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Old 11-17-2021, 11:05 AM   #41 (permalink)
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Tales of Mystery and Imagination (1976)

Based loosely on the works of horror fiction writer Edgar Allan Poe, the album seeks to represent some of his best stories through the medium of music, and it's quite a task they've set themselves here for their debut album. The idea of creating a mood, evoking an atmosphere that recalls the story you're trying to tell, with or without lyrics, is a daunting one, but here I think the APP do quite well with it. That's not to say it's a completely successful attempt, but generally speaking I think over the course of the album they managed it more times than they failed.

We open on “A Dream Within a Dream”, which though it has no vocals does have a narrated introduction by the great Orson Welles, as piano and synth build up behind him. As his narration ends a lonely recorder whines and then the bassline that would become distinctive to David Paton thumps in like a slow heartbeat, piano and organ joining it as the percussion slips in, and the piece begins on a slow, moderate tempo with very progressive sprinkled guitar from Ian Bairnson, somewhat reminiscent of Mike Oldfield. The sound builds up in layers, driven by Burleigh Drummond's sudden hammering percussion and then fades away slowly, leaving only the bassline to take us into “The Raven”, on which we hear Alan Parsons use the vocoder to relate the poem against, firstly just bass and percussion and then sharp guitar punching in. A big almost orchestral run takes the tune before it slips back down on choral vocals and back into a sound which would become a signature one of The Alan Parsons Project, easily identifiable as them whenever it was played, and it was played often.

The vocal then becomes clearer as Leonard Whiting - who, oddly enough is not a singer but an actor - takes over, and then Bairnson lets rip with a pretty heavy solo as the vocal rises in urgency and power. Softly then, almost like a hymn, the vocals go choral and fade down as the track winds towards its gentle end. Much more uptempo then for “The Tell-tale Heart”, vocals this time supplied by Arthur Brown (yes, the Arthur Brown, he of the Crazy World) and it bops along really well on Bairnson's romping guitar and Paton's ticking bass. Then after about two minutes it slows down to a stately waltz almost, with sumptuous synth and piano joining the orchestra before it all takes off again, this time fading into what would become another motif of the APP, a kind of low, fading choral vocal line and back in comes Bairnson, the tempo picking up again and exploding into a fine solo before the vocal comes back for the final verse.

A soft ballad then with the orchestra sweeping along slowly in “The Cask of Amontillado”, vocals this time taken by John Miles. It begins to ramp up on harder guitar and percussion in the second minute and then falls back to a solo piano, beginning again to build with some really nice backing vocals and ends on an APP instrumental motif and into “The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether”, brought in on tough guitar and punching percussion in a style again which would become identified with the APP. A dark voice declares “Just what you need to feel better” and then Miles takes the vocal again. I can see why this had a shot as a single; it's quite commercial and even poppy in its way, and points something of the direction towards later songs such as “Prime Time”, “Children of the Moon” and “Don't Answer Me”. I like how they throw in part of the vocoder section of “The Raven” near the end. Clever.

The penultimate track is one big long instrumental. Lasting over sixteen minutes and broken into five sections, “The Fall of the House of Usher” opens on “Prelude”, which runs for more than half of the composition, segueing directly in from the end of the previous track and into a narrated vocal by again I think Welles, then it's a very spooky and unsettling orchestral line that takes the piece as we move into the dark, forbidding house, jumping at shadows, suffocated by the thick, cloying air, listening for sounds. Reminds me a little of the themes to the Star Trek movies in places. Gets a little grand and majestic halfway through, the orchestra swelling proudly before dropping back again, like someone breathing a sigh of delight at being home before realising something evil is waiting there for them. And the music then swells and gets more urgent and scary as it heads towards the end of this section.

“Arrival” is a short piece that comes in on thunder, rain and Phantom-of-the-Opera-style church organ, busy synth that rises and overtakes the organ, perhaps meant to illustrate the pulse rate of the arriver before slow percussion hits in and the guitar wails its accompaniment. The synth fades away and back, as does the organ, and as we head towards the final minute comes back in, almost as if it's passing by, then a strong riff on the guitar closes the section and takes us to the one-minute “Intermezzo” which is pretty much a kind of suspense soundtrack, rising and pulling us into “Pavane”, where Paton's portentous bass and some acoustic guitar softens the mood somewhat, the familiar APP theme as it were returning. Sounds like mandolin there, probably is not - I see a kantele is used, so it could be that, though I don't know what one of them sounds like - and it takes the melody mostly on its own, as it builds back up for the big finale, fading out then to “Fall”, which is less than a minute of descending (obviously) discordant sounds, which certainly does symbolise a crashing to the ground and a sense of something dying.

