March 12, 2023

This reissue of the album pulls out all of the stops in terms of tactile presentational value, consisting of a 10″ slipcase containing a 70-page book, four discs in a separate ‘wallet’ and a poster, and it looks just superb with the themed artwork throughout

Alan Parsons has described this 1980 album as being possibly his second favourite of his own releases, ranking, he says, only behind the first one, Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. It’s a bold statement, given the competition from much-loved albums such as I Robot, Pyramid or Ammonia Avenue – but it’s certainly a claim which has much merit to it. Certainly, for prog fans (a genre which the Project have always skirted with, forever in touch with but rarely fully embracing it), this is one of the albums which they might well have the most to gain from – not least, though not entirely, because of the lengthy title ‘suite’ which occupied most of the second side of vinyl. This reissue of the album pulls out all of the stops in terms of tactile presentational value, consisting of a 10″ slipcase containing a 70-page book, four discs in a separate ‘wallet’ and a poster, and it looks just superb with the themed artwork throughout – but let’s look into the music, both from the original album and the newly released extras, and see how it stacks up.

The four discs consist of three CDs and a Blu-Ray (the latter housing an immersive 5.1 Surround Mix for those who love that experience, as well as three promo videos and a contemporary album advertisement), but the original album can be found on the first disc. It still holds up superbly well over forty years on, with one of the most consistent tracklistings of all the APP albums, which always tended to be prey to one or two lesser moments. Indeed, the only song here I am less than totally enamoured by is the second track, Games People Play. It’s not bad, certainly, and most assuredly far better than THAT song of the same title (maybe I just don’t like anything called Games People Play for some reason?), but it’s the one I tend to gravitate toward least. The rest are all tremendous stuff. The opener, May Be A Price To Pay is one of my favourite of all APP tracks, and certainly one of their very best album openers, featuring a mysterious and faintly sinister lyric perfectly matched by the insistent musical backing. The track is sung by Elmer Gantry (notably from the ’60s band Velvet Opera, and less notably from the ‘bogus’ Fleetwood Mac band who tried to tour the US in 1974), the first of several guest vocalists on the album. Oddly enough his name always gives me an image of him hunting Bugs Bunny with a large gun, until I remember that was Elmer Fudd – but I’m sure that says more about me…

Less Friendly? An early idea for the album cover, reproduced in the accompanying book

Following Games People Play (which was a hit single in America, so what do I know?), which has Lenny Zakatek singing, comes the album’s other ‘hit’, the string-laden ballad Time. Oddly for a hit single, it is a profoundly deep and depressing experience to listen to, full of images of time passing by and leading to existential loneliness and loss – but for that very reason it works so well. The vocal here is by Alan’s co-composer Eric Woolfson himself – his first lead vocal on an album – and he acquits himself beautifully, aided by the sublime backing vocals of Chris Rainbow. The old first side of vinyl closes with I Don’t Wanna Go Home, again sung by Zakatek, and it’s odd that this one wasn’t selected as a single, since it is arguably the most memorably commercial song on the album, and certainly more so than Games People Play or Time, according to my own earworm!

If that was a good side of music, the second half ups the ante and then some. The Gold Bug is a superb proggy instrumental (albeit with wordless vocals in the background from Chris Rainbow again). The title comes from an Edgar Alan Poe story, in a nod back to the first Project album, and although it isn’t specified or credited as such, I always seem to hear a nod toward Ennio Morricone’s The Ecstasy Of Gold in there. The APP always did like to put at least one instrumental on an album, and this is one of the best. After this comes the real delight for listeners of a prog persuasion, with the lengthy, five-part title ‘suite’, the first long-form Project track since The Fall Of The House Of Usher four years earlier, and taking its cards-and-gambling theme straight from Woolfson’s love of the casinos in Monte Carlo where the album was written before being recorded in Paris. The Turn Of A Friendly Card Part One, bookending the suite with Part Two, is a great opener, reflecting on life changing on the literal turn of a card, its haunting melody beautifully delivered by Chris Rainbow, who then turns on the metaphorical dime to sing the next part, the stridently funky rock of Snake Eyes, which is another real ‘earworm’, and succeeds perfectly as a standalone piece or as part of the overall whole equally well. Another instrumental, and another excellent proggy piece, Ace Of Swords, leads into the powerfully building ballad Nothing left To Lose, which is again sung by Woolfson, before Part Two of the title track brings things home with some great guitar from Ian Bairnson leading into a grandiose and stunning orchestrated conclusion. It’s a tremendous suite overall, and with The Gold Bug, perhaps the finest single side of vinyl that the Project ever produced. Seven bonus tracks in the form of demos, rough mixes and backing tracks (and an odd track featuring Chris Rainbow’s backing vocals for Nothing Left To Lose in isolation) round off the disc, but none are truly essential, and the real star of the disc is the album itself without doubt.

