'Are you going be making a difference or are you going be making a stink?' sings Gary Brooker in the Fisher/Reid song The Question.
Remember the feeling, in the old days, when after about a year a new Procol Harum album found its way to your local record store? How you hurried to the shop to buy it, how you hastened home carefully carrying your precious investment of your favourite music? Remember the trembling of your hand when you put the LP on the record player and placed the pickup on the first track? Would this new Procol Harum album live up to the previous albums, bringing music that made a difference to your life? And more often than not, it did.
Twelve years have passed since Procol Harum's previous album, The Prodigal Stranger, was released, and an obvious question burning in the hearts of all Procol Harum fans is: will this new album make a difference to my life, as Procol Harum's music did in my youth? Is the band still able to create magic, or is Procol Harum reduced to just another oldies band, performing their old hits to even older fans?
The live concerts over the last few years, as experienced by many of us, and as documented in the live recordings One More Time and the DVD Live in Copenhagen, have proven that Procol Harum sound fresh and good on stage. The current line-up is in many ways the most established branch of the Procol Harum family tree: Gary Brooker and Matthew Fisher were of course part of the original line-up that recorded A Whiter Shade of Pale in 1967. And although Matthew left a few years later, he rejoined the band for the Prodigal Stranger sessions in 1991. Drummer Mark Brzezicki was also a part of the band when this album was recorded (and has been replaced only for a few instances when other duties made it impossible for him to tour with Procol Harum). Likewise, Geoff Whitehorn, a long-time Procol Harum fan, joined the band in 1991 and has now been their longest-serving guitarist. The freshman in Procol Harum is undoubtedly Matt Pegg, who came on board in 1993!
A well-established band then, but even so - this is their first studio album together. More likely than not, many Procol Harum fans will, as in their youth, feel their hand trembling when they put the album in the machine, and press play on the remote. Will this new Procol Harum album live up to the previous albums, bringing music that make a difference to their lives?
It starts up with An Old English Dream, a song premièred live in Croydon on 25 May 2002 under the name Ten Thousand Souls. Two weeks later it was presented in Denmark under its current name, and has since been part of the band's live repertoire. The song is a ballad with a catchy tune, a perfect way to start the album.
Two more songs on the album will be known to many fans. A Robe of Silk is legendary and has been heard only in a few live performances. So Far Behind was premièred in Copenhagen on 25 May 2001 (strange how these two premières happened with exactly a year between them, and on the same date as A Whiter Shade of Pale hit the UK charts in 1967). Some Procol fans will remember that the demo of this song was played at the 2000 Palers' Convention in Guildford, thanks to Chris Copping.
One noteworthy point about this album is that there are no weak links. While everybody will certainly find their favourites, I at least am never tempted to press the next button when I play the CD. It's very unusual to have a 13-song album and no 'fillers'. And while Prodigal Stranger, in the opinion of many, sounded too much of a studio production, this album is recorded 'live' with few overdubs. And it sounds like a band playing: a feel that should please many.
The album is less guitar-oriented than many would expect after hearing Geoff's busy playing in concert. On The Well's on Fire Gary's excellent piano playing dominates the sound. But Every Dog Will Have His Day: Geoff Whitehorn showcases some excellent playing and majestic solos. The solo on Weisselklenzenacht will be a classic. But listen also to the last part of So Far Behind, Shadow Boxed and The VIP Room. Geoff really proves he fits with the Procol Harum sound. And Hammond purists will have their moments: Weisselklenzenacht has already been mentioned. This Fisher instrumental has its inspiration from Repent Walpurgis, and brings a majestic ending to the album. It makes you sit in silence filled with emotions, and most likely it will do the same in many of the coming promotion concerts this spring. A Robe of Silk kicks off with the drums in the style of She Wandered through the Garden Fence, and Matthew's Hammond solo on this song could well have originated in '67, and the same can be said about his whining organ in the Brooker/Fisher/Reid song Every Dog Must Have His Day.
The Blink of an Eye was written after the 11 September tragedy, but it is a beautiful song that will remain a Procol Harum classic. The Emperor's New Clothes reminds me of A Rum Tale, one of my favourites on the Grand Hotel album.
What more can I say? Oh, yes: I must mention Fellow Travellers, Matthew's adaptation of a Handel aria. If Procol Harum play this song in concert, be sure to have your lighters ready. One of my absolute favourite Procol Harum songs, ever.
So how will I sum up this album? Is it going be making a difference or is it going be making a stink? To see how it stands besides the other Procol Harum albums, I think we need to wait some years and see it in the light of history. But more likely than not, I think it will end up as one of my favourite albums. The band seems very proud of The Well's on Fire. And quite rightly so, the music is fresh and contemporary while it still has the unique quality of a Procol Harum album.
Over the years, Procol Harum have made music that really has meant a difference to our lives. And with The Well's on Fire, their music makes a difference to at least my life once more.
Thank you, Procol Harum.
A little footnote: this review is based on the promo CD, which has a different track-order to the released CD. When BtP received the final track order, I immediately made a CD with the re-arranged order. I was amazed by the importance of track order. The album was very much improved. You may wish to do the same, by re-ordering the CD's track order to the promo version, by making a copy following the listing on Amazon.
Procol Harum albums