Progressive Ideas: Alan Parsons Project gets another turn of a friendly card

By  Michael Popke

The Alan Parsons Project's LP Ammonia Avenue is part of a new reissue series from Legacy.

The Alan Parsons Project’s LP Ammonia Avenue is part of a new reissue series from Legacy.
Progressive-music fans must have treasured the recent holiday season, considering the slew of impressive box sets, reissues and compelling one-off projects that appeared at the end of 2008 and early in the new year…

Turn Of Another Six Friendly Cards

A major ongoing reissue campaign involves The Alan Parsons Project and six more titles from Legacy.

Overseen by production whiz Alan Parsons and his former musical collaborator, Eric Woolfson, the expanded editions of Pyramid (1978), Eve (1979), The Turn of a Friendly Card (1980), Ammonia Avenue (1984), Stereotomy (1986) and Gaudi (1987) arrived in January and feature 40 previously unreleased bonus tracks. These versions have been available as imports for almost two years. (Curiously absent from the U.S. reissues is 1985’s Vulture Culture.)

Legacy reissued I Robot and Eye in the Sky in the U.S. in 2007, reintroducing listeners to the studio entity’s sophisticated, breezy and keyboard-driven orchestral music, which can be considered a precursor to such modern-day collaborative projects as Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Ayreon.

“We thought a lot of people were going to make records like this, where you’re not dealing with one lead singer or a bunch of artistic egos. That is when the production values of the record are going to be the focus,” says Woolfson, the project’s chief songwriter. “It seemed to us that a lot of people would go down that road, but they didn’t. Records aren’t made like that anymore, unfortunately, because the budgets just aren’t there to go into the studio for unlimited amounts of time or to use large orchestras and so on. These records are timeless because of the quality that went into them.”

That quality has not been sacrificed during Parsons’ painstaking remastering process. Warm and vibrant, the audio on these reissues strikingly resembles that of the original vinyl.

“Very often, remasters are done by people who weren’t connected to the original recordings, and they just add volume that doesn’t necessarily make it sound better,” Woolfson says. “With the improvements in remastering, you actually hear on these CDs what we heard in the studio. That doesn’t work with all remastered records, but it certainly does with the Alan Parsons Project. It was a real thrill to relive that sonic experience. It revived for me something I thought was lost forever.”

Woolfson is enjoying a career resurgence of sorts with the reissues, success in musical theater and a new project featuring previously unfinished material called — wait for it — the Alan Parsons Project That Never Was. It will “give people a taste of what might have been” had the duo not parted ways after Gaudi, Woolfson says.

Parsons, meanwhile, dropped the “Project” moniker from his work years ago and continues to produce and release adventurous music under his own name.

In the Beginning…

Perhaps no reissue package was more eagerly anticipated by the faithful than 1970-1975, the final piece of Rhino’s trilogy of Genesis CD/DVD box sets. They’re loaded with rich features — including a 5.1 Surround-Sound option, elusive bonus tracks, vintage concert footage and lengthy present-day interviews with nearly all past and current band members.

These handsome and expensive boxes (the 13-disc 1970-1975 was the priciest at $139.98) make a persuasive case for the continuing existence of the CD format and have earned their place among the finest box sets in any genre. Sure, some snarky audiophiles dismissed the remastered sound as too compressed, but they missed the bigger picture: This is an (almost) complete chronicle of one of rock’s most creative and oft-criticized bands, from its beginnings as pastoral folkies and its conversion to wacky and borderline-creepy proggers to its reign as masters of the pop universe.

Now comes word of a vinyl version of 1970-1975, hitting stores in April with a whopping retail price of $149.98. The 180-gram vinyl LPs will contain new stereo mixes of the Gabriel-era albums and will be presented in heavyweight gatefold sleeves that feature the original covers. Like the CD boxes, all of the albums will be housed in a protective slipcase.

