Alan Parsons – The Secret

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.

4 out of 4The 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.

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  1. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (5:44)
  2. Miracle (3:22)
  3. As Lights Fall (3:58)
  4. One Note Symphony (4:43)
  5. Sometimes (5:08)
  6. Soirée Fantastique (5:27)
  7. Fly To Me (3:45)
  8. Requiem (4:02)
  9. Years Of Glory (4:05)
  10. The Limelight Fades Away (3:36)
  11. I Can’t Get There From Here (4:38)

Released by: Frontiers SRL
Release date: April 26, 2019
Total running time: 48:28

[…]

Alan Parsons – All Our Yesterdays

Six years after his last studio album (and mere months after his Eye 2 Eye live album), Alan Parsons is back with… a single? Essentially, that’s what this quietly-released digital duo is: an A-side and a B-side, sans album: a digital 45.

Parsons hasn’t been sitting idle, however; he’s spent the past few years shooting and editing an instructional DVD set, The Art & Science Of Sound Recording, covering the entire process of creating, recording and releasing music, and it’s from that other Alan Parsons project (sorry, couldn’t resist) that this single springs. The A-side, “All Our Yesterdays”, is followed throughout the DVDs as an example, from its inception through the final recording. The instrumental track “Alpha Centauri” is the theme music from the DVDs. In essence, these two songs make up the soundtrack of The Art & Science Of Sound Recording – and they’re a nice little spin-off on their own.

Anyone expecting more of the same from A Valid Path may think this is a step back, however. “All Our Yesterdays” isn’t quite low-tech, but it’s a more traditional rock number than A Valid Path‘s electronica-infused songs. (It fits nicely alongside material from Parsons’ On Air album in “feel”.) “Alpha Centauri” is an epic instrumental in classic Parsons style: hypnotically repeating echoplexed guitar riffs? Check. Orchestral backing that gradually builds in intensity? Check. Basically, “Alpha Centauri” follows in the mold of great Parsons instrumentals like “Mammagamma”.

4 out of 4Parsons has said that he’s considering commencing work on a new studio album in 2010, but with a new tour (with a new touring band) announced for this summer as well, smart money is on a 2011 or later release. In the meantime, “All Our Yesterdays” and “Alpha Centauri” make for a nice bite-sized preview: hopefully Parsons isn’t done honing his own art (and/or science) of sound recording under his own name.

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  1. All Our Yesterdays (4:31)
  2. Alpha Centauri (3:19)

Released by: Authentik
Release date: 2010
Total running time: 7:50

Alan Parsons – A Valid Path

Alan Parsons - A Valid PathAlan Parsons is back, that’s the good news. And the bad news? There really isn’t any. Parsons has jettisoned some of his “classic rock” sound and stepped firmly and unquestionably into the 21st century. The result is an album that will hopefully gain Parsons a whole new audience – and considering how much of his longtime fanbase was attracted to the sound of Parsons routinely going further out than the cutting edge 30 years ago, A Valid Path should also be a treat for the folks like me who’ve been hanging around since the 1970s.

And A Valid Path does surprise me in a few places. After those three decades hiding behind the mixing board or a variety of instruments or processing his vocals through a vocoder, Alan Parsons steps out into the limelight and takes a turn at a lead vocal with “We Play The Game”, and lo and behold, the guy’s got a hell of a voice, and it’s almost as smooth as former Alan Parsons Project cohort Eric Woolfson’s. Why he didn’t just come out and sing a long time ago is a mystery. If anything, it’s the one track that most solidly resembles classic Parsons.

There are other links to the past, too. But from the pre-release publicity going into this album’s release, it almost sounded like Parsons was decisively moving away from anything he’d done in the past, with this album’s focus on electronica. P.J. Olsson mixed most of the album, and lent a hand on several tracks, and there are guest appearances by Shpongle, The Crystal Method, Uberzone and Nortec Collective. Even more omipresent than Olsson is Parsons’ son Jeremy, who forges a couple of the albums’ strongest links to the past with from-the-ground-up remakes of classic Project tracks “Mammagamma” (as “Mammagamma ’04”) and the album-opening duo of “Dream Within A Dream” and “The Raven” from the very first Project album (as “A Recurring Dream Within A Dream”). The only people on the album that Parsons has worked with before are David Pack, who co-writes and provides heavily processed vocals on “You Can Run”, and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, giving a six-string assist to the opening track, “Return To Tunguska”.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t hear from folks you’re familiar with, though. Of all people, John Cleese briefly appears on the final track, “Chomolungma” (which is a rather obscure local name for Mount Everest, in case you’re wondering). This percussion-heavy track instantly earns a place in the pantheon of Parsons’ widescreen-ready instrumentals, and Cleese doesn’t even show up until nearly seven minutes into the not-quite-eight-minute track.

