Music

The Alan Parsons Project: I Robot (Legacy Edition)

There's some great, if hokey, material to be had on I Robot, and yet it is also hugely entertaining and a must have for geeks interested in the late '70s sci-fi landscape


The Alan Parsons Project

I Robot (Legacy Edition)

Label: Arista / Legacy
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-09-16
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Artist website
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The Alan Parsons Project is an interesting anomaly in pop culture history. The outfit is an anomaly because it was a sort of progressive rock band or art rock band that made concept albums chiefly during the late '70s and early '80s, a time when most dinosaur rock bands of similar ilk were either adapting to new sounds (Rush, Genesis) or were going the way of the dodo (Emerson, Lake & Palmer). What's more, the Alan Parsons Project actually had hits, ranging from "Damned If I Do" to "Games People Play" to "Eye in the Sky" to the divine Phil Spector-influenced "Don't Answer Me". Part of the reason the Alan Parsons Project was so radio friendly was because it really was a wolf in a soft-rock band's clothing along the lines of an Air Supply. As such, the band (if you can call them that as they didn't tour during their heyday and used session musicians) is sort of looked at with some derision today: the Alan Parsons Project was used as a punchline in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and much of their 10 album discography can be obtained by scouring vinyl buck bins in used record stores. (To wit, my vinyl copies of 1983's The Best of the Alan Parsons Project and 1984's Ammonia Avenue set me back 50 cents each.) In the liner notes to this "Legacy Edition" reissue of the 1977 sophomore LP, I Robot, Parsons is incredulous that his group was the only rock band on Arista Records at the time (a claim that isn't exactly true as the Dwight Twilley Band was signed to the label around the same period, and there are probably other examples), and he was rubbing shoulders with the likes of fellow label mates Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston at industry functions. That isn't so amazing when you think about it, for the Alan Parsons Project wasn't, at times, too far removed from the easy going sounds of Manilow or Houston.

It may be an era for an Alan Parsons Project revival, however, with the re-release of I Robot here (and there's also a new Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab limited edition that's out there, which is just another repackaging of the LP since a 2007 remastered disc), and news that early 2014 will bring a box set titled The Alan Parsons Project Complete Album Collection, which will group all of the band's albums together along with an unreleased disc called The Sicilian Defence, which was supposed to be the outfit's fourth album for Arista somewhere around 1979 or 1980. Current day groups such as Muse have arguably been taking cues from Alan Parsons as well, in addition to the fact that I Robot single "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" has recently shown up in the video game Grand Theft Auto V. But there's another reason why one should look back at the Alan Parsons Project: I can't think of another example where a noted engineer and producer became a household name in his or her own right as a recording superstar. However, Alan Parsons already had a lot to his name before meeting up with the late Eric Woolfson (he died in 2009 of kidney cancer) and asking him to manage his career as a producer; Parsons had engineered the Beatles' Abbey Road and Let It Be albums as well as, perhaps more famously, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, and was working as a producer for a wide range of acts such as Pilot (who have a great '70s hit in "Magic"), Al Stewart and Ambrosia. Before long, Woolfson, who was the Alan Parsons Project's principle lyricist and songwriter, and Parsons were making music and albums together, at first based on the works of other writers. The group's 1976 debut Tales of Mystery and Imagination was focused on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and, for a follow-up, the duo turned their attention to science-fiction author Isaac Asimov's 1950 book of short stories, I, Robot. Although Asimov was encouraging of the project, the book was already optioned to a film and television company, so Woolfson had to fudge the concept a little by making a set of songs that was more generally about the relationship between man and machine, and, though the group used the title of Asimov's book, they had to drop the comma for copyright reasons. And, thus, I Robot was born. While Tales of Mystery and Imagination had been a modest hit, I Robot would eventually go platinum by 1978, and might have benefited from being released just weeks after the first Star Wars movie opened in theatres, which, of course, whetted the public's imagination for all things involving robots.

