Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Alan's Pastit Project? + Poe: More Tales... 

The past year or so has seen new releases from Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons, the duo who comprised the continuing central hub of The Alan Parsons Project - an act who made ten albums together (and many individual albums since the split). These latest two albums arguably present the widest diversion in Woolfson and Parsons' visions, though in essence they still retain many elements in common (not least of all a spoken piece of Orson Welle's narration recorded for their very first collaborative masterpiece, Tales of Mystery & Imagination).

Poe: More Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Eric Woolfson

This is a beautiful album that's doing plenty of rotation at our house. As is typical with the APP albums (and indeed any music with enduring worth), it's a grower, getting better with repeated listenings, as the subtleties and depth of both lyrics and production are revealed. Essentially, the songs are the basis for a musical - a song-cycle on the tragic life of Edgar Allen Poe - produced here in a range of styles including theatrical, and even choral singing, but with an emphasis firmly on the AOR rock sound that defined The Project. Interestingly, these pieces form part of a longer song-cycle (the Rufus Griswold subplot has been largely removed for this album) which has been performed live at Abbey Road, and will hopefully be on stage soon.

In the commanding presence of vocalist Steve Balsamo, Woolfson has found the perfect interpreter for these songs: not only does Balsamo have extraordinary range, he convinces as Poe, lending the material enormous emotional depth right across the board, from the anthemic spiritual songs to the more lighthearted pieces.

The album opens with a familiar sounding instrumental - a minor suspended 7th refrain that strongly recalls the prelude to the Woolfson-fronted APP megahit, Eye in the Sky. The songs range between moving ballads largely performed by Balsamo, a few novelty songs and some large pieces performed by a choir. The novelty pieces are Train to Freedom, a black humoured number sung by baritone Fred Johanson, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which constrasts Balsamo's detective against a group of Woolfson voices who sound much like The Flying Pickets.

The production overall is restrained - big, but not vast like some of the APP catalogue - and the tone always feels right for the songs. Probably the largest sounding piece is the choir sung, The Bells, which literally sets Poe's words to music to powerful effect (it's possibly my favourite track) - Eric Woolfson remains one of the greatest songwriters ever (certainly of living songwriters), bringing considerable insight into the human condition, but this piece of Poe's sums so much of it up so darkly and perfectly.

If you like concept-type albums with wide ranging musical influences and a rock musical structure, then I strongly recommend this album. Fans of Edgar Allen Poe should also enjoy it. And J. likes it too - she's always asking me to put it on!

See: Eric Woolfson's Poe website

Alan Parsons - A Valid Path

It's great to hear Alan Parsons venturing out into new sonic territory. He always had a curious and eclectic ear, with a commanding sense of how to bring out the best in a song, so it's fascinating to hear Parsons, one of the founding fathers of electronic rock, reclaiming his musical legacy.

While there is a wealth of new material here, two of the pieces are reworkings/remixings of APP classics (still "The Raven" remains on Parsons' albums no matter how much we implore :)). It is odd that Parsons has chosen to include a piece based on the work of Poe, when Woolfson has written a whole musical without choosing to include this piece (he has included his APP songs in past musicals).

This work is broadly collaborative, seeing Parsons working with many sonic innovators - names familiar in techno and current electronic music - Simon Posford (Shpongle), the Nortec Collective, Uberzone, The Crystal Method. Alongside these musicians/composers, there are some old friends: David Gilmour working his range of guitar sounds over Return To Tunguska, singer/songwriters David Pack and PJ Olsson, and son Jeremy Parsons doing most work on the reworked APP tracks.

Probably the strongest song (as opposed to ambient instrumental) is We Play the Game, thankfully sung at last by Alan Parsons himself. His fans have often requested Parsons do this, and he has often toured and sung live in recent years, but this is the first time he has sung a studio lead vocal himself (the spoken bonus track on the Japanese version of The Time Machine notwithstanding). There are three songs with fairly traditional structures, and they're all good. These three help to subdue the air of menace that permeates most of the album, though they're still dark and expertly produced, with even the ominous vocoder putting in an APPearance.

Overall, the rhythms are fairly bassy and heavy - this is definitely an ambient techno album - and the sound is possibly too compressed for my liking, but this helps to further the sense of menace that the whole album carries. The textures are multi-layered in a completely different manner to most APP, though they do represent a continuation of Parsons pop-length instrumental contributions to those albums (as does a lot of modern music).

I have reservations about the extent to which this is collaborative, with Parsons contributions often appearing fairly minimal (I had similar reservations about The Time Machine) - but this misses the point, which is that he has alway been someone with a unifying musical vision, drawing disparate elements together. Possibly this is an "apprenticeship" album, with Parsons learning the ropes before moving on yet further in new directions. At any rate, it does bring things full circle, with those who learnt from this ever great producer/engineer/musician now returning the favour.

This album has even been released here in Australia! Of course, it doesn't help that music shops insist on filing it with The Alan Parsons Project - I had to move a copy over the Dance/Beats, where it would feel more at home and might even get to the right audience!

See: Alan Parson's Official Site

So are these two distinguished old artists past it? No, definitely not!

(These aren't meant as "proper" reviews - just musings that I've been chipping away at for a while about these two albums.)

Eric Woolfson shows on his latest work that HE was more the APP, than Alan will ever be !!!
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