Procol Harum's eponymous debut was apparently rushed out to capitalize upon the success of their first single, the epochal classic A Whiter Shade Of Pale, but the songs never betray any undue haste, with each track being an inspired, fully fleshed out composition.
That infamous single is present on the album, albeit exclusively as a bonus track. While it's an incredible song that well deserves its legendary status, it baffles me why it's overshadowed the band's other work; the absurdity of the group's reputation as a one hit wonder is mystifying, as Procol Harum were one of the most consistently strong rock outfits in the industry, seemingly effortlessly generating multitudes of stellar art rock songs that were simultaneously complex and accessible, never once succumbing to self-indulgence or growing overly bombastic in their artistic pretensions.
The album is wholly bereft of filler, with each song constituting at the very least a minor classic. Their style largely adheres to the dynamics presented in A Whiter Shade Of Pale, namely classically influenced art rock numbers with uniformly brilliant hooks and melodies, not to mention some of the best lyrics to be found in the genre courtesy of the band's court lyricist Keith Reid.
The crux of the band's unique musical approach was its dual keyboard arrangements, with both vocalist/songwriter Brooker as well as Fisher assuming piano and organ responsibilities respectively. This sound was given a harder edge by Robin Trower's distorted guitar licks (though he's conspicuously absent on A Whiter Shade Of Pale as that magnum opus was recorded prior to his joining the group), while Reid contributed his excellent poetry skills to ensure that the songs were exceptional both lyrically and musically.
Standout tracks include the fantastic opener Conquistador which establishes the band's dual keyboard sound right from the beginning, the charming She Wandered Through The Garden Fence, the ominous Something Following Me, the album's heaviest number the menacing Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) complete with Trower's growling guitarwork and a stellar riff, the haunting A Christmas Camel and the LP's closer, the epic, cathartic instrumental Repent Walpurgis, not to mention the bonus track of the band's second single, the stately Homburg.
So as not to overpower one with their serious tone they inject a much needed dose of levity into the proceedings with the sloppy, hilarious Mabel which may sound incongruous on the album but ultimately works perfectly at providing a respite for the listener.
Elsewhere Kaleidoscope is a lesser track but still quite entertaining, with a faster pace than much of the other songs, Salad Days (Are Here Again) has an irresistible melody and Good Captain Clack is another whimsical number.
Throughout the album the band demonstrates their superb instrumental prowess, with Brooker and Fisher perfectly complementing one another on keyboards while Trower displays his impressive chops throughout (though his skills peak on Repent Walpurgis with his wall rattling solos that truly make the song).
The album is art rock at its finest, filled with creative ideas, a highly innovative style in their fusion of rock and classical and a plethora of stunning, unforgettable melodies. The music is imaginative and intelligent, with no analogs to be found in that era's music scene, and both the band's artistic side and conventional flair for rock melodies are represented with a perfect balance, never clashing with or undermining the other.
Procol Harum's debut is a simply incredible album, one of the best art rock records to this day. The band prove that they're capable of far more than a single, isolated hit, providing myriad songs on the same level as their timeless classic A Whiter Shade Of Pale. The notion that the band is a one hit wonder is patently ridiculous, and no one who's heard this album can walk away with that misguided impression.
On their second outing the band grow progressively more artistically ambitious, with the culmination of these pretensions manifesting themselves in the form of their most daring endeavor yet, the seventeen minute behemoth In Held Twas I. The precursor to the myriad multipart prog epics that would appear in subsequent years, from Supper's Ready to Tarkus to Close To The Edge to Thick As A Birck, it even predates the second side of Abbey Road. In this regard In Held Twas I can be perceived as a truly revolutionary undertaking, a trailblazing effort that can be seen as the genesis for all the best and worst excesses of the art and prog rock movements.
As for the actual quality of the song itself, while its merits may be overshadowed by its historical importance it remains a very good listen; while I could live without the spoken passages, the majority of the song's chapters boast strong melodies and impressive instrumentation, from its more conventional sections to its light circus interlude to its climax wherein Trower is unleashed in all his fury.
While it can be somewhat erratic, and may lack a sufficient number of musical ideas to sustain a song of its length, it's still a deft implementation of a difficult, adventurous concept, and in this respect can be seen as a resounding success.
Also, like many other songs of its nature it's compartmentalized into a number of melodically distinct sections, and as such it sometimes begs the question of whether or not it's necessary to compress these disparate fragments into a single song. In particular, the circus portion seems somewhat incongruous, and at times the segments seem to lack a unifying vision; nevertheless the chapters gel together reasonably well, and for a feat that had never been attempted before in the history of rock it's remarkable that it turned out as well as it did, and thus is a testament to the expansive talents of Procol Harum.
There's far more to the album than In Held Twas I, however. The shorter tracks shouldn't be eclipsed by the scope of the album's centerpiece, as in many departments they make for more entertaining listens than the somewhat bloated epic.
Quite Rightly So is highly catchy, and functions as a great opener, while Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) sounds like nothing else in the band's catalogue and makes for a fascinating departure from the usual style of the group. Wish Me Well features brilliant interplay between the keyboards and Trower's axe, while Rambling On is an amusing, if dark, anecdote.
Unfortunately Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) is rather bland, attempting to coast off the group's signature sound without adding anything of any discernable value or substance to it.
Such is not the case, however, with the album's best number, the hyper catchy title track complete with an irresistible and markedly unique refrain paired with a plethora of instrumental and vocal hooks.
