Procol Harum

the Pale 

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The Well's on Fire

BtP's RC comments briefly, track by track

Procol Harum's fine new studio album spans almost an hour and contains a kaleidoscope of 13 numbers, truly something for everyone ... this track-by-track breakdown hopes to provide one listener's early thoughts about the songs themselves, though not of course without reference to the playing and singing, which – like the sound quality – represent a tremendous affirmation of this great band's continuing ability to stimulate and move us.

1 An Old English Dream
Brooker / Reid

This ballad in C, with words derived from WH Auden's Refugee Blues, (see here) makes an uncontroversial start to the album. Shortened and tightened since it was first heard on the road last year as Ten Thousand Souls, the song has also benefited from some harmonic reworking: repositioning of bass notes makes it more Harumesque, and dispels comparison with Elton John's Your Song. Piano and organ contribute a spacious, plaintive feel: guitar is delicate and there's some very neat bass work (as throughout!) from Matt Pegg ... on board for only a decade, he's the band's newest acquisition.

2 Shadow Boxed
Brooker / Reid

Sizzling rhythm guitar starts this hellishly catchy rocker in A minor, whose dense mosaic of words will present an interesting challenge for Gary in live performance. Lyrically it's as busy as the new Reid rap we heard recited at Guildford, as free-associative as Man with a Mission ... wonderful stuff. The 'Chinese rocks' phrase has suggested some of the instrumental colouring, which makes use of consecutive open intervals on the guitar and straight-eighths xylophonic pounding. Reid's narrator tells of the many pressures and influences of a life in music, and the words in the F major middle-section mockingly refer to being 'Instant Karma, Dalai Lama' ...a line about 'cosmic truths' has found its way into the thankyous on the CD liner, where, bereft of the song's ironic context, it may attract critical attention. It's interesting to note that Roger Taylor provides backing voices on this song, perhaps repaying Queen's debt to Procol for the Whaling Stories influence in Bohemian Rhapsody.

3 A Robe of Silk
Brooker / Reid

The running-order has been determined, as always with Procol Harum, by musical rather than lyrical considerations. The mood shifts now to a rather Beatlish one, as this legendary lost song makes its studio appearance after an immense gestation period. The words are fey and wistful, very remote from the style Keith Reid practises these days; the tune, in F, is characterised by an irregular metre reminiscent of Your Own Choice, and makes use of little Hey Jude-like bridging-passages as also heard in The Piper's Tune. Geoff Whitehorn's solo tips its cap to George Harrison, and the Hammond solo is quintessential Fisher ... as is his ruminative counterpoint that snakes about in the tenor regions under Gary's vocal. Percussion is warmly recorded, and by way of retro japery the band start the song with the drum pattern from She Wandered Through the Garden Fence, and end with the piano motif from Homburg. Great to hear this song properly at last: and it's oddly much more poppy, less whimsical, than I'd been expecting.

4 The Blink of an Eye
Brooker / Reid

This melancholic ballad (in A major, though with predominantly minor feel) is faintly reminiscent of the sound-world of the Brooker solo Two Fools in Love, though its treatment of the WTC disaster is of course thematically very different. Discreet synths glitter behind the piano and percussion, though there is proper Hammond in here too. There's an interesting chord that imparts real tension, but elsewhere the approach is surprisingly bereft of overt drama. I imagine it will be a powerful number on stage, however – how will it sound without the acoustic rhythm guitar? – and it will be the one that gets the most promotion in the USA. Production decisions have resulted in another very warm-sounding track, but the palm-muted guitar is a bit generic for my taste, and Reid's lyrical approach – evoking the disaster, so close to his Manhattan home, with a montage of ingenuous vox-pops – may disappoint fans of his 'fire and brimstone' period. It was not written in the heat of that tragic moment, but does consist of 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'. Gary Brooker wrings great feeling from the hook line 'they pulled the rug from under our feet'.

5 The VIP Room
Brooker / Reid

Here is a strikingly excellent rocker in E, perhaps a little like Butterfly Boys, satirising the 'gimme gimme' culture through the device of a narrator so determined to be at the front of the queue that he insists even his death should be high-profile. Keith Reid told me he couldn't guess what 'theme' critics would profess to find in this collection (cf 'an album about the sea', 'an album about death' etc): I wonder if this song, with Wall Street Blues, The Emperor, and The Question, will provide fodder for those who enjoy finding a lyrical concept? The song has a surprising middle section, using somewhat Echoes in the Night harmonies: if asked where the Queen influence lay, I'd have pinned it here. Brooker's vocal performance throughout is impassioned, and Whitehorn's slide guitar solo is absolutely terrific ... I look forward to hearing this one live, though the track sounds very live anyway, complete with falling-downstairs drum ending ... though there's probably been an overdub or two, since I suspect the presence of handclaps.

