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Old 09-29-2021, 01:08 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Trollheart's Album Discography Reviews: The Alan Parsons Project

The Turn of a Friendly Card (1980)


Though both Eve and I Robot had explored related themes this was really the first proper concept album from the Alan Parsons Project, based around one of humanity's vices, gambling. All right: their debut, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was a concept based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, but that was all instrumental, so this is the first chance they got to explore common ideas through the medium of actual songs, rather than just musical passages. The title track is an epic sixteen-minute piece, broken into five sections, and easily the longest APP song ever. The album was also the first to feature Eric Woolfson on vocals, and is far from my favourite APP album, but far from the worst either. Its strength, or weakness, lies in the title track: after all, if you don't like it then that's really about a third of the album you're not going to want to listen to, and while it's good in my opinion it's perhaps not as good as it could have been. The rest of the album is a kind of hit-and-miss affair, with some very good tracks and some, well, not so good ones, as we shall see.

"May Be a Price to Pay" starts us off with synthesised trumpets and a somewhat ominous-sounding fanfare before it comes to life on the back of David Paton's instantly recognisable bassline and swirling keys from Eric Woolfson, uptempo percussion from Stuart Elliot. The vocal is taken by Elmer Gantry, AKA Dave Terry. He has a strong rock style voice, and it is of course and always has been a feature of the Alan Parsons Project that they utilise different vocalists on each album, almost on every track. There's a nice orchestral section which flows into a smooth keyboard line with attendant piano, almost edging into semi-jazz territory for a moment, then the main melody reasserts itself. Of course the guitar work of Ian Bairnson is as always flawless, if not quite as pronounced as expected. A busy keyboard line brings in "Games People Play" with a somewhat more funky feel to it, and the vocal taken by Lenny Zakatek, one of my least favourite APP vocalists, though here he does a decent job. I've just always found him very harsh in style compared to Woolfson, Blunstone or Miles.

The song concerns the desperate need to fill up the time now that the family have grown and moved on, and can be taken I suppose as both a reference to sexual games or to gambling, with the line "Games people play/ In the middle of the night", though with the theme being centred around the latter one would have to assume the song is about that. Great solo this time from Bairnson as he's allowed to do what he does best, then we drift into the standout of the album, as mentioned the first vocal performance from Eric Woolfson, though it would of course not be the last. "Time" is the ballad on the album, and like the river about which Woolfson sings, it flows along gently on a breezy synth passage and rippling piano. The difference in the vocal from Woolfson and the one from Zakatek is the difference between night and day. Woolfson breathes the song, almost an exhalation, soft, gentle, caressing, and he has the perfect voice to take the album's laidback slow ballad. Again beautiful orchestration accompanies him, supplied by the Orchestra of the Munich Chamber Opera, and really adds an extra touch of class to an already classy song. When Woolfson goes up a register it's just like hearing a male angel sing, and the almost ELO-like violins and cellos just make it perfect. The backing vocal from Parsons himself, singing a separate lyric, adds the final sheen to the last verse.

As "Time" fades down and slips away like the memories of a dying dream, it's rather unfortunate that the mellifluous tones of Woolfson are followed by a return for Zakatek, in the comparatively substandard "I Don't Want to Go Home", which despite its interesting solo piano intro turns into a relatively basic rock song. Although it retains the basic motifs of the APP I just find it quite disappointing, which is not to say that it's a bad song, but it can't hold a candle to "Time" or even "May Be a Price to Pay". Again it's got an element of funk in it, particularly in Bairnson's guitar work, with some nice trumpeting synth. That takes us to the first instrumental, and the APP are known for a few. This more or less introduces us to the title track, and opens with a whistling keyboard intro like something out of an Ennio Moricone western before breaking into a melody which has by now become synonymous with the APP, the bass of Paton joining with the smooth percussion of Elliot and the sparkling keyswork of Woolfson and Parsons, a little sound like fingers clicking and then a sort of saxophone line coming in. As instrumentals go, it's pretty cool.