Ultimately Shine On Brightly is quite an impressive affair; while it has a modicum of filler, and little on the album measures up to the standards of their brilliant debut, it's still another quality outing, and the band are to be commended for their pioneering efforts in attempting to take the form of music in bold new directions. While their experiments aren't always fully successful they still achieve predominantly positive results, and they never lose sight of the importance of more conventional fare as well, and thus the album is entertaining for both its innovative side and comparatively conservative side in equal measures.
Ergo while it certainly isn't up to the standards of the debut it's still quite a solid affair, and while the title track and In Held Twas I are at different ends of the musical spectrum they're both strong songs in their own right, and more importantly both equally valid expressions of the art rock genre.
A Salty Dog tends to be hardcore Procol Harum fans' selection for the band's best album, and it's easy to see why. The record is extremely ambitious, with the group even going so far as to employ an entire orchestra on two occasions, but their pretensions never come at the expense of strong songwriting and a multitude of hooks.
Furthermore this is another album on which Trower is able to demonstrate his considerable instrumental prowess; after sounding comparatively restrained of Shine On Brightly, on A Salty Dog he once again emerges as a key component of the band's sound (as he had on their debut). The interplay between Brooker's piano and Fisher's organ remains the foundation of nearly every track, but nevertheless Trower's guitar heroics prove themselves to be an integral part of the group's arrangements.
With regards to songwriting A Salty Dog is the band's most democratic album to date, as Brooker relinquishes his monopoly on composing the group's music in favor of allowing other members the chance to hone their songwriting acumen. While such a move has led many a group to disaster (such as in the case of Creedence Clearwater Revival's abysmal Mardis Gras), in this case it's a dangerous gambit that paid off in spades, as Fisher and Trower prove to be eminently gifted songwriters.
Beyond this Trower and Fisher are even permitted to sing their own songs, though Trower abstains from providing vocals for Juicy John Pink, delegating this task to Brooker, and thus the only instance of his singing on the album is on the bluesy Crucifiction Lane; nonetheless even this is a shocking decision, as Trower never supplied vocals for his subsequent solo outings, always recruiting others to assume responsibility for the singing.
Trower provides two compositions, the first being a heavy hardcore bluesfest Juicy John Pink, which sounds nothing like a Procol Harum song and is thus a unique entry in their catalogue, impeccably performed by Trower who's securely in his element on that track. The second is the (likewise bluesy) Crucifiction Lane; one must assume that Trower was profoundly uncomfortable with his singing voice given that this was one of the lone instances in his career on which he'd assume lead vocals, but while he's hardly blessed with an angelic voice his vocals are certainly suited to this track, and the final effect is a greatly positive one.
Fisher contributes three songs to the album proper as well as one bonus track (though admittedly one of the three, along with said bonus track, were co-authored with Brooker); he tackles lead vocals on the three album tracks, unveiling a strong, confident singing voice that perfectly matches his material. From the pretty Boredom to the closer Pilgrim's Progress (complete with an effective, if brief, coda that's a great note to end the album on), Fisher proves himself to be a supremely talented composer.
His true moment of glory, however, is on the brilliant epic Wreck Of The Hesperus, a true masterpiece on which the band is backed by an orchestra whose arrangements are the perfect blueprints for how to integrate an orchestra into a song without sounding too pompous, bombastic or bloated. Fisher's vocals match the track exceptionally well, resulting in an art rock classic.
Brooker's hardly a slouch when it comes to his material, however. The title track also incorporates an orchestra into the mix, though on this occasion the band abstains from any musical involvement in the track, delegating the arrangement exclusively to the orchestra. The song is a well beloved classic, and quite rightly so. Combining stellar vocals from Brooker with a deft, immaculate orchestral treatment, the song ranks amongst the band's best, with superb vocal melodies and one of the best uses of an orchestra in the realm of rock music. As always Reid's imagery is fantastic and fits the music perfectly, made all the more potent by Brooker's emotional delivery, and accordingly the song is a deeply moving experience and another example of the band's pioneering efforts on the art rock scene.
Meanwhile The Milk Of Human Kindness is extremely catchy, enhanced by Trower's inspired guitar tone, while Too Much Between Us is minimalistic beauty at its finest. The Devil Came From Kansas is another highlight, with clever lyrics and an unforgettable refrain, while All This And More likewise boasts a great melody. The album's bonus track, Long Gone Geek, is an energetic rocker of the kind that was sorely lacking on the record, thus rendering it a worthy addition to the LP.
Thus A Salty Dog is another masterpiece from one of the greatest art rock outfits in history. While it's debatable if it's the band's finest hour, it's undeniably a consummately strong outing; Reid's brilliant poetry on each track remains a huge asset for the group, while the melodies are universally fantastic.
Additionally both Trower and, especially, Fisher emerge as strong creative forces within the group, thus ameliorating the already superb songwriting situation by enabling Brooker to defer to his bandmates on occasion.
Ultimately debating whether or not the album's superior to their debut is irrelevant; they're both timeless classics, depicting the same strengths of the band. One factor that's likely a prominent cause of A Salty Dog frequently being rated above the eponymous debut is that it feel like a more serious effort, with no respites to dilute the album's uniformly serious tone such as Mabel or Shine On Brightly's Rambling On. I'm rather partial to these whimsical interludes so I would hardly label them as a liability, but A Salty Dog doesn't suffer from their conspicuous absence.
