I ROBOT (1977)
1) I Robot; 2) I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You; 3) Some Other Time; 4) Breakdown; 5) Don't Let It Show; 6) The Voice; 7) Nucleus; 8) Day After Day; 9) Total Eclipse; 10) Genesis Ch. 1 v. 32.
If asked, «Who would be the perfect artist to transfer the ideas and the general feel of Asimov's work(s) onto a musical setting?», the average knowledgeable person would probably name Kraftwerk, or, perhaps, somebody within their innumerable legions of electronic followers. And that would be wrong — because Kraftwerk would try to approach the goal exclusively from the robot's point of view, whereas Asimov's concern has always been that of depicting the man — machine interaction rather than the machine itself.
Which means that, in 1977, no one could have done it better than The Alan Parsons Project, a musical team assembled specifically for the purpose of gluing together traditional values of melody and harmony with the world of technical progress and automatic programming. You may like I Robot or hate it, but what it sets out to achieve, achieve it does. Not to mention that it is also the most technically complex and unpredictable record in the band's catalog, which, per se, could be an asset only for major prog-rock fans — and major prog-rock fans generally tend to avoid Parsons for all of the man's immaculately calculated commercialism. (They do fail to remember that if commercial success were Parsons' prime interest, he could have turned his band into Styx or Journey with one wave of his hand; he never did).
More than a third of the record is completely instrumental, with tracks ranging from purely ambient-atmospheric ('Nucleus' — solemnly happy electronic waves of sound to illustrate physical processes; 'Total Eclipse' — a spooky marriage of Gregorian chant with synthesizer science) to repetitive, but memorable melodic drones (the title track, unexpectedly white-funky; 'Genesis 1:32', announcing the next unwritten episode in the history of Creation but not sounding too happy about it — well, the Alan Parsons Project is very rarely happy about things). In terms of conceptuality and complexity, the instrumentals are really the meat of the LP as such, and they are so well done that any talk of progressive rock being deader than a doornail by 1977 must be put to rest on this sort of evidence alone. This stuff sounds good, and it sold, too.
But sell it did, most likely, on the strength of its vocalized poppier-oriented content. Two of the singles were ballads: 'Day After Day', sung by Jack Harris, is gallantly Floydian in tone and melody, yet never once injected with Waters' misanthropic venom, and 'Don't Let It Show', sung by Dave Townsend, is a sappy soft-rock tear-jerker whose artificial tenderness will undoubtedly lead many to accuse the song of criminal activities against good taste. I would probably hate it per se, were I to hear it on some classic rock radio station, but it feels nice and cozy in the overall context of the LP, where the listener can make sure that, in fact, this kind of sound is an exception for this album rather than its norm.
Third single was 'I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You', whose single-power is derived from its being so attractively rhythmic; with the rhythm section locked in a shy funk groove and the guitar player taking a lesson in chicken-scratching, you could stick it in the midst of your local discotheque selections and no one would have noticed. Funk rears its head on 'Breakdown', too, graced with the instantly recognizable vocals of Hollies' frontman Allan Clarke, and even more so on 'The Voice' (Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel fame at the wheel), with a wah-wah solo, no less.
In fact, the only vocal number which does not reflect a 180-degree turn from the style of Tales is 'Some Other Time': stately, mid-tempo, solemn brass, choral vocals, cold lonesome feeling, the works. Everything else is subtly targeted at modernistic audiences. But the charm of I Robot is that the first impression is still that of an intelligent, complex, well-crafted album dedicated to a serious topic; it is not until later that you start to notice how busy Parsons and Woolfson actually are concocting the balance between paying tribute to Asimov's vision (or, more precisely, their vision of Asimov's vision) and making a record fit for the public taste of 1977.
In the end, not all that much is left of Asimov's vision. The instrumental numbers are ambiguous, and the lyrics, which are generally described by reviewers as being «about robots», are in fact somewhat obscure, not to mention clichéd. But there is a huge emotional palette here, all the same — anger, fear, sadness, tenderness — making I Robot stand on its perfect own as, perhaps, the richest musical experience to be gained from the Project; and, disregarding most of the critical scorn that used to go hand in hand with each of Parsons' new ventures, one should not really be ashamed of issuing a thumbs up to this album at least, fantastically solidly constructed from the brainwise point of view and harboring plenty of delight for the senses as well.