It ends, naturally, abruptly, and we're left with one final track, the ballad “To One in Paradise”, which foreshadows the likes of “Time”, “Ignorance is Bliss” and “Siren Song”, and features the ex-Hollies singer Terry Sylvester, with some lovely backing vocals and swirling synth, a very nice ending to a pretty dark album that still manages to keep the attention and doesn't descend into total darkness.

TRACK LISTING

A Dream Within a Dream
The Raven
The Tell-tale Heart
The Cask of Amontillado
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
The Fall of the House of Usher (i) Prelude (ii) Arrival (iii) Intermezzo (iv) Pavane (v) Fall
To One in Paradise

Quite an undertaking, and one which in general worked well, however something of a gamble to do this for your first album. Nevertheless, The Alan Parsons Project would go on to become, if not famous, then at least known, as they would have a few hits along their eleven-year career. If you're looking to get into them, honestly this is not the best place to start (and I didn't), but once you've heard and enjoyed their other material, it's a nice look back to see how they started off.

Rating: 7.5/10
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Old 11-18-2021, 02:11 AM   #42 (permalink)
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On the surface, it appears that an album like "Tales" was indeed "something of a gamble to do this for your first album". It makes more sense, however, when you understand that when they made this album it was not intended to be the first of a string of albums. Rather, this album was in fact "the Alan Parsons project".

I like this album a lot, but it's not an album of grest singles, or songs that could have been singles, except for possibly "To One In Paradise". It's an album for those who like to listen to albums.

"To One In Paradise" is a song I would not mind played at my funeral.
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Old 11-18-2021, 06:36 AM   #43 (permalink)
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The Raven got a lot of airplay on AOR radio when it came out. Of course, Edgar Allan Poe is a big deal in Baltimore so that could have been the reason. Not sure how Tales did anywhere else.
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Old 11-23-2021, 11:05 AM   #44 (permalink)
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A Valid Path (2004)

Back when I reviewed Alan's third solo album, The Time Machine, I expressed a worry that he was stepping back too far from participating in such things as the songwriting and leaving control of what we could reasonably call The Alan Parsons Project V 2.0 to people like Ian Bairnson and Stuart Elliot, and wondered if this was the way his career as a solo artist was going to continue? Well, it's been five years since that album and let me tell you, a whole hell of a lot has changed. One almost earth-shaking difference is the absence of both the aforesaid gentlemen, Bairnson having emigrated to Spain and Elliot hooking up with, among others, Cockney Rebel's Steve Harley and Yes's Jon Anderson. Another big change is the involvement of a true legend, and one well known to Alan from his days engineering their seminal 1973 classic, as Dave Gilmour lends his talent to this album.

But the biggest change, one which has never occurred before in the history of even The Alan Parsons Project, is Alan taking vocal duties himself. I know he added backing vocals on a few of the albums, but he never sang lead, and I think it will be interesting (this is the very first time I've heard this album) to see how he sounds, and how, if at all, he can measure up to the stellar vocal talents that have graced his albums over the years. Alan also gets back to writing, though nothing here is a solo composition of his, he is involved in every single track. Two of the songs are re-recordings or remixes of previous APP tracks, and finally his son Jeremy, whose first outing with his father was on the debut solo album, Try Anything Once, reprises his role here on guitar, but following in dad's footsteps, extends that to sequencer and programming.

So it's a vastly different band we find, half a decade later, performing on the fourth solo album, and it could, I guess, be said to be the first Alan Parsons solo album where he finally lets go of the legacy of the Alan Parsons Project, at least in terms of band members, and where he returns to what he's best at, writing great music. I will sound a note of caution though: as I look at the other songwriters who help Alan out, all of them seem to be in the area of electronic music, some even trance or psybient (whatever the hell that is) so I have to wonder if this is going to sound very different indeed to what we've become used to? Alan Parsons for the twenty-first century? Let's find out.

Gilmour is in fine form as “Return to Tunguska” opens the album with a deep synthy sound and robotic kind of effects, spacey soundscapes and I think whispered dialogue very low in the mix and rising organ (yes yes ooer!) and keys in a sort of eastern/Arabic melody, pecussion only bouncing in around the third minute, the piece's almost nine minutes making it the longest instrumental of either Alan Parsons' solo career or of that of the Alan Parsons Project. Thick, echoing and hollow-sounding drums now as the synth climbs before Gilmour's solo comes in about halfway. I imagine it was really something for the two old comrades to be reunited, the career of one having so eclipsed (sorry) the other, but Parsons would still be able to point to over fifty million albums sold and several hit singles. Still, there's no comparison, but for a man who began life in the early seventies as a humble engineer, Alan's rise to commercial fame has been very impressive, and I'm sure Dave took note.

