Whether or not Parsons ever wanted to be taken seriously is debatable.
The Alan Parsons Project was always a joke (in one instance, literally), making it special in the world of progressive rock. Whether or not Parsons ever wanted to be taken seriously is debatable. Formed in 1974 by audio engineer and producer Alan Parsons and songwriter Eric Woolfson (and using session players for recording), APP instantly became known for the pompous and ridiculous. While these are certainly hallmarks of progressive rock, Parsons and Woolfson took the music into far sillier directions from the outset.
Their first record, 1976’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was named after a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Some of its songs were even based on the stories in the collection, including the bat-shit crazy “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Tales arrangements feature schmaltzy orchestrations that would cause even the Moody Blues to cringe, some questionable pastoral experimenting and an opulent 16-minute instrumental.
Interestingly, the band didn’t attempt to outdo Tales with their next (and best) record. Perhaps because they were unable to. Their sophomore effort, 1977’s I Robot, is strikingly different from their debut. Named after the collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov (see a pattern starting to form?), Robot is a noticeably more subdued effort: Synthesizers largely replace the maudlin strings and prog-rock guitar leads; the longest song is six minutes; and the songwriting is overall more austere and pop-oriented. This, ahem, progression would continue on their next record, 1978’s Pyramid.
The explanation for this shift is simple. While Tales saw APP draw from a specific premise, Robot sees the duo fully committing to one in particular – even down to sequencing. The human side (side A) is largely driven by guitar/bass/piano/drums – ‘human’ instruments – with only one instrumental. It also features humanistic lyrics such as, “When I breakdown just a little and lose my head/Nothing I try to do can work the same way” and, “Could it be that somebody else is/Looking into my mind?” Tellingly, these lines could also apply to an A.I or robot.
Musically, side A is mostly prog-disco, suggesting that human-written music is designed to move you both literally and figuratively. Even the title track’s synths awkwardly shimmy around David Paton’s slinky bassline. Similarly, “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” has synths shuffling next to Ian Bairnson’s itchy guitar, while the shuffling in “Breakdown” is driven by serpentine bass. “Don’t Let It Show” might be the most human aspect of the entire record with its saccharine balladry, something a machine could never equal.
Meanwhile, the album’s B side displays its preference for machines with three electronic instrumentals: the shimmering “Nucleus”; the horror film-esque “Total Eclipse”; and the wandering “Genesis Ch.1 V.32”. If machines made music, side B suggests, it’d largely be cold, calculated and all-encompassing. And this even if the result was an approximation of humanity, and electronics would do most of the talking.
The mixing of man and machine is apparent on I Robot, as well. The opening title track has no vocals, while side B’s “The Voice” is reminiscent of Steely Dan – even down to the pulsing bass – and yet it features a vocoder right alongside a human voice. “Genesis Ch.1 V.32” finds synths harmonizing beautifully with guitars, ending the album in an uplifting fashion.
This may be a nod to Parsons himself because, as odd as APP were, their records were meticulously produced. The superb engineering shouldn’t come as a surprise with Parsons having been responsible for two of the best-sounding albums in history: Ambrosia’s self-titled debut and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Throughout his career, Parsons used machinery to produce human creations. Yet I Robot’s liner notes urge caution to mankind (“And a warning that his brief dominance of this planet will probably end, because man tried to create robot in his own image”). But if this is the result, there can’t be much of a downside, right?