Procol Harum

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the Pale 

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The Well's on Fire

A 48 hour Review by Charlie Allison


'The long-awaited studio album from the legendary Procol Harum' read the sticker on the CD-case to entice the curious who thought the band had packed it in years ago, Meanwhile we devotees have been counted down to this day by Roland and Jens, and given helpful tasters of six songs by Eagle Records (which indeed made assimilating the new CD much easier). This was the first time I've bought a new Procol Harum album on the day of release since maybe Broken Barricades, such has been the way previous records 'escaped', and indeed escaped one's notice!

48 hours isn't a long time to cultivate an album for familiar listening, but I've heard enough enough to convince me this is a masterpiece collection, full of variety and wonderful musicianship. There's lyrical humour, a little whimsy, social comment; and musical passages to excite and delight the jaded palate. These guys can definitely still do it!

Incidentally the colourful globes on the cover suggest The World's on Fire indeed this is what Jools Holland's pronunciation made it sound like the other night on the radio. Typical Procol Harum intrigue, methinks, though topically predictive? Saddamshame if it all blows up.

Our webmasters, who've had promo copies for some weeks, have given us two most learned and musically astute critiques [here and here]. I hope this modest track-by-track review can add to these.

An Old English Dream ...
gets us off to a good start with an ecology song, looking for an Olde English Paradise Lost. Simple three verses and chorus, no middle eight, so is (as others have said) mindful of Elton John or Billy Joel. But with this voice and that organ, it can only be Gary Brooker and Procol Harum. Band members each put down benchmarks for later in the album, with everyone sounding keen and note-perfect. Welcome back!

Shadow Boxed ...
A thoroughly modern intro., then we're aware of oriental xylophonic sounds filling in this frantic-tempo tune, whose lyrics are very Ian Dury in content and execution. Love Geoff's wobbly ascending solo: 'Watch that sound!' cries Gary. I knew from the snatches I'd like this and I'm not disappointed. By the way Keith, are 'Chinese rocks' and 'shadow-boxed' Cockney rhyming slang, guv'nor?

Robe of Silk ...
Found in Procol's old curios-and-whimsy drawer, heard on some old boot from the US with little to suggest then that it wasn't 'surplus to requirement'. Lyrically out of its time, it gets an affectionate make-over, including a guitar solo straight from that recent Beatles single recorded by George on to John's long lost tape. Nice to get it into the archive, but it will never be anything more substantial than a morsel.

The Blink of an Eye ...
(or TBoaE see, it has an acronym already!) is Keith's lyrically brilliant 9/11 commentary understated and appropriate. Gary affects a sad American delivery which perfectly matches the mood; and all the band play with reverence. Strangers will recognise this as Procol Harum by the trademark organ. Four stars, maybe five. Deserves to be heard by a wider audience.

VIP Room ...
Perfect up-tempo pick-me-up, with a bluesy feel and a thumping drum which I recognise from Cliff Richard's Carrie some years back (do PH fans ever confess to catholic music tastes?) Sounds like a prison song, maybe death-row, as we hear about the 'goons' though it's just possible the silver spoon and velvet rope belong to a house of ill-repute? The band are cooking! (and this is evidently to be the set-starter on the tour?)

The Question ...
Matthew's first musical contribution is a quiet chugger, not likely to be placed on top of the pile for best track on the album. Maybe I need more time with this one. But it does have a lovely organ solo and neatly bridges the gap before the masterpiece which follows ...

The World is Rich ...
is where Dire Straits meet Lion King to allow Keith to articulate the voice of Stephen Maboe from South Africa's urban wilderness. Like the 9/11 song, I feel it is lyrically more genuine by its understatement, and Gary's sensitive singing allows one to be transported to hearing the dignified pleas of this brave young African. This close cousin of Holding On is a landmark quality song, with everyone in harmony, and will doubtless be introduced as 'the second in an African trilogy in four parts'?

Fellow Travellers ...
Matthew again, based on Handel. I was at a Baptist wedding last weekend with a Praise Band and modern hymns. This would have fitted in perfectly there or in Gary's Within Our House album. It's a pleasant quiet interlude. No more than that for me, so far.

Wall Street Blues ...
Busy NYC street noises, atmospheric and contemporary. Still it has that edge of quality in the lyrics (including nods to 'cards' and New Lamps for Old!) and in the execution by this most versatile troupe. Again, I plead that I need more time with this one.

Emperor's New Clothes ...
I absolutely love and adore this a classic PH song, fit to grace any album. Beautifully played and recorded piano and dolefully warm singing from Gary, with wonderful Magdalenesque rolls from Mark, who here can be truly said to hold the sticks for the celestial BJ Wilson. An all-time favourite already for me, which I predict will be regarded with much affection in the repertoire.

So Far Behind ...
an old number given 'the Pandora's Box treatment', perhaps for single release? Instrumentation, sound, and falling bass-line hook all reminiscent of a Mari Wilson LP I bought about twenty years ago. Geoff does a jolly little solo in the middle. Procol plays pop! It sounds nothing like Shine on Brightly now.

Every Dog Has its Day ...
Procol now adds the Hey Bulldog howl to its repertoire of animal tracks which includes Piggy Pig Pig and Here Kitty Kitty (Fresh Fruit). A jovial undemanding workout, with a 'taking it home' feel fun to make and fun to listen to. Just the perfect counterpoint to the absolute classic that follows ...

Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature) ...
Matthew comes up with another piece of genius, to rank with Walpurgis, Grand Finale and Separation. I started with it and have played it some thirty times, shared it with folk at work, but mostly at considerable volume, alone. Today I wanted to solve the mystery of the title, but my German colleague Utta thinks this is maybe more Austrian, not real Deutsch. I asked her whether this was the name of an event in history, for I keep imagining harrowing Holocaust images of a ghetto being ethnic-cleansed (faces being herded on to lorries at gunpoint then buildings torched) when you see such images in your mind's eye the music is even more intense You, no doubt, will have your own picture to play.

I've been trying to tease out themes. There are definite hints of Billy Joel's Last Night (itself a Mozart steal) and I Can't Help Falling in Love, but the orchestration, if you can call it that, is pure Matthew and Procol Harum. Both he and Gary have times of supremacy in the torrid and quiet passages in the first half before we hear the familiar little prelude from the download soundbite which prepares you for the explosive entry of Geoff. The amiable, hugely-accomplished Mr. Whitehorn, comes forward from a dry-ice Stars in your Eyes tunnel wanting to be Robin Trower, but emerges as someone at-least-as-good brilliantly and inventively playing up a storm for air guitarists everywhere. Gary and Matthew support enthusiastically to wash the background with a curtain of colour, while Geoff arpeggios for the nation, reaching high and low, even producing an All Along the Watchtower moment before returning to earth for the big finish, whose chords, though neither confusingly separated by silence like Walpurgis nor predictably like Grand Finale, are original and wonderful in the 'big finish', when all that's left to hear is the inner coughing of Matthew's Hammond, spent.

Walpurgis 2003. This monumental masterwork must be permitted further critical appraisal, in the public domain and (inevitably) through this wonderful website.

Exhausted and spent. That's me too! Roll on next weekend at Lewisham.

But what do you think?

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