It used to be, in the 1970s and ’80s, that you could almost keep time by the release of Alan Parsons Project albums, with a new one arriving every year or every other year. Albums started to arrive more sparsely in the late ’80s, with members of the core group exploring side projects (Keats, Andrew Powell scoring Ladyhawke) and, finally, the album that broke the Project apart, Freudiana (which was released not as a Project album, but as the studio concept album for a stage musical). The seemingly hectic pace was made somewhat easier because the Project didn’t play live, though Parsons assembled a touring band (which wasn’t always made up of the same players he had in the studio) to begin touring in the 1990s. The two-or-three-year gaps between albums made more sense then, and the live show was every bit as good as you’d expect it to be given how artfully Parsons crafted the studio sound that went out under his name. And then, after 2004’s A Valid Path…nothing. A single came out alongside Parsons’ Art And Science Of Sound Recording DVD, and then a couple more singles. It was somewhere in there that I read an interview in which Parsons declared the album, and especially the concept album in which he had specialized, dead in the age of iTunes downloads. I really didn’t expect to hear anything more from him after that. He had moved on to teaching the next generation of studio wizards and no longer seemed to be in the business of making and releasing his own music.
And that’s a big part of what made the announcement that The Secret was forthcoming such a shock, 15 years after A Valid Path saw him dabbling in electronica. Not just that, but The Secret was going to be precisely the kind of concept album that the singles-centric iTunes ecosystem had rendered obsolete. And what’s more, it’s an amazingly good concept album – though all of the “stage magic” imagery may be obfuscating what that theme really is.
Hewing to long-standing Alan Parsons Project tradition, the album has a lengthy instrumental opener, with Steve Hackett shredding “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with an orchestral backing. From there, things get more traditional – “Miracle” is a throwback to the Project of old, with “As Lights Fall” returning to the same mid-tempo musical ground that had proven so effective for songs like “Eye In The Sky”, but it’s in “As Lights Fall” that Parsons – actually doing lead vocals for once – peels back the curtain on what the album’s really about: the imminence of mortality, and the notion that each individual life is really the greatest magic trick of all.
This concept – dressing itself up in allusions to stage magic before revealing the real underlying theme – recurs in “Soirée Fantastique”, “Requiem”, “Years Of Glory”, and “The Limelight Fades Away”. Mortality and the miracle of life itself is the real concept of this concept album – even “Soirée Fantastique” includes the lyric “all the illusions fall away”. So do the allusions: for all of the lyrical nods to performing magic tricks, in the end it acknowledges that mortality is the ultimate disappearing act. With songs like “As Lights Fall” adding an autobiographical dimension, I almost want to call Parsons up and ask, “hey, buddy, is there something you’re not telling us? I’m kinda worried now.” (Parsons is 71 at the time I write this, though he certainly doesn’t sound 71, so yeah, I get it, life and death and legacy are a real concern.)
High points of the album include the return of Foreigner crooner Lou Gramm’s powerful voice on “Sometimes”, the almost Cabaret-esque, burlesque-act-worthy “Requiem”, and my personal favorite, “One Note Symphony”, a song about the Schumann Resonance whose lead vocal is sung in a perfect monotone, while the harmonies woven around it make the song. I could pick nits about the lyrics leaning into some of the more “woo” new-age connotations of the Schumann Resonance (especially at a time when scientific literacy among the public seems to be plummeting more with each passing day at the worst possible time), but it’s a fun listen regardless.
The Secret may be the best album has turned out since the Project’s heyday, and it really does sit alongside the best of the Project’s output in the quality of both the songwriting and the performance and production of the songs, and the degree to which the songs and the underlying theme of the album have been thought out. At numerous points during this album, I found myself thinking that the late Eric Woolfson (composer and theme architect of the Project’s original string of concept albums) would have wholeheartedly approved of The Secret. It’s worthy of sitting alongside Eye In The Sky and I Robot.
- The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (5:44)
- Miracle (3:22)
- As Lights Fall (3:58)
- One Note Symphony (4:43)
- Sometimes (5:08)
- Soirée Fantastique (5:27)
- Fly To Me (3:45)
- Requiem (4:02)
- Years Of Glory (4:05)
- The Limelight Fades Away (3:36)
- I Can’t Get There From Here (4:38)
Released by: Frontiers SRL
Release date: April 26, 2019
Total running time: 48:28