What truly matters is that A Salty Dog is a masterful effort from the band, bereft of filler with myriad classic numbers. Each member is given the chance to shine both creatively and instrumentally, and the resurgence of Trower's guitarwork as an integral part of the band's sound only serves to augment an already strong product.
The recording of Home was preceded by two withdrawals from the band, and while losing their bassist was hardly a calamity the departure of Fisher was a severe blow to the group. Fisher had always been a pivotal figure in the group, as the interplay between his organ and Brooker's piano was the foundation upon which the band's sound was based. The dual keyboard onslaught was the defining feature of the band's idiosyncratic musical identity, and thus the loss of this component of their sound irrevocably changed the very complexion of the group.
Furthermore, while these departures left the group with two vacancies they opted to recruit only a single new member, Chris Copping, delegating both the responsibilities of a bassist and a keyboardist to him; as this was a somewhat overwhelming tasking, invariably the work of an organist was neglected in favor of focusing on basswork, thus utterly failing to recapture the band's classic sound.
As a result of this reconfiguration Trower assumed a far more prominent position in the band, while the interplay between his guitar and Brooker's piano became the new chief dynamic of the band's sound. Trower was certainly more than capable of assuming a role of higher stature in the group, and thus his brilliant guitarwork became central to the band's musical identity.
Trower's newfound importance in the band also resulted in tracks like the opener, Whisky Train, a furious riff rocker he composed on which he unleashes his guitar pyrotechnics in full force. The track is far heavier than anything the band had previously performed, and was a true sign of the paradigm shift the band had undergone, with Fisher's departure operating as the chief catalyst of this musical revolution within the group's lineup. Trower also contributed the song About To Die, another hard rocker endemic of the band's new style.
Trower had hardly achieved total domination of the band's sound, however, as Brooker still functioned as the primary songwriter. While the bulk of the tracks aren't up to par with the group's previous work the songs are hardly weak, with tracks like the black comedy of Still There'll Be More and the savage Piggy Pig Pig on the album demonstrating that the loss of Fisher was hardly an insurmountable one.
Even Brooker's compositions are still profoundly affected by Trower's ubiquitous presence. Hence the prog-inspired epic Whaling Stories is most notable for Trower's furious guitarwork that recalls his jamming on Repent Walpurgis, while tracks like the aforementioned Piggy Pig Pig are given a much harder edge thanks to his vicious guitarwork.
The album itself is rather bleak and morbid in nature; it seemed that Reid had been consumed by an obsession with death, leading to lyrically macabre tracks like About To Die and The Dead Man's Dream. Even the songs without death mentioned explicitly in their titles tend to gravitate in that direction such as the despairing Barnyard Story, an inexplicable lyrical trend that transfigures the whole album into one massive dirge.
Overall Home is quite a solid outing. The band adjusts to Fisher's departure far more quickly and effectively than one would dare to hope, and the increased importance of Trower leads to a new sound that acts as a suitable replacement to the group's classic dual keyboard arrangements.
While the songwriting suffers a bit when compared to albums like the debut and A Salty Dog, the tracks are still universally strong, if a tad weaker than the material that preceded them. As the band was incapable of reproducing their old style it's the songs that eschew the old musical dynamics that succeed the most, such as the album's standout classic Whisky Train. While rather incompatible with the band's old identity, the track is indicative of the group's capacity to adapt to the startling changes they had to endure. It was Trower who led them in a new direction in order to survive their losses, and thus it's the tracks centered around his guitarwork that ultimately work best.
Thus the band persevered as best as they could without Fisher, and the result is a very strong product. The relentless gloom of its lyrics can be somewhat off-putting to some, as their lack of subtlety is astounding, but I feel Reid's tenebrous poetry works quite well in this context, even acting as something akin to a unifying theme. The melodies are generally inferior to the band's earlier work, but they're still quite strong, it's merely that few tracks attain the status of classics.
Ergo the album is another artistic triumph from the group and an amazing recovery from a situation that could conceivably have ended the band. Reinvigorated with a new sound the group sounds very powerful, and while some will bemoan the loss of the old sound (which is quite understandable) the band is still to be commended for compensating for their losses with such rapidity. Home may not be a masterpiece but it's still a very strong product, boasting typically great Reid lyrics (albeit mired in grotesquery, yet still great), uniformly solid melodies and superb guitarwork from Trower. The album is simply highly entertaining, and remains a must have for all Procol Harum fans who are willing to embrace a product that deviates from the band's classic formula.
Broken Barricades represents the pinnacle of Trower's dominance over the band, as he transfigures this once generally tame art rock group into a hard rock outfit. While he had risen to prominence on Home, on this outing his guitarwork often eclipses even the band's signature keyboard driven sound.
While he only pens three tracks, Trower's heavy riffage and soloing are ubiquitous on the album, an integral facet of the record's sound. Thus a hard edge is engendered in nearly every track, drastically altering the musical identity the band had cultivated over the years.
The metamorphosis the group had undergone is apparent right from the beginning with perhaps the band's heaviest number, the riff rocker Simple Sister. In addition to boasting a stellar riff it contains brilliant guitar/keyboard interplay during the instrumental breaks, and Brooker has already learned how to adapt his vocals to this heavier context. While the song's authorship is attributed to Brooker, there's no doubt that Trower is the true star of the track.
