Tentative Review #69

Alan Parsons Project
Eye In The Sky

(released 1981)

1. Sirius****
2. Eye In The Sky***
3. Children Of The Moon***1/2
4. Gemini**1/2
5. Silence And I****1/2
6. You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned**1/2
7. Psychobabble**1/2
8. Mammagamma***1/2
9. Step By Step**1/2
10. Old And Wise***



All tracks by Eric Woolfson and Alan Parsons.


Let me begin this review with an analogy involving the political history of British Columbia.

In 1952, the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties of Canada's Westernmost province were overthrown by the Social Credit party (due to a strange method of voting which was thereafter abandoned). Although having historical roots in the economic theories of Major Douglas, this party was essentially a mainstream conservative movement (ie. having a strong voting base in small business and the lower middle class while strongly favouring large corporate interests in its actual policies).

This party governed BC from 1952 until 1991, save only for the period of 1972-1975 (when the social democratic NDP held a majority). The party won a strong majority in the 1986 elections under the leadership of Bill Vander Zalm, who was easily the most right-wing of all Canadian political leaders at the time.

By 1991, the party was in shambles. Under BVZ's leadership, the Social Credit movement had become an embarrassment, plagued by conflict of interest scandals (most of which involved Vander Zalm himself) and a series of public relations nightmares (almost all of which involved Vander Zalm himself). BVZ resigned in 1991, and the Social Credit party was destroyed in the election of the same year, winning only 7 seats in the BC parliament. Within two years, the party had ceased to function on a provincial level; its elected members either resigned, joined other parties, or sat as independents.

Recently, one NDP-supporting journalist commented that even the term "Social Credit" seemed to be an embarrassing anachronism by 1991, signifying the worst of a debased and outdated political sensibility.

It might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the term "Alan Parsons Project" has a similar role in the vocabulary of progressive fans these days.

The APP was formed in the mid-1970s, following Parsons's success as the producer of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon. As other critics have noted, the successes of Rick Wakeman's over-the-top conceptual works were instrumental in shaping the Project's career -- the first APP album consisted of various tracks based on Edgar Allan Poe's works, and every subsequent Project album was ostensibly based on some unifying theme (these ties were often rather tenuous; Eye In The Sky seems to be loosely based on the general theme of observation and self-knowledge, but even assuming this much may be in error).

Although early APP albums showed the "group" to be basically capable of creating interesting progressive/pop recordings, their later works are notable for having featured a prolonged descent into adult contemporary mediocrity. To make matters worse, the very nature of the Project meant that it was rather difficult for its leading members to conceal the degeneration of their careers. Given that they never toured, and that most of their members were session musicians in any event, it seems difficult not to regard the APP's later years as being primarily the work of studio hacks desperately trying to appease an evolving market. When the APP dissolved in 1987, few people seemed to care.

Today, the Project is generally seen as being little more than a footnote in progressive history, and it must be admitted that at least some of this critical response is deserved. The APP had some good moments throughout their career, but they were also responsible for helping to usher in an unnecessarily commercialized form of "progressive" music to listeners of the 1980s. Their attempts at making "hit material" in their latter years were transparently cynical, and cannot help but undermine the worthier aspects of their career.

Eye In The Sky falls chronologically in the middle of the APP's recorded output, appropriately enough. It isn't their worst album (that would be Eve), but its shorter songs, reduced conceptual continuity, and general abandonment of adventurous arrangements makes for a debased form of their best work. In some manners, this album may have been an improvement on those APP works which came immediately before it -- it still isn't all that they were capable of, though.

Given all of this, it may surprise the reader to learn that my opinion of Eye In The Sky is more favourable than not. But this shouldn't be seen as too unusual. Most of these songs still possess enough merit to make for decent listening sessions (which is admittedly rather less than an overwhelming triumph). In the long run, this album probably did more harm than good to the continued artistic survival of the group (qv. Geoff Downes on "hit singles"); on its own terms, it may be considered a moderate success.

The album begins on a strong note with "Sirius" (now used as a basketball anthem, oddly enough), a brief instrumental which seems to serve the primary function of providing a preface for the second track. The drum mixing is very good, as it is on most of the album; the interplay of instruments (including an orchestral overlay) works quite well, with Bairnson's controlled performance gaining intensity by virtue of his rather sharp tone. It may be safe to assume that this track would have been much longer than its 90 seconds during the mid-1970s.

