Monday, 22 August 2011

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Album Review
The Alan Parsons Project - Tales of Mystery and Imagination - Edgar Allan Poe
Genre: Progressive Rock

Take a seat in the Time Machine, listeners, because this month’s album review is going to take us way back to 1976.

In 2010, “Classic Rock” magazine named The Alan Parsons Project’s “Tales of Mystery and Imagination - Edgar Allan Poe” as one of the top "50 Albums That Built Prog Rock."

I first became interested in Alan Parsons after learning he had been the assistant sound engineer on The Beatles Abbey Road album(1969), and then became especially interested when I found he had moved up to take the chair as lead sound engineer on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973). Ah, bliss! The man behind the sound of Pink Floyd’s most successful album...the man who gave us the crying vocals of Clare Torry on “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

As a sound man, Parsons had me from hello. He was experimental, he was prog, he was fearless...he was Dark Side of the Moon.

I was but a kid when these albums first came out, so I loved them for different reasons than I do today. Abbey Road was The Beatles...and what kid didn’t love The Beatles? And Dark Side of the Moon? Back then, it was pretty much my first trip into the world of Pink Floyd. When MONEY was released on the radio, I was all over it. The bassline alone would drive me crazy! I was almost thirteen.

So imagine how excited I got when I heard that Alan Parsons - this unbelievably creative sound man - had gone on to form his own band (with various members of the band, PILOT), and had released an album based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe! I got myself a copy - on cassette, of course - and played it until it was so badly stretched out of shape that I think it eventually got eaten by the tape recorder.

In 1987, I learned that the album had been remixed, and that a lot of the material that had been left off the original (for various artistic and time-constraint reasons) had been put back. The sound had been updated to higher quality, too. This CD was added to my collection immediately, and I fell in love with it all over again. It was better, deeper, richer, and had put back the Poe narration at the beginning that was missing from the cassette. The story was now complete.

There were always a lot of politics involved with The Alan Parsons Project - who would participate, who would get to have a say in the music or would just be the hired help - but this report is not about that. This is about one thing - the music.

From a bass player’s perspective, the album is alive with voices and lines, everything from barking staccato hits to smooth string bass cries. Even the voices are bass. Parsons and company seem to understand the importance of the bass as a featured instrument. So I thought we’d have a look at the album from this bass player’s perspective, but also from the perspective of all who love a good dream.

The album begins with “A Dream Within a Dream.” It settles you into a quiet, almost nervous contemplation with the opening verse - a narrative combined from various parts of Poe’s works, including his Marginalia, and A Dream Within a Dream. And it is read by Orson Welles.

He reads:

"For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that with which I conceived it.
There is, however, a class of fancies (of exquisite delicacy) which are not thoughts, and to which (as yet) I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt to language.
These fancies arise in the soul (alas, how rarely) only at epochs of most intense tranquility, when the bodily and mental health are in perfection, and at those mere points of time, where the confines of the waking world blend with the world of dreams.
And so I captured this fancy, where all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream."

A cautious reverie begins. And then the bass. The heartbeat in your head. The band joins in to start the transformation between wakefulness and the dream.

The music dies away, but the bass remains, a lone beating that stills the listener and asks, “What now?”

Next up is “The Raven” which was written in 1845 and tells the story of a young man pining for his lost love, Lenore. When a raven enters his room and begins to repeat the word, “Nevermore”, the young man is convinced the bird is telling him he will never know Lenore again, and this collapses him into a serious depression.

As the song begins amidst the thump of the solo bass, we hear Alan Parsons himself, singing through what is reported as the very first use of a vocoder in music. Parsons prefers not to sing, and usually hires people to do it for him, but since the vocoder allows that little bit of disguise he likes to wear, he took the part himself. He sings no other lead vocals on this album. Actor/singer Leonard Whiting is the guest singer for the rest of the song.

And along with a chorus of male voices, the bass continues to feed the rhythms right up to the very end of the song.

We break away from the haunting reverie for an absolutely frantic number called “The Telltale Heart.” This 1843 Poe story is about a man who commits murder and hides the body beneath his floorboards. He eventually drives himself insane from guilt when he is convinced he can still hear the victim’s heart beating. It’s an intense story of self-induced madness.

And speaking of madness, Parsons and crew were spot on the money when they hired Arthur Brown to sing the lead vocal. His portrayal of the mad killer is truly frightening and you can bet your bottom dollar he’s going insane.

In case you don’t remember Arthur Brown, he once lead a band called, “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” and they did this great manic number called FIRE. Anybody remember it?

The Telltale Heart opens up with a great bass lick - this time a driving, growling slap that easily matches Brown’s voice bite for bite. And Parsons as a sound man makes his mark with echoes, pans and sweeps - the end result makes the listener squirm and fidget with the same temper as the story’s murderer.

“A Cask of Amontillado” was Poe’s 1846 story of a man who - after being insulted by his friend, Fortunato - gets the man drunk and then buries him alive behind a wall of stone in his basement. The great thing about this song is that it is sung with the voices of both men. One sings about revenge, and the other about waking up chained behind a stone wall. The lead voice is that of John Miles.

The bassline is very musical in this song. The whole thing is done as a waltz, which always suggests the story is a portraying a human dance of emotion. People don’t write rock songs as waltzes unless they wish to convey some kind of head-to-head.

(Pink Floyd is also known to feature a lot of songs in waltz time - Dark Side of the Moon ends in a waltz with the song “Eclipse”)

The middle of the song has breaks from the waltz time - it’s a series of dramatic licks. Bass, drums, strings, and horns. Very theatrical and brassy.