Sixteen minutes and twenty-four seconds of the title track then closes the album, and you either love this or hate it. It's split into five sections, the first of which is called "The Turn of a Friendly Card Part One" and features Chris Rainbow on vocals, as indeed does most of the piece apart from one section. Opening on a medieval little piano piece it brings in flute and some sparse bass before Rainbow's voice sings the vocal, sounding rather pleasantly like Woolfson, in fact I used to think it was him. He cries "The game never ends/ When your whole world depends/ On the turn of a friendly card", a theme which will recur later in the song. Nice little laidback acoustic guitar line from Bairnson then a gong sounds and we hear the sounds of a crowd as we move into "Snake Eyes", and things get a little more intense. A big, thick, marching bassline and slow, thumping, almost heartbeat percussion brings in a sharp, swaggering guitar line from Ian Bairnson, the song changing from slow ballad into a more sleazy, shuffle style.

Another fine little guitar solo from Bairnson, more punchy this time, with a descending synth to take us into "The Ace of Swords" which is the instrumental in the piece, played on what sounds like a lyre or lute, and with soft keyboard accompanying it, revisiting the theme from the first movement but then adding in some harder, faster material as the percussion ramps up and the keys get a bit more intense. The trumpeting fanfare makes a return and once it gets going this piece is mostly keyboard-driven with some orchestration helping out. Violins, violas, cellos and harps help to heighten the sense of anticipation and urgency and desperation as the gambler's addiction begins to take him over and he can see no way out. Indeed, eventually he decides there is "Nothing Left to Lose" and this brings us to the fourth section as Eric Woolfson takes the vocal, accompanied by Bairnson. The tempo slows a little; it's not a ballad but it's certainly not a rocker, almost acoustic in ways.

Some nice backing vocals here too, and a ticking bassline that keeps the rhythm going as celtic style keys enter, with something like uileann pipes or somesuch, perhaps an accordion sound there too. Bit of reggae thrown in there before the tempo kicks up again and the melody from "Snake Eyes" comes back in. The final part of the piece is "The Turn of a Friendly Card Part Two", and basically returns to the melody and lyric of the first part, with lush orchestration and Chris Rainbow back on vocals, reprising his role from the opening part, and giving it all he has on the final lyrics. Most of this is instrumental though, with the final two minutes a showcase for Bairnson, Woolfson and the orchestra, fading out magnificently.

TRACK LISTING

1. May Be a Price to Pay
2. Games People Play
3. Time
4. I Don't Wanna Go Home
5. The Gold Bug
6. The Turn of a Friendly Card
(i) The Turn of a Friendly Card Part One
(ii) Snake Eyes
(iii) The Ace of Swords
(iv) Nothing Left to Lose
(v) The Turn of a Friendly Card Part Two

An album with a sixteen-minute track was never going to set the charts alight, and though the APP had their hits it really wasn't till after this album, with their most memorable and successful coming from the Eye in the Sky album, released two years later. But lack of hit singles didn't keep Parsons down and with the Project he went on to record another six albums before embarking on a solo career under his own name, but basically Alan Parsons Project albums in all but name, with the conspicuous absence of Eric Woolfson, after the two founders had fallen out. Woolfson passed away in 2009.

An ambitious album, The Turn of a Friendly Card realises its lofty goals more often than it does not, but there are points on the album where it's almost degenerating from high concept into basic rock and I think this is where it lets the listener down. This should have been a fluid, linked piece of music from start to finish and though the title track mostly accomplishes this, it is some of the preceding tracks that prevent this album from gaining a place it might otherwise have deserved within the hierarchy of the Alan Parsons Project's releases.

Rating: 7/10
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Old 09-29-2021, 03:27 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Tales of Mystery and Imagination was NOT all instrumental. Most of the tracks have vocals.
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Old 09-29-2021, 07:39 PM   #3 (permalink)
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It's been a long time since I listened to it. Not one of my favourites I have to say. I thought it was all instrumental. I'll have to check it out, if you say so.

Edit: Yeah I see. I was mixing up the fact that side two is one long instrumental ("The Fall of the House of Usher") - my bad. D'oh!
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Old 09-30-2021, 12:07 PM   #4 (permalink)
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I only own Tales and I Robot. My general impression of The Alan Parsons Project is that as their career progressed their music became more polished and also less interesting. However I must admit that I only know the title track from Turn of a Friendly Card, and I know it gets a fair bit of respect, so I probably should give it a proper listen sometime.
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Old 09-30-2021, 01:04 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Pyramid (1978 )


One of my favourite Alan Parsons Project albums, Pyramid is only their third album and is a concept based on - anyone? - yeah, pyramids. There's a lot of spacey instrumental work on it, some really good songs and two excellent ballads. It's also got a really cool sleeve, designed by those supremos of cover art, Hipgnosis. Like most APP albums, the man himself does not take part, other than produce the album and write or co-write all the songs.