OK, very impressive. But how about one more box? Call it Live 1973-1993, and include expanded editions of Live, Seconds Out, Three Sides Live and even both volumes of The Way We Walk, with more interviews and any remaining video footage. That would be a fitting coda to this monumental reissue project.

Pussyfoot? Them?

Robert Fripp has spent a lot of time toiling in the vaults lately, releasing live King Crimson recordings, as well as his studio collaborations with Brian Eno via his own DGM label.

Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting (1973) and Evening Star (1975) — both recorded as the two eclectic musicians were breaking away from their respective bands, King Crimson and Roxy Music — are among Fripp’s latest offerings.

No Pussyfooting is widely considered one of the most influential electronic music albums ever recorded, and this expanded edition boasts a bonus disc featuring an eerie half-speed version of “The Heavenly Music Corporation” (the first piece Fripp & Eno ever wrote together), plus a compelling re-creation of “Swastika Girls” in reverse to commemorate the way the BBC inadvertently aired it in December 1973. Evening Star is a straight reissue that reflects a warmer and more song-oriented approach. The main exception is “An Index of Metal,” 29 minutes of atmospheric unease.

Both reissues lack significant liner notes and will do little to sway new listeners. Those who already understand, though, will likely embrace these revered recordings.

Anthologizing Ayreon

Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Anthony Lucassen’s ambitious Ayreon project is symphonic rock bordering on metal that spans 13 years and seven sci-fi and fantasy concept albums, with a rotation of musicians and vocalists that has included Bruce Dickinson, Fish, James LaBrie, Neal Morse, Derek Sherinian, Clive Nolan and Ken Hensley.
The saga of the so-called “Ayreon Universe” began with 1995’s The Final Experiment and was completed with last year’s 01011001. All albums are lyrically and musically linked, but they also stand on their own, containing some of modern prog’s most accessible and ambitious arrangements. How do you compress all that into one box set?

Well, for the three-CD/one-DVD Timeline, Lucassen chose 32 remastered tracks (nearly four hours of music) that he says best represent his catalog.

Never one to shy away from making grand musical statements, Lucassen uncharacteristically concludes Timeline with the previously unreleased “Epilogue: The Memory Remains” — notable for its orchestral subtlety and echoes of mellow Pink Floyd. This is the perfect primer for newcomers and will help longtime fans hear Ayreon’s music with fresh ears.

Genesis Redux

Is singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Nick D’Virgilio a modern-day Phil Collins? Much like Collins in Genesis, D’Virgilio was the drummer in Spock’s Beard until founding frontman Neal Morse went solo in 2002.

Stepping into the lead vocalist’s spot for Spock’s has boosted D’Virgilio’s vocal confidence tremendously. In fact, he assumed the role of Peter Gabriel when he and renowned Nashville producer Mark Hornsby recently reworked The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, arguably the apex of Gabriel-era Genesis — a rambling, nonsensical concept album about the experiences of a Puerto Rican hustler named Rael in New York City.

The duo gathered Music City musicians (some who weren’t even familiar with the work) and recorded Rewiring Genesis: A Tribute to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. D’Virgilio is unafraid to veer from Gabriel’s delivery style, and Hornsby adds Chicago-style horns, Kansas-like violins and even an Allman Brothers swagger to key songs — ensuring that some listeners will like this better than the original.

It “would be stupid” to re-create The Lamb…, D’Virgilio writes in the album’s liner notes. “We are … just trying to give it some new life. The songs and the writing are so good that it just lends itself to a different interpretation.”

Prog With an Asterisk(*)

Jem Godfrey, perhaps best known for producing the popular British girl group Atomic
Kitten, turned prog with 2006’s Milliontown — a love-it-or-hate-it album recorded with members of IQ, Arena and It Bites under the name Frost* (asterisk included).

By trying to accomplish too much musically, it left some listeners feeling cold. Godfrey recently told Goldmine that he thought it “might be a laugh” to make a progressive-rock record as an “antidote” to all of his pop projects. “It wasn’t going to be anything other than a bit of a private hobby project,” he admits.

