Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tales of Mystery and Imagination - The Alan Parsons Project

Haunted by his past and by his own mind, Edgar Allan Poe wrote some of the most acclaimed poems and short stories in American Lit. Anyone who has been through high school knows his name; better yet they have read and even remember "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask Of the Amontillado." Scholarly debate still rages as to why he was found, four days before his death, delirious and in borrowed clothes, in Baltimore, Maryland, far from his home in New York City. Theories as to the cause of his demise range from alcoholism to rabies. If the death of America's most instantly recognizable writer remains enigmatic, what about his life? How much do we really know about Poe? Was he the chillingly murderous madman of so many of his tales, as well as a spectacular drunk? If not, who was he?

The master of suspense was as enigmatic in life as he was in death and so, much of the mystery remains. What eludes us with regard to his life, has never eluded us with his prominence or his literature, indeed Poe transcends the page and comes to life in a myriad of ways in which many don’t even recognize (the raven as a symbol of death, the eerie characters of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey, even The Addams Family). It's not surprising then that Alan Parsons chose Poe as the focus for his first assemblage of prog-lite.

The 1987 reboot (Tales 2.0) begins with an instrumental based on Poe's "Dream Within a Dream" and sets the mood in a way the original LP failed to do. Orson Welles voice over (which did not appear on the 1976 original) was as iconic as Vincent Price in Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare: "For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that which I conceived it. There is however a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which as yet I have found it impossible to adapt to language. These fancies arise in the soul, alas how rarely, only in epochs of intense tranquility, when the bodily and mental health are in perfection, and at those mere points of time, when the confines of the waking world blend with the world of dreams. And so I captured this fancy, where all that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream." The clever production wove the listener's thoughts into the core of the concept, at its conclusion introducing a bass line that underscored the vocorder-laden "The Raven" (Track 2) Track 3, "The Tell-Tale Heart," did justice to its sense of lunacy masquerading as clairvoyance and the urgency of the narrator's acts. 

The bass line, the heart, the nervous tension...The album's fourth and finest track, "The Cask of Amontillado," layers Fortunato's pleas for help with Montresor's unrepentant gloating, while strings contrast a lullaby to this horrifying act. The orchestral suite, "Fall of the House of Usher," the centerpiece of the vinyl album's second side, puts to music Poe's ghastly tale of an ancient mansion causing the ruin of its owners. Here again, Orson Welles lends his voice to Poe's words: "Without music, or an intriguing idea, colour becomes pallor, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are, but for a moment, motionless."  The last track, a moving ballad entitled "To One In Paradise" fittingly ends the suite on a beautiful, if melancholy note.  Tales of Mystery and Imagination (AM7) is Alan Parson's seminal work in that it truly established a genre for whatever The Alan Parson's Project was.