-five. Coincidentally enough, this was also twenty-five years after APP had disbanded.
My deep love for APP was gradual in its growth, and had a somewhat rocky start. It began about two years ago with my mother sending me three songs on Spotify: “Time,” “Sirius,” and “Eye in the Sky.” I enjoyed “Sirius” because it reminded me of going to Nebraska Cornhusker games in my home state (it’s their theme song when they run out onto the field), but the other two tracks I found to be depressing and indigestible at the time—something about the airy, reverb-drenched production that 1970’s albums were so notoriously wrought with simply bummed me out.
And yet, there was something about those tracks and their melodies that I couldn’t get out of my head. I found myself humming them as I drove home that day, these songs that upon first listen Ihadn’t even liked. So I listened again. And again. Andagain. And before long, I recognized “Eye in the Sky” for the masterful pop hit that it is, getting reeled in by those swirling, flawless vocal harmonies and that chugging guitar, and “Sirius” along with it (the two are inseparable, really, since one bleeds directly into the other). “Time” grew on me as well, and I came to appreciate it as a beautifully structured “by-the-book” pop ballad.
Not long after this, I found a copy of APP’s second album,I Robot, for a buck at a thrift store. The LP itself was clean and free of scratches and the jacket was in pretty good shape. “Could be a dud,” I thought, but I had been intrigued enough by the recent discovery of the band that I figured I was willing to risk a dollar to explore them further. Needless to say, I was not disappointed, and my descent into the rest of their discography came soon after, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, a little background on the band.
This UK band formed in 1975 that could have been (andshouldhave been) every bit as widely-known as Pink Floyd is an anomaly in numerous ways, and their history is lush with curious facts regarding the way in which they operated. For example:
- While Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson were always the two core members at the heart of the project, they recruited a wide variety of vocal and instrumental collaborators for the studio sessions, giving each album its own unique sound and mood.
- APP was a band centered around creating stellar and atmospheric studio albums, not on touring. With the exception ofoneshow, they never performed live in their original incarnation.
- Who names a bandnotafter the lead singer, nor even after one of the prominent instrumentalists, but rather after theproducer and engineer?
Seemingly an odd choice without this piece of information: Alan Parsons himself was buzzing in 1974 when he and Woolfson met and began discussing starting a project together. They were originally going to call themselves Tales of Mystery and Imagination and have each album explore a standalone concept or story until a manager suggested otherwise, citing the name as too long and obscure. Parsons was hot off the mixing boards from having been the lead engineer on—lo and behold—Pink Floyd’sDark Side of the Moon. He had also been an assistant engineer for The Beatles’Abbey RoadandLet It Bealbums prior toDark Side. So the decision for the band’s name was primarily marketing-related, playing off of Parsons’ name having some notoriety at the time. Woolfson joked later in the band’s career that ifhehad been the assistant on the final two Beatles albums andhishad been the name being tossed around the music industry, they would have called themselves TheEric WoolfsonProject (paraphrased from Woolfson's quote in the liner notes included in Ammonia Avenue).
Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe(1976)
Woolfson was what Alan referred to as “the architect” of the band, being the primary songwriter and visionary behind the conceptual ideas that defined each album. A creative and well-read individual, he had loved the writings of Edgar Allan Poe since he was a boy, and had the idea to formulate APP’s first record around some of Poe’s more well known stories. He even borrowed the almost-band name, titling the albumTales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allan Poe. It was originally meant to be the first in a series, an idea the band later dropped (for example, their second album may have been titledTales of Mystery and Imagination: I Robot, or something along those lines).
The album was a strong start for the band, achieving Gold status in 1976 and gaining a cult following for its connection to the works of Poe. Side A is a series of standalone tracks including “The Raven” and “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” both of which became radio singles. Side B plays out more as a symphonic suite, most of which is consumed by a 16-minute instrumental interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” in five movements, concluding with the spacey, dreary, and contemplative “To One in Paradise.”
Notably, Alan Parsons revisited the album in 1987 and remixed it substantially, adding or replacing various takes from the original tapes and retooling the production style, changing the overall sound of the album significantly. Orson Welles also contributed a haunting narration to the opening track, "A Dream Within A Dream." The album was re-released to a generally positive response, although the consensus was that most fans preferred the original version of the album.
