Doug Collette • 22 April 2017 • All About Jazz • online here
Every once in a great while a band with some history and,
usually, no small pedigree, will reignite the chemistry that begat its sound
and do so without over-obvious replication of its essential style. Neil
Young and Crazy Horse found themselves in such a rarefied space with
Ragged Glory (Reprise, 1990) as did the Allman Brothers Band in the
With Novum, Procol Harum is similarly positioned. Cognisance of the fiftieth anniversary of the band's breakthrough with Whiter Shade of Pale has led perennial vocalist and keyboardist Gary Brooker to marshal the resources of a lineup that's been stable for some two decades and, as a further catalyst, utilise the distinctive lyric-writing skill of Pete Brown, who collaborated in that role with Cream.
A group more glib than this one might contrive the title of this record—literally defined as "new thing"—into an updated moniker. But it's a healthy detachment from what they do that allows Procol circa 2017 to create in such a way they're free of any self-consciousness on tracks like I Told On You. Fronting this stable a lineup, Brooker and Co [sic] has the advantage of playing for their audience without playing down to them with this, their first album in fourteen years. The cover art hearkening to, but also modernising, graphics from their early days is not just symbolic.
In fact, it's a metaphor for music that, at its best on tracks like a stately, uplifting The Only One, has all the earthy grandeur of its past plus the bond of the current lineup. The quintet's solidarity in the studio is altogether remarkable and it's no coincidence that a fretboard image is almost as prominent on the cover as that of a keyboard: the heavy guitar of Geoff Whitehorn favorably reminds that Robin Trower was an original member of Procol Harum.
But Brooker's piano is even further to the forefront there and on Last Chance Motel, giving this track a lilt accentuated by group vocal harmonies. The arrangement of Image of the Beast, in contrast, emphasises Josh Phillips on Hammond organ, the somewhat ominous tones of which rest easily with brighter chord changes. The following track, Soldier, has slightly more colorful lyric images, suggesting just how crucial is sic] wordsmith Pete Brown's contributions [the words of Soldier are by Gary Brooker] to the pieces on which he's participates [sic].
The lyrics, however, might not matter so much without the distinctive tones of Gary Brooker's voice. There's a regal bearing to his singing, to be sure, but it also accommodates the whimsy of songs like Don't Get Caught (almost) as easily as the wistful tones of Sunday Morning. Needless to say, the keyboardist/composer excels on Can't Say That as well, the cut on Novum that hews most closely to the blues and soul influences at the heart of Procol Harum.
It may be the most literal reference to this storied band's roots, but it's hardly the only one here, which is what makes the record so worthy of attention, as an extension of a worthy legacy as well as a laudable work on its own terms.
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Procol Harum albums