The Alan Parsons Project is a mess.
I’ll explain. First, the band name is a freak of necessity. Manager Eric Woolfson and producer Alan Parsons worked on a project based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. When asked what the group’s name would be, all they had scrapped out was a note describing it as “Alan Parsons project” and so it was. Parsons surrounded himself with talented vocalists like Colin Blunstone (The Zombies), David Paton (Pilot), David Pack (Ambrosia), Eric Stewart (10cc) and Alan Clarke (The Hollies); yet, in the end, the group’s most recognizable voice was the non-pro Woolfson discovered from his guide-vocal demos. While technically being progressive rock, there is a distinct lack of the virtuoso wankery that plagues the prog, and even as a fan I can’t defend the rock. The APP is smooth, clinically precise and often dangerously adult contemporary.
Now, with all that on the table, APP has given the world some great music over the course of their existence, from the almost Beach Boys-like “Time” to the pale funk of “Games People Play” to the Spector wall-of-sound tribute “Don’t Answer Me,” there are reasons why the band that wasn’t really a band had bona fide hits. Sony Legacy now has control over the Arista BMG catalog and is rolling out the next phase of their APP reissues including Pyramid, Eve, The Turn Of A Friendly Card, Ammonia Avenue and Gaudi. The volume and sonic quality of these new releases are vastly improved over the originals, but for anyone looking for a treasure trove of unreleased tracks, look elsewhere. Join us now for the play-by-play.
Pyramid — The APP’s third album came after the difficult Tales Of Mystery And Imagination and I, Robot, both releases being very concept-heavy. The self-awareness shows on this album, a much more song oriented affair and, therefore, an easier listen. No big instrumental blowouts like before, “In The Lap Of The Gods” would mark a new direction for the group where these parts would act as more of an interlude and not some sort of overblown musical statement. It also showed the band having a sense of humor as the jaunty “Pyramania” indicates.
Of the standout tracks, “The Eagle Will Rise Again” featuring Blunstone and “Shadow Of A Lonely Man” featuring John Miles are gorgeous, but neither will rock your socks off. To call this the first immediate touchstone of their classification as an adult contemporary band is not an unfair cop, but Pyramid hardly sinks to the depths of that genre.
The Expanded Edition offers up demos, rough mixes and an instrumental run-through of the three songs “Voyager,” “What Goes Up” and “The Eagle Will Rise Again.”
Eve — For their fourth album, The APP decided to join Spanky and Alfalfa’s He-Man Women Haters Club. They outright deny such a claim, but titles like the instrumental “Lucifer,” “You Lie Down With Dogs” and “I’d Rather Be A Man” certainly aren’t going to win them Valentine’s Day rotation. Neither is the rest of the album, which is on the whole uninspired and not catchy at all except for one song — “Winding Me Up” — and that can be attributed to it sounding more like ELO to me than APP. Now, I don’t know why such a harsh concept was chosen (the war between the sexes), or why Storm Thorgerson’s art design, that of model-type females with thinly disguised boils festering on their faces, other than some knee-jerk reaction to the glory days of Mellow Gold love mush, but the 180 degree turn produced something unpleasant on the whole and ugly at times. I seldom listen to Eve. Can you tell?
For an album that has the least revisit potential, Sony Legacy has offered the most tantalizing extra: a track from the “lost” APP album The Sicilian Defence. “Elsie’s Theme” is alright enough as an instrumental curiosity, but if your purchase of this album hinges on that track, don’t bother. It’s not that big a deal at three minutes’ time.
The Turn Of A Friendly Card — This is where things started to change for The APP. Tackling the concept of gambling, with money or life and relationships, Parsons and Woolfson found themselves on the Top 100 with the elegant “Time” featuring Woolfson and the strangely lively “Games People Play” featuring Lenny Zakatek. “Games” is a particular favorite as, at first, it sounds nothing like a Parsons sort of song, with the opening circular motif and, probably for the first time in the band’s existence, a huge singalong hook for a chorus. While I enjoyed previous APP albums, The Turn Of A Friendly Card was the first time the group fully integrated their ethic with the possibility of hit-pop potential.
The Expanded Edition offers up more demos, an alternate mix of “Games People Play” with more cowbell (aren’t we over this old gag yet?) and an isolated track showing off Chris Rainbow’s uncanny harmonic abilities. How this guy never achieved a great solo career is a mystery to me.
Ammonia Avenue — Coming off the huge success of Eye In The Sky, you’d think Ammonia Avenue would be more focused than it turns out to be, but there’s actually a good amount of charm in that lack of conceptual tightness. Woolfson says that, in fact, there is an underlying theme, but there is little cohesion between the symphonic title track, the Greatest Hits extra “You Don’t Believe” and the more-spare-than-usual economy of the majority of the record. Regardless, it’s still a solid release overall, and it has “Don’t Answer Me” on it which has to be my all-time favorite from the group. It’s a throwback from the least likely place.
