This sparkling review of Procol Harum ('The Black album') is reproduced, by kind permission of the author, from his own page; it's not often one finds a newcomer to the band writing with such interest and insight. Readers are referred also to Galpy's essay about Classic Rock.
Procol Harum ... plus
"Imagine my surprise
Thought I'd left it at home
But there's no doubt about it
It's my own tombstone."
Best song: A Whiter Shade of Pale or Conquistador
Ever heard the song A Whiter Shade of Pale? I'll answer this one for you: yes, you have. I don't care if you don't recognize the name, or if you vehemently deny any connection between you and it and swear that you were somewhere else that night. Listen to the first few seconds of the gorgeous-beyond-words keyboard melody and you're bound to say, "Hey, I've heard this somewhere before!" You'll be almost as likely to exclaim, "I've heard this before ... and wow, what a great song!" You see, this is one of those timeless emotionally gripping songs that I just don't believe anyone can dislike. As far as I know, it's universally appealing, as I have yet to meet a person who thinks it's less than absolutely great. And for good reason. The keyboard coats your senses like a glass of milk coats your stomach, and the sound is so incredible that it froze me in my tracks and practically forced me to listen the first time I put it on. The first few times, I noticed almost nothing else about the song. But then the rest of it started to emerge and touch my senses: the uneven and unrestrained, but highly expressive singing; the complete and perfect vocal melody; the mystical lyrics that, while not very meaningful, still enhance everything with their overall sound and vibe; and the high-frequency "shaking" of the keyboards during the more intense singing parts, much like what operatic singers' voices naturally do. And you know what, my words don't do the song any justice - just go listen to it immediately, and you'll thank me later, I promise you.
After you come to your senses, you'll probably wonder at least for a split moment who wrote this song. Well, the band's name is Procol Harum, if you really want to know. Pronounce and interpret the name how you will, but in Russian "procol" means piercing, while Harum looks and sounds like, well, a harem. Combine the two words and you should get a pleasant mental picture of how the eunuchs in the harem became such. In any case, chances are approximately 100% that you've never heard of this band, or ever heard anything else by them. Oh, and I should probably not omit this detail: they were NOT, by any means of the imagination, a one-hit wonder. Well, ok, commercially they kind of were, but in reality the band rules. Actually, I won't jump to premature conclusions, so let me instead state something that I'm much more qualified to disclose: at the very least, Procol Harum's début album rules - all of it, and not just A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Ok, as you should know by now, I normally don't give a rat's ass about music's "originality" in the most widely-understood sense. But with this album, I am forced to make a huge exception. Why? Because, with a bit of perspective, it becomes obvious that without A Whiter Shade of Pale and its ten buddies on the tracklist, we might not have had the pleasure of hearing some of the best music made by later art-rock bands. Let's see some examples here ... Tony Banks and Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson (Genesis, Yes, ELP, respectively) might have been more technically impressive [sic] on the keyboards than these guys, but Procol Harum set a precedent for them to successfully use various keyed instruments as centerpieces in rock bands. Repent Walpurgis was one of the first classical/rock fusions, undoubtedly helping provide Emerson with the main idea for ELP. Don't you hear a Robin Trower influence on Steve Hackett (Genesis), especially in Hackett's more aggressive guitar parts on, say, Nursery Cryme? And don't you hear a Gary Brooker influence on Peter Gabriel's singing (Genesis)? I know they probably just had similar unorthodox voices and singing styles, but perhaps Brooker made it more acceptable for Gabriel to be as expressive as he wanted to be with his weird voice. And is it just me, or do Conquistador and Repent Walpurgis directly contain pieces of the melodies of Pink Floyd's Echoes and King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic I? All of this stuff, and more, comes back to this album, which showcased some of the very best elements of the future giants of art-rock, except four years in advance. I'm sorry about all the blabber if you're a relative beginner. In that case, all you need to know is, very simply, that Procol Harum's début was the first serious art-rock record ever made. Well, there was also the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed the same year, but that was a whiter shade of pale in comparison with this one here - far cheesier and too lightweight, no contest.
