Procol Harum

the Pale 

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'Novum': New Lamps for Old

A personal view by Richard Beck, for 'Beyond the Pale' • May 2017

Richard Beck is a writer and satirist working in Memphis, Tennessee. As a musician he was a founder-member of the Palers' Band and made distinguished contributions
on lead guitar, bass guitar and occasional vocal in Guildford UK (2000), Manchester, UK (2001), Hollywood, USA (2003) and Lejre, Denmark (2006)

Prior to release, the only preview of this album’s content was the collection of thirty-second samples on the pre-order page of Amazon. After my first listen, it bears noting that this album is seriously ill-served by such tempting peep-holes, which I listened to and will admit left me completely unprepared for what actually awaited on the other side of the showroom curtain.

In my humble opinion, Novum is not simply a collection of new songs, but a fiftieth year bookend to their eponymous seminal album which plants a ‘fuck you’ flag of defiance into a musical landscape where a self-imposing quasi-institution like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame persistently refuses to offer a single branch in their family tree in which this band may nest. It is a manifesto written in music and verse.

From its first recording, A Whiter Shade of Pale, which begat the band-titled premier album, Procol Harum has been a group veiled beneath varying shadows of folklore, mystery, cultish obscurity, and ultimately legal controversy. Born into a fledgling musical genre that was just beginning to push against the boundaries of commercial and musical conventions of that time, they staked out their corner of that universe with a peculiar musical persona and a distinctive sound often encapsulated as a monolithic holy trinity of "the voice, the organ, and the words." However, The Smothers Brothers more aptly introduced them: "This is an American television début of the exciting sounds created by an English group of poets and musicians. Ladies and gentlemen, meet and experience Procol Harum." Perfect, yes?

History and literature are strewn with tales of the fates and fortunes of poets and musicians alike. Novum rejects the compendiums of both with a bold assertion of authority to define their own legacy – thank-you-very-much – by shattering the template of five decades. Beginning with the recruitment of a new wordsmith and retooling the standard Brooker-Reid metallurgy, instead alloying words and music in real time, with Pete Brown present on the foundry floor. And ending with Gary Brooker’s benediction of total collaborative input from his road-tempered brothers-in-arms; each a steely-eyed poet and seasoned musician in his own right. Duly deputized, they deliver a rich tapestry of sounds and synchronous invention to overlay the defining elements we have come to expect from Procol Harum.

Geoff Dunn is pitch perfect by any measure. Matt Pegg is an indispensable Titan on bass. These two chaps together are a tempered-steel chassis. Josh Phillips’s hand is everywhere you look. There is a wealth of his gifts in these tracks. And I don’t want to hear another word about Geoff Whitehorn’s restraint on these tracks. The man is a consummate professional who, like a pressure cooker, knows when and where to release the steam … but stand clear when he opens the valve up to eleven. Finally there is Gary Brooker MBE. He is still hitting the high notes that all his contemporaries gave up on years ago. He also single-handedly saved the key of E-flat from virtual extinction.

I Told on You
This a great opener. We get a preview of this emperor’s new threads. The multi-faceted vocal harmonies we never knew were there. The savory rock and soul, that spent decades in a Bitch’s Brew marinade that defies bottling because it just gets better in the vat.

Last Chance Motel
This brought to mind parallels with The Amazing Rhythm Aces. In their heydays of the late seventies and early eighties they sidled up as close to country music as I could bear, but I liked them immensely. Identical instrumentation to Procol Harum and The Band, a distinctive signature voice, and clever lyrics combined with masterful ensemble arrangements should have carried them further; but they defied pigeon-holing because of their diversity within different but related roots of jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and shades of bluegrass. They reconstituted in the nineties and live on today by the devotion of a cult fan base. Like I said – parallels!

Last Chance Motel might be the modern ‘Third-Rate Romance’ and would fit seamlessly into many contemporary country stars’ set lists. Last Chance’s vocal harmonies alone should put the Eagles on notice that there’s a new kid in town. With this first-rate song, Procol Harum checks another box in their ‘middle finger’ manifesto to the critic class in Musicology 101.

Image of the Beast
This band is a leopard with new spots, and this tune is a kindred bluesy beast whose lyrics mark territory with piss and vinegar. Verses prowl, a chorus growls and the music has you in its grip.

Rhythm and blues, a lick or two of jazz and a relentless groove with assertive dynamics: it is all here. Crunchy guitar chords punch things up, but given Whitehorn’s distinctive muscular elasticity, he delivers fluid leads of pure liquid soul (the man is a force of nature). The whole of this band far exceeds the sum of its parts; evoking at times a vintage jazz orchestra sound. These lads have some serious game.

Never one to leave good metaphor hanging out there for too long – the Beast finishes with a decisive pounce. Really.

Throughout their career Procol Harum have recorded several examples of what can be called anti-war songs and each has stood as such by specifically different measures. Each one has had its own distinct tone, or its particular dimensional point of view, or unique musical structure by which it reaches out to a listener for connection. Considering the entire pantheon of artists and their many anti-war songs; after decades of circulating within our culture, one thing remains clear – they aren’t getting the job done. One more is not likely to make the difference. Yet there is something to say about this one.