It opens with a suitably enigmatic and weird instrumental, called “Voyager”, which basically consists of a guitar intro, then some spacey keyboards and a guitar section joined by bass and light percussion, which ends up forming the intro to “What Goes Up”, the first song proper on the album. With vocals by David Paton, it's a mid-paced, slightly jazzy number with great bass (also from Paton, as he's the bass player), which asks the question “If all things must fall/ Why build a miracle at all? / If all things must pass/ Even a miracle won't last.” The song seems to pay tribute to the millennia that the Pyramids have lasted, but notes that what goes up, must (eventually) come down.

This then fades into the first of two great ballads on the album. “The Eagle Will Rise Again” is one of the Alan Parsons Project's great ballads. With lovely string arrangements and evocative guitar from Ian Bairnson, the vocal this time taken by Colin Blunstone, who you may recognise as the voice on APP's big hit “Old and Wise”. Great backing vocals on this song, with some great lyrics: ”Many words are spoken/ When there's nothing to say/ They fall upon the ears of those/ Who don't know the way/ To read between the lines...” Bairnson's guitar melody is the main lynchpin of the track though, underpinning the whole song with its simple phrasing.

Things get a little rocky then for “One More River”, this time sung by Lenny Zakatek, never among my favourite vocalists but he suits the song here. Sort of. It's jarring, unless you know the APP well, to keep hearing different voices on every song, but you soon get used to it. “One More River” is a fast, bouncy rock song with great guitars and some nice synth adding flavour, and something that sounds like horns. Nice lazy guitar solo in there, and a great sax solo. “Can't Take it With You” is one of my favourite tracks on the album, with its tale of the man who is dead but wants to remain on Earth, and is trying to convince the overworked assistant of Charon, the Boatman of the Dead, to let him stay.

”I sympathise completely” the flunky tells the dead man ”But there's nothing I can do/ I am just obeying orders/ I'm a simple soul like you.” The song is carried on a bouncy, rocky beat with great “whistling” keyboard and cracking guitar. With Dean Ford this time on vocal duty, Charon's assistant smiles ”Well you really are persuasive/ But I've heard it all before.” The song alternates between boppy rocker and somewhat slower, almost bluesy sections. About a minute to the end there's a great guitar solo very reminiscent of Dave Gilmour - he's not guesting on this, is he? Just like I could have sworn it was Gerry Rafferty on backing vocals at the end, but neither are credited, so I guess not.

Another weird track follows this, an instrumental called “In the Lap of the Gods”, starting off with tolling bells in the distance, and an Egyptian kind of melody, then the synths get heavy and the drums come in, creating what has since become pretty much the signature Alan Parsons Project theme. Something like a sitar or dulcimer is used then, with choral vocals. Due credit must be given here to the two keyboard wizards, Duncan Mackay and the other founder member of the APP, Eric Woolfson, who do a great job here of creating and building up the atmosphere and tone of the piece.

A very dramatic and epic piece, almost film theme quality, “In the Lap of the Gods” is followed by the zaniest and most fun track on the album, “Pyramania”, where Jack Harris on vocals tries to explain his fascination, some might say obsession with pyramids. ”I've been told/ Someone in the know can be sure/ That his luck will be as good as gold/ Money in the bank/ And you don't even pay for it/ If you fold a dollar in the shape/ Of the pyramid that's printed on the back!” The music is boppy and suitably upbeat and breezy, then we're into the best instrumental on the album, “Hyper-gamma Spaces”, with a driving beat reminiscent of Pink Floyd's “On the Run” (well, Alan Parsons did work on Dark Side of the Moon!), great breathless keyboards and a sweet little guitar solo, with choral vocals or synth, I don't know which, probably the latter, to take us to the closer.

“Shadow of a Lonely Man” is the tragic tale of a man who has found fame, but lost his identity. It's played in a very epic, sweeping way with excellent emotional vocals from John Miles as he cries ”Look at me now/ A shadow of the man I used to be/ Look through my eyes/ And through the years of loneliness you'll see/ To the times in my life when I could not bear/ To lose a simple game.” It's opened on simple piano but gets very orchestral, turning into a real production piece with strings and full orchestral arrangement.

