Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Procol Harum : Bach'n'roll

John McFerrin reviews 'The Black Album'


Best song: A Whiter Shade Of Pale

Undoubtedly, this is both one of the greatest débuts ever and one of the best albums in the history of art-rock. Horrifyingly enough, though, some fans actually somewhat dismiss it, mostly on the grounds that it was recorded in a hurry to take advantage of the success of the incredible smash hit A Whiter Shade of Pale (the album was actually originally called Procol Harum, and lacked the single for some reason however, it was re-released in the version I have presently a few years later). Well, what can I say, there's just no accounting for taste sometimes. For you see, while the title track is the best song here (how could it not be? Some of the best lyrics ever set to a pop adaptation of Bach's Air on a G-String?! With that organ sound?!), this in no way whatsoever puts down the other songs. Some tracks are greater than others, yes, but there isn't a single piece on this album that I'd want to call filler every piece has something really cool going for it, even if it maybe isn't developed to its "furthest" theoretical potential.

Indeed, even the "lesser" tracks only seem that way because they're sillier than others even then, though, they provide a nice sense of diversity to the album, one that helps diffuse the general "monotony" of the band's sound. She Wandered Through the Garden Fence could seem out of place thanks to the moodier (and more serious) pieces that bookend it, but it has one of the best "silly" melodies ever penned by somebody not named Paul McCartney, and even Brooker's voice helps here, only because it's humorous to hear him sing the lines "she threw me down upon my back and strapped me to a torture rack" with a seemingly straight face. Mabel could also be dismissed as a relative throwaway, but it's so over-the-top drunkenly goofy, with all sorts of random slide whistles and drunken revelry taking place in the background while Brooker sings for Mabel to "please get off the kitchen table" that it's simply irresistible (in the context of the album, anyway).

"Lesser" track number three is an attempt at a vaguely "psychedelic" rocker (with standard PH instrumentation, of course), Kaleidoscope. It's essentially a groove piece, based around a few measures of somewhat less-than-stellar melody line led by the keyboards, so it doesn't quite measure up to everything else... on the other hand, though, it has a cool instrumental break in the middle, first led by a really energetic keyboard solo and then a nice, brief, slightly frantic Trower guitar solo, so I'm not gonna dismiss it completely. And finally, the penultimate track of the original album, Good Captain Clack, probably could have stayed in the outtakes box without hurting the album, were it not for the goofy group harmonies in the middle without which I can't imagine this album.

So that's it for the lesser stuff, and seeing as that's all good, that should give you an idea about the rest. Conquistador is simply brilliant, with a terrific juxtaposition of Robin's riffage with Brooker's amazing vocal melody (especially in the "chorus"), all with a MASSIVE keyboard part before the ending verse. (Incidentally, I'd like to say that my weirdest music experience back when I had my part-time job working for Meijer was when, over the loudspeaker, I could a hear a muzak version of this very tune. The funny thing is, everything was mellowed and cheesed over ... except for the keyboard solo which was done exactly like on this album).

Later, Something Following Me is an eerily mellow ballad (apparently about seeing your own tombstone, among other things, not that I noticed before reading the lyrics online), with yet another excellent piano melody, and another great (though unfortunately short) Trower solo, making this moody as hell. And finally, there's the side-one closer, the INCREDIBLE Cerdes (Outside the Gates of), with one of the cleverest riffs Brooker ever came up with (with the bass seamlessly sharing its duty with Fisher's organ) and another amazing vocal melody and more great Trower work ... all this on only one side!!! Throwaway filler, I DON'T THINK SO.

Side two is a little weaker (three of the "lesser" tracks are here), but it's also bookended by two more <insert positive adjective here> tracks that leave no doubt in my mind of this album's greatness. A Christmas Camel is an exceptionally well-done Ray Charles ripoff great vocal melody, great keyboard interplay, great Trower solo, etc etc etc. The instrumental Repent Walpurgis, though, basically annihilates it in quality the lone Fisher composition on the album, it functioned as the band's stage closer for many years, and it's not hard to see why. Aside from having one of the best melodies of any classical/rock fusion ever, it gives every member a chance to shine (without delving into self-indulgence) Trower in turn stands out, giving out his best solo of the album, but there's also a brief interlude where Brooker's piano is given a moment by itself, and the rest has the band working as an absolute musical monster, before ending with one of the most (justifiably so) bombastic, crashing finales ever to grace a rock album.

In short, this album ranges from good to absolutely stunning, and I can't see how any self-respecting art-rock lover could dislike this. The recent re-release has some cool bonus tracks Lime Street Blues is a generic (but good) mid-60s R&B piece, and Monsieur Armand is a lesser track (that would be reworked for the '74 album Exotic Birds and Fruit), but Homburg is a quite lovely piece in the same vein as Whiter Shade, while Seem to Have the Blues All the Time [sic] is a quite interesting "heavy" blues piece that sounds like little else on the album but that is quite good nonetheless. How's THAT for a run-on sentence?


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Reproduced by kind permission from John's website


 

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