Reviewed by Alan Matthews
On Fire, But Far From Dry
The date: Monday 03.03.03 Ė nice symmetry that. My pre-ordered copy of Procol Harumís new album, The Wellís On Fire, posted on cue through my letterbox. "Great Expectations" is the title of a book by someone or other but it doesnít adequately describe my feelings on getting my hands on this circle in a square box. Twelve long years since drinking from the well Ė twelve years of drought, with hope of replenishment evaporating by the year, until news barely six months ago of rains about to fall.
Iíve since drunk from this well six or seven times. Hereís what Iíve discovered since I first took my first look peep inside.
An Old English Dream
Instantly recognizable as the track first featured at last yearís Croydon gig. The temptation to sing "Itís a little bit funny Ė this feeling inside" is not altogether inappropriate, it being the first listen of new Procol material in over a decade. A solid opener, full of drama and featuring a strong, catchy chorus with nice simple vocal harmony touches from the second chorus onwards. A typically characteristic Procol touch; the false ending suddenly exploding into one final chorus. Lyrically, a regrettable tale of national inequality and injustice.
A pop/rock number incorporating a lyric full of non-specific word play. The theme-less nature allows Gary to be playful and use word clues as musical cues, as in the "Chinese rocks" oriental-feel xylophone passages and Geoffís guitar lines Ė at one point reminiscent of Turning Japanese by The Vapours. This is the only track on the album that features any obvious modern sound-processing treatment, used here predominantly on the intro. The obvious choice for a single, itís a particularly good number exemplified by the fact that the middle section is as strong as the verse/chorus sections. Nice one.
A Robe Of Silk
On first take perhaps not a striking number but definitely a grower, and after a number of further listens Iíve grown to love this one. A playful melody captures the lyrics nicely, which describe adventures of a shared journey through life. Full of stuttering rhythm and topped off with a neat guitar/handclap solo and Matthew Fisherís Hammond solo mimicking the melody until he lets his fingers wander through a garden fence!
The Blink Of An Eye
The albumís one real disappointment for me. Having scanned the lyrics pre-first listen my ears eagerly awaited something special here. Taking into account the subject matter and the way itís been concisely and expertly dealt with by Keith Reid I find the music very lightweight and totally missing the mood needed for something which should affect every listener. Musically, itís like a plodding middle-of-the-road love-regret song with dated dampened-string guitar parts and a cabaret rimshot-led drum rhythm. The only redeeming feature is the reassuring introduction of the Hammond half way through. Iím personally not convinced by this song. An opportunity missed I feel. Sorry Gary.
The VIP Room
Ah, this is more like it. A Brooker vocal powerhouse drives this one along. Gary is very convincing singing the part of the greedy egomaniac. Excellent lyrics, full of typically acerbic wit and inventiveness, make for an enjoyable mid-tempo rocker. Geoffís guitar comes to the fore here with great-sounding slide mimicking Garyís vocal coupled with a terrific solo. Matthewís sustained Hammond chords give it that Procol signature. Again a fine middle section makes for a complete compositional success.
Matthew Fisherís first compositional contribution is a simple, laid-back blues number. His electric piano riff reminds me of a slower version of Robin Trowerís guitar in Poor Mohammed. The highlight, without doubt, is the gorgeous sounding Hammond solo. An okay number, which relies on its nice general feel and Reid wit to retain attention.
This World Is Rich (for Stephen Maboe)
The albumís first classic track and destined to be voted an all time Procol great. High on "wow" factor, itís a very moving number lyrically, musically and in performance. As an introduction and linking verses is a simple and evocative Wandering Star-like multitracked Brooker hum, which fits the general mood to perfection. A gorgeously unusual chord sequence grabs immediate attention and is nicely reinforced by sampled mellow string-pad and organ, which build subtly as the track progresses. My only quibble is the questionable necessity of Geoffís lead guitar, which I find an occasional distraction. The introduction of strummed acoustic on the second verse is perfect but his electric guitar I think should have been given a rest on this one. The repeated, "This world is rich, but it is Ė not Ė mine" chorus is very reminiscent of the chord-change rhythm on Wizard Man. Itís a song begging to be covered by any serious artist searching for a quality, meaningful track open to individual interpretation.
Is this the first Procol track to have lyrics written to music rather than the reverse? Doctors cause uncertainty! Iím not familiar with the Handel original and so canít comment on the way in which Matthew has adapted it for song. However, it all sounds very lovely and very Procol, although occasionally it only just steers (thankfully!) clear of Andrew Lloyd Webber territory. I love the section where the Hammondís sustained chords come in. One of the few tracks to feature strummed acoustic guitar. An impressive Gary vocal occasionally sounds slightly low in the mix. I donít like the sound of the electric piano at the end though Ė too Radio 2, during the eighties!
