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Review: The Alan Parsons Project, “I Robot: Legacy Edition”

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I Robot Legacy EditionHow to follow an art-rock concept album based on the macabre tales of nineteenth-century author Edgar Allan Poe?  For The Alan Parsons Project, the answer was apparently a simple one: look forward rather than back.  So the second album by the progressive-rock “group” – in actuality producer-engineer Parsons, chief songwriter-executive producer Eric Woolfson, and a rotating cast of musicians and vocalists – was inspired by the writing of Isaac Asimov and explored artificial intelligence in a sci-fi landscape.  I Robot (not to be confused, for legal purposes, with Asimov’s I, Robot, though the author gave the Project’s project his blessing) bested the No. 38 placing of the Poe-based Tales of Mystery and Imagination on the Billboard 200 by hitting No. 9. That was no small feat for an ambitious prog-rock opus in the pop-and-disco-dominated days of 1977.  Now, the APP’s Arista debut I Robot has arrived from Legacy Recordings in a 2-CD Legacy Edition with 14 bonus tracks, 9 of which are previously unreleased.  This edition supplants a 2007 single-disc remaster as it contains the original five bonus tracks from that reissue.

The future depicted in I Robot via the album’s ten tracks – six vocal songs and four largely instrumental compositions, all credited to Woolfson and Parsons – is a rather dark one, even if the title of one anthemic track proclaims that “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On).”  The lyrics are more concerned with mood and feeling rather than advancing a particular story, but are focused on the relationship between man and his robotic creations.  Woolfson, who died in 2009, wrote in 2006 as reprinted in the liner notes, “I Robot to some extent looks at the questions and the extent to which as human beings we may or may not be pre-programmed and act in a robotic fashion, as well as the dangers of uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence.”  It’s heady stuff, and the album revels in progressive pomp.  But it’s all played with impeccable musicianship not to mention earnestness and seriousness.  In other words, I Robot wholly avoids the trap of camp despite the frequently operatic writing.  Comparisons to Pink Floyd are inevitable, particularly as Parsons famously engineered Dark Side of the Moon, and there’s a certain similarity in the grandiosity of it all not to mention the instrumentation; Parsons admits in his new liner notes here that the title track of I Robot was inspired by the Floyd’s use of the EMS Synthi-A synth sequencer.  But I Robot showed The Alan Parsons Project establishing a less lysergic, more cosmic sound of its own, with multiple singers and varied textures placed in both rock-based and orchestral veins.

Read on after the jump!

The opening instrumental “I Robot” functions as an overture, introducing the album’s modus operandi of blending a guitar-bass-drum rhythm section (Ian Bairnson, David Paton and Stuart Tosh, respectively) with intricately-arranged synths, keyboards, and organs usually played by Woolfson, and even some rather unusual instruments.  Here, you’ll hear cimbalom and kantele (both in the dulcimer family of stringed instruments).  Later on the album, Parsons and co. utilize piccolo trumpet (“Don’t Let It Show”), water gongs (“Nucleus”), and even the country-and-western staple the pedal steel (“Day After Day”).  A mysterious device called the Projectron appears on a number of tracks; Parsons describes it on his own website as “effectively…an analog sampler…a little like the Mellotron, but it was capable of much higher quality.”

I Robot seamlessly flows from one track to the next, and indeed, has a cohesive feel despite the varied musical settings.  Very little is “extractable,” so to speak, though the tight, disco-flavored “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” (“If I had a mind to/I wouldn’t want to think like you/And if I had time to/I wouldn’t want to talk to you”) scored the APP a breakthrough hit single.  The pop melody was winningly sung by Lenny Zakatek, but was Zakatek giving voice to a man or a robot?  It’s one of the enduring mysteries of the LP.  But listeners cottoned to its funky beat – and it’s not the only track which might make you move.  A soulful and dark Norman Whitfield-inspired groove anchors “The Voice,” which eerily utilizes sound effects, slashing strings and vocoder to answer Steve Harley’s unsettling assertion that “Someone is watching you…”  (The Cockney Rebel singer certainly had a flair for the theatrical, also recording the original single of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera title song.)

