Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

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The Well's on Fire

Jim Esch at the All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com)


On their first album of new material since 1991, The Well's on Fire is a return to form for Procol Harum. The band has shed most of the production gloss that dated The Prodigal Stranger and gets back to a beefier rock-based sound, resulting in their finest album in nearly 30 years. By the time you get to the chorus of An Old English Dream (the album's first track), you know you've locked onto the classic Procol arsenal capable of packing plenty of keyboard, drums, and guitar punch.

The band is comfortable and unashamed to be working within the classic rock idiom, and their unique blend of progressive and R&B influences is still evident. The playing is tight and lively. Every Dog Will Have His Day shows they haven't lost their sense of playful humor, while truly revelling in bouncy R&B rock. Some songs like the regal A Robe of Silk and The Emperor's New Clothes are more than respectable throwbacks to Shine on Brightly and Home-era material. Matthew Fisher's unmistakable rock organ will undoubtedly have listeners experiencing nostalgic flashbacks.

The album isn't merely a nostalgia trip, however. The Blink of an Eye, a message song about September 11, adopts a more modern R&B-laced adult contemporary groove, as does the The Question. Shadow Boxed breaks the mold a bit with a strong up-tempo staccato pulse (it's almost danceable), and The [sic] Wall Street Blues rocks out over a clever blues piano riff. So Far Behind makes a grab for modern rock pop grooviness, but is still at heart a typical Procol rocker. On tunes like This World Is Rich, a stately, emotionally powerful Brooker piano ballad, instead of trying to sound too commercial or go for a carbon copy of their classic sound, the band is adept at blending the new with the old.

Knowing nods to the past do abound, from Fisher's organ to the Repent Walpurgis-style prog rock instrumental that closes the album, Weisselklenzenacht. It seems as if Procol is finally acknowledging its "elder statesmen" status among the pantheon of classic prog rockers, and is comfortable with the role. Keith Reid's lyrics may not be as obscure as the old days, but they remain heady and full of social conscience, and on The Emperor's New Clothes he recaptures his sense of drama and poetic acuity.

Gary Brooker's voice is aging like fine wine and shows no signs of wearing out. "The VIP Room" is a fine blue-tinged rocker featuring guitarist Geoff Whitehorn, who fills the shoes of ex-guitarists Robin Trower and Mick Grabham competently. In short, the band plays with a renewed sense of purpose. With the core of Brooker, Reid, and Fisher intact (sadly, B.J. Wilson's dramatic drumming can never be replaced), this sounds like the Procol Harum you're used to, and is arguably their best album since Exotic Birds and Fruit.

Rarely do you get the sense that a band with this much road behind them still has legs. While Procol Harum may not claim a whole lot of new fans with this outing, they should be able to corral many older fans back to the fold, and they have demonstrated that they're capable of making relevant music again.  

 

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