There is no such thing as a free lunch, or indeed a free Procol Harum CD. So when I recently won a remastered Something Magic CD in BtP’s ‘Friday Quiz’, I was invited to review it briefly as well. I have never attempted this sort of thing before and am no musicologist, I just happen to love listening to Procol Harum music. So do not expect any incisive musical knowledge or philosophical interpretation of the lyrics, just a personal appreciation of this remastered CD issued for the North American market for the first time on Compact Disc (late again!). Here we go!
The Liner notes are written by Joe Reagoso, who engineered the CD. These are disappointing, focusing on a history of Procol and not really adding anything new. OK, nothing’s better left unsaid, but saying it again is a missed opportunity for saying something new, like why the project was undertaken, the approach to each song and what the aim was for each song. I presume therefore, as the notes take the listener through a potted history of Procol Harum, that the CD is aimed at new listeners rather than old. However, I doubt if anyone being introduced to the band will start with Something Magic, so the liner notes might have been better aimed at the established fans and offered them something new.
In comparison to the original vinyl and the Castle issue CD (1995), the artwork is plain, but overall the packaging is acceptable, and the lyrics to all the songs are provided. There is also a short review of each song, however Strangers in Space does not get a mention. This is unforgivable as Strangers is my favourite song on the album and would probably be in my Procol Harum top ten. (Why don’t we all vote for our favourite top 5/10 Procol songs and, using proportional representation, the webmasters could develop a representative top 5/10 from Procol fans, people who really know the music?).
However this CD is all about sound, and this more than makes up for disappointing liner notes. Before you play it, turn down the volume a few notches from your usual level because this is an all-round bigger sound than before, with each instrument clearer, including the vocals. The result is an improved, cleaner sound that makes good songs better.
It introduces the opening track with a bang. Really good, exciting start that gets the pulse going a bit faster. Those with high blood pressure beware! This, the signature tune, is very punchy, with a full sound that carried me with it on first listening. The orchestrations are fantastic. A great start: 8 out of 10.
As the mix makes the bigger sounds bigger, it makes the gentler sounds gentler; and so it is with Skating on Thin Ice, a lovely whimsical waltz with Brooker singing tentatively to increase the sense of the lyric. The new sound is crisper, but gives a warmer feel to this song, as if you can see the skater warm as toast in woolly hat, scarf and ear-muffs. A tricky one to drum to, I would have thought, but BJ got it dead right with quiet, unobtrusive rolls. Nice one: 7 out of 10.
The next two tracks are Procol at their ordinary-most. The least said the better, although the Mark of the Claw ends on a bit of fun. They don’t suit the rest of the songs on this album and have a feel of an earlier album about them, say Exotic Birds or Procol’s Ninth: a total 8 out of 20.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Strangers in Space. I have never tired of this song, love the jazzy/bluesy feel it gives and the prominence of Chris Copping’s bass guitar. Mick Grabham’s soft lead is perfect and new boy Pete Solley really gets into it with ‘out of this world’ synthesised sounds. The new mix is sharper, but has a hissing sound in the background: this might be my equipment, but a background sound of a building site wouldn’t deflect me from loving this song. 9 out of 10.
Oh no, not The Worm and the Tree! Some time ago my brother Peter ‘Pop’ O’Prey urged me to listen again to this track, ‘…it is better than you think’. So I did, and he was right! OK, Gary Brooker should have sung the lyric, but between the spoken words is some really great music waiting to be rediscovered. The problem indeed may not be the spoken lyric at all, but that The Worm and the Tree is very different from anything heard from Procol before and therefore the listener is looking for things that are not there. If this had great guitar solos with Hammond sounds and Brooker’s singing voice we would have raved about it, but this is new Procol, a greater all-round band effort with Yamaha organ and synths. Very different and very classy.
Looking back at this some twenty-eight years later, I think perhaps Gary Brooker might have been challenging the Procol faithful into thinking differently, but all we wanted was more Salty Dogs and Shine on Brightlys. If that is the case then we failed to meet the challenge and consequently Procol faded into the night. It has taken me twenty-eight years to catch up with this track and feel I’ve discovered something new. The remaster cleans the music up and makes it easier to listen, so The Worm becomes a little gentler on the ear: 6 out of 10.
Finally, Backgammon is the additional track, originally the ‘B’ side of the single Wizard Man. It has a ‘Hey boys, we need something for the ‘B’ side’ feel about it, a bit of a jam rather than a carefully-crafted instrumental. Gary Brooker found the original tape for this CD and I’m glad he did: 5 out of 10.
For Procol Harum fans, this album is poignant in that it is the last Procol Harum performance by drummer BJ Wilson. Apart from founders Brooker and Reid, BJ epitomises what Procol Harum are about, brilliantly-understated craftsmen, largely overlooked and misunderstood. But good music will always be listened too, and this is hinted at in Keith Reid’s lyric to The Worm. The worm did turn and the tree did resprout, and Procol re-emerged.
Apart from Tracks 3 and 4, this is a good album, not great by Procol standards, but well-worth having. If the objective of the remaster was to encourage old Procol fans to reappreciate the album, it has succeeded. Having had this for a few weeks, I would say to all Procol fans to give it a listen, especially The Worm. Joe Reagoso has done a great job: thanks, Joe.
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