I, Robot? Not Alan Parsons!

by delarue

It’s the last night of the tour, in a midsize sit-down theatre somewhere in Holland. The bandleader is the lone holdover from the original group, and he’s neither the lead instrumentalist nor their regular frontman.

Throughout a demanding set long enough to fill two cds, the band careen through an impressively diverse mix of Pink Floyd-influenced art-rock, expansively elegant ballads and singalong anthems which the audience seem to know well. That’s no surprise, considering that many of these songs received incessant radio airplay back in the day when that was the key driver of album sales.

While many of the arrangements are new, and fresh, to match the cast onstage, the band are roadweary. Some numbers, particularly the most dystopic ones, feature a sequencer, which ends up backfiring. The longer the song goes on, the further the players drift apart, to the point where everybody’s in his own individual time zone. How ironic, and amusing, that an Alan Parsons band – harshly critiqued for a cold, digital, studio-clean esthetic – could sound so haphazard onstage

The crowning irony is that this is nothing new. The original Alan Parsons Project that finally began touring in the 90s was a beast of a live band, and took all kinds of chances, and this particular group share that fearlessness if not the same sizzle and majesty. A third irony is that while the group’s 1995 Live album also fails to capture the band’s intrepid improvisational side, this one – The Never Ending Show: Live in the Netherlands, streaming at Spotify – does, even if it’s pretty untight in places. Seriously: if you’re a fan of the band, wouldn’t you want to hear them fly completely without a net? Isn’t that what live music is all about?

Tellingly, it takes two guitarists – Jeff Kollman and Dan Tracey – to compensate for the absence of Ian Bairnson, one of the most underrated and versatile shredders of the art-rock era. The clockwork rhythm section of bassist David Paton and drummer Stuart Elliott is long gone, but new drummer Danny Thompson can really swing, and has a flair for the unexpected, which is great. He also speeds up and slows down, not always matched by bassist Guy Erez, who may not be able to hear him in the monitors.

The original band relied on a rotating cast of singers until keyboardist Eric Woolfson – whose Edgar Allan Poe song cycle improbably springboarded a long run of concept albums – more or less took over as lead singer. Here, P.J. Olsson and Parsons himself are flinty and weathered; Jordan Asher Huffman is an upgrade on the songs originally assigned to raspier vocalists.

This is not the place to discover the Parsons catalog. Newcomers should start with their arguably most symphonic and ambitious record, 1981’s Turn of a Friendly Card and work forward through Eye in the Sky and the erratic Ammonia Avenue, the two successive chapters in Woolfson’s gloomy existentialist triptych. But for longtime fans, there’s a lot to like here, and the unevenness is more endearing than exasperating. I, Robot? Not Alan Parsons!

Don’t Answer Me – the crushingly cynical, Lynchian pop ballad where Parsons managed to one-up Phil Spector – is more stripped-down here, and not as emotionally searing as earlier versions of the band would play it. Likewise, Tom Brooks’ Procol Harum organ on Old and Wise and Don’t Let It Show is tantalizingly lurid…and fleeting.

But his playful jazz piano break on Primetime is plenty outside-the-box. And the vocals on the powerpop hit Breakdown – which segues into a moodily restrained version of The Raven – are a vast improvement. Us and Them Time drifts calmly toward a distant doom, without Bairnson’s loud slide guitar. The instrumental Luciferama is a mashup of Lucifer and Mammagamma, more psychedelic funk than motorik theme, guitars front and center.

Surprisingly, the art-funk hits are where the gremlins rear their heads. There are also four more recent songs. Three are quite good on face value: one sounds a lot like Matt Keating, another is a bluegrass-inflected folk-pop ballad, both of them somberly contemplating posterity. The vaudevillian-tinged title track is part late 60s Kinks, part Moody Blues. The song that kicks off the album sounds suspiciously satirical: check the title. Parsons seems to be the last person who wants to see the world under silicon-fisted technocratic rule.