Thursday, 13 April 2017

Tales of Mystery and Imagination - The Alan Parsons Project

Provenance: Along with virtually every other person of my age and origin, the first time I heard the Alan Parsons Project was in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Was that joke ever funny? My research reveals that a number of NBA sides, most notably the Chicago Bulls, ran out to 'Sirius' during the nineties, and to this day its pomp and majesty serves to pump up the players and fans of Serie A side Sassuolo.

(As a brief aside - I'm generally in favour of sports teams running out to some cool music. It's the one - and only - thing US sports gets right. Having said that, I lament the day when the bugger manning the stereo at Charlton Athletic decided to ditch Francis Monkman's incredible theme tune to The Long Good Friday, as it was both a brilliant and unique choice).

My first conscious experience of the Alan Parsons Project came about from Planet Rock Radio playing a song called 'The Voice', from the album I, Robot. It was such a singular piece of music that I felt compelled to buy the album. Amazon offered to bung Tales of Mystery and Imagination in for the princely sum of eleven quid. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Review: Very quickly by way of precis - Alan Parsons was not, as I'm sure you've gathered, an eminent Cambridge physicist hired by Dr Evil to make a moon laser. He was - is- in fact a noted producer, sound engineer and musician. His credentials are pretty good - he was the sound engineer on Dark Side of the Moon, which doesn't sound too shabby. The eponymous project was rounded out by the late songwriter Eric Wolfson and executed mostly by a clutch of trusted studio hands and special guests.

So I've just hit play and holy fuck tell me that's not the great Orson Welles, star of Transformers: The Movie, Get To Know Your Rabbit and a bunch of other stuff, narrating? It most certainly is! Just in case you're an illiterate philistine, I should point out that this is a concept album based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and here Welles is recounting some of Poe's thoughts on literature in that wonderful, unmistakeable dark chocolate voice.

Our hand now firmly grasped, we're led into the uncanny, dreamlike realm of Poe's imagination through the medium of instrumental prog rock. Because why, when creating an homage to one of the deftest wordsmiths of all time, would you bother with lyrics? Half of this album is instrumental, which seems a tad gratuitous in 2017. But let's put this in context; back in 1976 you were probably going to get pretty chonged before giving this a spin. So it's all good, brother. It's impressionistic, there's a depth to Poe that words can't - and which presumably, synthesizers and blazing electric guitar can - adequately convey. Meanwhile, instead of taking drugs I'm writing about it on something called a blog. Who's the square now, daddy-o?

The more traditionally structured songs are a real treat though. Tackling 'The Raven' is a big ask given its ubiquity but it's rendered here with the satisfyingly overblown treatment the subject demands. However, the real mustard is to be found in 'The Tell-tale Heart', which pushes the madness into the red with a suitably demented vocal from Arthur Brown. I often see Arthur Brown strolling around as he lives quite close to where I work, and he's quite hard to miss considering he wears loon pants and a top hat, and seems about six and a half feet tall. Here's a callback to my opening paragraph; at the start of the 2016/17 football season my team Lewes FC adopted the Crazy World of Arthur Brown's classic 'Fire' as their entrance music, and for the first game of the season Brown himself sang it as the teams emerged. Did he wear a flaming helmet? Of course he did, and it had to be put out with fire extinguishers before the game began.

How freaking rad is that though? You go to watch some division eight bullshit football match and there's your man Arthur Brown screaming "I am the God of Hellfire.." before kick off. You don't get that in the show-pony Premier League.

The next two songs are sublime too. 'The Cask of Amontillado' has probably the cleverest lyric of the bunch and wouldn't seem out of place on the best Paul McCartney albums. When the orchestra kicks in for the first time the effect is widescreen - really, it's almost like the first time you hear Maurice Jarre's theme for Lawrence of Arabia as the camera tracks across the desert. It sounds huge. Meanwhile, 'Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether' is a quirky cod-funk number that should be ridiculous but turns out to be a triumph. How? Superb arrangements, imaginative instrumentation and a sound that is absolutely impeccable, flawless. What else do you expect from a guy who worked with the Beatles and Pink Floyd? They weren't exactly slouches.

Here's the deal, then. Tales... is very much of an era, and as such you're going to hear Orson Welles chuntering over some proggy soundscapes from time to time. The entirety of 'The Fall of the House of Usher' is in effect a tone poem, and if you're intolerant of sonic whirligigs and gewgaws, this isn't for you. It is an ambitious work, and does an excellent job of presenting Poe without getting too hammy or Grand Guignol about it. I guess W.A.S.P. used Poe as source material, punning on the title 'Murder in the Rue Morgue' but singularly failing (spoiler alert) to write a song about a goddamn orang-utan (or whatever) committing murders in Paris (an amazing conceit for a heavy metal song, no? Not according to W.A.S.P.). Nevertheless, give this engrossing and cerebral album a go, at least before you indulge a man who used to sport a saw-blade accessorised codpiece.

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