The Alan Parsons Project | Pyramid, Eve, Turn of a Friendly Card, Ammonia Avenue, Stereotomy, Gaudi

app-header.jpgArista Records offers a slew of bonus track-laden remasters of the prog-rock giants who, contrary to what Homer Simpson once said, were not "some sort of hovercraft."



Intelligent. Enigmatic. Energetic. Complex. Masterful. This is the Alan Parsons Project. Something of a misnomer, Alan Parsons Project was born of the partnership between studio engineer and producer Alan Parsons and the creative, multi-talented genius of singer/songwriter Eric Woolfson. The name came about when studio execs approved the first "Alan Parsons Project," mistaking it for the name of the band. I suppose they can’t be blamed. Right up until I was sixteen I thought Alan Parsons did most of the vocals to the songs I loved. It wasn’t until I started mixing with the more music-savvy college kids that I learned the voices I most often associated with the APP were actually Parsons’ partner in crime Eric Woolfson, longtime vocal contributor Lenny Zakatek, and occasionally Chris Rainbow, who is billed in the liner notes to Eve as a "One Man Beach Boys."

If all you know of the Alan Parsons Project is one little throwaway line from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, then these remastered reissues are the perfect introduction to the band. If you are a longtime fan then these reissues will be a welcome addition to your collection, even if you already own the titles in question. Why? Because any fan interested in the nuts and bolts work that goes into creating their favorite songs will find something to like in the many early versions of classic APP tunes, tracks that didn’t make the final cut, back tracks, vocal guides, and other recordings of the studio work that went into giving the Alan Parsons Project their unique polish and trademark complexity. Due to the sheer amount of material being re-released, it will be hard to give an in-depth critique of each album in the space I have allowed myself, especially in light of the extras included on each disc, but I’m going to give it a go.

Pyramid (1978) — As the title might suggest, Pyramid echoes with mystical underpinnings. Indeed, astrology, "pyramid power," fascination with the ancient Egyptians, and scientific space exploration were all world-wide crazes throughout the 70s. The third Project reflects this unconscious connection between the journey into the afterlife and our journey into the stars. Possibly my favorite APP album after the Poe-inspired Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Pyramid boasts a consistency of theme, style, and quality sometimes lacking in later albums. Obviously, pyramidal imagery is most prominent, but there are references to the space program as well—"Voyager," "The Eagle Will Rise Again," and so forth. Nevertheless, with its pilgrims and miracles, crumbling pyramids and mythical boatmen, falling from grace and returning to greatness, Pyramid is most of all about the glory and futility of man’s struggle to comprehend the greatest mystery, death. Favorite tracks from this album include, well, most of the tracks from this album. Especial favorites are the dreamy, almost robotic "What Goes Up," madcap up-tempo "Pyramania," straightforward "Can’t Take It With You," and the powerful instrumental "In the Lap of the Gods." All of the bonus tracks are worth giving a listen to. An early version of "What Goes Up" includes an amusing lyrical sub-theme entitled "Little Voices," which was later excluded to the ultimate benefit of the final song. The musical demo of "Can’t Take It With You" features producer Alan Parsons playing all the instruments. Also of note is the abandoned rock reprise of "The Eagle Will Rise Again," which I might prefer to the original if only it had lyrics to go along with it.

Eve (1979) — Both tribute to and indictment of the fairer sex, Eve is APP’s musical paean to women. Never strictly tied down to one point of view, we have songs about women, the lives they touch, their power and their foibles. We have songs from the female point of view, the male perspective, or both. As with most intelligent compositions be they musical, poetic, or prose, the lines are blurred and varied interpretations can be drawn by the listener. And don’t be fooled by the preponderance of male vocalists. Is the song "I’d Rather Be a Man" a man glad that his sex eschews the fashionable affectations of women — or is it one woman judging the clothes and therefore character of another? Eve opens with what is, in my opinon, one of the greatest APP instrumentals ever. Appropriately, "Lucifer," a haunting track filled with electronic synthesizers, a ghostly choir, eerie Morse code, and stacatto drums, commences the album named for the woman he corrupted. It is music to conjure visions. One stand out track is "Damned If I Do," a personal favorite from the entire catalogue of APP tunes, where once again orchestral compoents are used to good effect. Oddly, the first of only two songs employing a female lead is probably my least favorite from the album. "Don’t Hold Back," featuring female Pink Floyd vocalist Clare Torry, seems a little uninspired in comparison to the normally ingenious fare APP has to offer. Perhaps the lyrics lack a certain something. Still, it does boast the wonderful line "If you can’t let yourself go, then what are you saving yourself for?"

Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980) — APP’s fifth album and a stand out offering in terms of consistency of content, Turn Of A Friendly Card is something of a return to form after the mixed bag that was Eve. Often seen as their breakout album, Turn Of A Friendly Card boasts progressive symphonic tracks alongside more contemporary and, it must be admitted, more successful tunes like "Games People Play." But there is a balance to all things, especially APP albums. To counterpoint higher energy songs like "Games People Play," there is the slower and more traditionally "Parson-ic," but also successful, "Time." I’ve never been wild about "May Be A Price To Pay" as the opener, but it neatly establishes the recurrent imagery of the album, "There’s something wrong in this house today." Cards and compulsion, fortune and misfortune, you might say this album is the "Full House of Usher." There’s even another touchstone with Edgar Allen Poe that Woolfson is so fond of, an instrumental called "The Gold Bug," named for a short story by the dark master that deals with buried treasure and man’s lust for so-called easy money. Luckily, you don’t have to dig for the buried treasure on this album: there are seven bonus tracks. Number three is my personal pick. Can I just say that Chris Rainbow kicks ass? The multi-layered vocal harmonies on this overdub are reminiscent of Queen. Or maybe it’s vice versa. Just a great little extra, possibly my favorite from amongst all forty of the collective bonus tracks accompanying the remastered discs.

Ammonia Avenue (1984) — What can I say about this album? Even after reading the liner notes I’m still not quite sure what Ammonia Avenue is about. Inspired by a chemical plant in northern England, a recurrent connection between the environment and quietly doom-laden imagery permeates Ammonia Avenue like the noisome smell of its namesake chemical. The great opening track, "Prime Time," has always been a personal favorite—there is something haunting about it, a certain quiet desperation in spite of mostly empowering lyrics. It creeps out early in the first lines, "even the brightest star won’t shine forever," and the frequent refrain "there’s something in the air." Ammonia Avenue boasts a greater amount and variety of bonus material than some of the other reissues. The instrumental version of "You Don’t Believe," while interesting, evokes shades of Gunsmoke and Rawhide, the Ian Bairnson guitars giving the whole a certain Old West twang. I have to agree with Alan Parsons in regard to passing over this version in favor of the classic track, "Thank God!" The final bonus track, an orchestral overdub of Ammonia Avenue, serves as a fitting coda, capturing the epic sweep of a little understood album.

Stereotomy (1985) — Hit or miss. Ostensibly, this is an album about the pressures people are subjected to in the modern world, especially those caught in the media eye, but like Ammonia Avenue before it, APP’s penultimate album might have benefited from a more concrete central concept. As with other products of the mid-80s, Stereotomy is all over the place and occasionally a little too energetic. The Project can easily leap the gap from melancholy to up-beat, but some of these songs are bucking for title track status on an 80s action flick. "In the Real World," sung by John Miles, is worthy of the most intense training montage sequence ever. One of the instrumentals (the oddly titled "Where’s the Walrus?") could easily be incidental music for a Michael Mann crime drama. "Stereotomy," "Limelight," and "Light of the World" are all solid entries and "Beaujolais" is manic, but fun. Track 11, an unreleased demo for "Rumor Going Round," a song that didn’t make the cut, has no vocals, but still sounds like it could have been a bad-ass little tune. On track 12, an early vocal guide for the song "Stereotomy" prior to recording John Miles’ vocals, Woolfson’s voice doesn’t quite come into its own until the second half, but stripped of later add-ons it has a peculiarly compelling quality. In terms of vocals, rather than guitar work, Pete Townsend fans should enjoy this one.

Gaudi (1987) — As a reviewer, this album was a special treat for me: of the six remastered re-releases, Gaudi was the only album I had never heard. Of the comparatively few songs on this album (Gaudi clocks in it at a lucky seven) only "Standing on Higher Ground" is familiar to me. I have to say that, while I was disappointed by the seeming scarcity of songs, I am very favorably impressed by the whole offering. In this case, I really do consider it a matter of quality over quantity, which leads to a natural curiosity about whether other albums could also have benefited from more drastic cutting. Stereotomy is the first to spring to mind—two of that album’s nine tracks could have been dropped, though I’m not sure if I would subject Ammonia Avenue to similar treatment. Conceptually, Gaudi was inspired by the famous Antonio Gaudi, a man known to his fellow Spaniards as "God’s Architect." Thematically, it juxtaposes work versus family, dedication to dollars against dedication to the day-to-day grind. Beyond that? I’m still letting it all sink in. There’s a strong opener and things end with a trademark APP instrumental.

If any of these six robust offerings tempt the musically adventurous among you, Pyramid, Eve, Turn Of A Friendly Card, Ammonia Avenue, Stereotomy, and Gaudi will all be available at both digital and retail outlets on January 27, 2009. Do yourself a favor get one of them, get all of them. Take a chance, you won’t regret it. | Greg O’Driscoll

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