Graded on a Curve: The Alan Parsons Project, Tales of Mystery and Imagination—Edgar Allen Poe

You don’t hear the name bandied about much these days, but when I was an undergraduate and busy getting myself thrown out of the dorms, the Alan Parsons Project were big. A sort of poor man’s Pink Floyd, you could hear their 1976 debut, Tales of Mystery and Imagination—Edgar Allen Poe coming out of every dorm room, generally accompanied by the aroma of reefer. It was, as its title indicates, a concept album, and mixed progressive rock at its most unbearably symphonic with a few cool tracks that could actually pass—with a good fake ID—for rock’n’roll.

The Alan Parsons Project is chiefly remembered for 1977’s I Robot, but by then I had been unceremoniously tossed out of my dorm and was living in a collapsing group house where the ceilings were prone to cave in, and none of us wanted anything to do with it. There was drug music and then there was schlock, and The Alan Parsons’ Project were purveyors of the latter. We were glad to have escaped with our lives.

Not having listened to the damned thing for almost four decades, I was shocked by how well I remembered it. I mean, Tales of Mystery and Imagination might as well be ancient history, as ancient as the Bronze Age Hittites with their chariots and cuneiform texts. But what shocked me even more was how listenable it was. Or at least how listenable parts of it were. In my memory it was almost as bad as Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but say what you will about Parsons he had a populist streak that most all of your pomp rockers lacked, and he wasn’t averse to writing a catchy pop tune.

About the album; it included a cast of Cecil B. DeMille proportions, including Orson Welles (narration), Arthur Brown of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown fame, as well as the full line-ups of both Ambrosia and Pilot. Almost thirty musicians participated, and that number rises if you count the English Chorale, whoever they are. I mention Welles, but his narration was not added until 1987, when Parsons remixed the LP to include lots of reverb, especially on the snare drum. So I never heard Welles’ orotund voice echoing in the hallway of Naugle Hall, reciting various obscure Poe texts. And I’m glad I didn’t; to quote the stoner Slater from the film Dazed and Confused, “You couldn’t handle that shit on strong acid, man.” That said, I’m going to review the remixed version, because Welles is on it and who doesn’t want a rock album that includes Orson Welles?

I mentioned Pink Floyd earlier, and Parsons, who was primarily known as a knob-twiddler, was the producer of the Dark Side of the Moon, to say nothing of the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, as well as several groundbreaking tuns by the Hollies. But on Tales of Mystery and Imagination he came out of the producer’s booth to produce some music of his own, utilizing producer/singer/songwriter Eric Woolfson as a collaborator. He also press-ganged the bands Pilot and Ambrosia, both of which bands he had produced. The Alan Parsons Project never toured to generate publicity for Tales of Mystery and Imagination or any other album, most likely due to the difficulty of reproducing its sound live.

Anyway, the LP—which was initially titled simply The Alan Parsons Project—is far freaking out, and I recommend it strongly to people who like their progressive rock tinged by pure pop for now people. It opens with Welles—who probably took time off from doing commercials, while drunk, for wine and frozen peas, reading an excerpt from Poe’s nonfiction Marginalia. He at least sounds sober, as some somber and eerie music plays behind him, and is followed by the instrumental opening track “Dream Within a Dream,” which is very atmospheric although not particularly ominous—it’s more laudanum high than horror tale. There follows a repeated bass riff, and then the drums come in with the synthesizer, which plays a cool melody along the lines of the Exorcist theme, only perkier. Really, it’s quite catchy, and upon fadeout the same bass opening is utilized to open “The Raven,” which features the vocals of Parsons and Leonard Whiting, who is best known for playing Romeo in Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of Romeo and Juliet. Parsons distorts his vocals to robotic proportions via the use of a digital vocoder (the first time one was ever used on a rock album), while the song reaches a climax and Whiting sings, “Quoth the raven, nevermore.” There’s lots of nice little things happening in the background during the verses, and a great guitar solo by one of the 50 or so guitarists who played at the sessions, and the song goes out on an epic note, with Whiting shouting “Nevermore the raven!” over and over to some heavy accompaniment.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” takes a wild left turn thanks to the vocals of that madman Arthur Brown, who gives it both barrels while the band throbs and crashes about behind him. Brown screams and moans, while the band comes in with big riffs, and then the song slows, some backing vocalists pipe in, and the song takes off again, albeit in a subtly quieter vein. You get more Pink Floyd-school backing vocals, a throbbing beat, and a very David Gilmour-influenced guitar solo, and then Brown returns, complete with every dramatic flourish in the vocalist’s armamentarium. He’s totally flash; all histrionics and waving arms, and his presence alone makes this song a keeper. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is followed by “The Cask of Amontillado,” which is too melodic and sweet by far given its macabre subject matter. The song’s catchy, for sure, but vocalist John Milles makes no attempt to inject the note of horror the song calls for. Meanwhile horns blare and a seeming symphony of strings saws away and some lovely backing vocalists pretty it all up, until they pick up some speed and really show off Parsons’ knack for production. Why, there’s even a brief section that reminds me faintly of the theme song for Hawaii Five-O, which I hope is my imagination.