Soldier is an extraordinary work of Art. Extraordinary, yes. Art, definitely; when one considers that good Art allows one to experience the act of projecting into the work more than perhaps the artist ever intended. For me, Soldier was neither of those things initially. But during repeated listening, it revealed its secrets to me.

The song is stately and simple, yet elegant. The music is beautiful without complexity; sounding somewhat distant while as close by as a memory. The voice you hear is one of maturity – in years and in experience, and in temperament that begs your trust. What Soldier has to say is neither preached nor taught, but is revealed through the feelings it evokes in conjunction with the hypnotic, ambient soundscape into which the narrative of the words is embedded. That seductive symbiosis lends an almost cinematic quality to the listening experience. Surrender yourself and in time you begin to see the details your imagination is projecting. You begin to feel the panorama of pain; of terror; of futility. Of violence and deliberation and inhumane calculations. Feel the blood and the sweat and the tears – the treasure of human souls – expended in the uniquely Sapiens primal ritual of destruction that ultimately elicits an overwhelming sadness that we have come to ignore, or have simply forgotten. And that shame that you feel is nowhere in the song itself. It is in you.

Soldier will let you see and will let you feel ... something. If you let it. And THAT is extraordinary!

This rollicking number is a zydeco-laced throwback to the classic Procol humor of their first album.

As I understand it, Mabel and GC Clack sold their pub, married their fortunes together and sailed off to look for America – in New Orleans. There they rented a shotgun duplex in Treme’ district and, with leftover cash, they purchased a Creole food truck and spend weekends working the Cajun festival circuit.

This is Mr Clack bitching about the yuppie refugees of Wall Street who made a carpetbaggers’ fortune in real estate after Katrina, and built their home next door. GC clearly has some issues.

The disgruntled Clacks are rumored to have made a down-payment on a distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky and plan to spend weekends working the competitive barrel-rolling circuit in that region. It’s a bourbon thing, or so I am told. What can I say? It’s Kentucky, for Pete’s sake!

Sunday Morning
An elegiac anthem with working-class staying power and enough everyman appeal to rank as the first released single. And like a fine wine it may require its own vocabulary to describe it. But suffice it to say that its melody lingers; like that distinctive flavor you’ve recently encountered and can’t quite get out off your mind. A lovely, lovely piece of work.

This song takes its namesake out to the alley for a cordial, bare-knuckled chin wag. How shall I put this? Like getting tag teamed by Vito Corleone and Luca Brazzi. And the way they tell it, Businessman has it coming to him.

Gary tries to be reasonable with the guy, but can’t resist letting the band land a few choice blows ... just for emphasis.

This song strides through the verses, then stomps in the chorus, but the whip comes down in the turnarounds and transitions. Whitehorn plays guitar – here and elsewhere throughout the album – with the fury of a man who just shaved with a .009-gauge E-string before a scorching splash of English Leather to the neck. The tight interplay of keys and guitar keeps the conversation compelling throughout. A rock solid two thumbs up – and one in the eye for the Businessman.

Can’t Say That
Long Gone Geek all grow’d up and packing serious brass balls. A churning urn of burning funk from an ensemble of seasoned veterans with an amalgam of steamrolling blues DNA shared in part with that dew-rag pated, grey rocker looking up from a sweating mug of Budweiser and peering through a fog of tobacco-tinged Alabama beer-hall boogie-shuffling exhaust; looking for ghosts of southern rock and then opining with a belch of bellicosity: Ain’t no fuckin’ way these are Limey musicians.’

Uh huh. Who knew, right? Say dude; yer ol’ lady wants you to dance with her!

The Only One
That whispering voice, which haunts the pensive meditations on irreconcilable concepts of mortality lurking in the agnostic corners of many of minds, and recognizing that they are much closer to a journey’s end than to its distant beginning.

A thought-provoking and medicinal ballad, with a powerful music score to make it all go down with the sweet comfort of a parent’s love.

To punctuate the eleventh-hour gift of this album, Gary closes with an Ode of naked allegiance to an unsung heroine who embodies the idiom, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman.’

In solitary recital at microphone and piano, supremely romantic is this introspective paean to his wife, Franky, the ‘French’ girl who gave him a chance. Hitching her heart, her fortunes, and her destiny to the progenitor and champion of the musical legacy of Procol Harum. Her time is now.

With his own fingers he plays chords on swooning heartstrings. By his own words he keeps a secret promise hopefully fulfilled. In his own unvarnished Stradivarian voice – so richly soulful, yet calloused by the years – he sings, with the heart of a younger man, a hymn of devotion unimagined at its youthful beginning. And in his own time, he woos his entwined better-half in this life, with this uniquely human tribute, whose codicil is the poetic sigh of a bedroom lamp switching off.

Thanks, Richard: magisterial!

  About the album Get Novum: Amazon UK / Amazon USA


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