The other rockers, all credited to Trower, are uniformly strong as well. Memorial Drive sports another great riff, while Poor Mohammed ends the album on a high note. Yet more intriguing, however, is the Trower composed Song For A Dreamer, a far less typical song for the usually aggressive guitarist. The track features disarming, soothing guitar licks employing a guitar tone that recalls Hendrix at his most gentle. While not as effective as his rockers, Song For A Dreamer depicts Trower in fine form, proving his versatility and infusing a measure of diversity into the proceedings.
With Simple Sister acting as an anomaly, the remaining Brooker compositions are more grounded in the band's usual style, but unfortunately not always to good effect. Power Failure and Playmate Of The Mouth are both terrific, sporting catchy, memorable melodies and myriad clever hooks, but his other contributions are somewhat lacking. Thus the title track revolves around a synth loop but has little in the way of substance to offer, and said synth loop is a poor substitute for Brooker's usually exceptional keyboard playing. Elsewhere Luskus Delph is pretty but ultimately rather bland and forgettable, with nothing in the way of musical value to truly make it come alive.
Nevertheless Broken Barricades is an excellent album. Trower's offerings are universally strong, and while Brooker has a few missteps the majority of his contributions adhere to a very high level of quality. Trower's ascension in the band's hierarchy results in a product quite unlike anything else the group was responsible for, and amazingly the ensuing hard rock dynamics fit the band exceedingly well.
While this incarnation of the band was rather abruptly aborted, as Trower left the band shortly after the album's release, Broken Barricades remains a compelling listen, depicting a highly unique chapter in the group's history. The band is hardly unrecognizable, as the group's core values remained intact, but nearly the entire album passes through a heavier filter, resulting in a fascinating departure from the band's norm.
This isn't to say that Broken Barricades is only worthwhile for the novelty value of an art rock group tackling heavy metal. It remains an excellent listen, boasting strong songwriting and impeccable performances, not to mention the band's best guitarwork ever captured on tape. While the album is highly intriguing as a historical curiosity, it's its creative melodies and clever arrangements that give it true value.
Due to Procol Harum's lamentable obscurity, many of the rock and roll milestones that they achieved are either ignored or erroneously attributed to subsequent, more high profile rock outfits. Ergo few know that Brooker and company were the first art rock group to pen a side-long epic, yet In Held 'Twas In I beat the likes of ELP's Tarkus to the punch. Furthermore most would be more apt to credit prog acts such as Jethro Tull with the earliest fusions of rock and classical music, even though A Whiter Shade Of Pale predates tracks like Bouree in that area.
Another rock and roll first for Procol Harum that few acknowledge is the first ever instance of a rock group working with a full-fledged orchestra. Long before extraneous orchestral segues were corrupting the Moody Blues' seminal album Days Of Future Past, Gary Brooker was adroitly composing orchestral arrangements to be skillfully married to his group's oeuvre.
It's unsurprising that Procol Harum's material would be conducive to a full orchestral treatment; the band had always derived much of their influences from classical music, enabling lush arrangements to perfectly complement their classically inspired output.
Thus, as expected, tracks like the already brilliant Conquistador are given new life through the introduction of an orchestral treatment, as lush string arrangements gel perfectly with Brooker's vocal melodies and one-time-only member Dave Ball's impressive guitarwork, transfiguring what was once 'only' a great rock song into an unparalleled aural event with few analogs in rock and roll history.
This track reveals the limitless potential of this band/orchestra collaboration, but sadly the final product fails to live up to this innate boundless promise. It's been asserted that Brooker rushed through the process of penning the concert's arrangements, with some even alleging that he composed the orchestral score during his plane ride to the performance.
This might be mildly hyperbolic, but it is a fact that Brooker was forced to rush through these compositions, leaving only a modicum of time for rehearsals. This caused Brooker to take short cuts, and some egregious ones at that; A Salty Dog is featured on the set-list despite the fact that the studio version already employed an orchestra, leaving two products that are virtually indistinguishable from each other.
This is a minor transgression that could be overlooked under other circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that there are only five tracks on the album (with a bonus sixth on the reissue), and thus devoting that much space to a number that brings nothing new to the table is unforgivable, no matter how exceptional a song it is.
There were certainly some questionable thought processes at work when it came to what merited inclusion at the concert. All This And More particularly seems like an arbitrary selection, as it's a solid but unremarkable track that benefits little from the orchestral treatment. The song isn't altered in any meaningful ways, rendering it a dubious candidate to be handpicked by Brooker for orchestral immortality. In this context it sounds like pleasant filler on an album that can't afford to waste time on anything even remotely resembling filler.
Whaling Stories, however, was a sagacious selection, as it's helped immeasurably by its fuller arrangement, instilling a sense of epic grandeur that the studio cut was sorely lacking. It's still not a top tier Procol Harum song, and I wouldn't call this reinvigoration, no matter how impressive, a revelation of any sort, but it's always a welcome experience to hear an old track given new life.
The set proper ends with In Held 'Twas In I in its entirety, another questionable decision if a predictable one. While it's intriguing to hear the song backed by intricate arrangements it doesn't constitute the spectacular climax that the album needed, and in the end it's another track choice that illustrates quite how conservative Brooker's proposed set-list was.
For reasons unknown the band simply didn't take enough chances when determining their song selection, relying on proven commodities like the already orchestral A Salty Dog in favor of more risky ventures like orchestral treatments of classics like Whiskey Train or Simple Sister. Brooker chose the songs that he already knew would be safe bets in this scenario, abstaining from any real risks, and the result is a solid but ultimately underwhelming experience that had the potential to be so much more.
