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The Alan Parsons Project - Tales Of Mystery And Imagination CD (album) cover


The Alan Parsons Project


Crossover Prog

4.03 | 618 ratings

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4 stars “Tales…” was an impressive debut for the Alan Parsons Project in 1976. Parsons’ motivation for creating a performing group were quite straightforward at the time – he wanted to make some money. Despite his legendary work for the likes of Pink Floyd, Ambrosia, Pilot, and the Hollies, Parsons has claimed that his compensation for producing hits for these and many other performers was paltry. While he didn’t exactly get rich off this album either, the Project was certainly well-rewarded for the flurry of pop hits they churned out in the years following its release.

In the seventies Alan Parsons was certainly a person who was keenly aware of popular sensibilities and what kinds of music would go over with the listening public. Indeed, his career as a producer largely depended on this, and he was savvy enough to be one of the first rock music producers to employ his own business agent to help maximize on his rare talent. In the mid-70s there were a fair number of artists that attempted to merge literary works with music to varying degrees of success (Triumvirat’s “Spartacus”, Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds”, Jack Lancaster & Robin Lumley’s “Peter and the Wolf”, and Rush’s “2112”, just to name a few). Parsons perhaps believed that a similar concept would also bring him commercial success. That combined with his supremely competent skill at arranging and producing highly accessible and technical excellent music led to this very accessible and impressive debut.

This album takes the literary theme to another level though. Parsons and creative partner Eric Woolfson selected a number of short stories and poems from the late Edgar Allen Poe and merged them together into what is a little bit literary soundtrack, and a little bit concept album. The meticulous attention to detail and impeccable choices in the supporting cast resulted in a time-tested classic.

The original album did not include Orson Wells’ tasteful narration, but pretty much any version of the album you might run across today is based on the later reissue that did include these passages. Wells adds some pomp and texture with his short readings scattered throughout, including leading into the opening track.

The album opens with “A Dream Within a Dream” which is loosely based on one of Poe’s early poems by the same name. That poem has roughly the same theme as Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind” only in Poe’s case he is lamenting the hopelessness of nature, change, and loss, all while standing on a beach watching sand slip through his fingers. So I guess that makes “Sand in the Water” a suitable subtitle (chuckle). Parsons employs a number of musicians throughout the album, and many of them play keyed instruments of one sort or another, including synthesizers, piano, organ, harpsichord, cimbalom, and kantele. The opening instrumental employs a number of these and while it is difficult-to-impossible to separate each one, the result is a quite ambient and beautiful beginning to the album. The Project would use the same leading-instrumental pattern on several of their subsequent albums, most notably with the self-titled I Robot opener and “Sirius” on Eye in the Sky.

“The Raven” is pretty much standard reading for any grammar school literature course, and Parsons captures the mood of this morbid tale wonderfully with the haunting backing choral, strident organ chords, and the plaintive cry of “Nevermore” spaced throughout. The guitar work here is especially tight and well-done, offered by David Paton (Pilot, Camel) and David Pack (Ambrosia). Parsons sings lead here for one of the rare times in the Project’s history. This was a minor hit single in the United States and one of the stronger tracks on the album.

Crazy Arthur Brown establishes the perfect mood with his lead vocals for “The Tell-tale Heart”, a Poe short-story about a man who is driven to murder while caring for an elderly relative, only to slide into madness and confess in the end. Kind of an abbreviated equivalent to Crime and Punishment, I suppose. The pulsating keyboards and intense rhythm provide a great interpretation of the mood Poe probably intended for this tale.

Long-time Parsons collaborator John Miles provides theatrical and brooding vocals on “The Cask of Amontillado” which is also based on a short story, this one of a man who is insulted by an acquaintance and exacts revenge by bricking the man up in a lair and leaving him to die there. The stark organ here helps to create a musical scene of dank castles with mildewed moats and torch-lit corridors, while the backing vocals at the close could easily have been lifted from a church funeral requiem. The soundscape here fits the storyline perfectly.

Miles and Brown combine to set the vocal mood for “Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”, again based on a Poe short story. In this one a young man is invited for dinner at a mental institution under the premise that he is there to observe a new method for subjugating insane patients that has been developed by the sanatorium’s physicians. As he eats the visitor is struck by the seemingly odd behavior of the staff, only to find in the end that the patients have tarred, feathered, and locked up the physicians and are masquerading as the staff themselves. So here quite literally – the lunatics are running the asylum. This was a modestly popular single in the States in the mid-70s although many reviewers (including Rolling Stone magazine) complained that the instruments and tempo are haphazard and make little sense. If I’m not mistaken, that was exactly the point.

The sixteen minute epic instrumental “The Fall of the House of Usher” is based on what is probably Poe’s most well-known work, the thoroughly macabre and disturbing story of the twin brother and sister who inhabit the grisly House of Usher. I’ve read the fear of being buried alive was a major concern in Poe’s time, so the premise that the brother does so to his sister only to have her return and exact revenge was probably akin on the believability scale to the glut of psycho-slasher movies that were released in the seventies and eighties at a time when serial killers seemed to be almost a fad in the Americas. This is easily Parsons’ most ambitious musical work ever, and benefits greatly from the expansive and elaborated orchestral arrangements of Andrew Powell. Parsons and Woolfson also add authentic rain and lightning sounds taken from outside the studio to enhance the dreary mood they are attempting to portray. The long and mournful guitar sustains here reminds me very much of some of those on Dark Side of the Moon, and even some Moody Blues works from the same period.

The album ends with “To One in Paradise”, another work based on a Poe poem. Here Hollies guitarist Terry Sylvester adds some vocals and the mood is more sanguine than anywhere else on the album, and even mildly nostalgic. This composition reminds me very much of Klaatu circa “Sir Army Suit” or “Magdalena”. A nice closer, but a bit out of character with the rest of the album.

Some hardcore progressive fans dismiss this as a simplistic piece of music, perhaps progressively inclined but not deep or complex enough to merit serious consideration. I disagree. Alan Parson and Eric Woolfson produced an impeccably-engineered piece of art here, with logical and believable references to some of the finer works of a legendary author. The fact they possessed the skill to do so while managing to make it highly accessible and even inspiring to listen to only makes this more worthwhile for collectors of the genre. I would stop just short of saying it is essential however, but four stars out of five is certainly warranted, so that’s what I’ll give it.


ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |


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