In the late seventies and well into the eighties, The Alan Parsons Project made something of a career out of crafting a series of immaculately produced concept albums that basically dressed up neatly packaged pop songs with a progressive rock veneer. The records themselves we're basically a dream come true for audiophile types, and I'm quite sure were the standard for testing out new equipment at more than a few high end stereo stores at the time.
Sony/BMG Legacy has just begun to reissue these releases in new digitally remastered editions, complete with bonus tracks and notes from the artists themselves on the recordings. The first of these arrive this week in the form of two of the more successful albums from the Parsons catalog, I Robot and Eye In The Sky.
Alan Parsons of course is the production wizard behind such masterpieces as The Beatles Abbey Road and Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, and is the man doing the bulk of the knob twisting on these albums as well. His partner in crime is songwriter and sometime vocalist Eric Woolfson. There was even thought at one point of calling the group the Parsons-Woolfson Project. But when the group was recording it's first album for 20th Century Records, the surprise hit Tales Of Mystery And Imagination based on Edgar Allen Poe's writings, the label of "Alan Parsons Project" was what read on the masters, and the name stuck.
By the time the Alan Parsons Project signed on with Arista Records for their second album I Robot, they would begin a decade long run of hit singles and platinum albums. The remastering job done on I Robot is absolutely flawless and should go a long way toward reigniting a new generation of audiophiles with the dazzling sort of ear candy contained within. The sounds heard on this re-release literally leap out of the speakers at you. The synthesizers and strings swirl about your head every bit as much as you remember on the original vinyl LP, but with the added bonus of crystal clean digital technology. Speaking of clean, the drums here are so crisp they almost crackle.
I Robot is of course a concept album based on the Issac Asimov science fiction story, which is mostly reflected in the several spacey sounding instrumental passages found on this album such as the opening title track. But as the Parsons Project was mostly a rotating collective of various artists, there are a number of notable vocal performances here as well.
The Hollies' Allan Clarke turns in a particular standout on "Breakdown," a near perfectly constructed little pop gem. Here Clarke's own vocals are augmented by lilting backup voices that grow into a full blown choir by the tracks end. Another track (which became a hit single), "I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You" features the voice of Lenny Zakatek, who would become quite familiar to Parsons fans over the years as he contributed to every album which followed this one. It also features a great little guitar solo by Ian Bairnson.
I Robot also features some great bonus tracks, including early, embryonic versions of "Breakdown" and "I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You," and a "Naked" medley of the album's various instrumental passages.
Although the concept album format and big production values used by Alan Parsons Project got them solidly labeled as a progressive rock act, what lied beneath the often overwhelming sound was at the end of the day some very well crafted pop music. By the time of Eye In The Sky, the Project would finally embrace the idea of pop over prog more fully.
The opening notes of Eye Of The Sky's first track, the instrumental "Sirius" will be instantly familiar to sports fans, as the track has been used ad infinitum by sports figures ranging from The Chicago Bulls to WWE wrestler Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. But from that spacey sounding instrumental, the Alan Parsons Project swiftly changes gears towards commercial pop with the title track, which became the biggest hit single of the group's career. And although Eye In The Sky is once again based around a concept — that of the all knowing, all seeing "Eye In The Sky" — the progressive rock of albums like I Robot is generally played down in favor of a more commercial approach.
Despite it's less adventurous feel, the production values of Eye still grab the listener firmly by both ears, with the drum sound in particular once again coming through crisp and clean over the multiple layers of sound here. For me however, the songwriting takes a bit of a dip with this album as Parsons and Woolfson by this time seemed far more interested in making hit records than in crafting studio masterpieces.
On songs like "Gemini" and "Silence And I" for example, the music is so formulaic and borderline sappy that you half expect to see a woman crying her eyes out right on cue. In the case of "Silence And I," the sappiness eventually makes way for an instrumental passage that sounds like something out of a circus, or maybe a Broadway musical.
Of the few rockers on this album, "You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned" (with Zakatek back on vocals) probably comes closest to recapturing the bounce of something like I Robot's "Breakdown". "Psychobabble" is another highlight, where underneath the "Fever" like vocal and orchestral arrangements, you can hear a synth part that sounds suspiciously like the one on New Wave one-hit wonder Trio's "Da Da Da" song.
Still, there is such a middle of the road quality to so many of these songs that the album tends to drag a bit. Or at least prompt the listener to ask somebody to pick up the beat a little. Not surprisingly, although Eye In The Sky did yield a huge hit, the Alan Parsons Project musical star would begin to fade not long afterwards.
Eye In The Sky's bonus tracks include alt versions of "Sirius" and "Silence And I" as well as a couple more of those "Naked" medleys, one of which features orchestral accompaniment.