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Alan Parsons Project
Complete Albums Collection Rich Hughes , April 29th, 2014 07:14

This isn't going to be one of those articles that declare the entire Alan Parsons Project (APP) back catalogue to be a lost gem - a hidden treasure trove of music that has far-reaching influences that are only now becoming apparent. Well, I may be doing the latter. However, one of the most peculiar aspects of evaluating the output of Alan Parsons Project, especially as it's now collected for the first time in one set, is how popular it was at the time. There maybe little of the striking originality that sets out classic albums, but these APP albums all act as a mirror of their time with sparks of greatness that shine through today.

The APP was a core duo of Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson. Parsons was, notoriously, both the assistant engineer on Abbey Road and engineer de-facto on The Dark Side Of The Moon. Woolfson was a composer and manager but made his name in musical theatre, writing five musicals, many of which were inspiration for APP albums. This seemingly odd pair met in the canteen of Abbey Road studios back in the summer of 1974 and hit it off almost immediately. Their friendship blossomed into APP's first album, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, an album based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, which was already written by Woolfson but needed some musical inspiration. The album was released in 1976, reached the Top 40 in the United States, and the APP continued releasing albums until 1987, though they still tour as a live entity.

It's easy to dismiss APP as part of the excessive progressive rock madness that birthed the rebellion that was punk. However, there is more going on here that might initially meet the ear. Certainly, the albums were all concepts - the 1977 follow-up to Tales was I, Robot, loosely based on Isaac Asimov's novels and the laws of robotics, and their final album in 1987 was based on the life of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. It's easy to pass this all off as pretentious nonsense (1984's Ammonia Avenue focuses on the public's misconception of industrial scientific developments!). Yet amongst these eleven albums there are some hints of true progressive and original thinking.  It was this mix of full band and electronics was still in its infancy, especially with this much more "popular" sound - this was the accessible side of prog.

I was raised in a household by a father who was obsessed with progressive-rock. Our living room was littered with records and tapes of Floyd, Jarre, Vangelis, Yes, Genesis and, of course, APP. As with all these albums, picked through as a young boy, it was the artwork that initially drew me in. Gorging on an exclusive diet of science-fiction and fantasy books, these covers feed that interest - alien worlds and creatures or, in the case of APP's Pyramid, a vision of a bearded man blurring into a stream of digital waves. I remember hearing Pyramid for the first time in years, the opening instrumental of 'Voyager' (yes, an ode to the exploring satellite of the same name), I can still hear the needle following the grooves of the vinyl, an underlying accidental drone between the quiet splash of drums as a soaring rise of space-age electronics soar into view.

The most intriguing story to come with this box set centres around the never previously released The Sicilian Defence, recorded around the time of 1979's Eve. It was handed to the label in 1981, but was deemed too complex and challenging to be released and has been locked away in the vaults of Arista, until now. Named after a series of opening chess moves, the tracks themselves are the moves: 'PK4', 'PQB4' et al. Why this has never seen a full release until now is a bit of a shame. With the current vogue for New-Age electronica at an all-time high, its release couldn't have happened at a better time, its release it perhaps no accident. There are tracks here that would easily have fitted onto last year's celebrated I Am The Centre collection. But such is life and the peculiar nature of the APP - multi-million selling records, yet oddly absent and forgotten from recent memory.

The instrumental works of APP are where the real highlights are. 'Pipeline' from 1984's Ammonia Avenue is a smooth flow of electric guitar and sharp beats that swoop over a modular synth refrain before ending with an effortless saxophone cry. The title track from I, Robot never fails to encourage me to turn it up - a growing blur of synthesisers and throbbing bass builds until pierced by operatic voices, akin to 2001's Jupiter sequence. 'Voyager' from 1978's Pyramid is of a similar vintage - a sense that Parsons was trying to put to use all the studio trickery and skills he'd learnt to engineer and craft a multitrack masterpiece from synthesisers speckled with live band arrangements. These are the reasons why APP are still talked about and referenced today - albeit in more hushed tones than some of their contemporaries. 

It's the "songs" though, those involving vocals,that increasingly date these albums. The vocals themselves were provided by an conveyor belt of well known voices - from Arthur Brown on their debut, through David Paton on Pyramid to Geoff Barrowdale (who's now the manager of the Arctic Monkeys) on Gaudi, plus a host of others. With the vocals coming to the fore, the music shifts into the background and, inevitably, to the disappointing sound of a generic pub band - predominantly that of shuffling drums and 80s power ballad textures: see 'You Lie Down With Dogs' on 1979's Eve, or 'Limelight' from 1984's Stereotomy (the latter could easily grace a Chris De Burgh album from the same period). Yet there are always exceptions - the title track from Eye In The Sky is a polished slab of dreamy guitar pop that the current crop of Scandinavian posers would kill for. The laid-back groove of 'What Goes Up…' from Pyramid brings to mind the more accessible songs of Pink Floyd, and I've got a soft spot for the shuffling funk of 'I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You' from I, Robot, if just for the razor-sharp guitar solo that sounds completely out of place. And lets not forget the power-ballad sheen of 'Standing On Higher Ground', one of the few high points from 1987's Gandi

Listening in the rare company of a box set you can cast an informed look back across the music. It becomes easier to spot those highs and lows, those little hubs of originality that have sparked inspiration for other artists. Upon hearing Oneohtrix Point Never's Zones Without People for the first time I was instantly transported back to hearing APP's Pyramid when I was a teenager. Interestingly, in an interview with XLR8R last year, Daniel Loptain spoke about APP and how he and Joel Ford started sessions of their collaborative effort making "Alan Parsons Project-style shit", all slicing and dicing. Then there's the Balearic sound that is currently dominating the airwaves - all have more than a passing resemblance to the ice-cool and smooth production that predominates most APP releases, especially the early to mid-80s. Certainly the early work of Studio, Mountain of One and Air France all reminded me of APP upon encountering them for the first time.

Ultimately, then, this box set puts APP in some kind of context. The chronology shows that each record was very much of its time. Yet Alan Parsons studio skill and engineering prowess always ensured that they sounded more interesting than perhaps they should. History itself doesn't look too kindly on the career of APP - a footnote in the prog-art-rock category that failed to do anything original. Listening back to these records, you can see some of the points -  there's some pretty awful songs tucked away here - but, those moments of originality and greatness exist, and they serve to raise APP out of the forgotten pile of tapes and CDs left in an old Woolworths bin and to be seen in a new light.