Oh well he had to throw in a few riffs from “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, didn't he? Only a few notes, but instantly recognisable, then the keys and percussion take over again as the piece heads for its seventh minute. Oh there's “Run Like Hell” too! Dave, you tease! I would have to say, on the face of it though, this sounds very much more like something you might have got on The Endless River, more a Pink Floyd piece than an Alan Parsons one. I guess Gilmour can't help automatically taking over any track he participates on, and he certainly does here, once he comes in. I couldnt' say it's the greatest settler of my nerves, nor the best opener I could hope for, but we'll see how it goes.

Strange, almost country-style opening to “More Lost Without You”, which features on vocals a man who apparently is the voice of the Alan Parsons Live Project, P.J. Olsson. Can't say I love his voice but it's not bad. The song itself I'm not terribly impressed with, and my trepidation grows rather than be calmed. It's a sort of hard rock-ish song, I would have thought a ballad from the title, but no, definitely not. Some good heavy percussion, but at the moment I'm missing the guitar licks of Ian Bairnson. We're now two tracks in and I couldn't recognise this as an Alan Parsons album, not even the previous The Time Machine: there's just no, what's the word? No identity on it, at least so far. There's no familiar melody, there are no riffs, none of the “Parsons March” - it could be an album by anyone.

Now there is, but that's only because “Mammagama 04” is of course a remix of the instrumental from 1982's Eye in the Sky, featruring Alan's son Jeremy. Have to say, it doesn't sound anything like it to me. Some sort of staggered vocal effect running through it, very trance-ified, slower, kind of hear it when all the nonsense drops out in the second minute – yeah I can recognise it now, but essentially it's the same track with some weird effects and a different arrangement, which is, I suppose, the point, and they're not trying to hide it, as it is titled as such. Vocoder work on it, that weird effect is back, and I guess if Jeremy is on this he's doing a good job, but I prefer the original.

You have to say, too, that if he's relying on remixing older tracks from his days with the Alan Parsons Project, then maybe the man is fresh out of ideas. I personally wonder if he's missing Woolfson, as this is one of two tracks written with Eric in their heyday, and even the title of the previous track could be taken to refer to his not being able to come up with new ideas without Woolfson's assistance. Probably not, as he's written two – all right three; let's say two and a half – good solo albums, two very good ones without his ex-partner, but still, this comes across to me as a kind of mixture between an exercise in nostalgia and a holding pattern, as if Alan isn't sure where he goes from here.

In fact I'm wrong about the vocals: he only takes the mike for two songs (most of this album is instrumental anyway) and on this one is helped by two members of electronic band The Crystal Method. Do have to admit, his voice is very good though, and I wonder why he didn't sing on more of his older songs? Maybe he just didn't want to; preferred to operate behind the scenes. Or maybe it was an agreement between him and Woolfson, who knows? You stick to producing and I'll do the singing, when we're not using guest vocalists. All right, I have to be honest, this is miles better than anything on the album up to now, not that that would be hard. It almost restores my faith in the man, though even at that, it's hardly an Alan Parsons (Project) song. Good guitar solo, almost Bairnson-like. Who's playing it? Could be one of four: Alan himself, his son, David Pack or Alastair Greene.

“We Play the Game” is mostly driven on electronic synth beats though, and you can't help but look back to “Games People Play” from The Turn of a Friendly Card, although musically the song is nothing like that. Yeah I really like this. About bloody time. That could have been a hit single. Back though to instrumentals we go, with two in a row, the first being “Tijuanaic”, a swaying, rolling sort of beat with a nice exotic kind of feel, some really sweet piano. The melody goes a bit warped halfway, maybe that's this atonic scale or whatever they call it; very annoying to my ears anyway. I hope it doesn't stay this way as there's over five minutes of this instrumental. Now there's a powerful punch as screeching guitar and synth snap out, kettle drums maybe, and the annoying atonal wotsit keeps going. This is, I have to say, not a track I'm enjoying at all. Oh, well it's over, thank the Great Pixie. Featured, apparently, some crowd called the Nortec Collective. Right. Next.

Well, following this we have, as I said, another instrumental, this being another electronica-influenced one, another that lasts over five minutes, and another with a collaborator, this being someone called Uberzone. Opens on rather soothing sounds of thunder and falling rain, then picks up on a sweeping synth melody and a percussive beat and bass line almost reminiscent of the old days with the Alan Parsons Project. Much better than the previous one anyway. Some very good progressive rock style passages here, and a nice darker synth when it slows down and then gives way to a crying guitar. Definitely my favourite after “We Play the Game”, but that's still only two tracks out of, so far, six. I'm not sure I'd be into Uberzone's music, but if it's all like “L'arc en Ciel” (Rainbow) then maybe it might be worth a shot.

