Reviewed by Charlie Allison for BtP
It’s been a long time coming (since The Well’s on Fire, 2003), anticipated (reviews appearing here weeks ago from the privileged with advance copies) and (most importantly) enthusiastically endorsed by the Commander himself.
The excellent cover art – by Julia Brown – pays homage to the first, Black and White, album – the music therein is not black and white, but full of contemporary colour (as indeed it was on that seminal first album fifty years ago).
Novum is unmistakably Procol Harum, yet sounds like no other album the group has ever made. I think the best description would indeed be 'contemporary' – and it is with pride I reckon the band still have a valid fresh statement to make in 2017 (as well as continuing to treat us to their fantastic catalogue of material!)
The previous two albums – The Prodigal Stranger and The Well’s on Fire – each had a feel of the times in their production, and Novum continues this tradition: Dennis Weinreich’s sound here is just fantastic. There is a clarity and immediacy which is upfront in projecting the singer of the songs and the major instrument soloing at that moment, while allowing us to listen to a lot going on in the background to support this.
Let’s go through Novum track by track.
I Told on You gives the album immediate impact – an opening song that could easily have been the single. Starts with tinkly ‘waterfall’ piano and cymbals, before Geoff Whitehorn’s waspish guitar makes itself apparent, cutting across a very catchy melody and its simple message in the lyrics – 'I told on you, 'cos I heard you praying'. Gary’s singing is stunning, voicing with great clarity, right up front, bluesy and authoritative. Geoff’s guitar is prominent in its punctuation – weaving and responding, almost analogous to the complementary organ in AWSoP. All the time there’s a wash of organ, a piano clunking along and a terrific funky bottom end. We hear a lot of backing vocals (according to Dennis these are strictly in-house – many great songs of the ’60s had uncredited BVs by the likes of the Ivy League!) As we go on, Gary is increasingly spare, but bluesier. There is a break for a short incisive solo from Geoffrey (‘Tell me about it’ encourages Gary) and a short organ contribution from Josh near the end. The extended instrumental part comes to a somewhat abrupt finish. A brilliant track – very melodic, and with real soul. Bodes well!
Last Chance Motel could be equally at home on Country & Western stations. There is the feeling of a comic element, evoking memories of contests to find the most strange country song titles. Gary voices this one differently too, with a slight Southern lilt; and we have excellent piano, a sliding Whitehorn and good back-up vocals from the band. Lovely dénouement verse. Could not have done this any better.
Image of The Beast, the first of two consecutive tracks with Procol-teasing intros! This one has that organ from Quite Rightly So, but soon goes very jazzy! Great modern organy sounds and nice licks from Geoff. One or two interesting chord and timing surprises and quality instrumental breaks, where each of the principals gets featured. The band is really cooking – though it’s not any Procol Harum we have ever heard before. Maybe a good time to mention the rhythm section – Matt and Geoff (no, not Mutt and Jeff!) who are superb throughout the entire project. Rumbling bass notes abound and Geoff Dunn has some interesting rolls, including at the very end. The message in the song is a negative appraisal of the corporate world, continuing a theme Keith Reid explored in The Well’s on Fire. Three tracks in and Gary has had three different vocals – blues, C&W, jazz. An amazing man!
Soldier has a chugging synthesiser start which reminds me of Garden Fence, without the drum intro. It continues in the same vein but here Gary’s tone is sad and reflective, exactly right for a song which explores the purpose and futility of war. The band comes in stronger in the chorus, where’s there talk of thunder and rain and 'I’m through with the fighting, all the terror and the pain'.... a strong message from the Commander. Presume the silver birds that come screaming are missiles? A good chorus, a credible anti-war song. Geoff Dunn really makes his mark on this one. I like it a lot. Good organ and guitar on the play-out with a hint of ‘horns’. All from Quality Street so far, and this Number 4.
Don’t Get Caught didn’t stand out for me on the internet, but in the context of the running order here, it works fine. Gary has several voices on this album and chooses a good tone here. Lyrically it explores a similar theme to the Motel song (where they did get caught!). The band steam in during the choruses and at one point there’s a brief trademark Procol organ from Josh. This must be the track with Procol’s most developed in-band backing vocals ever, with some real highs – 'Don’t get caught!' must have been sung by a band member with very tight trousers! (and mixed from one speaker to the other in the final moments)
Neighbour: Procol’s East London sound, first heard on Mabel in 1967 – think Small Faces or Chas and Dave. Starts with an acoustic strum (not a ukulele like the Festival Hall), Gary plays accordion and we are treated to a charming song-and-response pub ditty that would have not been amiss on a Madness album. Gets more jokey and exaggerated as it goes along. Some noises off (‘do me a favour!’) Short and sweet. Laughter at the end shows Gary enjoyed it!
Sunday Morning: that jolly levity is followed by this masterpiece. It becomes clear that the single spliced half of verse two with half of verse three, but here it is expanded to its full 5½-minute length. I am still getting emotional listening to it – there’s also a nice swell of ‘’cello, violins and horns’ from Josh prior to the second verse to tug at the heart-strings. Am I identifying with the lyric of this near-retired guy, or is it the melodic progression which gets me? I particularly love it when Geoff’s guitar makes itself known in the choruses, especially in the last one with that incisive George Harrison moment. And Gary sings for Britain here. He says he is acting a role, but I am sure he must identify with some of the sentiments? This might not have drama of the big Procol tracks of yesteryear but, make no mistake, this will be one of the greats.