While not one of my personal favorites, the album is worth a once-through listen if at least to appreciate its consistent tone and seamlessness in atmosphere, and for its creativity and uniqueness as a concept album. It is dark and moody, yet also playful and all-out rocky at times, making for a journey-like listening experience that captures well the macabre nature of Poe’s work.
Tracks of note: “The Raven,” “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” “To One in Paradise.”
I Robot (1977)
Perhaps the most appropriate introduction to this album is the quote included inside its vinyl gate-fold:"I Robot... The story of the rise of the machine and the decline ofman, which paradoxically coincided with his discovery of the wheel... and a warning that his brief dominance ofthis planetwill probably end, because man tried to create robot in his own image."
IfTaleswas the APP album that piqued listeners’ interests,I Robotwas the release that cemented them onto the scene as a band worthy of attention. It was a pinnacle album for APP, and with good reason. Drawing its title from Isaac Asimov’s collection of science fiction storiesI, Robot (notice the comma in reference to the book), this sophomore album was praised both for its high fidelity production and its lyrics exploring philosophical and existential themes as well as the idea of artificial intelligence. That may sound like an overly heady description for what is, at its core, simply a great rock record.
I mentioned earlier that this was in fact my first APP purchase on vinyl. When I got it home and dropped the needle, I was immediately drawn in by the one-two pairing of the grooving title track that opens the record and leads directly into the funky single “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You.” The album then goes down a more experimental path that could perhaps be defined as prog-rock or even space-rock. The thematic tone is at times brooding and cold, laden with heavy lyrics and dark minor chords (like on “Some Other Time” or “The Voice”), while at other moments it turns sentimental and heartwarming (“Don’t Let It Show” and “Day After Day”).
Four out of the ten tracks are instrumental, givingI Robotan airy, wide-open quality similar to that ofTales. Instrumental tracks or lengthy experimental segments in songs were being oft explored in this era by the likes of Rush, Pink Floyd, Yes, Asia, The Allman Brothers, Jeff Beck, and dozens of others, and with debatable effectiveness (all a matter of opinion and preference, of course). But I dare propose that when it came to arranging and executing well thought out instrumental pieces, there were perhaps none better than The Alan Parsons Project. Every one of their ten studio albums features at least one instrumental track, if not several. Not only are these an audiophile’s dream come true when pumped through a good system, but they are sonically layered with such precision and care that you’ll be discovering new elements nearly every time you revisit a particular song. The instrumentals onI Robotbare these qualities, and warrant not one listen, but many.
To be frank,I Robotis an album that may take some time to absorb into your system and be appreciated, for while there are several great straightforward hits, it is not exactly an easily accessible record. But if you come for the hits and stick it out for the stranger parts, I think you’ll find it to be worth the effort.
Tracks of note: “I Robot,” “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” “Breakdown,” “Some Other Time,” “The Voice.”
The album where APP went mystical. This Grammy-nominated oddity is loosely centered around the pyramids of Giza and the concept of “pyramid power,” a topic of notable interest in the US and UK at the time (and a central symbol in Illuminati lore). Similarly toI Robot,Pyramidfeatured a quote in the liner notes to set a thematic tone for the listener: “...this album seeks to amplify the haunting echoes of the past and explore the unsolved mysteries of the present. Pyramid...the last remaining wonder of the ancient world.”
And yes, this 37-minute sonic excursion is just as epic and curious as the quote suggests.Pyramidis among my favorite APP albums, if for no other reason than it is somewhat bizarre both musically and conceptually; it feels like something from another realm. And speaking of bizarre, the jacket artwork (featuring a surprising amount of detail and pyramid iconography) was done by Hipgnosis, known for his iconic album covers that defined the look of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and numerous others.
Pyramidbegins on a rather gloomy note with the trio of songs “Voyager,” “What Goes Up,” and “The Eagle Will Rise Again.” APP chose to begin their album on this darker, initially depressing note (and somehow, it works) which makes for an interesting listening experience. The driving groove that opens the album would have been just at home inside aSaturday Night Feverpop hit, yet it is offset by minor chords in a weepy, soul-searching progression. Woolfson’s lyrics on “The Eagle Will Rise Again” in particular are philosophical and poetic, and they remind me of the lyrical work of Kansas frontman John Elefante.