We're all the way back to the debut then with a remixing and re-recording, and amalgamation of two tracks from Tales of Mystery and Imagination which goes under the title of “A Recurring Dream Within a Dream”, and features “The Raven” linked to “A Dream Within a Dream”, the other track featuring Alan on vocals. The opening narration is by Orson Welles, and Jeremy joins his father on this reimagining of the not-exactly-classic but well-known tracks from the debut album that introduced the world to The Alan Parsons Project. The vocal on “The Raven” was always processed through a vocoder, and here it is again so I'm not sure what to think. I'm not sure what to think of him resurrecting these two tracks in the first place. I mean, why? Are we constantly looking back here? Did not Neil Lockwood tell us there was “No Future in the Past” on the previous album? Is Alan really stuck, unable to go forward, always having to look over his shoulder at his past glories rather than create new ones? Yeah, don't think much of the remix at all. Pretty pointless, I feel.

On we go, with an increasingly heavy heart which has been temporarily lightened only to find itself weighed down again with the sad burden of having to come to terms that Alan may be past it now, but perhaps there's some respite in “You Can Run”, as David Pack appears to lend a hand, the song a pounding rocker somewhat in the vein of “You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned”, and while I would have sneered at this earlier, right now it's about as as welcome as the return of Ian Bairnson. It is, to be fair, not great, which just goes to show how pretty miserable the larger part of the rest of the album has been that I'm clinging onto this sub-standard rocker as a symbol that all is not lost. I think I have to face it: on this album at least, all is lost. We end on one final instrumental, “Chomolunga” apparently being one of the mountains in the Himalayas that isn't Everest, and sounds like someone rattling castanets over a shaky synth rhythm, which does not fill me with enthusiasm or confidence. I also hear elements of “Welcome to the Machine” there, but that might just be me going mad after listening to this rubbish.

Nice bright keyboard helps, but the dark tribal chant does not, and – well, actually it comes together quite well at the end, and I can see the idea here. Not quite sure what the idea of having John Cleese doing his best Monty Python at the end is, other than to underline how boring this album is and how haphazard. Hell, there's even a dog barking at the end!

TRACK LISTING

Return to Tunguska
More Lost Without You
Mammagamma 04
We Play the Game
Tijuanaiac
L'arc en Ciel
A Recurring Dream Within a Dream
You Can Run
Chomolunga

I really don't know what to say. This album is a mess. There's nothing of the Alan Parsons magic about it. Maybe it was – hopefully – an experiment, something he wanted to try (his solo debut does make that claim) and now that he's got it out of his system he'll settle back down to writing and playing the pop/rock tunes we've grown up on. Well, I have anyway. If that's not the case, and this is the new direction he's planning on going in, I think we may very well have to part ways, because this does not speak to me.

Has losing all the main members of his band had a deleterious effect on his music? It certainly seems so. Here, he's relying on remixes of old tracks and basically putting bits onto music by other artists to cobble together an album which, in my opinion, should have been left on the drawing board. Is it a mid-life crisis? Has Alan found electronic music and wants to go entirely into that area now, moving away from rock altogether? I suppose it's possible.

But this is the worst Alan Parsons album I've ever heard, full stop. It barely deserves the name of one. A valid path? More like off the beaten path and into the deep, dark forest from which there may be no return.

Rating: 5.0/10
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Old 12-04-2021, 01:11 PM   #45 (permalink)
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Ammonia Avenue (1983)

I feel this must have been the second APP album I bought, given that Eye in the Sky was my first and this was released the year after that, but I'm not sure. I only remember hearing the single “Don't Answer Me” on telly and loving it, and then going out to buy the album – this was a time BDD (Before Digital Download) when if you wanted an album you had to get up off your backside and head into a record shop with your hard-earned, and so I did. I seem to remember being delighted that the album turned out not to be just support for the big single, and it became one of my favourites, in fairness easily eclipsing my first experience of the band on vinyl.

Though the album did pretty well (not as well as its predecessor, of course) I have to feel that some percentage of buyers shelled out due to having heard the previous one, or at least the singles. Whether they found themselves disappointed or not I don't know; I only know I was certainly not. The album was preceded by its biggest hit single, the aforementioned “Don't Answer Me”, but opens on “Prime Time”, which was also released, though later on. This I find quite similar in its opening to both “Sirius” and “Eye in the Sky”, the rhythm and melody almost copied from them, and I don't know whether that was deliberate, to cash in on the success of the previous hit and draw people in with a “look! This album is like the last one you heard!” but it's still a great song, with Eric Woolfson again getting matters under way. It's slightly faster than “Eye in the Sky”, though not much, and features a fair amount of contribution on the frets from Ian Bairnson, its lyrics again looking back in part, though this time to The Turn of a Friendly Card as he sings “Not all of the hands I play will work out right”. I really like the guitar solo here, short though it is, and there are good backing vocals too, then it's down to earth with a bump as Lenny Zakatek sticks his nose in again and though “Let Me Go Home” is not his worst, it's really a slide in quality almost straight away. I suppose in ways you could say this also references TTOAFC as he sings “I've had a bad night, leave me alone!” It's a very rock-and-roll, almost down-and-dirty song, which again gives Bairnson a chance to cut loose, but it's not sophisticated enough for me. I like my APP songs to have more to them than this.