Parsons and Woolfson keep the mood consistent, and I Robot actually unfolds at a clip.  No track is longer than the roughly 6-minute opener.  The ruminative “Some Other Time” is a shining example of their style; the song has a strong melodic hook and bleating horn riff, but shifts tempo and tone so as to keep it from descending into “mere” pop.  Peter Straker and Jaki Whitren trade off on vocals, with the former handling the verses and the latter the choruses.  It juxtaposes orchestral splendor with slide guitars, memorably posing the question of “Could it be that somebody else is looking into my mind?”  The familiar and soaring voice of Hollies leader Allan Clarke grounds “Breakdown,” a dramatic composition that veers from a classic rock melody to a theatrical chorus ominously chanting “Freedom, freedom, we will not obey/Freedom, freedom, take the wall away/Freedom, freedom, we will not obey/Freedom, freedom, take them all away!”  Parsons, who engineered such Hollies performances as the hit “The Air That I Breathe,” clearly realized the immediacy of a voice like Clarke’s on the record.

The ballad “Don’t Let It Show” reinforces the sense of paranoia and tension on “Some Other Time” and “Breakdown,” with Dave Townsend quietly imploring “Don’t give in/Don’t tell them anything/Don’t let it show…”  It stands out for its distinctive piccolo trumpet part and another fine orchestration from Andrew Powell, which builds to an uptempo instrumental coda.  The elegiac, reflective and melodic “Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)” is beautifully sung by Jack Harris, another singer-songwriter with whom Parsons had worked previously.  The music and lyrics were crafted by Woolfson to a synth riff of Parsons’, and with its ethereal harmonies offset by the earthy pedal steel of B.J. Cole, it’s one of the most shimmering tracks on the album.

The ominous chorale of Powell’s composition “Total Eclipse” and epic instrumental of rebirth “Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32” end the album on an open-ended note – did man or machine persevere?  Such questions have seen that I Robot still endures these many years later.  But if there are further questions as to how Parsons and Woolfson’s loose aggregation of musicians and guest stars assembled their deft art-rock opera, the second disc of Legacy’s 2-CD set will provide many of the answers via demos, rehearsals, early mixes and alternates.  Make no mistake, this odds-and-ends collection isn’t for casual fans, and even diehards likely won’t find it essential for repeated listening.  Many of the tracks are fragments never meant to be heard as part of a cohesive album.  But they’re fascinating the first time around for anyone interested in the process of the album’s creation.

There’s a minute-and-a-half of soprano Hilary Western’s rehearsal, for instance, and a two-minute “I Robot” demo entitled “Boules.”   Named after the French games in which the objective is to throw or roll balls to a target ball, “Boules” is Woolfson’s experiment with the sound of these metal balls as part of a musical arrangement.  Woolfson: “Although I thought the effect could have worked quite well, Alan didn’t share my enthusiasm and the idea was abandoned.”  The tension between Woolfson and Parsons – which, of course, eventually came to a boil – in this case seemed to lead to a fertile collaboration.  Three tracks on Disc Two have been excerpted from The Alan Parsons Audio Guide, serviced to radio stations to create “do-it-yourself” broadcasts.  In these, Parsons and Woolfson discuss their process.  Woolfson describes how he felt the singer of “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” was a machine talking to a man, while Parsons felt the opposite.  Ultimately it was left up to the listener’s imagination – which seems just about right for this thinking man’s rock opus.

Other tracks are alternates of the familiar songs.  The backing track of “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You” is heard sans Ian Bairnson’s guitar solo; the late Woolfson opines in the track-by-track notes that this presentation “gives an opportunity for others to see what they might have come up with by playing along with the backing.”  And “Breakdown” is literally broken down – once via an early demo of the backing riff, then with just the isolated choir from the song’s crashing “Freedom” climax.  A choir session is excerpted for “Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32.”

In the case of “Some Other Time,” the song is presented complete, but with Jaki Whitren singing the entire song instead of just the choruses.  Woolfson himself is heard on his demo of “Don’t Let It Show,” recorded when the song was still being developed into its final shape.  Woolfson also created the 10-minute medley that closes the bonus disc.  “The Naked Robot” combines early mixes of the instrumentals into a new piece of music; it’s debatable whether this is preferable to a full release of those mixes, but the manner in which this piece was assembled is fully in line with the experimental spirit of The Alan Parsons Project.

