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                           Muses on The Music

Old News Reviews: On Air, Alan Parsons

When Cousin (and Alert Reader) Bill K. shared his music stash with me at the family reunion last summer, I used the opportunity to add three albums by an act whose first two LPs I own, and mostly enjoy.

Or so I thought. Cueing up to do an Old News Review on one of those, On Air, I found what I thought were Alan Parsons Project projects, were in fact solo albums by Alan Parsons. For a “band” that was always more a floating opera of studio and sessions musicians, this seems to be a distinction without a difference.

APP albums were always concepts featuring the music of Parsons — ace engineer on, or producer of, albums like the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon — principal collaborator Eric Woolfson and a changing cast of instrumentalists and vocalists. Parson’s solo projects were him, long-time APP guitarist Ian Bainson and — a changing group of musicians. Just no Wolfson.

It didn’t take long after the first APP album, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, came out for me to snap it up, based on cuts I heard on Radio Free Madison. I was a literary guy, one who had read and loved the dark works of Edgar Allen Poe as a youth, and a Poe-themed rock LP was right up my alley — or right down my shadowy path, perhaps.

“The Cask of Amontillado,” which followed closely Poe’s short story, was epic. But cuts like “The Raven,” “The Telltale Heart” and “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Feather” rocked. Side two’s symphonic, 16-minute “The Fall of the House” and “To One in Paradise” kind of wandered off, but this was vinyl — play the side you like, then don’t flip the disk …

APP’s follow-up, I Robot, had a similar theme hook for me: Isaac Asimov’s classic, and seminal, science fiction novel of the same name. I was sci-fi-obssessed from my pre-teen years, and a concept novel based on one the best books by one of my favorite SF writers was irresistible.

And I Robot musically carried on some of the same elements that appealed to me in Tales: great rock hooks, anthem-like slower pieces — albeit more of the latter and less of the harder rock — great production, instrumentation and vocals. The hits-to-misses ratio was higher than on Tales, but the lyrics seemed less tethered to the literary, and there were tracks that noodled off instrumentally.

But I never bought the third, or subsequent, APP albums. Pyramid came out in 1978, after I had moved out of RFM’s orbit, and no longer got to hear much in the way of “deep tracks” off new albums. The “pyramid power”-era influence on the theme perhaps didn’t appeal to me — at that time, I had come to share the Firesign Theatre’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” attitude towards the paranormal fads of the ’70s.

Since signing up for satellite radio, I’ve heard cuts from several of the subsequent APP projects, and liked some of them: “Turn of a Friendly Card” and “Stereotomy,” the title cuts from their 1980 and ’85 LPs, respectively, particularly. But not enough to motivate me to buy a CD or download an album.

APP broke up after 1990’s Freudiana — but how can you top a musical about founder of psychotherapy and cocaine-use-advocate Sigmund Freud? (Perhaps the better question is, how do you get under that low a bar?) However, an album project created in 1979, The Sicilian Defence, was released under the APP brand in 2014, five years after Wolfson’s death. (That, despite the fact that Parsons himself once said that it would never be released, and that he hoped the tapes were lost.)

Parsons’ solo work continued the concept concept — in the case of On Air, the theme is manned flight. The lyrics tie together and to the concept pretty well, and the musical quality and production values are typically Parsonish — lush, multi-dimensional, well-executed. But the feel is more soft-rock, with the hooks largely lacking.

Perhaps those were Wolfson’s contribution, although the Wikipedia entry makes it sound like the first Parsons’ solo effort was not so slick. I also got that LP, Try Anything Once, from Bill’s stash, as well as the third album, The Time Machine. I listened to part of the latter today, and thought at times that I was recycling On Air.

I’ll give it another chance, and also Try Anything Once. But I’m thinking that Alan Parson solo is not going to replace the Project in my listening pantheon — and that I maybe should give those later APP projects a chance.