Would I dislike it as much if Woolfson or someone other than Zakatek was singing? I don't know, but probably. It's not necessarily his voice that turns me off this track; it's just too sharp and in-your-face for the kind of thing I expect from Parsons and his boys. I don't expect every song to be a ballad or a suite, but this is low grade in the worst way. Luckily it's short and soon forgotten as we head into “One Good Reason” with the welcome return of Woolfson. This too is an uptempo song, but I feel it has more about it, and while it's not one of my favourites, I'd take it above the previous one any day. Handclaps and a busy percussion with digital piano keep things moving nicely, and in the second verse Woolfson is joined by – well, I don't know: could be his own voice double-tracked, but it works well. Jangly guitar from Bairnson fits in well, but oddly the thing that really makes the song is the consistent handclap percussion. Odd, because usually I don't like those but there you go.

After that though it's pure gold pretty much all the way. The first ballad comes in “Since the Last Goodbye”, Chris Rainbow's only contribution to the album, but it's a powerful one. With a lazy, laconic and sad guitar line it very much puts me in mind of “Time” from Pyramid, though not in a rip-off sort of way, I just hear the same sort of arrangement on it. It's the tale, in case you couldn't tell from the title, of a love affair breaking up, and Rainbow's yearning voice really makes the song, rising to a tortured wail on the completion of the last bridge. Bairnson confines himself to gentle acoustic guitar accompaniment and it's the string section under the direction of Andrew Powell that really gives the song its heart musically. Just beautiful, and it fades perfectly away like the last breath of a dying lover.

Powerful, rolling percussion takes us then into “Don't Answer Me” featuring again the return of Woolfson, who does his usual great job here, in a bitter kind of semi-ballad which seems to be built on distrust and uncertainty – "Don't answer me, don't break the silence/Don't let me win/ Don't answer me, stay on your island/Don't let me in.” This is one of my favourite APP songs of all time, and I'm not surprised it was a hit. Mel Collins again turns up to add a superb sax solo that just raises the song to a even higher level, and things stay up for “Dancing on a Highwire”, where we're in the safe vocal hands, as it were, of Colin Blunstone, this also his only song on the album, but worth waiting for. Unlike his previous turns, this is not what you'd call a ballad, and shows what he can do when he's singing something other than a love song.

I find the opening rather similar to “Prime Time”, and the same basic beat is there again, but you get that with a lot of APP songs – it's almost their signature – however it takes a very different direction, with a sort of political message in it to some extent, and a more downbeat idea than we expect from these guys: "The silver-plated hero meets a golden-hearted whore/The odds will give you zero she'll be leaving in a few days more.” It's quite a bitter song, reflecting a little of Pink Floyd's “Money” when Blunstone sings ”We believe in freedom and charity/ As long as I get mine.”

Driven very much on Bairnson's rasping guitar licks, the song features a very smooth solo from him in the midsection, with powerful percussion from Elliot, and then there's one more slight dip... no, let's be fair here: “You Don't Believe” is a damn good song, even if we do have to suffer Lenny again, and in fact, loath though I am to say it, credit where credit is due, this song suits his more ragged, raw voice and he does a good job on it for once. It's a rolling, galloping kind of melody, with a very dramatic feel to it, riding on a thick synth line from Parsons and some sharp guitar too. I read that it was previously released, both as a single and on a compilation, but this was the first time I had heard it. I do wonder if it has anything to do with Parsons feeling that though he is the boss and his name is on the band he tends to get little real credit? Or possibly the reverse? When Zakatek sings “My song, your production/It's my expense but your deduction” is he sniping at Woolfson? Or given that it's Eric singing, is the lyric directed at Parsons? They did have a famous (within the band's fans) altercation about who was in charge, and when he growls ”My terms on your conditions/ They're my tunes, but your compositions!” well, you have to wonder, don't you? Yeah well maybe you don't, but I do. The pounding, urgent rhythm of the song would, for me, back this up, but it might just be my imagination working overtime.