Five tracks were added to the 2007 single-disc remaster of I Robot – “Boules,” “Breakdown (Early Demo of Backing Riff),” “I Wouldn’t Want to Live Like You (Backing Track Rough Mix),” “Day After Day (Early Stage Rough Mix)” and “The Naked Robot.”  In a classy move, they’re all included here. Are the additional nine tracks substantial enough to warrant another purchase if you already own that disc?  It likely depends on how much of a completist you are.  Woolfson’s demo of “Don’t Let It Show” and the Whitren vocal of “Some Other Time” are the best of the “new” tracks.  The brief interview snippets from the Audio Guide are great, too, but the entire 6-part interview program would make a worthwhile release as part of a box set or collection.  The short rehearsal takes, the isolated “Freedom” choir and the minute-long I Robot radio commercial are all fairly negligible.

Alan Parsons – who co-produced this reissue with Eric’s daughter Sally Woolfson, Tim Fraser-Harding and Jeff Magid, supplies roughly five pages of new, informative notes in the 20-page booklet.  It also contains full lyrics, personnel information for each song, and track-by-track annotations for the bonuses.  Alas, discographical annotation is missing.  Parsons and Dave Donnelly are credited with remastering, as they were in 2007.  What Robot truly cries out for, however, is an immersive 5.1 surround remix.  The bottom line?  At its attractive price, the Legacy Edition of I Robot is one-stop shopping for those who don’t already own this crowning achievement of The Alan Parsons Project.  If you do have the 2007 edition and crave an even deeper look at its conception than the 2007 remaster provided, you’ll find a few more insights here.  “Think of a boy with the stars in his eye,” sings Jack Harris on “Day After Day.”  Parsons, Woolfson and their talented band, orchestra and choir all looked to the stars for I Robot, but unlike the subject of the song, weren’t “frightened to try” to reach them.  Reach them, they did, and the proof is in the I Robot: Legacy Edition.

The Alan Parsons Project, I Robot: Legacy Edition (Arista LP AL 7002, 1977 – reissued Arista/Legacy CD 88883 71865 2, 2013) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

CD 1: The Original Album

  1. I Robot
  2. I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like you
  3. Some Other Time
  4. Breakdown
  5. Don’t Let It Show
  6. The Voice
  7. Nucleus
  8. Day After Day (The Show Must Go On)
  9. Total Eclipse
  10. Genesis Ch 1. V. 32

CD 2: Bonus Tracks

  1. U.S. Radio Commercial for ‘I Robot’
  2. Boules (‘I Robot’ Experiment)
  3. I Robot (Hilary Western Soprano Vocal Rehearsal)
  4. Extract 1 from ‘The Alan Parsons Project Audio Guide’
  5. Extract 2 from ‘The Alan Parsons Project Audio Guide’
  6. I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You (Backing Track Rough Mix)
  7. Some Other Time (Complete Vocal by Jaki Whitren)
  8. Breakdown (Early Demo of Backing Riff)
  9. Extract 3 from ‘The Alan Parsons Project Audio Guide’
  10. Breakdown (The Choir)
  11. Don’t Let It Show (Eric Woolfson Demo)
  12. Day After Day (Early Stage Rough Mix)
  13. Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32 (Choir Session)
  14. The Naked Robot (Early Instrumental Mixes)

Tracks 1, 3, 7, 10-11 & 13 previously unreleased
Tracks 2, 6, 8, 12 & 14 from I Robot: Expanded Edition, Arista CD 82876 81524 2, 2007
Tracks 4-5, 9 from The Alan Parsons Project Audio Guide, Arista SP-140, 1982, previously unreleased commercially

Written by Joe Marchese

October 3, 2013 at 14:05

2 Responses

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  1. I love this album but what is the point of this??? Alan Parsons supposedly loves 5.1 surround so why not include a surround mix. This album screams for it. I guess I won’t be buying this one.


    October 4, 2013 at 00:13

  2. Good review. I was SURE I had read somewhere that the operatic voice on the title track was done by some synth or machine that simulated a voice, but no; it’s by Hilary Western. It is good to hear the choir parts separately; they are very good. The whole album is available to listen to on Spotify (free, if you don’t mind some ads).

    JosephNZ (@joey_nz)

    October 6, 2013 at 05:42

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