Poe Through The Glass Prism (1969)

In celebration of last Sunday’s 163rd anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe,  I thought it was about time I wrote something related to this great, mysterious and macabre author.

I cannot remember a time when Poe has not plagued my imagination and haunted the dark recesses of my sub-conscious.  His writing, and more particularly the mood of dread and foreboding that dripped from his pen, has over the decades coloured many a youthful mind – and for some, like myself, that crimson stain can never be erased.

Rather than write directly about one of Poe’s stories or poems I have decided to take a more oblique view of his work, through the music of The Glass Prism.  In fact this is a double celebration – one for Poe and one for me, I downloaded my first album of music last week and it was a suitably obscure album called Poe Through The Glass Prism.  I came across a vinyl copy of this album many years ago in a charity shop in Fareham, Hampshire (UK) and it has been on and off my turntable ever since.  I had occasionally tried to find a digital copy (CD or download), but to no avail, it has long been out of circulation – until now.

The album (which was released in 1969) has a slightly psychedelic sound and consists of a series of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems set to music.  I remember reading the album sleve, trying to gain some information about the band and the recording – all I discovered was that the songs were all credited to Varano, Christiano and Poe, and that the album was produced by Les Paul.  I later found out that Tom Varano (Guitar and Piano) and Augie Christiano (Bass guitar) where the main songwriters for a band which had quite a convoluted history.  They began in the early 60’s as the El Caminos and spent most of the decade playing gigs around the northeast USA and were popular enough to record a few songs at the Bell Sound Studios in New York.  They were eventually signed to RCA and decided to change their name to The Glass Prism to better suit the concept of the Poe orientated music they were writing.

Taking the words of some of Poe’s poems, Varano and Christiano moulded sounds which could only have been created in the 60’s and in America – that ended up as a very distinct piece of work.  Dominated by the organ sound of Carl Syracuse the songs are littered with piano, drums, electric guitar and bass.

The album begins with a majestic organ and piano led version of “The Raven“.  Not all the stanzas are used but the song encapsulates the brooding nature of the poem.  This was the single from the album and it’s epic nature makes it one of the stand-out tracks on the album.

The second track is a cheesey-funky version of the poem “To –” which has a great drum intro that trips into stabbing organ chords.  It is quite impressive to hear how the band managed to fit the music to the words in a way that it doesn’t sound at all awkward.  The lines are sung effortlessly with the arrangement, to such an extent that it is sometimes difficult after hearing the album to read the poems without singing the melody from the songs.

“To One In Paradise” has a dreamy quality, using a range of vocals and at one point a spoken word verse.  It ends with a classic 60’s organ sound. Another dreamy mood is evident in “Dream Within A Dream” which opens with a soft and slow tremolo effect on the electric guitar supported by a simple rhythm on the drums (Rick Richards) before the downbeat vocals and chiming organ enter the song.  Where “To One in Paradise” was more up tempo and playful in its dreamy arrangement “A Dream Within A Dream” is far more soporific and mournful in its delivery.  “Take this kiss upon the brow, and in parting from you now…” – 0f all the poems used this is probably the one I sing most readily when reading the original text.

With “Eldorado” we’re back to cheesey-funk and like many of the songs on this album it consists of a few chords repeated on the organ, which effectively makes the music pulsate, the other instruments and vocals providing interesting details.  This song was used as the b-side to “The Raven” but it could have been an A-side because it really grooves – you could almost imagine it on a 60’s TV pop show with a load of dancing-girls in brightly coloured mini-dresses.

Another standout track is provided by another standout poem – “The Conqueror Worm“.  Like “The Raven” it has a similarly repetitive but majestic organ and piano lead line which weaves throughout the song, but as always (and as it should be) it is the words, sung with real emphasis, which holds the piece together.

“The Happiest Day The Happiest Hour” is the closest we get to a classic 60’s freak-out.  A splurge from the guitar leads to a frenetic drum break propelling the songs to its conclusion, interspersed with short, slightly less manic moments, where the vocals come to the fore.  The following track, “Alone”, is similarly crazed – a piano and fuzzed lead guitar slowly emerge from the silence, emerging with dueling vocals and a crazed fuzzed bass line.  The quieter moments are like pools of calm sprinkled with twinkling piano and subtle organ.

Beloved” is guitar led and quite poppy.  It has an interesting arrangement and a great lead guitar break in the middle of the song, sounding not to dissimilar to a forgotten early track by Arthur Lee of Love.

The music on this album cannot escape the gloom inherent in Poe’s words and even the more pop-like or uptempo tracks remain plaintive.  The vocals on “Hymn” glide over the organ which uses the smooth and percussive effects, becoming a little jazzy to the end when the guitar comes in for support.

The album ends with “A Dream” – an up-tempo workout between the guitar, bass and drums, complete with chiming cow-bell.  It has the feel of a hit single but Poe scuppers any chance of it catching on with the opening line:- “In visions of the dark night, I have dreamed of joy departed”.

The Glass Prism released one more album (On Joy and Sorrow (1970)) which they wrote and recorded in a few days.  Then after a tour supporting Blood, Sweat and Tears failed to materialise they disbanded in 1971.  Tom Varano, Augie Christiano and Rick Richards then formed Shenandoah, which, as far as I know, did not get to release any of the songs they recorded at the time, although some may now be found on the band’s website.

Although not a lost classic, this album is a neglected gem and a wonderful period piece which has managed to maintained a cult following where many other albums have simply disappeared.

The band recently reformed and released a new album with a few of the old tracks re-recorded, although the newer versions in no way capture the quirky, atmospheric quality of the original album.

“Through a circle that ever returneth in to the self same spot” – I doubt that this will be my only entry on this blog about the eternal Edgar Allan Poe…

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