6 The Question
Fisher / Reid

This first Fisher song is an unexpected, muted groove in C minor, using only three chords – not to worry, Matthew compensates handsomely by the end of the album! Three keyboards and Mark Brzezicki's excellent drums provide the forward impetus: this is a strong, haunting number, far more akin to the feel of No Stiletto Shoes (or of Booker T) than of the traditional Harum. Guitar is played again with real taste and restraint, and it's the only song on the album that fades out (in fact Shadow Boxed sounds a bit as though it has been surgically truncated in the studio). The Hammond solo is a nicely-crafted burst of the Fisher blues; Gary sings, as elsewhere, in his patent flexible bluesy style, and plays some cool piano. I like the French consonant with which he begins the word 'Question'. The words invite us to examine the beams in our own eyes before denouncing the motes in our neighbours': and having seen Franky Brooker singing along to the track with suitable finger-pointing dance-movements, one can well believe that they will also invite fans to do the same thing in concert.

7 This World is Rich
(for Stephen Maboe)
Brooker / Reid

The conventional part of this marvellous slow song, the chorus, suggests a tonality of E flat or C minor, but the verse (in itself proof that the Brooker muse has not jumped ship) wrings heartbreak from a chordal palate as surprising as anything heard in A Salty Dog. In particular, minor chords are often approached via the minor one tone above; the most plaintive changes, then, go from G flat to C minor 7th, via D minor: a baffling sequence, on paper … but exquisite as it falls into the ear. All the playing is delightful, and the acoustic rhythm guitar, not a typical Procol ingredient, adds a good deal. The words are based on an article read by Keith Reid in the Guardian in which Stephen Maboe, the song's dedicatee, poignantly reveals the plight of township-dwellers ... and Reid has done a wonderful job of converting the journalese into a dignified number which his partner performs in outstandingly stirring fashion. I fear this song will be eclipsed, for exposure, by Blink of an Eye, but it's in a different league, for my money: magical stuff.

8 Fellow Travellers
Fisher / Reid

Unusually for such a varied album, another slow piece follows: this is Matthew Fisher's adaptation of GF Handel's well-known aria (from Rinaldo), Lascia Ch'io Pianga. Matthew has transplanted the piece into an unusual G flat, and converted the metre from triple to common time [oddly there are no waltzes at all on The Well ... which puts it in a small minority of PH albums] but otherwise it is very close to the original ... which is fully acknowledged in the CD booklet. The words were written by Keith Reid to the completed music, and they may be a tad maudlin for some tastes ... however closely the opening leans on Samuel Beckett! The Reid wit does, however, shine through, as in 'this life is a fable / from the grave to the cradle' and there are some truly lyrical lines as well: just as AWSoP has dignified many nuptials, I am sure this will be equally in demand for funerals. Geoff carves a heartfelt solo, of great restraint, from the dense chords of the instrumental verse. Though this album features many tracks without much Hammond, where it is featured (as here) it does sound really good. But can any band play this slowly, live? If any can, Procol Harum will surely do it.

9 The Wall Street Blues
Brooker / Reid

This is a relatively heavy blues-rock piece in E: it sounds as though it's going to be 12-bar, but it's not ... it uses the 'Black Album' trick of dodging the dominant, using D instead of B. The words deal with the world of untrustworthy dealers, pointing out at the end that the sharks who scarper with our investments couldn't have done it without our greed in the first place. The music is quite nice and sleazy, with some understated organ underpinning a great vocal; there's an appetising piano solo but I don't feel that the material prompts anyone else particularly to rise to the occasion.

10 The Emperor's New Clothes
Brooker / Reid

Suddenly we are in pure Procol territory: Gary plays an acoustic piano (elsewhere it's mostly his Roland RD600, with Kurzweil reinforcement). sounding a bit like the instrument on The Milk of Human Kindness. Full of Liquorice John semitones, this Emperor is a slow, passionate song in C minor, with Brooker at his most European ... there's a Walpurgissy feel to the chords, which also have an unforced inventiveness about them: one might call this his 'naive style', as heard on Shine on Brightly: where the tune really seems free to meander where its internal geometry dictates. The words again deal with greed – Reid eschews the contrivance of rhyme in one or two telling spots – and the mutating refrain is perhaps reminiscent of Dylan. Interesting to note a reference to 'the well' here ... there's another in Shadow Boxed ... whereas the song that gives the album its Well title has not yet been recorded! There are dark drum rolls, and chilling bell-tree work from Mark Brzezicki, and Geoff Whitehorn's treated guitar plays a counterpoint that one might have expected from the organ: let's not forget he grew up as a Procol fan! At the ending, where we expect to hear Gary start another verse, and there's nothing, the effect is magic. The title (referring of course to the Andersen tale ... see here, here or here) would be hostage to fortune for the band, if the song were not so entirely delightful. (thanks, Niels-Erik, for the links)

