Backtrack Reviews Number 2: Tales of Mystery and Imagination by The Alan Parsons Project
This week I look back at the 1975 album "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" by The Alan Parsons Project. Does this ambitious progressive project still hold up?
THE BACKGROUND: In 1975, renowned studio engineer Alan Parsons ("Abbey Road," "Dark Side of the Moon") and composer/songwriter Eric Woolfson put together a group of seasoned studio musicians to perform and record a cycle of Woolfson's compositions based on the works of Edgar Alan Poe. The idea of the "project" was to highlight the producer as the star attraction in much the same way that the film industry was marketing its product based on the director's name and notoriety. Over the next fifteen years, The Alan Parsons Project released 11 albums with various degrees of chart success, and a frequently rotating lineup of musicians, with keyboardist Andrew Powell and guitarist Ian Bairnson being near constants and major contributors to the Project's sound.
"Tales of Mystery and Imagination," as mentioned above, was the Project's first album, based on the prose and poetry of Edgar Alan Poe. It remains among the most well regarded of The Project's albums and is considered one of the defining albums of the progressive rock movement. And, until recently, I hadn't listened to it in over twenty years.
THE TRACK LIST:
1. A Dream Within a Dream (instrumental)
2. The Raven
3. The Tell-Tale Heart
4. The Cask of Amontillado
5. (The System of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
6. The Fall of the House of Usher: Prelude
7. The Fall of the House of Usher: Arrival
8. The Fall of the House of Usher: Intermezzo
9. The Fall of the House of Usher: Pavane
10. The Fall of the House of Usher: Fall
11. To One in Paradise
THE REVIEWY PART:
The album begins with the instrumental "A Dream Within a Dream," which consists of piano and harp arpeggios evoking a dream-like mood. The version of the album which I have is a mid-eighties remaster, which adds some introductory narration of some of Poe's essay work by legendary actor and director Orson Welles. This adds some gravitas to the piece which seemed a bit slow getting started in the original release, as I recall. As the piece continues, it transitions directly into "The Raven," a paraphrasing of Poe's most famous poem. It features one of the very few vocal performances by Parsons himself, sung through an electronic voice filter called a Vocoder. These first two tracks establish a pattern which would feature on subsequent Project albums of an instrumental intro piece transitioning directly into the opening "song." The next track, "The Tell-Tale Heart," is a mid-tempo rocker featuring the manic vocals of Arthur Brown (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown) which perfectly captures the madness of the protagonist of the original story. Moving on, "The Cask of Amontillado" features the vocals of John Miles dueting with Eric Woolfson. Each vocalist sings from the point of view of either the narrator (Miles) or the "unfortunate" Fortunato (Woolfson.) As an aside, I was somewhat bothered by the mispronunciation of the word "Amontillado" in the song, but it didn't ruin my enjoyment. Side One of the album (for those of you who remember such things) winds down with "(The System Of) Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether," based on a rather comical tale where the inmates are literally running the asylum. Side Two is primarily composed of the intrumental "The Fall of the House of Usher" suite, which is based on an opera fragment by Claude Debussy. This long piece would almost seem to be an ambient type music, but for the increasing musical tension and the narrative which the music implies. The album ends with the soft, acoustic ballad "To One in Paradise." This is a beautiful piece and ends the album on a restful note.
THE CONCLUSIONS: I so completely enjoyed revisiting this album that I am at a loss as to exactly why I ever stopped listening to it. From the opening notes, I was transported to Poe's world of the bizarre and Macabre, and I was happy to go there. On a side note, this is nerd-friendly album, as its subject matter has been a favorite of nerds (myself included) for generations. So how does "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" rate? This one is Better Than I Remember It.