But now comes Experiments in Mass Appeal, a powerfully moody and riveting album that blurs the lines between symphonic prog, hard rock, progressive metal and indie pop, with soaring vocals from new singer Declan Burke (on loan from British progressive rockers Darwin’s Radio). The release took the prog community by surprise, considering that after Milliontown, Godfrey declared he was putting Frost* on ice.

That was the wrong thing to say, explains the 37-year-old father of three children under the age of 4.

“I completely adore being in the studio, making albums and being a part of the whole brilliant magic that goes into the writing and recording process,” he says. “What I dislike quite strongly is gigging. We did a show [recently], and I had to leave at 7 a.m. on Saturday, drive five hours to the gig, do the gig and then come home the next day. The journey home took seven hours because there was a big accident on the motorway. It totally wiped my weekend out, took me away from my family for two days, and all for 90 minutes’ worth of average work. I played terribly.”

Here’s hoping Frost*’s U.S. debut at May’s Rites of Spring Festival in Glenside, Pa., goes better for Godfrey and his band, which also includes bassist John Jowitt and guitarist John Mitchell. (Nick D’Virgilio of Spock’s Beard will fill in on drums and be a “Frostie” for the day.)

“Prog fans are among the nicest, most generous and good-natured people I’ve ever come into contact with,” says Godfrey, who primarily plays keyboards in Frost*. “They also approach Frost* with an open mind. It can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride, musically, and they’re very good at holding onto their hats and not vomiting onto their ice creams. God love ’em.”

Nightmare Records: A Prog-Metal Fan’s Dream

Vocalist Lance King’s two-album stint in the multinational progressive-metal band Balance of Power in the late ’90s may have cemented his reputation as one of America’s finest singers, deserving comparisons to James LaBrie and Geoff Tate.

But he’s done even more to advance the genre with his Minneapolis-based label, Nightmare Records (www.nightmare-records.com). Operating with the tagline “Metal in Progression,” King takes his prog-metal ultra-seriously, a fact reflected in Nightmare’s roster, which now includes veteran Swedish headbangers Andromeda — whose new CD, The Immunity Zone, should appeal to fans of Dream Theater, Symphony X and Saga.

“I started Nightmare as a vehicle to release my own musical material in 1990,” says King, adding that he looks for stronger vocals and even stronger hooks in the bands he signs. “Quickly, it grew into a full-blown international effort. I had no idea it would surpass my goals as a part-time thing.”

King’s involvement in some of Nightmare’s bands still goes beyond business. He sings and plays keys in Avian, a Minneapolis-based quartet that incorporates melodic power metal, aggressive progressive metal and old-school European metal. The band’s second album, Ashes and Madness, contains some of King’s most impressive vocals since Balance of Power.

He’s also listed as executive producer of the new self-titled debut from Memoira, a razor-riffed, female-fronted Finnish band in the vein of Within Temptation and Lacuna Coil. “The difference [between fronting a band and fronting a label] mainly is being in front of a computer screen instead of a mic,” he says.

Here are three other recent notable Nightmare releases:
 
Shadow of Doubt, the third CD from the Ohio trio Perspective X IV, which collectively plays almost 20 instruments and sounds like windswept Kansas (complete with Christian subtext) injected with healthy doses of Fates Warning and Rush.

Global Drama, on which Cloudscape takes cues from fellow Swedes Evergrey to create an atmospheric and diverse album laden with dark undercurrents and Middle Eastern, Celtic and classical flourishes. The band strikes a delicate balance between heaviness and tenderness.

A Manifesto for Domination, which lives up to its ambitious title by proclaiming Atlanta’s Halcyon Way a major force in American progressive metal — combining the melodic elements of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche’s heavier side and Metallica’s progressive tendencies with violent imagery and memorable choruses.  

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