There's only one instrumental on this, and “Pipeline” goes along slowly but surely, plodding along with not really all that much to it, but I do like it. The addition of Collins's sax helps elevate it, as does the orchestral strings, and while it hasn't the immediacy of a “Voyager” or “Hyper-gamma Spaces”, as Moe once said, it's not without its charm. It's the lead in to the title, and closing track, which nods a lot back to “Silence and I” from the previous album. There's a sense of The Eagles' “The Last Resort” here for me, with a semi-religious theme running through it, opening on some gorgeous piano and the return of Eric Woolfson, the vocal and indeed the piano very low when it begins, peppered through by some lovely acoustic guitar from Ian Bairnson. “Ammonia Avenue” is the longest track on the album – six and a half minutes – and features some truly stunning orchestral work from The Philharmonia Orchestra, but worryingly we're back to both “Silence and I” and “Pyramania” in the midsection. It doesn't kill the song but it does make it sound less original.

Much of the track, in fact, is taken up by the instrumental break, which kind of makes me wonder if it needed to be this long? Not that I have any problem with a song being six minutes plus, nor any issue with this track, which I love, but I just wonder if they had not put in the instrumental part, essentially, from “Silence and I” if the song might have sounded better. In the end, it's a bitter but powerful and effective closer, and as I say, much credit must be given to the orchestra for their stellar work here. I could have wished for a better ending though, as I feel it kind of fades away a little poorly, though Woolfson gives it his all, there's no doubt about that.

TRACK LISTING

Prime Time
Let Me Go Home
One More Reason
Since the Last Goodbye
Don't Answer Me
Dancing on a Highwire
You Don't Believe
Pipeline
Ammonia Avenue

In terms of good-to-bad tracks, this is close to as good as it gets. Even with the massive drag factor (sorry Lenny) of a certain vocalist on two of the songs, there's nothing on this I don't like, and little I don't love. It's one of my favourite APP albums, and buying it certainly sent me in a backward direction to purchase other, older albums, few if any of which disappointed. If anyone ever asks me (which they never have) which album they should listen to in order to get into the Alan Parsons Project, this is the one I would recommend. It's practically flawless.

If that's a question you're asking yourself, and you're looking to begin your journey into their music, you could not really do better than take a stroll down Ammonia Avenue, and see where it leads you.

Rating: 9.8/10
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Old 12-14-2021, 10:47 AM   #46 (permalink)
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Try Anything Once (1993)

After a somewhat acrimonious split between himself and Eric Woolfson, Alan's former partner in the band went into producing musicals and also resurrecting music they had written together but never published, and the two did not work together again to my knowledge, Woolfson passing in 2009. Parsons went on to a solo career, but essentially it seems to be the Alan Parsons Project minus Eric and David Paton. Evidently no singer himself, and without Woolfson to take the lion's share of vocal duties, Alan resorted to his tactics while in charge of the APP, which was to recruit different singers to take different songs. None of his old muckers are here – John Miles, Chris Rainbow, Colin Blunstone, even Lenny Zakatek are conspicuous by their absence, Whether he avoided calling them in so that his new venture would not be seen as the APP under a shorter name, or whether they were all busy, or even whether they sided with Woolfson or just did not wish to take sides, I have no idea. But the world of rock music is not short of vocalists, and Parsons recruited people like David Pack from Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Ambrosia's Chris Thompson, Eric Stewart as well as, for the first time since 1979's Eve, a female singer in the shape of Jacqui Copland, who had also worked with Woolfson on his Freudiana stage musical.

There's very little you could call progressive rock on this album, but it's still a thoughtful, deep rock album with some very memorable tunes and a few tracks that might have made decent singles, though that part of the Parsons legend had long passed by now. I expect people encountering this album had one of three reactions: “Alan who?” or maybe “A new album from the Alan Parsons Project” or even “I thought that band were finished?”

Not quite, my friends, not quite. Back in a new form, but still with those wonderful songs you all loved back in the 1980s.

The new era of Alan Parsons, sans Project, opens with “The Three of Me”, a very familiar synth line and dark percussion kicking it off bringing slow, luxurious synth in followed by tinkling piano with trumpeting keys, really announcing the beginning of a new chapter in fine style, the song instrumental up until the second minute, with the familiar strings of the Philharmonia Orchestra revving everything up. Then it sort of breaks into a bouncy, poppy beat which looks a little back to “Pyramania” as David Pack becomes the first vocalist to usher in the new era. It's an odd little song, which I feel nods back also to “Somebody Out There” from Vulture Culture, at least in its lyrical themes.

A strange sound of dark laughter there, whether this is directed at Woolfson, himself or nobody is open to question, but it's clear Alan takes a far more active role on this album, not only playing synths but also acoustic guitar, bass and flute as well as adding backing vocals. Well, the APP was under his name, but this is his name, so I guess he'd want to stamp his identity over it more than he used to, when he would mostly keep in the background, making sure everything ticked over. A soft, susurrating beat and low bass introduces “Turn it Up”, with perhaps a message for or from himself in the opening lines: "It's no use believing in somebody else/ If you can't believe in yourself” and notes wryly ”It's no good sitting on the fence/ And hoping the trouble will pass/ Sitting on fences can give you a pain in the ass!”