Wall Street Blues
Another vocal workout number for Gary. Nothing original or fresh but a fine overall Procol sounding track. The star on this one is Keithís lyrics Ė best keep your well-earned cash hidden under the mattress!
The Emperorís New Clothes
The albumís other "wow" track. Classic Procol Harum. What attracted me to this bandís music during my formative years was its capacity to transport you to another time and place, another dimension, and keep you there in a dreamlike state. This track exemplifies that. A song steeped in melancholy and regret. Brilliant lyrics sympathetically put to music by a regrettably-undervalued master songsmith. The overall sound is sparse, dominated by a moving piano arrangement, embellished by ride cymbal and military snare, and simple guitar. The final sustained piano chord slowly brings you back to reality. Itís Procol tracks of this nature that have made me wonder if Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy has a batch of Procol albums in his collection.
So Far Behind
A superb track. Why on earth was this not featured on a previous album? Destined to become a Procol favourite. Full of compositional invention, a great ensemble piece with every member playing an important part. Iím not so sure about the semitonal passages played by Matthew Fisher though. Matt Pegg drives it along with funky feeling. Excellent drumming throughout by Mark Brzezicki; BJ would be proud. Nicely driven by Geoffís wah-wah guitar and bassnote chord-progression reinforcement. The xylophone sound is used to pleasant effect again. And what a great bridge section Ė the only disappointment is that it all ends so abruptly. I could do with at least another two rounds!
Every Dog Will Have His Day
An archetypal Procol RíníB rocker: the albumís fun track. Garyís vocals sound great, as does his piano. Again terrific playing by Mark and the Fisher organ is very impressively to the fore. I would imagine this is the number Jools Holland would insist they play should they be invited to play on the next series of Later withÖ just so that he could tinkle the ivories with them. Although Gary does his best mutt impression (Mr Producer Ė add more echo at the end there please!) it would have sounded even more fun with genuine dog howl and bark samples strategically placed throughout.
Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature)
The kind of thing that Matthew Fisher does so well. The first chord sounds like itís sampled from the opening of AWSoP, the final one, from the close of Robertís Box. In between we have a not-so-distant cousin of Repent Walpurgis. This youngster, however, is more complex than its older relative, though similar in features; containing quasi-classical passages, electric guitar outbursts and a quiet piano interlude before the final fling. Often copied, but never matched Ė this is Procol Harum. An excellent track bar the introduction of the guitar, which is too over-the-top for my liking. Iím afraid to say that independent observers will pillory Procol for this aspect of the track. There was to my mind always a fine line between Procolís mostly-subtle use of dynamics and a lot of 70s Ďprog rockí types' tasteless bombast. I fear the line has been overstepped in this respect here. That aside, the piece is very impressive compositionally and destined to feature dominantly live.
I have to say that this album has surpassed by far all my expectations. When I became aware that it contained 13 tracks I thought " Uh oh! Poly filler" (not as in 'covering cracks in the wall' Ė but as in 'album of many fillers'!) This was a fear governed by the fact that these days many bands feel the necessity to automatically fill up a CD with product, irrespective of overall quality and the fact that Iíve never liked most of The Prodigal Stranger album.
The Wellís On Fire, however, is an altogether different proposition. It feels much more like a band album. You can tell that these guys have been together for some time and respect each other as individuals and as musicians. The quality of material is generally very high and keeps the attention throughout. I want to listen to it again and again. Conversely I have to force myself to listen to the last album. The Blink Of An Eye is the only weak track in my opinion. Twelve out of thirteen more-than-decent tracks Ė thatís an impressive percentage. The general sound is excellent Ė so a lot of credit must go to Rafe McKenna for his skill and appreciation of Procolís music. A special mention must also be made about Keith Reidís lyrics which I feel are one of the strongest batches heís ever produced. This in turn presents Gary in particular with the basis to go on and turn them into great songs, which he has done with aplomb. The only general quibble I have is that occasionally Garyís diction is a little questionable, as if not enough time and attention has been applied to aspects of his delivery. But then, how do you go about questioning the bossís work? Having said that, I understand the whole album was recorded in barely more than a month Ė this is a remarkable achievement in this day and age of albums taking months and months to complete and is testament to the bandís strong working relationship and enthusiasm.
My humble opinion again Ė this album is miles ahead of Prodigal, much better than Something Magic and certainly stronger than Procolís Ninth Ė now weíre approaching the really good ones. Yes, itís that good. Everyone involved should feel rightfully proud.
The well may be on fire, but itís far from dry. The Prodigal Stranger 1991, The Wellís On Fire 2003. Was it worth the wait? You bet!
Alan Matthews, 9 March 2003
Procol Harum albums