If you ever doubted the crucial importance of Alan Parsons to the whole Dark Side Of The Moon shenanigan – or if you never knew who the guy was in the first place – take a listen to this.
Go ahead and try, it won’t bite you, even if it is a progressive rock album released in the same year with Ramones. All the lush, dreamy, otherworldly atmospheric elements of DSOTM are present, and the crystal clear sound quality – some of the best ever achieved by mankind before computerkind took over completely – is evident.
What Alan Parsons lacked the power to bring along, of course, were the musical talents of the Floydsters: neither the guitar pyrotechnics of Gilmour nor the songwriting skills of Waters. In that respect, the first of the Alan Parsons Projects certainly cannot be held in the same league as DSOTM. But there’s a time for “best” and then there’s a time for “good”, and of the record being “good” there is absolutely no doubt in this reviewer’s mind, especially upon comparing it with Alan Parsons’ late Seventies/early Eighties soft-synth-pop hits. That later epoch may have been spent under the mighty dollar sign, but in 1976, Alan Parsons was most definitely working for art, and he had plenty of vision to go along with it.
Either for the slow-witted or for the illiterate, or just because Alan and Eric Woolfson sort of felt like it, the album sports the subtitle Edgar Allan Poe. Indeed this is essentially an attempt at a musical interpretation for several of the writer’s tales/poems, which include well-known classics like ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’ along with lesser things like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether’, and then culminates in a lengthy symphonic representation of ‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’.
The idea might seem corny and pretentious, but, come to think of it, not more so than the idea of screening Edgar Poe or, in fact, any other writer. It’s simply that you don’t really mess around with the memory of a great artist unless you can come up with something at least almost as great as said artist could, and that’s not a very high probability, is it? Especially if you’re working within the “commercial prog-rock” formula of the mid-Sixties.
On the other hand, there is at least one obvious advantage to this kind of thing: by taking a great artist’s conceptual ideas and dressing them up in clothes of your own making, you can at least rest assured that, provided you have a clear understanding of these conceptual ideas, nobody will dismiss your work with an exclamation of “what a bunch of assholish nonsense!”. At worst, people will call you boring. Since few will have the gall – or the itch – to dismiss Edgar Poe, even fewer will have both to dismiss Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. So, despite coming out at a rather unhappy time for the art/prog rock genre, the album seems to have a moderately fair reputation with the critics. It also has a moderately fair reputation with me.
Since the Project was never all that stable apart from Parsons and Woolfson (in fact, this wasn’t even a proper band name in the beginning – it really was just an ‘Alan Parsons project’), I won’t be naming any individual players – let’s just mention that the instrumentation is very far from being limited to just Alan Parsons’ keyboards. There’s plenty of orchestration and horns, and quite a bit of acoustic and electric guitars where needed – there’s nothing overtly sickening or monotonous about the performances.
The vocal jobs are handed by Woolfson, John Miles and ex-Hollies member Terry Sylvester (Parsons seems to have a passion for early Sixties’ Britpop vocalists – another Hollies member, Alan Clarke, as well as ex-Zombies vocalist Colin Bluntstone would be frequent guests on his subsequent albums, much to their embellishment), and, apart from Arthur Brown’s screeching vocal parts on ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ which really belong in a separate category, the singing is excellent throughout.
What’s with the melodies, then? You know the style; the actual melodies, then, are not among the most memorable ever written, but when there are actual melodies, they’re definitely not worse than on an average Floyd album. The rendition of ‘The Raven’, today probably the best remembered tune on the album, is lush and energetic at the same time, alternating from quiet New Age-style panoramas to rockin’ outbursts in the chorus. The song never becomes boring – some of the vocals are electronically encoded, some are clear and gentle, and the Westminster City School Boys Choir comes in at times to add extra solemnity. Throw in a rampant guitar solo and a catchy chorus – if you ever wanted to know how you could bring extra catchiness to the “quoth the Raven ‘nevermore'” bit, here’s a good way to do it. Of course, I’m not sure myself whether Mr Poe would be happy with this interpretation, way too twentieth-century-like for his original vision. But so what?..
The other minor hit from the album (and yes, it actually boasted hits – UK audiences took to Parsons at once; then again, who knows, maybe if Dave Gilmour’s tailor took to performing, they’d push him up the charts as well) was ‘Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether’, and it’s pretty catchy. You know, I actually figure the main problem with this album is that too many melodies are set to the exact same loud, mid-tempo, 4/4 beat that you wouldn’t expect of a respectable prog rock band. But then again, it’s not all that different from Pink Floyd, is it? (And don’t you go reminding me about the 7/4 pattern of ‘Money’. It’s a good song, but it just screams ‘look at us! We can play 7/4!’ all over the place. It’s hardly like that elsewhere).
However, honour of best song goes to ‘Tell-Tale Heart’, and not just because of Arthur Brown’s suitably eccentric performance, but rather due to the song’s general eccentricity. It’s all over the place, part boogie, part heavy metal, part dreamy symphony, part orchestral rampage, and unlike ‘Doctor Tarr’, it isn’t just an immaculately glossy mid-tempo hard rock arena-friendly pigeonhole. Too unsettling for generic radio stations.
As for the ‘Fall Of House Of Usher’ symphony, it’s not particularly memorable, but I find it likeable all the same. It has an excellent progression, from the lengthy orchestrated intro (incorporating Tchaikovsky quotations, right?) to the moody organ-dominated ‘Arrival’ and the harpsichord-dominated ‘Pavane’ – see what I meant when I said the record never gets boring. I was kinda disappointed in ‘The Fall’, though: for such a climactic and shattering event, fifty seconds of orchestral crescendo seems a bit feeble for such a master of sound as Mr Parsons.
Then again, maybe it was specially meant to be that way – after all, remember that the protagonist only witnesses the actual downfall from afar and it doesn’t last all that long. And then we end up everything with a soothing Floyd-style ballad, ‘To One In Paradise’, written in the best traditions of British ‘dream-pop’, if you know what I mean.
In fact, I’m really amazed at how fine this record turned out to be: at the tail end of the ‘prog-rock rule’ years, Mr P actually managed to revitalize the genre by putting it into a ‘literary’ context, on one hand, and into an ‘electronically oriented’ context, on the other, never losing the sense of taste or an overall orientation on true enjoyability. Sure he had to sacrifice “liveliness” in the process, and invent his own brand of skilfully choked, robot-minded music, but these kinds of gruesome considerations really only apply for those who value a good blast of feedback over everything else. Those who like their stuff clean and neat will definitely take Tales Of Mystery And Imagination over Tales From Topographic Oceans any day.
PS. Slight technical fact – there actually exist two different versions of this album, the original one and the 1987 re-mix, which is the standard for today’s CDs and which is the one I have. The remix is said to be slightly different, with the addition of a few extra guitar and synthesizer parts; also, Orson Welles’ spoken introduction to the album isn’t present on the original. I can’t say which one is better, of course, because I haven’t heard the old version, so I’ll just stop here. ‘Fraid, though, that most of you will have to do with the remix.