ALAN PARSONS PROJECT: TALES OF MYSTERY AND IMAGINATION (1976)
1) A Dream Within A Dream; 2) The Raven; 3) The Tell-Tale Heart; 4) The Cask Of Amontillado; 5) Doctor Tarr And Professor Feather; 6) The Fall Of The House Usher: Prelude; 7) Arrival; 8) Intermezzo; 9) Pavane; 10) Fall; 11) To One In Paradise.
There is one solid objective reason for why Tales Of Mystery And Imagination, a concept album based on a bunch of stories by Edgar Allan Poe, should have been the best album by the Alan Parsons Project — namely, because the Alan Parsons Project, to a large part, was launched out of a desire to record a concept album based on a bunch of stories by Edgar Allan Poe.
Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson met in 1974. The former wanted to become something more than «the guy who engineered Dark Side Of The Moon», and the latter loved Poe. The union was blessed, and the outcome was a record the likes of which did not really exist prior to 1976; at the very least, to the best of my memory, no rock album presented as a soundtrack to literary glories had ever captured the public eye so much before that time. Commercially, it was hardly huge, but it established the Project as a serious attraction, and has ever since remained as the cornerstone of their legacy — even many of the active Parsons haters confess to falling under its charm from time to time.
There is some strange magic at work here indeed. On one hand, Tales is a huge venture. It covers the matters of three Poe stories and one Poe poem on the first side, then invests everything into the lengthy multi-part 'Fall Of The House Of Usher' suite on the second. It downplays Parsons' manipulations with electronic keyboards in favour of a whole ton of guest musicians and an entire orchestra. It features a different guest vocalist on each song, including moderately big names like Arthur Brown, John Miles, and Terry Sylvester. And yet, on the other hand, apart from a few isolated moments, it feels wrong to describe it as «bombastic». It has an odd claustrophobic aura around it, as if one were locked in an ice palace, staring out the frozen windows at distorted shades of reality and not knowing how real they really were. It may be off-putting, and it may not be exactly suitable for Poe-related purposes, but somehow, it works.
Indeed, some original reviews complained that the album had missed its mark — that, regardless of how good the music was on its own, it did not convey the proper associations, that the tense sensations of fear, thrill, death, and gloom were nowhere to be found. They were right, but, after all, The Alan Parsons Project formed as a progressive rock outfit, not as a brand of shock-rock à la Alice Cooper. The songs should be thought of as inspired by Poe rather than reflecting Poe, at which point they really come to life as original creations.
The first side is the diverse one. 'The Raven' is taken at an almost martial pace, emphasizing the inescapability of the bird's message right from the first bass note that drips on your ears in complete loneliness for a few seconds. 'The Tell-Tale Heart' is molded as a rocking chunk of Arthur Brown madness — probably the closest they ever get to pinning down one of Poe's heroes (one might think that the fast blues-rock tempo may not be the most suitable choice for picturing a crazy protagonist going nuts over the heart of a murdered man pursuing him from beyond the floorboards — but then it's also a pretty good approximation of a crazy-beatin' human heart). 'The Cask Of Amontillado' ascends from a lovely ballad (think one half Paul McCartney, one half Peter Gabriel) to epic horn-held heights of musical vendetta. And 'Doctor Tarr And Professor Fether' is just a good pop-rocker with a memorable riff — an amusing trifle in Poe's career, a fun, but not breathtaking entry in Parsons' catalog.
The second side, almost entirely dedicated to the 'Usher' suite, is an acquired taste like most prog rock suites at the time — a piece to be tolerated in some spots and admired in others. Taking a few cues from Debussy's unfinished opera of the same name, it moves through different sections that are not as much creepy as «archaic»: the 'Pavane' section lives and breathes the souls of past generations, but never once does it suggest death and retribution, which is why the minute-long 'Fall' itself is sort of flat and anti-climactic. Fortunately, the album prefers to end with 'To One In Paradise', another ballad worthy of a distinguished disciple of both the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
On the whole, one shouldn't be too harsh on Tales. It is intelligent, tasteful, and melodic, and if it does not exactly reach cathartic effects (although the ominous climactic bits on 'Amontillado' come close), it is only because it does not aspire to them, not because it fails at them. It also has the dubious honor of being one of the coldest, iciest prog-rock albums ever released, just by the very fact of its existence, not because Parsons and Woolfson derive some sort of sadistic satisfaction by sucking the warmth out of your bodies as you listen to this. It's just a particular type of musical animal. Rare at its peak, completely extinct today. Thumbs up.