On Air

Alan Parsons

River North Records, 1996


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Long-time readers will know that I've often said the Alan Parsons Project is a band that never got their due share of fame when they were around. The two albums we've looked at so far, Pyramid and The Turn Of A Friendly Card, all intricately weave themes into the music without compromising the message or the music.

However, I also think that the Alan Parsons Project was just as much vocalist Eric Woolfson's as it was Parsons'. Parsons must have agreed; when Woolfson departed the band earlier this decade, it ceased being the "Project." And I do admit I miss hearing Woolfson's vocals -- might as well get the blunt honesty out of the way now.

But even without Woolfson, Parsons continues to make a strong case for his music. Now relegated to a smaller label, Parsons has sacrificed nothing in his music. This is probably why his most recent release, On Air, is so magical to listen to; it is the natural progression of his music while keeping intact his complete mastery of the recording studio.

Once again, a theme ties all the music together -- this time, the theme is flight, spurred on following the "friendly fire" death of guitarist Ian Bairnson's cousin in Iraq. (I gleam this information, incidentally, from Bummy's Parsonics page, a site I plan on checking out more when I'm not busy writing CD reviews.) The music provides a picture of man's rise and fall (no pun intended) in regards to his dreams of being able to soar with the birds.

From the opening notes of "Blue Blue Sky", man looks up and dreams of being able to break the bonds with earth. (The way the album returns to "Blue Blue Sky," featuring some beautiful guitar work from Bairnson, is a very smart move.) Following the roar of a jet through your living room (I highly suggest you listen to the first five or so minutes on a lower volume, lest you shake the building you live in; Parsons captures all the power of the jet's flyby and sonic boom.) The dream becomes a tragic reality as the myth of Icarus is put to music on "Too Close To The Sun," featuring a powerful lead vocal from Neil Lockwood.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

From the development of balloons which are, for the most part, out of human control ("Blown By The Wind") to dealing with people's fear of flying ("Can't Look Down"), Parsons and crew choose not to dwell on a history of aviation (this will be dealt with later on... keep reading for more details), but rather focus on the poetry of developments and modern-day situations. (Interspersed is "Cloudbreak," one of two instrumentals on On Air, and proof positive that Parsons and crew have lost nothing over the course of 20 years of creating music.)

The highlight piece on this album is "Brother Up In Heaven," Bairnson's tribute to his cousin. Unlike some of the other songs, the theme here is less on flight and more on dealing with the loss of a loved one and the process of grieving. (Sample lyric: "I still see his shadow / His laugh lingers on / When I dream, we're all back together / When I wake, he's gone." Ka-pow.

But now that humans have made it into the realm of soaring with the birds, Parsons looks at the natural progression of our thinking - thinking which led us into space. The instrumental "Apollo" serves as a mood-setting piece that brings things up to speed, leading the way to "So Far Away," another track that speaks of the dangers one faces when they defy gravity. Christopher Cross takes over the role of lead throat on this song, and voices it perfectly (with all due respect to Britons, I don't think anyone but an American could have sang a lyric about the Challenger disaster, only because it happened to us).

But while boundaries continue to be broken and experiments in flight occasionally still fail, man still finds himself dreaming about the next levels of flight, bringing the listener to "One Day To Fly". Not surprisingly, the song captures the dream that I think everyone at some stage in their lives: we all wish we could fly without the man-made gadgets and high-technology. With that, we are returned to the original dream, and "Blue Blue Sky".

While the Alan Parsons Project may be history, this could be one of the strongest albums from Parsons I've ever heard. He might play a lesser role in the band (providing keyboards to the songs), but his knowledge of the recording process and the studio is just as important a voice in the band. Had the band still been as popular as they were in the mid-'80s, On Air would be seen as a natural progression for Parsons and his band.

Adding to the delight (at least in America) is a bonus CD-ROM which challenges you to be Lewis & Clark, discovering your own way through the disc without a boring instruction manual. While I've not had the luxury to peruse this more than an hour, the CD-ROM (which you are warned not to play on your stereo... the disc says it could cause damage if played outside a CD-ROM drive) provides lyrics, pictures of more obscure aircraft, history of flight, and even FAQs about things like balloons and fear of flying. Don't pop this one in if you have to be somewhere soon.

On Air, had it been given the attention it deserved in 1996, could have been a groundbreaking album for Parsons and his band, featuring some of the best music they've put out (at least to my ears) since Eye In The Sky. (Admittedly, I'm working on re-reviewing their whole back catalog... give me time!) The strength of the songwriting and performances on this disc show that Parsons's career is far from grounded, and should soar again if given the clearance from fans and radio alike.

Rating: A-

User Rating: B


© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of River North Records, and is used for informational purposes only.