Thus the album can only really be recommended for diehard Procol Harum fans, an entertaining listen that fails to take full advantage of its unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This cut of Conquistador is fantastic, Whaling Stories is vastly improved and the remaining tracks all have something to offer (if nothing 'new' to offer in the case of A Salty Dog, and very little in the case of the bonus cut Luskus Delph), but the album is still by no means indispensable, a unique experience that isn't quite as unique as it should be.
After Broken Barricades Trower left the band for undisclosed reasons; while this might have been only a mild setback for the group in their early days, wherein Trower was generally only called upon to provide embellishments for keyboard oriented tracks, by this point he had become firmly entrenched as an integral part of the band's sound and a creative force nearly on par with Brooker himself. Thus in the wake of his departure the band was forced to reinvent themselves yet again, just as they were impelled to do after Fisher left.
Their first step was filling the gaping vacancy left by Trower; to this end they recruited Grabham, a competent substitute who is afforded few opportunities throughout the album to prove himself an adequate replacement for his predecessor. Given that the loss of Trower was a catalyst for another musical paradigm shift, naturally one with less of a guitar emphasis than when Trower led the group, it's understandable that Grabham is never the focal point of the songs, granted only a modicum of space on the album to demonstrate his instrumental chops.
Additionally, the band signed a new bassist, Cartwright, thus allowing Copping to devote all of his attention to his duties as organist. Thus the dual keyboard dynamic has been restored, but don't expect this to be indicative of the band returning to their classic sound. In its own ways, Grand Hotel is as far removed from A Salty Dog as Broken Barricades is; without Trower Procol Harum had to greatly rethink their musical approach, and the ultimate product of these deliberations is a wholly new direction for the group, one that not only fails to sound like the band but likewise fails to sound like anything else before or since in the world of rock.
Grand Hotel is an album of indescribable lushness, a refined, sophisticated product evocative of, as is explicitly the case in the title track, grand ballroom dances and patrician decadence. This lushness is unequaled in any of the band's prior or subsequent endeavors, and truly differentiates it from any other Procol Harum product.
Furthermore the songwriting is nearly universally excellent. T.V. Caesar is gruesomely overlong, but it still hardly merits the vitriolic invective it's all too often the recipient of. The melody may be primitive, and the anti-T.V. lyrics are a tad on the heavy-handed side, but it still has its charms; it simply lacks anywhere near enough substance to sustain a six minute song.
Every other track is great, however. The title track marries a rich, lush arrangement to lyrics portraying high society soirees and elegant gatherings. It sports a great melody that fluidly shifts its style to accommodate each section on the song, often leading the music into passages emulating various dances and classical influences.
Elsewhere Toujours L'Amour is an angry, bitter tale of lost love complete with catchy vocal melodies, while A Rum Tale depicts a descent into alcoholism (albeit with a sense of humor). A Souvenir Of London is a whimsical account of a man who's contracted venereal disease with a suitably catchy beat, while Bringing Home The Bacon proves that the band was capable of rocking even without the guiding presence of Robin Trower. For Liquorice John is a dark, despairing, brooding song with a highly effective minimalist treatment, while Robert's Box is a jolly narcotics anthem.
The album's true masterpiece, however, is the stunning Fires (Which Burnt Brightly), a haunting track built around an incredible piano line with brilliant usage of female backup singers (which is saying a lot, as the concept of female backup singers is generally anathema to me). Brooker has a certain majesty in his voice, perfectly suiting Reid's tenebrous lyrics.
Thus Grand Hotel is an incredible album that manages to be consummately lush without sounding pompous or bloated. Despite its ambitions it never feels pretentious, and this lushness never comes at the expense of hooks or melodies. Brooker proves that he can still produce an excellent album without any assistance in the songwriting department, composing each song himself just as he had on their debut (though admittedly on their debut there were several instances of co-authors).
Normally a rock artist who had achieved such a powerful, unique sound would be content to merely coast on the atmosphere alone, but Procol Harum match this incredible soundscape with equally impressive songwriting and performances. Rather than dilute the hooks, the sound serves to compound the potency of each melody, drenching them in elegant coats of aural splendor.
This all serves to create a true masterpiece, a record on a similar level with A Salty Dog and their debut. The band weathers the loss of Trower without his absence detracting from the experience. Had the band attempted to work in their old style Trower's departure would certainly have marred the proceedings, but instead they brilliantly work around his desertion, crafting a new sound that's perfectly designed to never expose their newfound weakness. Grand Hotel is orchestrated in such a way that the listener will scarcely notice the lack of Trower, adding new dynamics to the band that fill every gap in which he would once have been featured.
Ergo Grand Hotel is yet more brilliance from the highly consistent group. While another album in this style may have proved excessive, Grand Hotel is a complete artistic triumph, as Brooker once again takes the reins of the band to lead them to greatness.
While recorded a mere year after Grand Hotel, and with no more alterations made to the group's lineup, Exotic Birds And Fruit sounds nothing like its predecessor. Brooker explicitly said, verbatim, "Hey, we've done enough orchestral crap. Let's get back to playing more like a band!" and the import of this statement is reflected in nearly every aspect of the album's sound.
Procol Harum actually sound like a real rock band again, often performing comparatively straightforward tracks wholly divorced from any classical connotations. To this end Grabham emerges as a far more significant figure on this album than he had in the past, leading to the type of guitar driven rock and pop that was wholly absent on their previous album.
