In my last post, I took a look at the newest member of my bookshelf– a hardcover edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination with illustrations from Harry Clarke. Today, I’d like to take a look at another angle on Poe– this one musical.
In 1976, The Alan Parsons Project debuted with their homage to Poe, an album titled–you guessed it– Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Parsons, the obscure record producer behind little-known releases such as Abbey Road, Let it Be, and Dark Side of the Moon, formed his own band with singer/songwriter Eric Woolfson (that info, minus the sarcasm, is via Wikipedia). The album, seven tracks long, provides a musical exploration of several Poe stories and poems.
First off, it should be mentioned that of the album tracks, only “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are actually found in the Poe collection. The other tracks are taken from poems and stories in different collections. This is really just a technicality, but maybe it bothers you. It doesn’t bother me.
What also doesn’t bother me is that the album is not simply a reading of Poe’s work, set to music. Though Poe’s prose and poetry (try saying that one quickly) are often incorporated in the lyrics, most of the songs are originals. Think of this album as “music inspired by the works of Poe.”
What does bother me, a little, is that the overall tone of the record doesn’t quite jive with the ambiance that Poe creates. Some of the tracks have a pulsing, ominous feel that works, but other tracks miss the mark as far as evoking Poe. As an album that sets the groundwork for what we could from APP later– that is, intricate, textured soundscapes and progressive instrumental passages played under hooky melodies– the album is a total success. As an homage to Poe, it is a partial one.
This instrumental opening showcases what APP does best– build a sonic atmosphere with repetitive, urgent, delicate tones. This track is one instance of the music conveying exactly the quality one would expect from Poe’s poem.
The most memorable cut from the album, it features the use of a vocoder (first in a record– oh, the things we learn from Wikipedia!). That vocoder makes for some eerie vocals. Later in the song, when the rock guitar kicks under a mournful, sustained “nevermoooooore,” the agony and obsession of the poem spill over. At times, the music complements the tone of the poem, but at some spots it’s too punchy.
The guest vocals by Arthur Brown certainly capture the manic paranoia of the narrator of this story. After an initial rock riff, the mood darkens, and the ominous textures take over, before yielding to a darker rock ending. An insistent rhythm section mimicks the beating of a heart, which as anyone who has read the story knows, is an important motif.
This is something of a lush ballad. APP always seems to do one or two on each album. The sweetness of the vocals– at times the song feels like a latter-day Beatles slow number– masks ominous lyrics and story.
This is the straight-up rock song on the album. While this story isn’t as dark and foreboding as some of Poe’s others, it’s still about a sanitarium. The lyrics aren’t clearly about the story, and though they make for some good rock, they make for a confusing interpretation of Poe. Parsons, like any good composer, weaves some motifs from earlier in the album into the end of the song.
This one is a purely classical piece, which is jolt following the last track. The Prelude is inspired by an opera fragment by Debussy about this story. As classical music does so well, the Prelude evokes the emotional landscape of the story: brooding and moody, punctuated by high drama.
After the Prelude, we get into some Pink Floyd territory. Clearly, Parsons’ work on Dark Side of the Moon rubbed off here, and the darkness of both Poe and the Floyd work brilliantly. Later movements again resurrect motifs from elsewhere in the album. No, “The Fall of the House of Usher” doesn’t leap out and grab hold of you, but repeated listenings reveal a lot to appreciate.
This tender and beautiful closing piece doesn’t truly capture the the aching loss of the poem, but it is lovlingly sung and arranged, and makes for a fitting end to an album that went in several different directions.
Overall, this isn’t my favorite APP album (that goes to I, Robot, which I might also dive into sometime). But anytime an artist interprets or reworks the art of another, comparison is inevitable (invited?). So while APP may not have hit a homerun on their debut, they laid the groundwork for what we would hear from them later.
Plus, I’m a sucker for weird things, and both Poe and APP are pretty weird.
And I can’t close the post out without leaving you with this.