(The system of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” features John Miles again, along with Alan Parsons Project regular, Jack Harris. It’s based on the 1845 Poe work about patients at a mental hospital pulling the old switcheroo on the staff and locking them up as the true insane. When a visitor arrives to learn about a supposedly successful treatment being used, he is told (by the patients disguised as staff) that they have abandoned those methods, and have instead started employing a new technique called The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether.

The song is a busy cacophony of disruption. The various parts are played in different keys, and there are hints of previous album tracks waving throughout. In other words, this piece is designed to convey the confusion of the mental hospital taken over by the patients. Jack Harris growls in bass voice, “Just what you need to make you feel better, just what you need to make you feel...”

Next is the big orchestral piece of the album, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” after the Poe work from 1839. It’s a sixteen minute instrumental odyssey, with an opening foundation in the Debussy opera, "La chute de la maison Usher."

The Fall of the House of Usher itself is another among Poe’s studies of being buried alive. In a nutshell, Roderick Usher - complaining of being very sick - invites a friend to visit. The friend attends, and learns that Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline is also sick, and routinely falls into these cataleptic trances. As the visit progresses, Usher informs his friend that Madeline has died and asks for his help in interring her in the family tomb until burial can be arranged. The men do so, and then continue with their visiting.

You can probably guess that Madeline has not really died, and when she awakes in a coffin, she is not happy. Revenge ensues.

I’m loathe to call this segment on the album a “song,” but for the purpose of this review, let’s take the leap. The song is divided into five parts:

- Prelude
- Arrival
- Intermezzo
- Pavane
- Fall

The opening segment, Prelude, is probably the deepest, most intense passage on the entire album. The tremulous strings add tension, and the synthesizers will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

It is the second segment narrated by Orson Welles, and he reads:

"Shadows of shadows passing. It is now 1831, and (as always) I am absorbed with a delicate thought. It is how poetry has indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential. Since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception, music - when combined with a pleasurable idea - is poetry. Music without the idea is simply music.
Without music, or an intriguing idea, colour becomes pallor, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless."

All you have to do is lay back and let this song take you. It is structured as a soundtrack to the original Poe story. If you get a chance to read it, do so, and then listen to this song again. It means more if you’ve read the story.

(insert sinister laugh here)

“To One in Paradise” is the final track, after the Poe poem from 1833 and it features Terry Sylvester and Eric Woolfson on vocals, with a final narrative outro by Leonard Whiting.

There have been a lot of interpretations of the poem’s meaning, but it basically boils down to a man’s peaceful contemplation of mortality.

Whiting reads the last stanza of the poem.

And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy dark eye glances
And where thy footstep gleams
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.

Whiting says “dark eye,” though I believe - in the original poem - it is “grey eye.” Makes no never mind to me - technical detail.

The song is relaxing, and the repeating musical pattern reminds me of waves on a shore...or a rocking cradle. The bass is part of the band now - as if its angry and aggressive bouts earlier in the album have finally settled into a place of peace.

Have a listen to the album - I think you’ll understand why it’s in that top 50 list. By the way, if you want to know the other 49 albums on the list, here they are:

Freak Out - Frank Zappa
The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Procol Harum - S/T
Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
Moody Blues - Days Of Future Passed
The Nice - The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack
King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King
Fairport Convention - Liege & Lief
Soft Machine - Volume Two
Curved Air - Air Conditioning
Van der Graaf Generator - The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other
Magma - S/T
Barclay James Harvest - Once Again
Jethro Tull - Aqualung
Caravan - In The Land Of Grey And Pink
E.L.P. - Tarkus
Focus - Moving Waves
Yes - Fragile
Genesis - Foxtrot
Gentle Giant - Octopus
Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells
Mahavishnu Orchestra - Birds Of Fire
Genesis - Selling England By The Pound
E.L.P. - Brain Salad Surgery
Gong - Angel's Egg
Rick Wakeman - Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
Supertramp - Crime Of The Century
E.L.O. - Eldorado
Kraftwerk - Autobahn
Hawkwind - Warrior On The Edge Of Time
Renaissance - Scheherazade
Camel - Moonmadness
Alan Parsons - Tales Of Mystery And Imagination
Kansas - Leftoverture
Peter Gabriel - First
Rush - A Farewell To Kings
Kate Bush - The Kick Inside
Asia - S/T
Marillion - Misplaced Childhood
Yes - 90125
Queensryche - Operation: Mindcrime
Dream Theater - When Dream And Day Unite
Radiohead - OK Computer
Opeth - Blackwater Park
The Mars Volta - Deloused In The Comatorium
Porcupine Tree - Deadwing
Muse - Black Holes And Revelations
Mastodon - Crack The Skye


- Alan Parsons - synthesizer, organ, keyboard, guitar, recorder, vocoder, vocals
- Eric Woolfson - harpsichord, synthesizer, keyboards, vocals
- John Miles - vocals, guitar
- David Paton - bass, guitar, vocals
- Andrew Hurdle - bass
- Joe Puerta - bass
- Daryl Runswick - bass, string bass
- Laurence Juber - guitar
- Kevin Peek - guitar
- Ian Bairnson - guitar
- David Pack - guitar
- Francis Monkman - keyboards, organ
- Andrew Powell - keyboards
- Christopher North - keyboards
- David Katz - violin
- David Snell - harp
- Burleigh Drummond - drums
- John Leach - percussion, vocals, cimbalom, kantele
- Stuart Tosh - cymbals, drums, vocals, timpani
- Billy Lyall - piano, drums, glockenspiel, keyboards, recorder, Fender Rhodes keyboard
- Leonard Whiting - vocals, narration
- Arthur Brown - vocals
- Jack Harris - vocals
- Jane Powell - vocals
- Terry Sylvester - vocals
- Smokey Parsons - vocals
- Bob Howes - choir
- The English Ch0rale - choir
- Orson Welles - narration

© 2011 CL Seamus for Thunder Row