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Old 01-13-2022, 07:51 PM   #47 (permalink)
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Stereotomy (1985)

What an odd word, eh? Apparently, “stereotomy” means to cut up solid objects into other shapes. Right, right. This was the penultimate album for the Alan Parsons Project, released a year after the less-than-successful but still wonderful Vulture Culture, and would feature the last performance from David Paton on bass, while my nemesis is nowhere to be seen, so for once I don't have to cringe at any vocals from Lenny Zakatek! On this, and the next album I see the APP come full circle: beginning life very much as a progressive rock band, with suites and epics, concept albums and orchestration, they morphed – deliberately I think, though it may have been chance that “Eye in the Sky” caught the public imagination – into a sort of progressive pop/rock group and after failing to have any sort of successful follow up chartwise with their next two albums, here, and on final album Gaudi, released two years later, they revert to their prog roots. Other than the expected ballads, there's nothing on either album which could be seen to have the potential for a hit single; those days are gone.

But overall, I think the band benefitted from such a situation, Without the pressure of having to write a radio-friendly song, which they must have realised by now was never going to happen again – to all intents and purposes, to the mainstream record-buying audience they were long forgotten, like a-ha after “Take On Me” or Berlin after their chart-smashing hit – and so they could concentrate on making the music they wanted to. Back to basics, and this album gives me a sense of freedom and the desire to experiment, with a seven-minute instrumental and two other tracks over six minutes, the album bookended by two versions of the title track.

And it's that one that kicks us off, with the very welcome return of John Miles as one of the band's longest tracks since “Silence and I” opens the album with a sort of hopping, tapping keyboard joined by Paton's thick, pulsing bass, percussive effects before Bairnson's guitar powers in and the main theme of the song develops, which is to run right through it. In fact, it's a full minute before Miles comes in, stretching out the words of the verses before getting all aggressive on the bridge. Very AOR-style keys and organ join the growling guitar, and it definitely is a different approach than we saw on Vulture Culture. It's not the APP version of heavy metal, or even heavy rock, god forbid, but it is one of the heaviest tracks I've heard from them. It certainly has the most whining guitar from Bairnson I've heard up to this point, a real sense of stadium rock about it. It slows down at the end for a more recognisable part, where I beieve Miles cedes vocal duties to Eric Woolfson, whose voice almost caresses the vocal, ending on a hard fade-out as the drums bounce and some muttered conversation drifts away.

Now “Beaujolais” I don't like, and for once it can't be blamed on our man Lenny, as Chris Rainbow takes the vocal here, but I just don't like the song. It's very new-wave, very ordinary, and though Paton's bass line is decent, there's nothing much in the song. Even the backing vocals bug me. In fact, had I heard this on the radio I would not have immediately identified it as an Alan Parsons Project song; there's nothing of the traditional motif there, no recognisable melodies, and even Rainbow's voice sounds a little unfamiliar. It's followed by the first of no less than three instrumentals, with “Urbania” (which at least has a decent title) beginning with the sounds of a car starting up and its engine running, then the sound of horns honking as they pass the driver, presumably to simulate a car heading out onto the road. It's got a nice almost Genesis-like feel to it with the signature Parsons motif coming in fairly quickly, Paton's bass again making itself apparent, coming front and centre in the tune, the guitar kind of howling around the edges, then a sax break courtesy of Richard Cottle, who only joined on the last album, Vulture Culture. To be fair, it's pretty long for an instrumental at five minutes (though not the longest on the album!) and it gets a little tedious towards the end, though there's a nice funky guitar chopping up the riffs, swirling synths and then it just kind of fades out.

But it leads us into one of the standouts, and the first of two ballads, with Procol Harum's Gary Brooker taking the vocal for “Limelight”. In terms of lyrical content, I feel this is a sort of prequel to Pyramid's “Shadow of a Lonely Man”, and also takes in elements of “Duchess” from Genesis's Duke, as the man who was so fed-up with the emptiness of fame in “Shadow of a Lonely Man” courts it in this, looking for his big break, as he sings ”After all the years of waiting/ I'm gonna show them all!” There's a beautifully understated sort of pizzicato theme, which I think is on guitar, and lovely synth and strings, but I do have to say it's the performance of the old campaigner that brings the song home.