The remastering job on this version of I Robot, overseen by Parsons and Woolfson's daughter, Sally, is, in a word, phenomenal. It is crisp and clear, with music that just pops out of your speakers, and there is nary any trace of tape hiss or other signifiers of a record that came out of the late '70s. Forget about bringing that other noted 1977 release (cough, cough, Steely Dan's Aja) with you when you're shopping for a new stereo system: I Robot is just equally as good in terms of a crystalline sound that is virtually flawless. But does the album itself hold up some 36 years later? Well, yes. And no. It has all the hallmarks and indulgences of both progressive rock and Top 40 pop music of the era, and can be quite cornball at times. But that also makes the record rather fun. For instance, if you were to listen to the album's third track, "Some Other Time", you might just think that it's a singular vocalist performing the duties. Wrong. It's actually the marriage of a male vocalist singing the verses and a female vocalist doing the choruses, and you'd never be able to really tell the difference if you weren't listening carefully and knew of the history behind the record's production. That just speaks to the mastery of Parsons as a recording engineer and producer, showcasing something of a perfectionist streak. What's more, the album as a whole is an interesting amalgamation of art rock, disco, jazz and classical influences, and offers a great deal of sonic wonderment, from the opening funky instrumental track "I Robot", which shares some similarities to Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" from Dark Side of the Moon, in that a female soprano vocalist sings over part of the track. "Nucleus", meanwhile, is a picturesque piece of analog keyboards, the ones used here were a precursor to the digital samplers of the '80s, washing chords over each other as though waves were crashing down on a beach. "Total Eclipse" is absolutely frightful, with a choir employed to create a stark effect that feels more lifted out of The Exorcist than science-fiction. And singles "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You", with its pseudo-disco riffs, and the soft, soaring ballad "Don't Let It Show", later covered by Pat Benatar, are effective, even if they are somewhat dated.

What makes I Robot so interesting is that it shows that the Alan Parsons Project didn't have the same limitations as a standard rock band. If Woolfson didn't feel up to singing lead on a particular track, and he didn't until 1980's The Turn of a Friendly Card, the duo could just bring in a guest vocalist...or 10. Instead of employing a stable band of musicians, the group could swap people in and out of the line-up, though most of the members of Pilot are employed as a backing band on this recording. And if a track was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, a choir could easily and effectively be brought in to provide overdubs. This aspect of the outfit is given full flower on the bonus disc of material, which really acts as an audio documentary of the making of the album by isolating elements of certain tracks. We hear Hilary Western rehearsing her vocals for "I Robot" and expressing doubts over her performance. We hear the choir used (quite laughably, as it sounds like a chorus of dwarves out of Lord of the Rings) on "Breakdown". We hear the complete female vocal of Jaki Whitren on "Some Other Time", and come to understand why Parsons jettisoned her singing on the verses as it's quite weak. And we also hear "The Naked Robot", a 10-and-a-half minute suite of early mixes that stitches together some of the album's instrumentals ("I Robot", "Nucleus" and "Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32") and suggests that the album could have taken an entirely different and more heavily progressive tact. Granted, there isn't really full-fledged material on these demos, which may disappoint some looking for bonus "songs" that were in a state of completion, but this disc is effective as a whole as a "behind the scenes" taster of I Robot that provides a great deal of studio-based insight. There's even the presence of a US radio commercial promoting the record that is humorous in its hyperbole: "It takes a special kind of genius that can make music that you can see! A rock masterpiece in colours you've never heard before!"

Today, I Robot is indeed generally seen as the Alan Parsons Project's masterpiece – it is the album recommended as essential listening by Allmusic.com, for one – and, unlike many other records of the era, it is notable that even though there are campy elements to the music if you're looking back on it with modern glasses, the album as a whole is played dead serious. That fact alone elevates I Robot into the pantheon of great art rock records. While die-hard Parsons fans may want to wait until the aforementioned box set is released, as I Robot will be included on it, for those who are actually curious about the producer and what he brought to the table, this would be an effective starting place. (Though, truth be told, you could probably subsist yourself on various 'best of' compilations that are out there, and there was one just released in May of 2013.) While the Alan Parsons Project might be best known for being the name of Dr. Evil's laser to most of a certain age, I Robot proves that the outfit was no joke, and took a very serious approach, if not to songcraft, than the actual cobbling together of albums that pretty much feel like true long-players, start to finish. There's some great, if hokey, material to be had on I Robot, and yet it is also hugely entertaining and a must have for geeks interested in the late '70s sci-fi landscape. Will there be a renaissance for this kind of music? Highly unlikely. Still, I Robot offers a glimpse inside two musical geniuses' attention to detail, and is a rewarding listen for those running out of Genesis, Jethro Tull and Rush albums to buy.

7
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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