Businessman: we follow quiet reflection with a harder-rocking introduction (good riff!). This tale of the financial world (‘everything’s a deal’) has verses with interlay of piano and guitar, a back sound of spacey arpeggios, before the harder-edged choruses in which Gary enunciates the word ‘businessman’ with definite distaste. Must mention the cowbell, which will delight Procol fans of a certain age (that’s all of us!). The song plays on with a series of solo spots, notably a wailing Mr Whitehorn. Bit of a fairground ride finish a couple of times. Possibly Pete Brown’s most direct lyric so far – he’s doing a varied album too!
Can’t Say That is a driving rocker about your various bosses during life (including managers!). Great guitar, driving bass and drums, keyboard washes and then brilliant solos from Josh and Geoff – often working together. Bowls along at a frantic pace until it slows at one point where Geoff and Gary spar and Matt plays some fine bass figures. Some interesting chords and rhythms all through. Another track with Ghost Train scary overtones at times. At the end we hear a tinny sound coming in, which then provides the finish as the cacophony fades away.
The Only One is a puzzling religion song – a couple of the great world orders get a mention, but it’s the whole concept of the individual who ‘puts it there, dreams it up myself’. Starts with Gary, piano and some Geoff in small wails. We hear some patently Procol organ in the background, then Geoff goes off with a guitar that sounds half electric, half Hawaiian, half acoustic. The song builds to a huge high point, then towards the end goes quieter and reflective. Maybe both the theme and central melody are not as convincing for me so far on a few listens. If this was to be the big climactic song on the album, it is not up there for me yet. I’m working on it by playing it again and again!
Third Day Update
I found by accident a ‘device’ for getting to know the songs quicker. My iPod transfer went wrong and they play alphabetically in the car. You very quickly get to know them individually, although it's patently obvious they are in a completely wrong running order! The Only One was the only song that took me a while for me. I had to hear that for three days before it clicked. I got all the other tracks much quicker. Now I understand the quieter Strangers in Space finish is in keeping with the Biblical/metaphysical theme of the song. Maybe I was hoping or expecting a 'Procol at full throttle classical finish' – some sort of instrumental coda? But in truth I see now that the conclusion to this track is just perfect ... well judged. Now at peace.
Somewhen completes the collection with our leader alone at his piano. Starts with the church bells on piano (? the wedding day?). It’s a most personal and beautiful tribute-song by Gary to Franky – a declaration of love past, present and future. This is quietly powerful and sincere, but hopefully we are not hearing the valedictory song from the Commander (that click at the end is not to be the final OFF switch!)! Like for Gary and Franky on a personal level, we hope for many happy years to come!
That’s just one day with the disc. A couple of listens to the new stuff, some proper context for the ones which leaked out over the net which I have played over and over in the past days and weeks. The verdict is that this is a very talented band of musicians, playing as an ensemble with drive and incredible technique and capturing a sound produced by them and Dennis Weinreich which is exceptional in its clarity and power.
The outstanding ‘Man of the Match’ (a concept I have taken from one on-line reviewer) has to be Gary Brooker with his singing, good all through but quite brilliant on several of the tracks ... up to a level of ‘never heard him better’ on two or three of the songs. Told On You wins my vote for capturing the full talent of our beloved leader, even more than the more emotional ballads. His variety in ‘acting’ the songs is only exceeded by the power and sometimes tenderness of his singing.
I do undoubtedly need more time to assimilate these songs into my DNA, and I hope to be up to speed before the Edinburgh gig on May 6. Novum is a collection of songs, akin to A Salty Dog, The Prodigal Stranger and The Well’s on Fire. Lyrically it's far from Keith Reid’s early whimsy and later social commentaries. Pete Brown’s lyrics are nothing like his earlier Cream/Jack Bruce works but they stand up today for their individual integrity and together for their variety.
Now it’s a case of hearing this album more and more until the whole is just as familiar as, say, The Well’s on Fire ... and also hearing how they expose and develop these songs in the live shows. I would expect that we’ll hear a lot of what they judge to be the best ones and some may get scant exposure. They all sound on record like the live band.
The band, lyricist and producer have also had one achievement for which we must be grateful – they have pushed Gary in new directions from where Procol has been previously, and he in turn has brought his stature to the work of today’s band.
They have indeed celebrated the Fiftieth Year of Procol Harum by showing the band is alive and kicking and capable of creating a lot that is new, different and definitely classy. There is great joy in hearing the new songs, if not quite tearing out our souls. Of course, this album will grow on this reviewer and will grow on you too.
I’ll finish with a corny cliché. In our house Novum is my wife’s brand of sewing machine. In Novum Procol Harum have stitched together an excellent tapestry of songs with a number of interesting threads, an embroidery to be proud of. Hope they will explore many new patterns in the future.
I should be shot for that. In the Last Chance Motel?
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Procol Harum albums