Best song: Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) (not overwhelmingly the best, though)
After a bit of lineup shuffling (and a year off from studio recording), the band settled on a group that included a new guitarist (Mick Grabham) and a new bassist (Alan Cartwright), with Chris Copping relieved of his double duty and placed behind an organ full-time. Hence, for the first time since A Salty Dog, the basic ingredients were in place for the lushness that made up the 'classic' PH sound. There's a significant difference, though, between the richness of the late 60s albums and of this sucker – at its best, the 'classic' PH sound had a texture which, while heavy on keyboards and (sometimes) strings, simultaneously used the guitar in equal balance with those other factors, lending a real sense of 'rock' to that version of art-rock. Here, though, while Grabham is certainly ok, he's nowhere near as distinctive as Robin was, and he certainly isn't given the chances to shine that Robin was. Hence, while the album is incredibly deep and lush, it does so [sic] in quite a different manner from what you might expect of the band.
If you haven't yet heard the album, allow me to describe it as such: imagine what rock music would be like if, instead of having Chuck Berry as one of its main forefathers, it had Niles Krane of Frasier fame at its roots. This is rock music filtered through endless layers of prissiness, filled to the brim with classical-based melodies, operatic themes and female choirs; music for people whose idea of 'roughing it' is to stay in a hotel room that costs $1500 a night instead of $2000 a night. Truth be told, I'd be quite surprised if this wasn't one of the first albums trashed into the ground when the punk movement started to gain full momentum. Yup, if ever you wanted a violation of the 'true spirit' of rock music, you got it right here.
Indeed, as frighteningly grotesque as this album could be in theory, the band actually manages to successfully pull the sound off well, and not to make total morons of themselves in the process. Brooker's songwriting is mostly solid throughout, and the band likewise does an incredible job of arranging ideas that, in the hands of a lesser group, would have come across as absolutely ridiculous at best. One of the tracks, TV Ceasar, is pretty awful, as it tries to create a bombastic epic piece around a melody that barely deserves two minutes of the listener's time, but the rest is danged terrific. The overall sound is a bit more monotonous than usual (even for PH), but that's just a minor quibble – taken on their own, each of the other eight tracks is (at worst) a minor gem.
The two biggies of the album (and I mean big, as in lushed up to the max) are, of course, the opening title track and the penultimate Fires Which Burn Brightly [sic]. The first, in particular, should be a disaster, but instead manages to be almost endlessly entertaining, as a nice vocal melody is developed very well and quickly becomes surrounded by choirs and strings and epic-sounding guitar in parts and bits of classical quotes here and there to top it off. The lyrics, of course, are the epitome of the 'Niles Krane' vibe given throughout the album, but they only add to the effect – this is over-over-over-the-top lushness, yet where anybody else would have allowed this piece to collapse under its own weight, Procol find the optimal balance of all the arrangements and ideas, largely because no idea is overdone, and as such it's like a whole night's worth of snooty panoramic scenes shot through my stereo in the mere span of six minutes.
Even better, though, is Fires, strange as it may seem. The main keyboard theme is simply perfect, with yet another brilliant vocal melody attached, while nice touches of female vocals give a slight tinge of depression to the already melancholy lyrics. One should also take note of the lengthy instrumental passages, in the middle and at the end, which show they managed to adjust to Trower's absence after all – I almost expected to get the feeling from listening that Brooker would still want to write these passages in a way that would call for Trower to step in and do his stuff, if only by instinct, but instead he manages to set it up so that the void is more than adequately filled by keyboards and the lovely female vocals.
None of the other tracks jump out as emphatically as those two, but they're still quite good nonetheless. There's a couple of pieces that can almost count as 'rockers,' even though they're piano-based and don't have any cool Hendrix-esque guitar lines that would immediately distinguish them as such. Still, a good riff is a good riff, whether played on piano or guitar, and the main one played by piano and bass on Toujours L'Amour definitely qualifies. And let's give Grabham a little credit – he may not be as distorted or as fancy as Trower was, but he still gives out quite a nice solo near the end of the piece. Even better for guitar lovers like me, though, is Bringing Home the Bacon, which has great piano/drums interplay (yes, you read right) as its main theme, but also has a nice ominous distorted guitar riff that pops up from time to time, not to mention quite a few nice chunks of soloing, so I'm happy.
Elsewhere, there's a couple of slow moody pieces about various topics, both of which are quite enjoyable in their own way. For Liquorice John is a minor favorite of mine, with a piano theme that doesn't 'develop' much but is all the better for it, as it creates an atmosphere that suitably mirrors the 'fall from grace' mentioned repeatedly in the lyrics. A Rum Tale is moody as well, but it's much more upbeat, even if it is about becoming an alcoholic – it deals with escapist fantasies that can be fueled quite easily by the effects of alcohol on the brain, and in that regard it works quite well.
There's also a couple of nice 'lesser' (lesser = lightweight, thank goodness) pieces that provide some much-needed relief, as the others can wear me down quite a bit if I'm not amply prepared (even as good as they are). A Souvenir of London is hilarious, a hickish-sounding ditty about ending up with VD after sowing your oats in London, and the closing Robert's Box has an almost Caribbean atmosphere to it in the verses, which I'm sure is meant as some sort of irony (though I'm not really sure how) given that the lyrics are about smuggling drugs. Ah well, I like 'em just the same, and the bombastic ending to the latter is somehow fitting for the album.
In short, except for one misstep and possibly (read: 'probably') overdoing the lushness on a general level, the album shows that the primary greatness of PH's music lay not with Fisher or Trower, brilliant as they were, but rather with Brooker's brilliancy as a songwriter and the ability of others to accommodate his vision well. If you like early Procol Harum a lot but are afraid of what would happen when Trower left, please get this to assuage your fears; you won't regret it.