As the song nears its end, the singer remarks wryly ”But the sound of the crowd/ When they come to see me now/ Is not the same/ And the jest of it all/ Is I can't recall my name.” It's a powerful indictment of fame taking over your life, and losing sight of your goals, and in the end losing your happiness for the sake of being famous. It's a lovely ballad, if bitter, and it closes the album extremely well.

If you've never heard an Alan Parsons Project album before (shame on you!) the multiple vocalists may take a little getting used to, but it's a tribute to this album, and to the APP, that it sounds as good now, over thirty years after it was recorded, as it did back then. Quality is timeless, they say, and this album certainly proves that axiom.

TRACK LISTING

1. Voyager
2. What Goes Up
3. The Eagle Will Rise Again
4. One More River
5. Can't Take it With You
6. In the Lap of the Gods
7. Pyramania
8. Hyper-gamma Spaces
9. Shadow of a Lonely Man

Rating: 8.5/10
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Old 09-30-2021, 01:11 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bob_32_116 View Post
I only own Tales and I Robot. My general impression of The Alan Parsons Project is that as their career progressed their music became more polished and also less interesting. However I must admit that I only know the title track from Turn of a Friendly Card, and I know it gets a fair bit of respect, so I probably should give it a proper listen sometime.
This is an interesting conclusion. Are you one of these people who prefers music a little raw or experimental? I can't say that the albums get "more polished": Parsons is a superb engineer and producer and all of the APP albums shine with excellent production, but if you've only heard the ones above then I would recommend Gaudi, Ammonia Avenue, Eve and to some extent Eye in the Sky (though I do tend to think that one dines out on its two major singles which support a few not-so-perfect tracks). You could also look into his solo material, which will be posted here in due course, especially On Air and Try Anything Once.
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Old 09-30-2021, 01:17 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Maybe it was the radio stations that played him but he started out being played on AOR radio (Tales, I Robot) to Adult Contemporary radio (Eye in the Sky) here in Baltimore. Maybe he was trying to become a little more commercial?

Anyway, I do like some of his stuff and the Edgar Allan Poe bits are pretty damned good. I also like I Robot and Pyramid but he's more hit or miss for me after that.
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Old 09-30-2021, 01:36 PM   #8 (permalink)
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90's Bulls has Eye in the Sky burned into my brain. We (a band I was in) used to open for a band that did that tune for their opener and they did it really well.

I had a lotta trouble putting that sentence together.
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Old 09-30-2021, 02:36 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Yep they use "Sirius", the instrumental intro to the title track as their run-out song or something don't they? I think Parsons never actually courted hit singles; if you look at his and the Project's output, there's plenty of songs on albums like the ones I mentioned as well as Stereotomy and even Vulture Culture (which I consider to be a poor album but it did give them an MTV hit in "Let's Talk About Me") that could have yielded hit singles but didn't. I think the fact that it was always called The Alan Parsons Project and never Band indicates how loose a collection of musicians it was: everyone was always off doing other things, and also the fact that they almost never played live shows too that they weren't too bothered about mainstream chart commercial success. Even so, almost all of their albums sold well, and compilations still continue to do so.
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Old 09-30-2021, 02:42 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
This is an interesting conclusion. Are you one of these people who prefers music a little raw or experimental? I can't say that the albums get "more polished": Parsons is a superb engineer and producer and all of the APP albums shine with excellent production, but if you've only heard the ones above then I would recommend Gaudi, Ammonia Avenue, Eve and to some extent Eye in the Sky (though I do tend to think that one dines out on its two major singles which support a few not-so-perfect tracks). You could also look into his solo material, which will be posted here in due course, especially On Air and Try Anything Once.
I wouldn't say I like music "raw", but I do like it a little experimental.

When I say "more polished", I am thinking of songs like "Eye In the Sky", Stereotomy" and "Vulture Culture", which I think of as reasonably competent 80s-style synth-pop but nothing more. On the other hand I considered the first two albums definitely progressive.

Don't get me wrong; there are still some gems on the later albums, but not enough to make me want to be an APP completist.
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