11 So Far Behind
Brooker / Reid

Chris Copping gets a suitable tip of the Homburg on the liner credits for his part in reintroducing this 'lost song' into the Procol repertoire. The present version closely follows the format of the Brooker / Copping demo, which BtP unveiled at the first Palers' Convention in Guildford: Keith Reid's early words float beautifully over the Tamla-flavoured rhythms. The song's in D, with its eccentric bridge section a tone higher: Gary calls out 'Bridge' twice as if this were a song the band barely knew, but of course we've heard it live in recent years, albeit not with harmony vocals nor treated drum sounds. There's some delicious Hammond bubbling away here, and the rap-style declamations at the end are great fun; these did exist, in an earlier mix, at the start of the song too: it was a good call from producer Rafe McKenna to edit them thus. The composition of this song predates even A Robe of Silk, and it seems that these two early numbers are the only ones in the present collection dealing, however obliquely, with the romantic relationships that are the stock-in-trade of rock music.

12 Every Dog
Will Have His Day
Brooker / Fisher/ Reid

Not many bands have sung in such detail about canine ways ... but Reid, a former dog-owner, has given us hounds Salty and Old already. This hilarious throw-away starts with some real belting piano (the same heavy mood as in Brooker's SS Blues) and is strategically placed before the final track to lighten the mood, so that Matthew Fisher's hyper-intense instrumental will shine as brightly as possible by contrast. Though the title / hookline ultimately derives from Hamlet, this is a far-from-literary number, distinguished by mock howling from the Commander, and lines about puppies chewing their balls off. It is the lyricist's favourite cut on the album, and he was astonished and amused to learn that the title had any Shakespearean connection at all! But such fossils from other works have always been part of the interest of Procol Harum's work – they were Post-Modern before the fact – and this album is particularly interesting from that point of view ... can it be coincidence that the 'Great Balls of Fire' artwork is so reminiscent of the coloured backdrop for TV's University Challenge? Every Dog is a medium-paced rocker (similar in some ways to Typewriter Torment) which spends nearly all its time shuttling between chords of E and A, passing occasionally through D in another Butterfly Boys echo. It's curious, in view of these very limited musical resources, that this is the only piece whose composition is credited to Brooker and Fisher jointly: left to their own devices, they tend to come up with far more elaborate music. The song was apparently recorded with a small live audience, and features some neat drum fills from Mark: Gary is in great voice, and the texture lightens and thickens very much in the manner of a No Stiletto Shoes stormer ... it even seems to end extemporaneously. Surely this is the Lime Street Blues or Long Gone Geek of the album, and it would have made an intriguing B-side to Blink of an Eye in 45 rpm days; arguably it is a bit close to Wall Street Blues for the overall balance of the album: it has an even more steadfastly unadventurous melody, but is – to these ears – much more interestingly played.

13 Weisselklenzenacht
(The Signature) 

In an echo of the conclusion of Procol's début album comes this mighty Fisher instrumental – but despite the heavy Germanic moniker (a working title was 'Night of the Kitchen Sink' ... think 'Vessel-Cleansing Night' perhaps) this is not very Walpurgis-like. It does lead with the organ (on the same note as A Whiter Shade of Pale!); there are moving inside parts of liturgical flavour; it does have a relaxed piano episode midway (shades of Elvis's 1962 hit, I Can't Help Falling In Love); it does feature a terrific guitar solo or two; it does end with crashy detached chords; it does have a lot of dramatic contrast: but it's also baroque and full of chords where Repent is starkly Protestant and plain. The approach is rather more Grand Finale, with added bombast, and tambourine! The melody is beautiful, with the faintest hints of Samuel Wesley's anthem Lead Me Lord (mp3 here) as well as Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 3 (movt. 1, theme 2 ... mp3 here). The piece is fundamentally in C major, with some A minor sections, but Matthew incorporates some truly harrowing chord progressions. Matt Pegg contributes a lot to the forward pulse of the track, which features the band's best-ever recorded Hammond sound. I am hoping against hope that Matthew will be well-mixed in concert: because this is the number, if anyone ever doubted it, that tells us that Procol Harum are back as the fans truly want them: it's a Signature indeed.


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