Meanwhile, “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” starts out with a cool guitar riff and lots of backing vocals, followed by some very low-pitched vocoder until turning, much to my surprise, into a dead-on imitation of a Steely Dan song. It’s uncanny, or a cold-blooded rip-off, one or the other, but the song is so damned catchy you won’t care. Heck, it doesn’t even matter if the lyrics are 50 times dumber than your average Steely Dan lyric. I may hate the vocoder but I love everything else about this song, which goes out on a long instrumental flourish, which is followed by more narration by Welles, who portentously spells out the distinction between music and poetry.

Welles’ narration marks the opening of the over-the-top pomp of the five-part, 16-minute “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He’s followed by the song’s instrumental “Prelude,” which is classical music pure and simple—indeed, it’s an uncredited rip-off of an operatic fragment by Jean-Claude Van Debussy. It’s nice enough, I suppose, very faun-like, and will make you feel like you have hooves and are living in a magical forest. But I say to hell with magical forests, I want rock, which the song’s “Arrival” section doesn’t deliver either. It opens with rain, wind, thunder, and organ, and picks up its tempo until the drums come in and you’re hearing what for all intents and purposes is Pink Floyd lite. The very brief “Intermezzo” opens on a very dissonant note before segueing into “Pavane,” which is a pretty tune featuring some very delicate-sounding string instruments and keyboards. Me, I hope never to hear it again, because it’s precious beyond words, but more tenderhearted humans with delicate ears are likely to enjoy it. In fact, I actually dig the song’s ending, during which the band kicks in and finally delivers up something that approaches rock’n’roll. As for the closing section, “Fall,” it goes full-tilt atonal for a moment or so, with enough orchestral bombast to make Wagner happy.

As for LP closer “To One in Paradise,” it’s a soothingly moody and Beatlesesque tune with a friendly melody, which is undercut by the brace of backing vocalists singing, “Nothing could save me.” You can almost hear the Abbey Road in this tune, which is sung by Terry Sylvester, who took Graham Nash’s place in The Hollies after Nash sold his soul to that group that scares me more than any Poe tale ever has, namely Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It’s a bit bland, this one, but we’re talking the mid-seventies here, when bland was all the rage, so I’m not sure why this one didn’t climb up the charts, just as I’m not sure who speaks at the song’s end.

In the final analysis, this LP is for prog fans and only for prog fans, because while “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “(The System of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” are all worthwhile rock tunes, the rest of the album is purest symphonic pomposity. Further—and this is key—the LP fails to capture Poe’s brand of horror and dread. It plays nice, when it should be scaring the pants off you. As a Rolling Stone reviewer of the time wrote presciently, “Devotees of Gothic literature will have to wait for someone with more of the macabre in their blood for a truer musical reading of Poe’s often terrifying works.” In other words, Alice Cooper. Because with an LP like this one you have to ante up, bring out the pendulum, and leave ‘em screaming or stay the hell home.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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