While not my favorite of the bunch, Ammonia Avenue does hold a lot of sentimental attachment for me and even if it doesn’t rank as high as Eye In The Sky or my favorite APP release (more later on) it’s a fine, if dated, pop album.
More demos are here, including a couple guide vocal tracks that do nothing for me, but the real revelation is the early rough mix for “Don’t Answer Me” where, before the extra instrumentation and vocals, the arrangement sounds suspiciously like Hall and Oates’ “Kiss On My List.”
Stereotomy — This album was one of the first fully digitally-recorded records and it sounds like it. There is an overall brittleness to the recording that was initially off-putting. This new re-release aims to alleviate some of that and succeeds overall, yet the weight of the synths here from all directions lead you by the nose to the late 1980s and there’s just no denying it. So even if modern ears reconcile a degree of unnatural crispness, it can’t trick the listener into believing it’s anything new.
What Stereotomy does have is a variety of feeling and humor plays a part, specifically in the bouncy paean to vino, “Beaujolais.” The instrumental “Where’s The Walrus?” sounds daunting until you hear it and recognize that news programs like Nightline and 20/20 used it quite often for commercial bumpers and background. You’ve heard it before, I know you have. The big loser on the album is “In The Real World” which comes off as a misguided rocker with some eye-rolling lyrics, but the huge winner gave a first indication of where Eric Woolfson’s heart truly was. “Light Of The World” is huge, beautiful and could be a showstopper in musical theatre if incorporated as such. Sung by Graham Dye, who sounds like he could have been a Beatlemania castmember, the song elevates the entire album. If I go back to Stereotomy, it is for this song primarily.
The extras this time are particularly thin but you do get a truly unreleased track in “Rumor Goin’ Round” which ultimately proves to be a misfire. The song itself sounds like it had a shot at being something good, but the backing track is marred by Woolfson’s guide vocal “doo-doo-doos.” I don’t know why they didn’t just strike that from the mix and offer up the instrumental. A more progressive idea (cough, cough) would have been to wrangle Woolfson into completing it, offering Sony Legacy a chance to market Stereotomy as the first APP album in umpteen years with a “new” track. Oh well.
Gaudi – The last official APP album (because, apparently, Freudiana doesn’t count) is also the best. Reconciling the digital modernity with the rich vocal harmonies and orchestral touches, Gaudi has the unfortunate distinction of being a perfect album to end a group with, yet offering something you actually wished would have continued. “La Sagrada Familia,” the opening song, is in every way a musical theatre epic. Eventually Woolfson would turn the album into a show, but you couldn’t have hid those genes back when the album was initially released, and it acted as a major statement to the listener — this is not what you were expecting when you picked it up.
Gaudi, by the way, refers to Antonio Gaudi, the famous architect who took up the Herculean task of designing and building Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, which he never lived to complete. So among tracks that directly reference his involvement (“La Sagrada Familia,” “Paseo De Gracia,” “Closer To Heaven”) there are songs that are tangential yet still thematically sound. “Too Late,” a strong pop track featuring Lenny Zakatek, hints at time lost, “Standing On Higher Ground” is a statement of higher ideals and purpose while “Money Talks” contrasts that with worldly ambition and it’s inherent hollowness. That song also gets in one of the greatest zingers found in the band’s history, being the last lines “Billboard, Cash Box, Money Talks.” The parties involved knew they weren’t going to score big numbers with Gaudi, and seemed comfortable enough with that knowledge to thumb their creative nose at the notion.
The album still sounds like a product of its time, but not as uncomfortably so as Stereotomy, and even weaker tracks work. I’ll go out on a limb to say that Gaudi is the best APP album, better than Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, better even than Eye In The Sky. It was the moment they knew this was adult contemporary music and decided to emphasize the better aspects of it. While the extra tracks consist mostly of demos and roughs, this is the standout of the reissues for all the proper reasons — it’s their best album.
Pyramid at Amazon.com
Eve at Amazon.com
Turn of a Friendly Card at Amazon.com
Ammonia Avenue at Amazon.com
Stereotomy at Amazon.com
Gaudi at Amazon.com
Next week, I take a look at Mobile Fidelity’s vinyl re-release of Faith No More ‘s Angel Dust, an album that blew away their previous hit The Real Thing, yet did lousy sales and also sowed the seeds for the band’s fracture. I’ll also go into the notion of the “My Album / Your Album” dynamic. You may not understand the term, but you definitely have experienced the phenomenon. Come on back and we’ll get into it!
Angel Dust (Numbered Limited to 3000 Copies) at Amazon.com