Since this section is supposed to involve both fusion and progressive music, I thought I'd include something off the beaten path this month. The First Wave of progressive rock is generally understood to include influential bands like Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Genesis and Procol Harum, though many will argue that the genre dates even as far back as The Beatles’Revolver. No matter how “progressive rock” is defined, it’s clear that the form reached its first creative peak in the early 70s. A relative latecomer to the style was the Alan Parsons Project, which became one of the most universally popular prog groups in the post-disco era. Parsons had previously been acclaimed for his iconoclastic studio work, engineering the Beatles’Abbey Road, Wings’Wildlifeand Pink Floyd’sDark Side of the Moonand producing pop-rock classics like Al Stewart’sTime Passages. Parsons put the profound education he got on the cutting edge of pop music to good use by crafting dense electronic soundscapes for the Project to negotiate. As part of their new Heritage series, Arista has collected eleven of the Alan Parsons Project’s best tracks from seven albums released between 1977 and 1985.
Parsons and his clan flawlessly blended fusion, disco, soul and rock elements into a distinctive whole. As a result, their music was more universally accessible than the more abstracted work of Pink Floyd or Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. These tracks reward repeated listenings; each new spin reveals a fresh layer of sound and emotion that may have been overlooked before. Track #1 is one of the very best progressive instrumentals; it’s stood the test of time better than concurrent material by King Crimson and Pink Floyd. #7 is a shorter instrumental that serves mostly as a prelude to the next tune, their greatest hit. The vocals of Eric Woolfson, keyboardist and Parsons’ songwriting partner, are crystal-clear but never overly impassioned, almost as mechanical as the keyboards that constructed walls of sound behind him. That quiet understatement played a most important role in APP’s musical atmosphere, adding to the emotionally distant air of track #8. At its heart the song is a tale of a troubled relationship, but hearing that calm, cool voice stating, ’I am the eye in the sky, looking at you / I can read your mind / I am the maker of rules, dealing with fools / I can cheat you blind...’ might conjure up images of HAL, the control-maddened computer in2001: A Space Odyssey. This is the voice of someone who is absolutely, unaffectedly certain of his power in the situation and unafraid of being challenged; Woolfson’s glacial delivery is the perfect touch.
In contrast, Lenny Zakatek’s singing on tracks #2 and 4 is prototypical of soulful prog-rock, more detached from the electronic melange. His delivery, Ian Bairnson’s hot guitar solo, and the insistent bass-and-drum groove add a funky, bluesy air to #2. Gary Brooker steps right out front for a truly passionate vocal on #6, a slow tune that’s more in the mainstream rock/pop tradition. The instrumental performances and lush arrangements are, of course, of the highest quality. These songs are surely the best of Parsons’ consistently strong output.
My main quibble is that this collection, outstanding as it is, falls very short at just over 50 minutes. Given that the Project had issued three other good albums on Arista ( Eve, Gaudi and Pyramid ), it seems odd that selections from those albums weren’t used to fill in some of the 20-plus minutes of remaining space on this disc. At the very least, Arista could have used additional tracks from the seven albums they already gleaned from. Granted, the Heritage Series is intended to be a budget best-of collection (other Heritage artists range from Lou Reed to KC and the Sunshine Band), but the inclusion of more tunes would have hardly run up the cost that much. All things considered, though, the chance to revisit theseMaster Hitsis indeed worth the price of admission.
Track Listing: I Robot; I Wouldn
Personnel: No personnel are listed in the liner notes except for the lead vocalists. Through a little footwork I learned that the performers are: Alan Parsons, keyboards, Fairlight programming, vocoder, acoustic guitar, production; Ian Bairnson, guitars; David Paton, bass, acoustic guitars on #1, 2; Stuart Tosh (#1, 2), Stuart Elliot (#3-11), drums and percussion; Eric Woolfson, pianos, keyboards, vocoder, lead vocals on #3, 5, 8-11; Richard Cottle, synthesizers and saxophones (#6, 10, 11); Mel Collins, saxophones (#7, 8); Duncan MacKay, keyboards (#1, 2); B.J. Cole, steel guitar (#1, 2); John Leach, cymbalom and kantele (#1, 2); Lenny Zakatek (#2, 4), Gary Brooker (#6), lead vocals.
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