What ultimately matters, however, is that the songwriting remains strong. While the band's style may have changed once again, what hasn't changed is Brooker's penchant for conjuring catchy hooks and melodies. His facility for composing memorable music hasn't been diluted or diminished by the group's newfound creative approach, leading to more high quality material from the band.
Despite the metamorphosis that the band has undergone, the classic Procol Harum vibe is still preserved; while the songs may be conventional by the group's standards, it could hardly be mistaken for the work of one of their contemporaries. The album is still imbued with a layer of artistry and intelligence that most bands sorely lack, and the melodies are far more idiosyncratic than the norm in their genre. While few tracks are as defiantly inaccessible as The Thin End Of The Wedge (which sounds more akin to a Gentle Giant number than a Procol Harum offering yet, for all its challenging qualities, remains a good song), the album is hardly mainstream, and the band can't be accused of selling out by any means.
The album is somewhat imbalanced; it's not a case of a strong side and a weak side, as there are no bad songs on the record, it's simply that the first four songs are spectacular and the subsequent tracks can't hope to sustain this level of brilliance. The group would have been wise to intersperse these tracks with some of the lesser numbers, as the ultimate effect simply leads the listener to disappointment despite the merits of the remaining songs.
The album starts out with an adrenaline rush courtesy of the hyper catchy riff rocker Nothing But The Truth, an irresistible song with such momentum that the listener can't help but be caught up in it. From there Beyond The Pale will seize the listener with its imaginative, unconventional hooks, leading into one of the group's finest moments, the indescribably beautiful As Strong As Samson with its catharsis inducing melody.
Nearly any song would be a letdown after this magnum opus, but such is not the case with the incredible dark, atmospheric The Idol, with a coda that's one of those rare moments of rock perfection with its brilliant blend of Brooker's haunting and despairing vocals and Grabham's stellar guitarwork.
While the subsequent tracks fail to ascend to the same heights as these openers, each song still has something worthwhile to offer. With regards to the aforementioned The Thin End Of The Wedge, while it may seem like a mere experimental curiosity it turns out to be somewhat charming in its own eccentric way. Elsewhere the band dusts off an old outtake, Monsieur R. Monde, converting it into an extremely catchy and enjoyable rocker. Fresh Fruit is a whimsical pop song that may be silly and slight but is still likeable in its simplicity and with its humorous lyrics. Butterfly Boys is a lesser tune but still a catchy enough affair, and while New Lamps For Old isn't the majestic closer the band was trying for it remains an otherwise solid number.
The reissue adds a bonus track, the infectious alcoholic anthem Drunk Again; it's not really suited to ending an album of this nature, but it's still quite entertaining, even if the theme of inebriation was better handled on Grand Hotel's A Rum Tale.
Ultimately Exotic Birds And Fruit is yet another classic from the band. It's not quite consistent enough for the highest grade (were each track up to the standards of the first four then it would easily achieve the top ranking), but there's certainly no filler, merely the occasional good track as opposed to a great one. The melodies are universally brilliant, and it's on this album that Grabham truly comes into his own as a vital member of the band.
While it may seem jarring to hear Procol Harum attempting to sound like a more conventional rock group, by no means do they ever sound as if they're on the verge of growing mundane, derivative or prosaic. The band's unique identity is sustained throughout, and is actually quite conducive to this more traditional approach.
Thus the album is another artistic triumph, boasting some of the best material the band's ever penned alongside a plethora of strong tracks. It's too much to expect every track to be on the level of As Strong As Samson or The Idol, and the album is certainly of sufficiently high quality that it should leave every listener fully satisfied.
On Procol's Ninth (ninth because, oddly enough, they factor their live album into the equation) the band recruited Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce their record, ample proof that the band's poor sales had driven them to the very brink of desperation. Sure enough, this mystifying production decision was accompanied by a radical change in the band's sound, in this case an embracement of an r & b pop sensibility.
The band handle this style well enough, which is predictable given that the genre used to be the domain of Brooker's erstwhile rock outfit the Paramounts, but no matter how adroitly they manage this form of music it doesn't change the fact that it's wholly incompatible with everything that gave the group their identity, as they plummet from being one of the most unique art rock groups to purveyors of generic r & b.
There's one instance in which the band rekindles their old magic and, unsurprisingly, it's on an outtake from their debut, the excellent opener Pandora's Box. Without the presence of this number on the album it truly would have been impossible to distinguish Procol Harum from any number of nondescript r & b groups, though the track's strength makes the subsequent qualitative deterioration all the more depressing and frustrating.
The r & b pop material is far from bad, but there's simply very little compelling about it. It lacks any personality or individuality to differentiate it from other entries in the genre, and it lacks everything that made the group special in the first place. While I can respect the merits of tracks like Fool's Gold and The Pipers Tune they fail to engage me to any noticeable degree, perfectly adequate but all too far from greatness.
In their ultimately futile quest for sales Procol Harum even went so far as to include two covers, an actual Leiber and Stoller song entitled I Keep Forgetting along with the Beatles' hit Eight Days A Week. The latter especially is a truly surreal experience, as the band neither deconstructs it nor personalizes it, opting instead to deliver a perfectly faithful rendition that's likely of no value to anyone whatsoever, be they Beatles fans or Procol Harum fans.
Ultimately Procol's Ninth is a fair enough outing, with fully competent r & b performances and decent songwriting courtesy of Brooker. It simply isn't a product that one would want from the band, however, as this return-to-their-roots approach ended up as a regression to before the group had developed any of the traits that made them a unique and interesting band. The Paramounts had hardly ever attained greatness, and thus reviving their style simply served to narrow the scope of the band as opposed to resurrecting old skills and talents. There was nothing worthwhile to salvage from the remains of that band, and by embracing it they lost everything they had achieved since the inception of Procol Harum.