But don't think, even for one second, that I'm giving this album such a high grade for influential value alone, because I believe that along with being one of the first ambitious, artsy albums, it is also one of the very best of all time. Hell, A Whiter Shade of Pale by itself is almost enough to make this a classic [The original album of course, did not include this track]. Sure, I admit that none of the other songs achieve quite the same indescribable level of trance-inducing quality, but to some extent they all share the same wonderful attributes of that song, and more. I think that the main compliment I can give this album is that somehow the band managed to make it perfectly balanced, in many different ways. For example, it is often mellow because most of the songs are medium-paced and prominently rely on both a piano and an electric keyboard instrument, but there is a lot of power in them as well, much of it coming from the distorted, yet melodic guitar of the aforementioned Robin Trower - I love the guy's style. Moreover, the album is definitely artsy, but also poppy, and the songs are pretty short and to the point - you won't find any unnecessary wanking here; and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics, courtesy of a guy named Keith Reid (whose duties in the band consisted solely of writing them), are complex and beautiful, yet they don't come off as pretentious, but rather as very resonant. Finally, the album has a serious vibe overall, but it doesn't weigh on you too heavily. Besides, all of the serious stuff is interspersed with a couple of funny lightweight songs: the childish Mabel and the theatrical Captain Clack [sic], both with melodies worthy of at least "Beatles-filler".
And the more serious stuff? There's Conquistador, an incredibly powerful, fast piece that's nearly as good as A Whiter Shade of Pale. Granted, I have only heard a live rendition of it, which might in fact be better than the original. But in any case, the version I have has orchestral arrangements, and they are the most naturally fitting and simply the best orchestral arrangements I have ever heard in a rock piece. Conquistador kicks off with galloping psycho violins (Larks' Tongues in Aspic style, as mentioned) and trombones, with horns wrapping a battle call around them, and then quiets down to a nearly-inaudible level for a couple of seconds. And then, BOOM!, the drums and incredible melody and singing kick in, with an orchestral background and the horns reappearing from time to time. And the lyrics - oh, the lyrics! They are something in this song, let me tell you. The two instrumental breaks are just phenomenal, too, the first with a virtuostic guitar that plays perfectly off the orchestra, and the second becoming just an enormous high-pitched keyboard crescendo. And it all ends with the same battle call played just by the horns, leaving me totally breathless and speechless and sometimes with a tear in my eye.
Perhaps the rest of the songs don't deserve a paragraph-long description each, but they're great nonetheless. She Wandered Through the Garden Fence is just phenomenal pop with floating, twirling keyboards, which always makes me think of the mystical album cover. And so does the morbid Something Following Me, essentially a blues tune that only sounds like art-rock. Who knew blues could sound this good? And what a weird, yet perfect combination of two seemingly opposite genres! And there's another "art-blues" song on here, Cerdes, beginning with an ominous bassline and featuring mystical Odyssey-like lyrics and fascinatingly indifferent singing by Brooker. Overall, the melody does sound like a slight ripoff of A Whiter Shade of Pale with lots of great guitar soloing slapped around it, but it's different enough to be a classic in its own right. Later on, we have A Christmas Camel, based on a prominent piano riff and enhanced by a complete, melodic guitar solo. And to close out the album, there's the aforementioned classical-sounding instrumental Repent Walpurgis, which is the song out of all of these that resembles A Whiter Shade of Pale the most in style. And a contemplative, beautifully sad piece it is, with Trower saving his best guitar moments for last. Wow. What a perfect finish.
Let me tell you, I really, really need more of these guys' music. Like, desperately. And supposedly, many of Procol Harum's other albums are in the same style, which is a very, very good thing, I imagine. What I can't imagine is how it could possibly get better than this album ... but we'll see.