The much-publicized “electronica” angle can be a bit misleading, though. Olsson’s “More And More Lost Without You” is electronica, but it’s electronica with layers of twangy guitar on top of it. The instrumental “Tijuaniac” is surprisingly jazzy (though Parsons is no stranger to electronic-heavy jazz with such numbers as “Where’s The Walrus?” and “Urbania” in his back catalogue), and “L’Arc En Ciel” is thick with soaring guitar solos. Parsons may have cast off some of his classic-rock-radio-specific sounds, such as the 70s-style electric piano tones that he incorporated as recently as 1993’s post-Project comeback Try Anything Once, but he still brings a lot of the classic rock sensibility to the table, and hearing that together with a genre of music that seems to have an inherent youthfulness about it is an interesting step forward.

4 out of 4Parsons once said in an interview that he’s always making music for today’s listeners, and A Valid Path certainly seems to back that up – but it also doesn’t have anything that’ll alienate long-time listeners who have appreciated Parsons’ constant walk along the cutting edge. Even if you’re chafing at the electronica label, give it a shot – it’s not as far removed from Parsons’ previous works as you might think, and it’s got some fantastic music on it.

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  1. Return To Tunguska (8:49)
  2. More Lost Without You (3:21)
  3. Mammagamma ’04 (5:07)
  4. We Play The Game (5:35)
  5. Tijuaniac (5:30)
  6. L’Arc En Ciel (5:21)
  7. A Recurring Dream Within A Dream (4:12)
  8. You Can Run (3:53)
  9. Chomolungma (7:42)

Released by: Artemis
Release date: 2004
Total running time: 49:35

Alan Parsons – On Air

Alan Parsons - On AirThere’s nothing quite like an Alan Parsons project, whether it’s called that or not. After the sometimes morbid theme of 1993’s Try Anything Once, this album’s focus on flight is a welcome change of pace. The theme is stretched in all directions, from the legend of Icarus to skydiving to altophobia to an instrumental, reminiscent of the Project’s sound circa 1985, constructed around John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech that initiated the Apollo program. There’s also a song sung by Christopher Cross which could be interpreted as a tribute to astronauts, both fallen and otherwise, everywhere. For many years, I’ve heard numerous critics accuse Parsons of imitating the sound of Pink Floyd (a sound Parsons himself helped establish when he produced and engineered Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, which doesn’t lend the PF imitation criticism much credibility), but for once I have to admit that Parsons has turned out an album which is exceedingly Floydian – or, more accurately, very much like the sound Parsons bestowed upon PF all those years ago. The sound of On Air is driven by guitars, well-harmonized vocals and dreamy sound effects, and not quite so many of the symphonic textures of Parsons projects past. Suffice it to say you should enjoy On Air if you’re a Pink Floyd fan. Featured vocalists include the aforementioned Christopher Cross (yes, the same Mr. Cross of “Sailing” fame), 10cc’s Eric Stewart, Neil Lockwood (late of ELO Part II – aha! There is at last a tenuous connection between Parsons and ELO!), and Graham Dye. The album art is similar to that of Try Anything Once, but features hot air balloons instead of people hanging upside-down from ropes!

One truly unique feature of On Air is the second CD in the package – a CD-ROM with all sorts of interesting information on the band and on the history of aviation. Aggravatingly, the CD-ROM is formatted in such a way that you can barely tell what you’re doing – after a title screen and some psychedelic sound, a fleet of colorful balloons wafts lazily across the screen. Clicking on larger balloons will take you to sundry bits of information, but you can hardly tell where you’re headed – the balloons seem to sorta-kinda-vaguely follow the order of the song titles. For example, the “Brother Up In Heaven” section of the CD-ROM contains some sombering statistics on air-related deaths in peacetime and in war; “Fall Free” leads to a tribute to a deceased world champion skysurfer; “Cloudbreak” includes an interesting selection of historical aircraft with photos and diagrams; “Blue Blue Sky” part one contains literary, mythological and other references to flying (including Freud’s take on flying dreams); and part two of the same piece will show you very interesting bios and photos of the band, an Alan Parsons Project trivia game (I only got a little over half of them right, it’s tough!), and more. That last section also contains a stripped-down, looped instrumental of “Blue Blue Sky”, which would be worth the price of the second disc alone. But I’m happy to report that both disks will only cost you as much as a single CD. The CD-ROM’s format and user interface, however, are irritating and seem to offer no hints on how to get around. Where you wind up is almost a random selection, and several smaller balloons will simply explode and lead you to a silly message on a screen with a big pink fish (red herring, get it?). The people who put the CD-ROM togther must have been tripping at least some of the time they worked on it! There are also relatively silly and useless sections of the CD-ROM – “So Far Away” plays a few seconds of the song and displays an endless, monotonous loop of an ersatz NASA-like space mission patch. “Apollo”, a selection which could 4 out of 4have linked to a wealth of spaceflight information, is instead a long series of psychedelic graphics and other odd bits. “Too Close To The Sun” plays a snippet of that song and then invites you to design your own wings (!?). I haven’t even found a section for “Can’t Look Down”, I keep encountering the dreaded fish! Overall, both discs are enjoyable, and it’s still good to hear new music from Parsons and friends.