After Procol's Ninth, the band continued to suffer from their chronic revolving door syndrome; this time this affliction manifested itself in the form of a departing Alan Cartwright, which thereby caused Copping to once more be exclusively relegated to his erstwhile station of bassist. To compensate for the new keyboard vacancy Solley was recruited though, most regrettably, he opted to employ synthesizers as opposed to the band's usual organ. This decision couldn't help but mar the album, as it ravages the classic, pristine Procol Harum sound in favor of the sterile trappings of generic late seventies synth pop.
While this may have been an attempt to modernize the band's sound it resoundingly fails at this endeavor, though in truth any plan to adapt the group to a new historical context was an exercise in futility. In 1977 punk rock was the dominant musical force, thus condemning all art rock and prog rock bands to be branded as pretentious dinosaurs, irrevocably consigning them to the realm of popular and critical distaste.
Perplexingly enough, despite this contemporaneous music scene the band decided to return to their more artistic side as opposed to the r & b pop of Procol's Ninth. After their failed attempt at mainstream success the group aborted this musical trend in favor of a resurgence of their more ambitious ways, which was tantamount to commercial suicide in the heyday of the punk movement.
Perhaps the group realized that any more drastic modifications to their classic formula would, from a sales perspective, be in vain, merely serving to alienate the last remnants of their fan base. Thus, aside from the synthesizers, Something Magic is an attempt to restore the band's past glory; unfortunately this goal was about as plausible as a modernized commercial breakthrough, as the band, at this stage of their careers, were hardly in their prime, and thus incapable of reaching their heights of old.
Ergo it's telling that the album's best song, the uncompromising heavy riff rocker The Mark Of The Claw, is penned by Grabham as opposed to Brooker, as the latter's facility for songwriting had been deteriorating for quite some time.
This isn't to say that Brooker's contributions are universally poor, however; while the title track, a medley of classical influence that fail to cohere into anything of value, is certainly a rather pronounced misfire, his remaining work on side one is quite strong for this late phase of the band.
Skating On Thin Ice is very pretty, though it pales in comparison to the devastating beauty of Strangers In Space, a moving piece that's truly evocative of the drifting isolation alluded to in the title. Elsewhere Wizard Man (which, despite being a bonus track, arrives around midway through the first side of the album) is a rather incongruous pop number, but it's decent enough for what it is and infuses at least a modicum of levity into the proceedings.
Thus side one of the album is pretty good for late period Procol Harum, but side two is another story entirely. For the first time since In Held Twas I Brooker penned a side long composition, the eighteen minute behemoth The Worm & The Tree. This suite is vastly inferior to their first venture of this kind, a desultory mishmash of classical elements hastily grafted together in the misguided hope that it will pass for art. To further exacerbate it, Brooker recites the pretentious lyrics as opposed to singing them, thus ensuring that there'll be no strong vocal melodies to compensate for the tedious meanderings of the music. The track isn't entirely devoid of merit, as the occasional musical passage can be decent enough, but as a whole it's a monotonous, unrewarding experience, featuring some of the band's weakest music coupled with what are likely the worst lyrics Reid ever penned for the band (in this case a banal fable with precious little to redeem it).
Thus this bipolar condition makes it difficult to assess the worth of the album. Side one is moderately successful, with the great rocker The Mark Of The Claw, the mildly catchy Wizard Man and the pair of moving ballads Skating On Thin Ice and, especially, Strangers In Space, but the entire experience is severely marred by the pompous self-indulgence of side two. The Worm And The Tree is a consummate waste of space, an attempt at artistry that falls flat on its face and thus seriously detracts from the overall album. Nevertheless the merits of side one elevate the album, in spite of this effluvia, to the position of at least somewhat decent, and on the basis of side one alone the record can be recommended to fans of the group.
The group disbanded shortly after the release of the album, and it took a whole fourteen years for the nostalgia/opportunity to cash in to motivate the members to reconvene. This sabbatical was certainly a very good idea, as if Something Magic was indicative of the direction of the band it was wise to avert this calamity and go out on an at least halfway decent note. Something Magic isn't the ideal swansong, but it at least showcases enough of the band's strengths to make it an appropriate end to their lengthy career.
In the intervening years between Something Magic and this misbegotten reunion drummer BJ Wilson met his demise; whether the band reformed as a tribute to their fallen comrade or they were motivated by mere avarice is unknown, but at any rate, after a fourteen year hiatus Procol Harum returned to the studio to record a brand new album.
This incarnation of the band is comprised of the original pillars of the group, namely Brooker, Reid, Fisher and Trower. It had been decades since that particular lineup had assembled as, save for Wilson, this was the very original configuration of the group, one that many had assumed would never rise again.
No replacement for Wilson was recruited, as the band opted to rely on session musicians and drum machines to compensate for their departed friend's absence. The session musicians are competent but thoroughly unspectacular, while the drum machines are representative of the myriad flaws inherent to this reunion.
As attractive as the prospect of a reformation of the classic Procol Harum lineup sounds, it works far better in theory than in practice. Some of the bandmembers are hardly utilized to their fullest; Fisher's organ is often conspicuously absent, and when he is active his keyboard work tends to be scarcely audible, buried low in the mix. Meanwhile Trower sounds completely uninspired and unmotivated, betraying little in the way of his virtuoso skills. He could be replaced by a far less gifted, generic hard rock guitarist and it would likely make little difference in the quality of the album.
