Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

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'An Album to Respect, Enjoy from Harum'

Robert Hilburn in Los Angeles Times, 14 May 1972


For those of us who have been shuffling around nervously for an album to mention when asked about the year's best releases, Procol Harum's live album with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has arrived and, thankfully, provided an answer.

No longer do we have to rest with a single album David Bowie's Hunky Dory when naming the best efforts of the first half of 1972. For Procol Harum has produced a splendid album, one that contains that sure sense of control and direction one finds in the finest recorded works.

Procol Harum's Live in Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (A&M SP 433.5) confessing that Procol Harum has always been a group that I've respected more than enjoyed, this album combines the best of all possible musical rewards a work that one can both respect and enjoy. It is a triumph of the first order.

Though there is a significant difference between the music of the Who and the music of Procol Harum (from such basic matters as themes through instrumentation and a lot more), the rewards of this album are, for me, quite similar in many ways to the rewards in last year's Who's Next, one of the finest rock albums in recent years. Both albums have a sense of majestic splendor that exhilarates the emotions.

Whereas Peter Townshend used a synthesizer to contribute to the power and pace of such songs as Baba O'Riley and Won't Get Fooled Again on Who's Next, Procol Harum uses a 52-piece orchestra and 24-member vocal group (the Da Camera Singers).

In the process, Gary Brooker, credited with conceiving and writing the orchestra parts for the new album, has achieved as powerful a wedding of rock/choral orchestral sounds as we've yet found in rock, far more effective, for instance, than efforts by Deep Purple and others.

Importantly, Brooker has never let the project get out of his control. He has approached the album from the standpoint of a rock artist, using the orchestra and singers as shading for his compositions. He has simply explored Keith Reid's lyrics and his own melodies for ways to bring out the power in them both in new ways. And he has succeeded.

When Procol Harum went to Edmonton last November to record this album, there was a high sense of excitement and expectation both among the six members of the group and the audience which bought all 3,000 tickets two weeks in advance.

In his liner notes (written before the concert), Brooker gives you a taste of the anticipation he and the group felt on that evening:

'To say our one arid a half days of (rehearsal for the) recording had gone smoothly would not be true, and so an excited nervousness is present instead of confidence. The previous experience of the group (at Stratford, Ontario, 1969) has shown us that symphony musicians tend to save their best until the performance. This is what we base our hopes on at this late hour. We found time to try our quadraphonic effects tapes this afternoon; that explosion should shake the foundations. Keith tells me the seagulls sound like they're circling above your head when you're out there.'

In some ways, "explosion" is one of the best words to describe the power of the album, for there are several moments in which Dave Ball's electric guitar, BJ Wilson's guitar [sic], Alan Cartwright and Chris Copping's organ forge with the orchestra and chorus into something akin to the power of an explosion.

This power is quite evident in Conquistador, the album's opening song, as all sorts of piano rolls and trumpet blares give an added touch of excitement to the emotion in Brooker' s voice. This is the cut from the album that is being eyed as a single.

Next comes Whaling Stories (from the Home album) and again the orchestra is used to bring out the color and shading of Reid's lyrics. There is a steady tension built through the early portion of the song that eventually gives way to the full fury of Ball's electric guitar and Brooker's intense vocal: "Lightning struck out fire and brimstone / Boiling oil and shrieking steam / Darkness struck with molten fury / Flashbulbs glorified the scene."

Side one closes strongly, with A Salty Dog and All This and More, while side two is devoted to In Held 'Twas in I, a selection that is perhaps the most convincing demonstration of Brooker's skill in fitting the orchestra to the spirit and style of Procol Harum's work.

In line with the searching nature of the song, the orchestra provides just the proper emphasis for the varying moods of the song, from the sense of desperation suggested in such song segments as In the Autumn of My Madness and Look to Your Soul to the general novelty/confusion of 'Twas Teatime at the Circus ( ... "and though the crowd clapped furiously / they could not see the joke").

Produced by Chris Thomas, Procol Harum Live in Concert belongs on the shelf reserved for your most prized rock albums. It is certain to ignite a new wave of popularity for the group which has enjoyed a loyal, but limited following in the days since its monster hit of A Whiter Shade of Pale. YES.

(thanks, Unsteady Freddie)


 
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