This is the first of two contributions by Chris Thompson, who sounds to me a little like a heavier Woolfson, and you could almost imagine Eric singing this. For a song so titled it's mostly quite low-key, though it does, ahem, turn it up for the chorus. Some nice synthy soundscapes in the middle, and now I really listen to him Thompson is too ragged and raspy a voice to compare to the pure, heavenly pipes of Woolfson. Love the bass line here, courtesy of either Alan or Ian, though flute accompanying the riff would indicate the latter, as Alan is clearly busy with his flute ooer. Then again, Andrew Powell, longtime orchestral arranger, also plays the bass, so who knows who it is? Poweful ending and we're into what sounds once more an attempt by Alan to recreate “Eye in the Sky”, as Eric Stewart takes the vocals for “Wine to the Water”, a softer, easier tone in his voice than that of Thompson. This is very smooth and contains some nice vocal harmonies with a kind of boogie rhythm to it.

This is the first time we really hear the guitar cut loose, although whether it's Ian Bairnson or not is hard to work out, as Parsons employs here for I think the first time a second guitarist in Jeremy Parsons: is he any relation? Yes, he's his son. Of course you'd expect instrumentals, and there are no less than four on this album, with the first up next. “Breakaway” runs mostly on squelchy synth and handclaps with a sort of running beat, then trumpet or some sort of horn comes in kind of a la “Urbania”, but not, I think, sax. I see there's autoharp on the album, so it could be that that's making the synthy sound, not sure. Very much a sense of ELO in some of the melody here. Quite catchy, and it speed up halfway and really takes off, reminding us of the best days of the APP, when they could do no wrong. Sharp guitar solo paired with violins and cellos as the piece hurtles towards its conclusion. Very impressive.

One of the two standouts is next, and it's also both the longest on the album – and I think edges out "Silence and I" as the longest single Alan Parsons Project track(if we're basically accepting that this is the APP under another name), coming in at eight and a half minutes, and is the only one on the album with a female vocal, courtesy of Jacqui Copland. A whining guitar gives way to lush synth then she comes in with the vocal as “Mr. Time” shows us that though Eric may be gone, Alan is still around and ready to carry on the tradition of excellent songwriting and music he purveyed as one half of the creative team behind the band for ten years. The song starts slowly and develops a sort of swaying, boogie rhythm then the chorus blasts out as Jacqui demands ”Who can tell you what to do/ When Mr. Time has come for you?”

I don't see the Fairlight here, which is interesting, as it's been an integral part of the Alan Parsons Project for a decade now, but Alan seems to have ditched it in favour of banks of synthesisers and his orchestra. The latter really contributes here, raising the grandeur and majesty level of the song. It's good to hear a woman sing again with Alan Parsons, even if it is technically on his own solo album, and she gives a great performance. I'd hope we'd hear more from her. My usual gripe about songs being too long doesn't apply here: this doesn't overstay its welcome or feel padded out despite its length, and it takes us into the second instrumental, the manic and frivolous but happy “Jigue”, which is, as you might expect, an Irish (or Scottish) jig, on which Graham Preskett's fiddle takes centre stage, the guitar then acquiring a very distinctive Mike Oldfield sound (I wonder if that was a deliberate tribute?), and it's just a fun little piece of music. After the serious soul-searching and existentialism of “Mr. Time” it's just what's needed to lighten the mood.

More or less heavy rock then for “I'm Talkin' to You”, with David Pack returning on the vocals in a much more aggressive tone, with punchy guitars and snarling drums (or is that the other way around?), a song I feel Lenny Zakatek would have been very suited to, but Alan didn't ask or he said no or whatever, I don't know. Pack does a good job with it, but other than the tinges of the old “Parsons March” it's kind of not really that recognisable as an APP-style track. The next one certainly is though, “Siren Song” being the first of two ballads, and just gorgeous. The only thing missing from this Woolfson's heartfelt vocal, but Eric Stewart does a fine job with it, and I would certainly place it in the running for standout of the album. It probably would win that prize easily were it not for “Mr. Time” and the closer.