The APP, 1980. Photo by Lenny Zakatek

The second disc, like other APP deluxe reissues in this same series, features what are labelled as ‘Eric Woolfson’s Songwriting Diaries’ – and that is an entirely accurate description. Not reading music, Woolfson used to record himself for hours on end at the piano as he developed new pieces, as a way of ensuring he remembered exactly where he was up to when he returned to the song in question, and the 13 tracks here are selected from many hours of tape by his wife and daughter, Hazel and Sally. It’s certainly lo-fi and basic, but it is an extraordinarily candid and revealing look into the development of the songs, which are presented in the order of the album itself. Occasionally he will recite chord names to himself, or sing in a ‘la-la-la’ fashion to put down the pre-lyric melody, and it is as if you are standing behind him as he worked in his music room in Monte Carlo. Five unreleased songs close the disc, though these are in one or two cases scarcely ‘songs’ per se at that time, with only the odd snatch of words being completed (indeed, the first one is simply titled La La La Lah). The closest one in terms of being able to imagine a completed piece is the only one with a finalised lyric Taking It All Away, though the closing To Those Of You Out There has a beguiling melody which makes you wish the few completed lines of lyrics had been finished at least. It’s not a side which will be listened to repeatedly, obviously, but it is a rare and valuable look into the creative process of a man sadly no longer with us, and allows him to live on through the playing in a very striking way.

For the third side it is back to early demos and unused versions, which is a much more complete listen – though as with all such compilations, a patchy affair with some of far more interest than others. The early version of May Be A Price To Pay with an unused guitar solo and a Woolfson guide vocal (several tracks feature such a low-mixed Eric guide vocal as it happens) is one of the most interesting pieces here while the two early attempts at Ace Of Swords are also good, but the real gem is the version of Turn Of A Friendly Card Part Two, with a far longer, extended guitar solo from Ian Bairnson which was sadly truncated when the orchestral arrangement was added. Certainly one can see why the orchestral version got the nod, but it is a real shame that a way could not have been found to incorporate the whole of this rather impressive guitar solo into the final piece. Things are rounded out by three single edits, with the really interesting one being The Turn Of A Friendly Card, which edits together the two parts into one unified whole which works very well indeed.

The packaging of this set is beautiful, it has to be said. All based thematically around variations of the striking playing card/stained glass window image of the original (conceived by Godley and Creme incidentally, with the genesis of the idea being explained in the accompanying essay), the outer slipcase/box contains a full-size 70-page book, a poster, and another matching card-emblazoned foldout wallet holding the discs. The book is luxuriously illustrated, containing a new essay drawing on the recollections of Parsons extensively, and also full information not only on the original album tracks (credits, lyrics etc all present), but also a breakdown of the minutiae of the bonus material as well. The original album looked nice, but always lacked something without a gatefold sleeve, but such corner-cutting packaging is more than made up for here. The album still sounds great, but it has never ever looked better. Alan Parsons himself has had a big hand in this set, both in terms of design and remastering, as indeed has Sally Woolfson, and the care taken is clear to see and hear. This will sit proudly on your shelf for sure.