This leads into "Eye In The Sky", the first single from the album and also the biggest hit of the APP's career (the song made No. 3 in America). This is perhaps best defined as a worthy track marred by the aforementioned cynical commercialism -- the production is once again very impressive (especially as regards the drums and keys), but Woolfson's singing is questionable at best, the lyrics could have been much more interesting (the titular image is actually fairly compelling, but the lyrics don't do it justice), and the entire focus of the track seems to be one of "evening out" those aspects of the "group" which would be less acceptable to a mainstream audience. The guitar solo is quite good, though, and the second half of the chorus is much better than the rest of the song. There is clearly a decent track in here somewhere, but this effort doesn't quite reach it.

This leads to "Children Of The Moon", the "sleeper" success of the album. Although David Paton (later of Fish's band) is decidedly not a lead vocalist on most occasions, he does a credible job on this track -- the thinness of his voice actually goes along with the sparse nature of the track, and the orchestral backing provides a good melodic effort. The background vocals are especially chilling as Paton recites the tale of a society forced into decay by its worship of unnamed idols. A credible number.

"Gemini" doesn't work quite as well. It's obvious that considerable attention was given to the form of this track -- the vocal duet seems to be modeled on a vaguely Medieval basis (or, more correctly, on Gentle Giant), and the arrangement of voices and instruments is not problematic. Though it gets the "form" right, however, it falls a bit short as regards content. Chris Rainbow's voice comes off as being foolish in this context, and the banal lyrics don't help. I should add that the mild pedal steel background is woefully out of place here, irrespective of it being not very impressive to begin with.

The best track on the album is clearly "Silence And I". It may be nothing more than a token inclusion for the older fanbase, but it's quite successful nonetheless. The piano intro is quite impressive, especially when intervowen with an assortment of wind instruments. Eric Woolfson is in better vocal form here than before, and his lyrics actually seem to have a fair degree of intelligence behind them this time (with a story involving psychological instability and resulting isolation). Even better is the orchestral mid-section, featuring the prominent use of a xylophone and an impressive melody throughout -- a decent guitar solo appears at the end of this section. This track may be enough to justify the purchase of the album for those interesting in this type of music.

The second half of the album is generally a disappointment. "You're Gonna Get Your Fingers Burned" is a rather generic number, and an obvious attempt at reaching out to rock radio -- while it probably wasn't responsible for encouraging Asia, it's a step in that direction nonetheless. The guitar solo is actually not that bad (the beginning even sounds vaguely like the basic style of Frank Zappa), but the rest of the song has little to recommend it.

"Psychobabble" was the second single from the album (No. 57 US), and a rather unsatisfying number in general. It has a memorable keyboard hook and a "shifting" instrumental passage in its favour, but this is otherwise another generic track. Elmer Gantry (not the fictitious preacher) seems to come from the Roger Chapman school of vocalists, but generally lacks the emotional depth to pull his role off well. The lyrics are frankly terrible, filled with Spinal Tappian meaninglessness throughout (sample: "Help me to find what I don't wanna know/You're taking me there but I don't wanna go"). And the guitar solo isn't great either. This isn't worthless, but its net value isn't that impressive.

"Mammagamma" is an interesting diversion, a minimalist electro-pop number with some prog leanings. The song features a decent fretless bass appearance and keyboard texturing in the style of Tony Banks. This is probably the best track of the second half, but there simply isn't that much to talk about.

There is also little of say about "Step By Step", another generic rock number sung by Lenny Zakatek (far from the best singer the APP ever had). Aside from having the novelty of a rhythm guitar solo, there isn't very much here. Chris Rainbow's backing vocals are probably the highlight in a losing effort.

The album concludes with "Old And Wise", another track suffering from the same problems that hindered "Eye In The Sky" on the first half. Colin Blumstone's vocal performance is most impressive, and the original statement of the main melodic theme by the wind instruments is extremely haunting. Sadly, though, the APP decided to add the trappings of conventional "light ballads" to this track, in the form of generic drum rhythms and a tedious chord progression. The "haunting" and "mediocre" aspects of this song are in a constant battle throughout, and the winner isn't entirely clear at the conclusion. The track ends with a saxophone solo from Mel Collins -- far from his best, but still acceptable.

And such is Eye In The Sky, an album falling somewhere between progressive and pop, and to some degree marred by the very nature of the group which created it. Fans of the APP should obviously have this work, but this reviewer cannot strongly recommend it to general progressive fans.

(By the way, for those who are curious, British Columbia is currently governed by the NDP, who hold a razor-thin majority. The Liberal Party has generally taken the position formerly held by the Social Credit Party -- without, of course, taking its tainted name. Similarly, Alan Parsons did not use the APP name during his 1995 solo tour. Although legal reasons were presumably the main factor, one can still speculate that the baggage of the APP name may have dissuaded him from attempting it.)

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 25 January 1998)

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