Monday, September 8, 2008

Prepare to be Haunted...Edgar Allan Poe by The Alan Parsons Project

If one was lucky enough to have purchased this album when it was first released, you had the chance to hear what would be the first in a string of concept albums that were put together by Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson under the banner of 'The Alan Parsons Project'. That melding of the classical music form with lyrics that held together a story, from exposition to minuet to the climax....its finish...its denoument. Rock music meeting a full symphonic orchestra with lyrics that were not just on point and subject, but got the listener to think. More or less, to engage one's imagination. Painting a mindscape that had a rich tapestry. This first effort sets the stage for memorable music to come over the next decade and beyond.

'Tales of Mystery and Imagination - Edgar Allan Poe' . Just the title along can conjour up images of the works of the first true horror writer that came from these shores. For many of us there were two ways that we got exposed to his works. One was courtesy of our teachers in middle and highschool who would read to the class either from 'The Raven' or 'The Casque of Amontillado', which if those did not get one hooked, there was something wrong. And we do not mean with the teacher. The other means of exposure had to do with pre-cable television and independent television stations. For those in the NYC area, this meant those movies which were shown after a summer night's west coast broadcast of a N.Y. Mets game on WOR. Ah, I know some of you are now scratching your heads asking 'what is she talking about?' Well when the Mets would have a west coast swing to play the Dodgers, Giants and Padres, to fill the time after til something else could be shown, Channel 9 would air some of the worst science fiction and horror movies ever made [I know channels 5 and 11 did this too, but 9 made this an art form]. Invariably, one would see poorly put together versions about 'The Raven', 'The Haunting of Morellia' [of which last check there are at least 10 versions, some of which are of a nature I cannot mention here in decent company], 'The Pit and The Pendulum' amongst others. Many of these would star the man who would become one with Poe in these representations, Vincent Price as well as a host of actors who would later find success in, shall we say roles which were written on a child's IBM Selectric. However, the fact that these folms were so bad, they were good made them memorable...and also helped to keep Poe's name on the mind. So imagine my joy to find that there was an album of songs based on his stories.

'Tales' comes a few years after Alan Parsons had completed his masterwork of production 'Dark Side of the Moon' by Pink Floyd. He was also involved in producing several pop bands, most notably was Pilot, whose song 'It's Magic' had made the top 40 here stateside. Members of that band and a few others who were the cream of the British studio musician crop [along with those who would eventually become the pop group Ambrosia...whose intial two albums were produced by Alan Parsons] were recruited for this first effort. This along with an orchestra led by Andrew Powell. Ironically, this album after a couple years dissappeared from the stores due to the fact that it was on 20th Century Fox Records, which really was not a major player on the scene at the time, outside of soundtracks...but has been released in other forms down through the years and now is available with enhanced tracks.

Let's start with the opening which features the voice of Orson Welles leading into ' A Dream Within a Dream'. When I had first heard this without Welle's intro, it was still powerful, but with it this just says 'WOW this is some really heavy stuff!!!!!' But it just gets better from there.

'The Raven' is next up which has a treat on it, in that we not only have those trademark lyrics voiced by Leonard Whiting, but Alan on vocoder. Yep this is the same device that would show up on various other albums by other artists [Peter Frampton, anyone?]. For me this also brought home one of the most infamous of one-word phrases......'Nevermore'. Love that this got me to look at the original story and understand that this was not the primary provence of the bird who was on 'The Munsters'. All along, the orchestra helps to set the stage, enhance and create an auralscape that is just wonderful.

If there was anyone who was tailor-made to sing the next track 'The Tell-Tale Heart' it was Arthur Brown. From the 'CrazyWorld' of same and this tune is just as mad. The story is familiar about one person's descent into madness after having committed a murder which is punctuated by the sound of the heart of the victim following the perpetrator. A hard rock guitar, a screaming voice just brings this entire song home. It is as though Poe had this interpretation mind at the time he wrote the original story. I have found myself acting in a maniacal fashion each time I have heard if only due to it is being that catchy in itself.

'The Casque of Amantillado' follows and it is here that we get to hear the voice of John Miles. Each time I have played this, I was taken back to the first time I had heard the story in school all those years ago. John's vocals as well as the orchestral flourishes help to cement in the mind that the story is really more wicked than Poe had let on. Which if one is plotting a vengeful act against a rival, this is one way to do it. The lyrics paint a picture of the gentle, constant intoxication and subsequent demise of the said same rival. Much like with some other discs I have reviewed here, I have been known to just gently sway along with the soaring strings while in an aisle at the store listening to this because of its beauty. [John Miles, by the by does show up on one more Project album, that being 'Gaudi' singing the opening track 'La Sagrada Familia'...this will be reviewed in this space at a later date].

If one wants to have a lighter, albeit more twisted view of what it meant to be tarred and feathered or to have been treated in an insane asylum in the 1800's the next track is just exactly that. '( The System of ) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether' has John Miles again, along with Jack Harris singing this in a vein that would seem like they were old fashioned carnival barkers. The keyboards on here help to bring this image to life, closing out with a repetition of the initial theme that this album starts out with.

It is here that we now see the trademark of future Project albums: a longform piece based around a central theme which is in the same form as many great classical pieces. 'The Fall of the House of Usher' is broken down into five seperate movements, with a full orchestra under the baton of Andrew Powell. Compare this with such standards as the '1812 Oveture' or 'Firebird' to see that the form is still alive and well. It is sad that now in this day and age not many involved in popular music would write or release pieces like this, however should they attempt to do so, a lesson in how to do this with flair is this piece.

The album closes with 'To One in Paradise', voiced by Terry Sylvester. No more words need to be used, just listen to the piece to hear the beauty of the lyrics. It is almost as though this was one of the few somewhat 'hopefull' stories that Poe had written, the lyrics here do reflect this change of pace.

When one wants to know how or where the genesis of the Alan Parsons Project sound came about, how they were able to create in the crucible of the studio interpretations of not just standards of literature, but also their own tone poems about life itself....this is the launch pad. Space limits listing how many persons were associated with this album, but if one were to look up the credits, one could see the names of people who eventually would work with Renaissance, Mike Oldfield, Yes, Sky and many other classically influcenced rock as well as progressive bands. And the popular music field is richer because of it.