There's no way not to imagine drifting lazily along a river in summer without a care in the world, your woman or man at your side, everything right with life, as this music just carries you along like a gentle and friendly breeze. Bairnson does a stellar job on the evocative guitar here, and the percussion is perfect, but it is the voice of Stewart that makes the song, doing a very passable Woolfson. Just beautiful in every way, and reminds me strongly of “Time” from 1978's Pyramid. It's the second song on the album written by Bairnson, and this time he pairs with Frank Musker, well known for writing hits for among others, Air Supply, Sheena Easton, Bryan May and John Miles. It leads into the third instrumental, another almost-standout, the sweetly reflective “Dreamscape”, with an opening very reminiscent of “Light of the World” from Stereotomy, an emotional slow guitar riff sailing over a backdrop of wind noises and humming synth, enough to lull you into a pleasant doze between it and “Siren Song”.

Things soon rock back up though when Chris Thompson takes the stage for the fourth of Bairnson's compositions (making him, I think, almost as large a contributor to the music here as the man whose name adorns the album cover), the darkly bouncy “Back Against the Wall” with an almost mixture of blues and gospel in the tune. Powerful, thumping percussion as the song marches along, desperation in Thompson's voice as he growls ”If you talk to your brother/ And he don't give a damn/ And it looks like you're gonna fall/ You can call my number/ When you feel your back against the wall.” In a way, it's a “You've Got a Friend” for the 1990s, though much more acerbic and aggressive. It certainly kicks the **** out of the good feeling we've been getting from the previous tracks, and changes the tone of the album completely as Bairnson storms in with a strong solo and trumpeting keys from Alan take the tune, speeding it up.

It slows down again for the closing section, grinding along with a real sense of a man talking whom you should not **** with, a man who has been pushed far enough that just one more wrong look or word may push him over the edge. The guitar wails in counterpoint and we have a brief respite from the darkness as the last of the instrumentals, “Re-jigue”, is not a jig at all, but a very APP orchestral piece, like something off The Turn of a Friendly Card, but there's not much chance to appreciate it, as it's only two and a half minutes long, and anyway there's that closer I was speaking of to come.

An absolute classic in the making, the dark tone the album has suddenly taken is taken to its tragic conclusion in this tale of a woman who can take no more and decides to end it all. I won't lie – the first time I heard this I literally cried, and I still kind of do. “Oh Life! (There Must Be More)” opens on a little flute passage which then gives way to soft piano, David Pack taking the vocal in his final performance on the album as he tells the tale, paints the picture, rises with the woman as she climbs the hill in the early morning light, falls with her as she takes her last dive and bids the world farewell. ”No-one cared, no-one came/ No angel of mercy appears to know her name.” The power of this song gets me every time. I think it has to do with the way the drums punch along as Pack belts out the vocal with all the energy and passion he's capable of.

I think it's very brave of anyone to undertake to tackle the very thorny subject of suicide, doubly so to end your first solo album on what many people would consider a “downer”, but I found it incredibly moving and effective, and it left me both with an empty feeling and a sense of powerlessness as Pack sings ”She sees her future falling/ As she finds the ocean floor.” A conversation that needs to be had more, and discussed more, and understood more. This is just a song of course, and won't do that, but at least you're left with a strong and lasting impression of the plight of those poor people who find themselves in this impossible situation as the album fades out.

TRACK LISTING

The Three of Me
Turn it Up
Wine From the Water
Breakaway
Mr. Time
Jigue
I'm Talkin' to You
Siren Song
Dreamscape
Back Against the Wall
Re-jigue
Oh Life (There Must Be More)

It's really hard to find fault with this album, not that I have any wish to. It certainly doesn't have much of the progressive rock sensibilities evident on the last few Alan Parsons Project albums, but that was then and this is most definitely now (then) and surely Alan wants to get away from the idea of people thinking this is just the same band but without Eric Woolfson. He accomplishes that in a number of ways. First, he delegates much of the writing to Ian Bairnson, something he has never done before – it was always he and Woolfson. Is that an indication that Woolfson was his Bernie Taupin, and that he can write music but not lyrics? I don't know, but the lion's share of his solo writing here is instrumental, so that could be a thing.

Second, he's gone for quite a darker tone on much of this album, certainly as evidenced on the last two tracks, where he shows us a much more adult, mature, realistic view of his songwriting (Bairnson may have written “Back Against the Wall” but I'm sure the boss had to okay it) and third, the songs are mostly shorter, though there is Mr. Time, their longest ever. In other ways though, he's maintained the core sound of the APP, including those instrumentals and the sense of wry humour shown on songs such as “Pyramania” and “Psychobabble” and “Money Talks”. So in a way, this is both very definitely an Alan Parsons Project album, and very definitely not one. What it is, without doubt though, is a powerful statement by the man that he's not going to fade away without Eric Woolfson, that he has a lot more in the tank, and he's here to stay.

Rating: 9.8/10
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Old 01-13-2022, 08:51 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.


TRACK LISTING

Stereotomy
Beaujolais
Urbania
Limelight
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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