Graded on a Curve: The Alan Parsons Project,
Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Edgar Allen Poe must be rolling over in his crypt, wondering what imp of the perverse led Alan Parsons to purloin his tales of the macabre and use them to produce one of the most inadvertently hilarious albums of our time.

On The Alan Parsons Project’s 1976 debut, Parsons (who cut his bones as producer of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon) uses every means at his disposal to create a studio masterpiece. I’m talking Orson Welles, Arthur Brown, Terry Sylvester of Hollies’ fame, dozens of musicians, string sections, horn fanfare, choirs and more choirs, electronic music, some synthed-up vocals–you get everything except Roger Waters singing with his head in a toilet. And what do we have when he’s done? Gothic prog-rock schlock. Which isn’t altogether a bad thing; Tales of Mystery and Imagination is a real hoot. Pity Parsons doesn’t get his own joke.

Some of the music on Tales of Mystery and Imagination is imaginative–at times it borders on excellent. But the album’s undone by Parsons’ failure to understand you can’t capture the shadowy essence of Poe’s work by means of cutting edge studio technology. Poe tapped into our unconscious fears and plumbed our darkest places; Parsons’ bright and shiny production job does just the opposite. Studio spaces invoke dystopian nightmares of technology run amok; Poe’s work is as dark and primitive as the final resting place of Fortunato in the “The Cast of Amontillado.” You can’t synthesize grave dirt.

To the extent that Tales of Mystery and Imagination’s pretentious grandiosity inspires more mirth than dread, Parsons’ failure is our gain; his would-be studio benchmark for future generations is a real life equivalent to Spinal Tap’s Jack the Ripper musical Saucy Jack. If you’re like me, you’ll be too busy laughing at the LP’s sheer absurdity to notice the quality of some of its music.

Instrumental opener “A Dream Within a Dream” begins with the portentous intonations of Orson Welles segueing into an Exorcist-flavored Pink Floyd pastiche. Bet it sounds really spacy on mushrooms. It’s followed by “The Raven,” which begins with some aorta thumping you’d expect to hear on the following cut, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” A smarty pants might ask why the song’s Mr. Roboto vocals are more Isaac Asimov than Edgar Allen Poe, but Parsons doesn’t care–he had to fit the technology somewhere.

The LP’s tour de force is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” on which Arthur Brown shows up to save the album by means of pure lung power. Brown’s hair-raising screams are the only scary thing on Tales of Mystery and Imagination; more importantly, his over-the-top vocal histrionics lend a welcome human presence to an otherwise surgically sterile LP. Parsons is still wide of the mark–Brown sounds less like a character in a Poe story than a member of Funkadelic stranded on a planet ruled by studio mixing boards–but there’s no denying “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the best novelty songs of the seventies.

“The Cask of Amontillado” features the oh-so-sensitive vocals of studio guy John Miles set against a song that ping pongs back and forth between wet dream and theme song for ‘60s TV cop show. It’s enough to give you whiplash, but the climax is worth waiting around for. “(The System) of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether,” on the other hand, sounds like Steely Dan having a shuck–I especially like the guttural-voiced guy repeating the words, “Just what you need to make you feel better.” I’ll be damned if I know what lyrics like “Don’t stop bringin’ the girls round/Don’t start havin’ a showdown/Keep on handin’ the jug round/All that you need is wine and good company” have to do with a guy visiting a mental institution in the South of France. Maybe they got the story confused with an Eagles song.

The five-part “The Fall of the House of Usher” takes up most of Side Two. “Prelude” features an encore by an Orson Welles desperate to prove he can do better than sell frozen peas before dissolving into “Rites of Spring” school sylvan atmospherics. What said atmospherics have to do with “The Fall of the House of Usher” is beyond my limited imagination. Could be the story’s glowing back yard.

“Arrival” is pure Vincent Price–thunder and rain and Phantom of the Opera organ followed by a some mood rock copped straight from the Pink Floyd songbook. “Intermezzo” the most inconsequential moment you’ll ever spend. “Pavanne” is the sound of some guys busking for tips at a Renaissance Faire. “Fall” is a 51-second horror double feature. LP closer “To One in Paradise” is quite pretty, and Terry Sylvester sings real good.

I can imagine worse settings for Poe’s stories; Parsons might have given ‘em that chipper “I’m Dancing on Sunshine” feel, or gone Moody Blues on ‘em (anything but that!). Too bad he didn’t go the disco route, because your disco folks would have been savvy enough to know Poe was a dancing fool. I can only imagine what the Trammps might have done with Hop-Frog. Turned it into the biggest dance floor sensation since the Bump, probably.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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