Elsewhere Reid's lyrics are a far cry from his early poetic brilliance, while Brooker, though his vocals have aged rather well, composed music that's completely unworthy of the Procol Harum name, material that in no way reflects what was special and different about the group.
The vast majority of the album sounds like adult contemporary at its blandest and most grating, content that fails to be even remotely reminiscent of the band's classic work. His departures from this style fare little better, with the occasional flaccid rocker and tepid pop song. Even Trower can't salvage the rockers, if anything exacerbating their quality with his rudimentary solos and riffage.
It is possible to name highlights, such as the opener The Truth Won't Fade Away and the closer The Pursuit Of Happiness, but these are only highlights in relative terms, as they'd be woefully inadequate were they to be placed on a classic Procol Harum album.
Ultimately the album is simply abysmal, an ill conceived reunion that effectively tramples on the band's legacy. These noxious adult contemporary tracks offer nothing save grief and frustration for fans of the band, while the band is hardly apt to attract a new audience at this stage of their careers.
In the end The Prodigal Stranger can only be recommended for obsessive completists. It can't even be recommended for diehard Procol Harum fans, as this insipid material will likely scar them the most. The album has nothing that could appeal to hardcore followers of the group, and is certainly one of the most disappointing reunions in rock and roll history.
After the debacle that was The Prodigal Stranger one would have assumed that Brooker and company had irrevocably retired the moniker of Procol Harum. Such was not the case, however, as a full twelve years after that abysmal catastrophe the group reemerged onto the music scene once again, recording their eleventh studio album in what was presumably an attempt to redeem the band's tainted legacy, dispelling the stigma of their atrocious comeback album.
Whether or not the group can even be said to legitimately constitute Procol Harum is also open for debate. Unlike the full fledged reunion that yielded The Prodigal Stranger, as far as erstwhile band members go The Well's On Fire only features Brooker, Fisher and Reid, and thus can't be said to be a comprehensive reformation. The group could just as easily have eschewed their classic group nomenclature and touted themselves as Brooker and Fisher, and perhaps that would have been more apt as once again the album fails to sound like a classic Procol Harum album.
Ultimately I'm glad that Brooker reinstated the band's name, however, as The Well's On Fire makes for a far better swansong than their wretched first comeback album. It may not sound like a true Procol Harum record, but it's certainly vastly superior to The Prodigal Stranger, boasting an impressive set of catchy hooks and memorable melodies, not to mention faring far better in the arrangement department as the LP is bereft of synthesizers, once more relying on Brooker's piano and Fisher's organ to provide the music.
Thus the album lacks all of the noxious attempts to modernize the band's sound contained on their last album, with a very welcome return to the classic dual keyboard dynamic. With pianos and organs replacing grating synthesizers the integrity of the band's sound is restored, creating an atmosphere far more conducive to the brand of music featured on the album.
The Well's On Fire is far from perfect; it contains a number of slower songs that invariably turn out to be bland and banal, such as the tedious lethargy of The Blink Of An Eye and the enervated, hookless This World Is Rich. While not offensive these songs are certainly of the boredom inducing variety, a rarity for a songwriter of the stature of Gary Brooker.
The album's myriad highlights compensate for these defects, however; Shadow Boxed is a hyper catchy tune built around a synth loop, with far better results than when that method was applied on Broker Barricades, while An Old English Dream is imbued with a sort of majesty that used to come effortlessly to the group but was now a scarce commodity on Procol Harum albums. Elsewhere Wall Street Blues and Every Dog Will Have His Day rock far more convincingly than the defanged attempts at heaviness on The Prodigal Stranger, while The Question is a moody Fisher penned track that's representative of the album's democratic approach when it comes to songwriting.
Fisher's most ambitious endeavor on the album, however, is the instrumental Weisselklenzenacht, an attempt at crafting a piece of the depth and beauty of his classic Procol Harum output. While as an instrumental it certainly fails to measure up to masterpieces like Repent Walpurgis, it's admirable that Fisher made a concerted attempt to once more ascend to those dizzying heights, and while it may not be the best track on the album it's certainly a worthwhile presence on the record as something unique and different.
The Well's On Fire's best track, though, is the menacing rocker The VIP Room. Built upon a powerful, ominous piano riff and sporting great vocals from Brooker, the song hits harder than nearly anything else on the album, with plentiful hooks and a terrific vocal melody.
In the long run every member of the group was far from their peak; Brooker had largely exhausted his supply of creative musical ideas between his previous Procol Harum work and his solo career, Fisher's contributions were a far cry from Wreck Of The Hesperus and the quality of Reid's poetry had massively deteriorated. Nevertheless they were able to come together and craft an album that, while hardly a masterpiece, was a genuinely solid effort, with each band member trying their hardest to make the record work.
Thus The Well's On Fire is a pretty good outing, and easily the band's best work since Exotic Birds And Fruit a whole 32 years before. While the album can be erratic, and the hooks aren't always evenly distributed, it's still a perfectly solid LP, with a number of songs that, while not up to the standards of classic Procol Harum, are certainly quite good by any other criteria.
One wouldn't suspect much from a reunion from a group that had lain dormant for so long, especially when their first attempt at a comeback was so disastrous, but the band proved naysayers wrong with this fine effort, an album that can be heartily recommended to any fan of the group.