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  1. Blue Blue Sky (0:46)
  2. Too Close To The Sun (5:12)
  3. Blown By The Wind (5:22)
  4. Cloudbreak (4:41)
  5. Can’t Look Down (4:32)
  6. Brother Up In Heaven (3:57)
  7. Fall Free (4:20)
  8. Apollo (6:05)
  9. So Far Away (4:05)
  10. One Day To Fly (6:13)
  11. Blue Blue Sky (4:23)

Released by: River North
Release date: 1996
Total running time: 50:50

Alan Parsons – The Very Best Live

Alan Parsons - The Very Best LiveFor years, it was a well-known fact that the Alan Parsons Project’s music has always been custom-constructed for the studio, and that the Project was strictly a studio entity. But the Alan Parsons Project just isn’t what it used to be. In some ways, this is good; in others, not quite so good. On the good side, returning for another round is Manfred Mann’s Chris Thompson, who did vocals on two of Try Anything‘s better tracks – the single “Turn It Up” and the much harder-edged “Back Against The Wall”. Not only does he do the singing duties on many of the past Project hits originally voiced by gravelly Lenny Zakatek, but he does a bloody good job of ’em. He sounds like he was born to sing “Psychobabble”. One of the album’s nice bonuses – originally the only reason I sprang for it but now one of many reasons – are three previously unreleased studio tracks, including the outstanding “You’re the Voice”, with Thompson again providing vocals; this song continues breaking new ground with unpredictable rythmic patterns, not unlike “Turn It Up” (though better). Possibly the greatest find on the album is the amazing medley of the instrumentals “Lucifer” (from the Eve album, my favorite Project of the 1970s) and “Mammagamma” (that vastly-overplayed, echoplexed, one-step-removed-from-disco instrumental you all remember from 1981’s Eye In The Sky). I never dreamed I’d hear a fresh twist on “Mammagamma” until I heard the band suddenly segue into that song’s string interlude via keyboard, whilst still retaining the light military beat of “Lucifer”. Wow! A must-hear for those who appreciate Parsons/Woolfson instrumentals. Still, there are drawbacks. No one can replace the voice on those songs which were originally sung by Eric Woolfson. Oh, they give it a game try, but it seems somehow wrong that another voice could sing those songs. It’s like trying to get past k.d. lang singing Orbison’s “Crying”, or for that matter, Bonnie Raitt trying her hand at “You Got It”. Other than that detail, though, this is one hell of an album. I highly recommend it for any Projectiles out there. The choice of songs is surprising in many places, and refreshing since it doesn’t always represent those tunes that oversaturated the radio airwaves in the late 70s and early 80s. Also surprising is that nearly every Project album is represented 4 out of 4by at least one song, with only a couple of exceptions. Even a selection from the lovely 1976 Edgar Allan Poe album makes it onto stage (“The Raven”, complete with mesmerizing Vocoder-fritzed vocals). I also appreciate the audience, who seemed appropriately respectful and didn’t ruin things by clapping along (with the exception of the gleefully playful beat of “Lucifer”) or trying to sing along, two things that irritate me to no end on most live albums.

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  1. Sirius (2:25)
  2. Eye in the Sky (4:55)
  3. Psychobabble (5:22)
  4. The Raven (5:39)
  5. Time (5:08)
  6. Luciferama medley of Lucifer & Mammagamma (4:56)
  7. Old and Wise (4:49)
  8. You’re Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned (4:18)
  9. Prime Time (5:15)
  10. Limelight (4:40)
  11. Don’t Answer Me (4:13)
  12. Standing on Higher Ground (5:30)

    New studio tracks:

  13. When (4:13)
  14. Take the Money and Run (6:18)
  15. You’re The Voice (5:07)

Released by: BMG / RCA Victor
Release date: 1995
Total running time: 74:27

Alan Parsons – Try Anything Once

Alan Parsons - Try Anything OnceA dandy bit of conceptual rock opera from the same people who brought you the Alan Parsons Project, sans Eric Woolfson who departed after a divergence of music careers following the Freudiana album. As with the Project, Parsons only produces though the music seems to be attributed to him. This is an uneven collection, though it does kick off with the darkly humorous “The Three of Me”, an ode to schizophrenia with a speaker-blowing orchestral intro reminiscent of the Project’s best 1970s work. The sole single from this album, rock anthem “Turn It Up”, as well as the superior “Back Against the Wall”, feature lead vocals from Manfred Mann’s Chris Thompson. Three other songs deserve special notice – “Siren Song”, “Wine From the Water” (whose keyboards sound like they’ve time-warped into the song straight from the mid 70s), and “I’m 3 out of 4Talking To You”, another heraldic rocker written by longtime Project guitarist Ian Bairnson. It’s a good album that thankfully doesn’t try to make any concessions to modernizing its style to keep up with the times – and that alone is a good reason to celebrate Alan Parsons’ return.

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  1. The Three of Me (5:32)
  2. Turn It Up (6:13)
  3. Wine from the Water (5:43)
  4. Breakaway (4:07)
  5. Mr Time (8:17)
  6. Jigue (3:24)
  7. I’m Talkin’ To You (4:38)
  8. Siren Song (5:01)
  9. Dreamscape (3:01)
  10. Back Against the Wall (4:38)
  11. Re-Jigue (2:28)
  12. Oh Life…(There Must Be More) (6:34)

Released by: Arista
Release date: 1993
Total running time: 59:36