Despite the fact that this might be sounding like the ultimate downer album, it is not without its lighter points and easy jams. “One More River” and “Can’t Take It with You” are both great, vibrant tracks with a more rocky tone that would define APP’s later career. “In the Lap of the Gods” sounds like a callback toTales of Mystery and Imaginationin its bigness; a song fit for a cathedral with a full choir piping out an evocative melody. Similarly, the instrumental “Hyper-Gamma-Spaces” could have been a B-side stripped right off ofI Robot, and sounds about like the title suggests. The closing tune “Shadow of a Lonely Man” brings us back thematically to where we began, to a keen and careful look inside the human soul.
As is evident from these first three albums alone, APP was clearly interested in exploring a wide variety of concepts in their albums, melding music with philosophy and scribing lyrics that, more often than not, posed questions and pondered elements of life to which all of humanity is subject. To listen throughPyramidin one sitting is something like passing through a meandering and colorful dream, for when the last note finishes, there is an indescribable sensation of awakening from a strange world and being grounded again in the real one.
Tracks of note: “Voyager/What Goes Up/The Eagle Will Rise Again,” “One More River,” “Can’t Take It with You.”
While the cultural sways of 2015 may have us looking at the cover art and title of this album and immediately deeming it “feminist” in nature, that is not necessarily accurate, as the themes within explore both the positive and sinister qualities of women (and more widely, mankind). That the women on the cover are beautiful is plain to all, but they are also veiled, signifying mystery or contempt, and upon closer evaluation one will find that there are small deformities and scars on their skin. As withPyramid, Hipgnosis was the designer of the album art.
Evewas originally going to be an album that portrayed and celebrated strong women throughout history, focusing on one woman in particular for each song, but the concept ultimately grew to the broader concept of the strengths and characteristics of women in general.
The first half of the album paints a bleaker side of human behavior, hinting at excessive sexual promiscuity, a facade of inauthenticity, an emptiness of the soul or lack of character, and finally a woman who is consistently not around when needed by her lover. Perhaps deeper meanings are best left unexplored (such as: the author or the band are women haters) and the songs should simply be taken at face value, for every allegation made in the lyrics could just as easily be applied to a man. That said, there is more a playful quality to these songs than the above suggests, and the woman being described throughout the album formulates in one’s mind as a sort of fictional harlot; a temptress figure similar to those represented in the Biblical book of Proverbs. The idea seems to be that this woman is a placeholder for a moral lesson; the type of woman whom ought to be avoided by men and whose actions ought not be mimicked by women.
As to the music, the record is good, though nothing groundbreaking for APP. If anything, it serves as a sort of stepping stone between the band’s earlier experimental, proggy beginnings to the more refined rock and ballad sound of their later years. “Lucifer,”Eve’s opening instrumental track and “Damned If I Do” both become high-charting hits, particularly in Europe, though little else stands out as grand or noteworthy.Tales,I Robot, andPyramidall function like symphonic suites, each flowing for the entirety of their run-times as near-nonstop pieces of music, whereasEveis broken up more or less into single standalone tracks.
For the APP purist (like myself),Eveis great and certainly worth a listen, although it is probably not a great starting point for anyone just getting to know the band. I don't say this to be insulting, but Eve is probably their “plainest” album as far as creativity and production. There's not much exploratory material, it’s just your basic rock record, and there's a proper time and place for those.
Tracks of note:“Lucifer,” “Damned If I Do,” “You Lie Down with Dogs.”
The Alan Parsons Project’s finest work was still ahead of them in 1979, for the follow-up toEveis, in my humble opinion, not only the pinnacle of their career and creativity but also one of the best rock albums of the last forty years… but I’ll get to that in Part II of this piece.
For the time being, I hope I’ve convinced you to, at the very least, seek out one of the above records, if not all four, and give them a shot for yourself. And do me (and yourself) a favor: don’t just Spotify these albums. Don’t just listen to a 30 second sample on iTunes. Don’t go listen to one song on YouTube, then move on to whatever else the Interweb is trying to distract you with today. Get off your hind-end, walk down to the thrift store or your favorite record shop, and dig until you find some Alan Parsons. Chances are you won’t have to look long or hard, and you won’t pay more than a few bucks. Then go home, put it on the turntable, and let the voyage begin.
...to be continued