Finally, a Great Alan Parsons Live Record

by delarue

Since most rock albums from the radio-and-records era are riddled with overdubs and were never meant to be replicated live, it follows that only a small percentage of bands from that time ever officially released a good live recording. So it would make sense to assume that the ultimate digital-clean studio band of the 70s and 80s, the Alan Parsons Project, would have been hard-pressed to deliver onstage, right?

But what if they had the ambition (and the financing) to make a live record with an orchestra? Procol Harum did, and that album ended up defining their career. The Moody Blues did it twice, with inspiring results. In the fall of 2021, Parsons and the latest incarnation of his band made an epic double-disc album and DVD with the Israel National Orchestra, One Note Symphony – Live In Tel Aviv, streaming at Spotify. That an act this old, let alone one assembled from almost all replacement parts, could pull it off at all is quite a feat. That the songs – some almost a half a century old – could sound so fresh and vigorous is astonishing. And the setlist is killer, weighted heavily by deep cuts rather than the top 40 singalongs.

What’s more, playing with the orchestra ends up exorcising the kind of roteness that inevitably creeps up on a band who’ve been playing the same old hits night after night for decades. Granted, this isn’t the same crew that gave us Pyramid or The Turn of a Friendly Card, but they are definitely committed to recreating a sound originated on instruments that very few musicians use anymore, let alone in concert.

The title song may be a musical joke, but it also seems to be a cautionary tale. While the Alan Parsons Project are best remembered for a long string of singles, they were addressing the dangers of digital technology and surveillance as far back as the mid-70s. “Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says the voiceover midway through the song: in this context, a word of warning.

In a stroke of serendipity. the orchestra are high in the mix, and their presence ropes in any tendency for the band to go over the top. And yet, they seem to be on a very loose leash: when Jeff Kollman or Dan Tracey’s guitars, or Todd Cooper’s sax, or Tom Brooks’ keys punch in for a flourish or a single bar, it hardly sounds scripted.

The orchestra play the first part of the big guitar solo in Damned If I Do before Kollman gets all shreddy. Interestingly, they don’t play the central synth hook, which mimics an orchestral woodwind section. The strings create an airy bittersweetness that’s been missing in Don’t Answer Me – Parsons’s moment to leave Phil Spector eating his dust – since forever.

Replacement lead singer P.J. Olsson strains to hit the high notes of Time, but the band elevate to an angst-fueled sweep even before the orchestra come in. The big guitars come out for Breakdown, the orchestra leading a triumphantly marching outro. In the global context of early 2022, hearing the crowd spontaneously breaking into a chant of “Freedom, freedom!” will give you chills.

From there they segue into the first Edgar Allan Poe number, The Raven, rising from hazy psychedelia to a peak with band and orchestra going full tilt, “Nevermore, nevermore, never!” A mighty gong hit separates a propulsive Lucifer from a puckishly rearranged, sharply truncated Mammagamma. The high point of the show is the epic Silence And I, which, forty years after it was released, finally gets the arrangement it deserves, from funeral-pillow ballad to Respighi-on-acid stomp.

The first disc winds up with I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You and a surprisingly gospel-inflected, rampaging take of the individualist anthem Don’t Let It Show. The orchestra open disc two with an aptly witchy, deviously metal-tinged version of the famous Dukas classical theme The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The band leap back in with a robust, refreshingly unhurried version of the anthem Standing On Higher Ground, then take a turn into catchy Matt Keating-esque folk rock with As Lights Fall, from the 2019 album The Secret.

I Can’t Get There From Here is not the haunting art-rock song from the Pyramid album but a low-key pop song from The Secret. Brooks’ warped faux-Chopin solo piano interlude that interrupts the big powerpop anthem Prime Time is bizarre, but the diptych of Sirius and Eye in the Sky gets transformed into an art-rock rollercoaster.

Old and Wise doesn’t have the luscious Procol Harum organ that the 90s version of the band used, but it does have one of the most dynamic arrangements here. A hard-edged, funky take of (The System Of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether makes a good setup up for the requisite Games People Play. How much does nostalgia play in this appreciation? Hell, at this point in history, anything from before March of 2020 sounds better than ever.