Sharp guitar then heralds the return of John Miles “In the Real World”, as he laments the abundance of destroyed dreams and broken hearts we leave behind us. There's powerful percussion in this, and a real sense of eighties AOR, but it's Ian Bairnson who really shines here on the guitar, letting it all rip in a way we really haven't heard from him before. Again, hearing this on radio I would have thought Journey, maybe Bon Jovi or I don't know, Bonfire maybe, but it doesn't have the APP stamp on it. That doesn't stop it being a great song though. I would however almost have said it had been written by someone like Desmond Childs or Dianne Warren rather than Parsons and Woolfson, but no, these are all their compositions. Guess they just wanted to rock out for once. No harm in that.

That takes us to something of an experiment in the second instrumental, “Where's the Walrus”, which runs for over seven minutes. Can a seven-minute instrumental keep the attention? Well, it's fast and sort of electronica, with some wailing guitar and elements from previous instrumentals such as maybe “Pipeline”, “Apollo” and “Hyper-gamma Spaces”, bright synth painting broad strokes across the melody. Rocks well, but it's only two minutes in and I'm sort of thinking they could be winding it up now. Well here comes some whining sax, its thread being woven into the tapestry of the tune, giving it an extra punch. Slowing down and fading out almost to nothing in the fourth minute, and maybe that might have been the right time to have brought it to its conclusion, but no, there are another three minutes to go, and here it comes in on Fairlight effects and synth to reprise the melody, with hopping synth and organ, grinding guitar, what sounds like laughter a la Floyd's “Brain Damage”, or even “Speak to Me”. Then that cuts off and we're mostly listening to Paton's bass before the whole band comes back in to take the song to its end – no, no, it's a false ending. And on we go. Getting a bit seriously tedious now guys.

Overall, I think the tune worked but it didn't need to be that long. I just don't see why they had to stretch it to such an ungainly length. It fades out anyway and we're into the second ballad, “Light of the World”, another of my favourites. This time vocals are shared between two completely new singers. Graham Dye and his brother Steven are from a band called Scarlet Party, but I've never heard of them. Nevertheless, Graham takes the main vocal for the song, while his brother backs him up. His voice is so lilting and high I used to wonder if it was a female singer (would have been only the third on an APP album until The Time Machine, and the first since 1979's Eve) but it's very pleasant. The music comes in on a dark Fairlight soundscape and shimmering descending keys, Steven providing very effective backup for his brother.

A very soulful and expressive guitar solo by Bairnson sets the seal on this beautiful ballad, with some castanet-style percussion ringing out there too, and by itself this I think would have been a good way to close the album, though I would have preferred better than the sort of limp fade we get. It is though one of the longer tracks, the second over six minutes, and essentially it does end the album, as all that's left is a one-minute, um, instrumental called “Chinese Whispers” and a reprise of the title track, almost as short, basically the chorus which gives way to a powerful, frenetic guitar solo from Bairnson to bring proceedings to a close.


In the Real World
Where's the Walrus?
Light of the World
Chinese Whispers
Stereotomy 2

This is certainly a different Alan Parsons Project album. For one thing, it's much darker and aggressive, their rockiest to date, with Bairnson's guitar taking a much more commanding role. For another, it's as I said a kind of return to the progressive suites of Tales of Mystery and Imagination and The Turn of a Friendly Card, with tracks that are both shorter and longer than on other albums. There are new members in the Dye brothers and contribution from a real legend of prog rock. It's an album that was never going to crack the charts, nor did it, but at this point I think Alan and Eric realised they had had all the hits they were going to, and were now just writing music for themselves, and for the fans.

It also sees some look-backs, mostly to the debut, as the boys continue to demonstrate their fascination with Edgar Allan Poe, the title of the album being used in Poe's “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and excerpts from that story also inserted cleverly into the minute-long “Chinese Whispers”. Call backs to Pyramid too, and Eye in the Sky, the former reflected in the possible prequel to “Shadow of a Lonely Man”, and the last few notes of the album, the closing ones of “Stereotomy 2” nodding towards “Pyramania”, while parts of the melody in the actual title track remind me of the closing section on “Children of the Moon”.

Whether they knew or not that they were heading towards the end of their association, Woolfson and Parsons really seem to want to pull it out of the bag for this, and their final, triumphant album, marking a career that had at this point spanned over ten years.

Rating: 8.9/10
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