Unlocking the Secrets of the Hive: some thoughts on the first 'Salvo'
A great title for a
compilation album – and this is a superbly produced package reissuing with
aplomb familiar material that we all know and love.
Well, is it worth buying for the Procol Harum aficionado who has everything? I think the answer has to be a 'yes', but let's all hope that this forthcoming reissue programme really is the definitive last word on the Procol Harum canon. Coming straight on the back of Union Square’s excellent reissue job of the Slade back catalogue I suspect this may be the case, as it is difficult to imagine how that reissue programme could have possibly been any better. Arguably that award-winning series is the most luxuriously produced set of CDs I have ever seen, superbly adapting the vinyl origins of the material into slick handsome little packages with state-of-the-art sound. Based on this, the omens for the forthcoming Procol programme are auspicious.
For the more casual listener, this double CD set offers a comprehensive overview of the Procol Harum studio catalogue over 36 years. Our own merchandising supremo Andrea Ciccioriccio must be breathing a sigh of relief at having a product like this to purvey at concerts when the most oft-repeated request from punters new to the Harum world beyond A Whiter Shade of Pale has been for a catch-all 'Best of …' compilation. With this in mind, the track-listing has been sensibly chosen so that more esoteric left-field nuggets such as Barnyard Story, Crucifiction Lane and The Thin End of the Wedge have been omitted to give immediacy to the track listing, grab the less informed listener, and keep the attention throughout the two very full discs. There is a lot of light and shade within the selections and the 'blues/hard rock' Harum is well represented alongside the classically referenced tone poems: good thinking, bookending Whaling Stories with The Devil Came from Kansas and Power Failure.
The diehards among us have the welcome issue of a previously unavailable version of Into the Flood, an excellent thirty-page booklet with a comprehensive essay based on new interviews with Brooker and Reid by 'Beyond the Pale' webmeister Roland Clare, generally sumptuous packaging and the best-sounding versions of these songs ever. Every album is represented with the exception of The Long Goodbye: perhaps RCA still own the rights to that one and it may have been problematic to include something. The definitive earlier versions of most of that album’s tracks are included here and maybe only the outlandish and fun orchestral version of Butterfly Boys might have been a welcome addition from that strange mid-1990’s curate’s egg (I still think the cover illustration of The Long Goodbye is one of the most baffling I have ever seen – answers on a postcard please).
Back on topic, both CDs from the Hive are nicely self-contained in that they both start in 1967 with respectively – and I suppose inevitably – A Whiter Shade of Pale and Homburg. Matthew Fisher closes the show on both discs with Repent Walpurgis and Weisselklenzenacht. In between, both CDs chart a chronology through the twelve albums with three tracks each from the eponymous 'Black' album, Shine on Brightly, Broken Barricades, The Well’s on Fire and The Prodigal Stranger. Home is represented by two tracks, Procol’s Ninth gets one (Pandora’s Box of course) and so does Something Magic, solely represented by its title track. The great riches of the mid-period Chrysalis years (my own personal favourites) Grand Hotel and Exotic Birds and Fruit score an impressive four each. In fact the whole of side one of Exotic Birds and Fruit is represented and it is difficult not to see why, given the quality of those four songs. The Edmonton set gets two, of course the hit Conquistador, and the live A Salty Dog. Mopping things up are the non-album tracks Long Gone Geek and the essential early singles fronting each CD. The Easter egg, slipped in late on Disc One is an expansive live North American version of Into the Flood. Clearly there was a real sense of occasion at the Edmonton retread in ’92, and the unremarkable demo which surfaced as a German 'B' side in the wake of The Prodigal Stranger release was quickly reworked as a spectacular full-tilt outing for orchestra, choir and band. The Brooker larynx is on top form here; a minor caveat with this track is the rather scrappy string ensemble playing during the 'hoedown' section although a guitar-friendly E major is not a comfortable key at all for strings! That aside, Into the Flood is a great treat to hear and turn up loud. It will be interesting to compare this version with the orchestral airing from Denmark in 2006 if and when that DVD sees the light of day. I haven’t heard the other live orchestral versions of Into the Flood often enough to comment on whether it has developed further since this spectacular début performance.
Sonically I think the treatment and remastering of this material is the best ever. Scrubbing up particularly well are the first-round Edmonton tracks, now really dynamic and live and the Shine on Brightly tracks where you can at last hear some bottom end. Simple Sister is spectacular and should send the neighbours scurrying for cover and Long Gone Geek has cleaned up well from its rather muddy original sound, but is still presented in mono, not stereo, the only visible slip in the detailed credits. Whaling Stories sounds epic: you can hear every detail of the choir at the end and the final 'k' of wake has never been heard with such precise clarity before. One genuinely weird anomaly which has come to light for the first time – at least to these ears – is now that you can hear the bass and bottom end of the piano properly in Shine on Brightly, the tutti sections sound slightly out of tune, while the verses slip back into key. I do wonder if this was a supreme piece of cleverness originally in 1968, because actually it gives something to the maddened psychedelic world that this song inhabits and is rather appropriate.
OK, what about the packaging of this reissue? Well it’s nothing short of excellent, and again looks the same as the Slade discs (which, incidentally are well worth investigating – check out the double 'B' Sides set which precedes this new Procol set in the Union Square catalogue: it has some great songs on it). Rather than the usual sterile plastic CD jewel cases, Union Square use glossy fold-out card covers, which are quite robust, with plastic inserts. These have a gloss finish and the booklet slides into the card front. The booklet itself has an extensive essay and some nice photographs (and just who is the mustachioed Elgarian looking gentleman hanging on the wall behind the band in the Something Magic era photo (left)? – answers on another postcard please!). Again as with the Slade issues, Union Square try to reproduce original vinyl labels and sleeves throughout the package to give as complete a picture as possible. All tracks are properly credited with all the correct dates and there is a complete and accurate listing of all the band personnel used on all the included recordings.
As to the two companion-piece singles, reissuing A Whiter Shade of Pale, the CD single version – with standard issue Whisky Train and All This and More – has the new AWSoP writing-credit, giving it a certain collectable quality: but as a fourth track it boasts a previously-unreleased recording of Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone). This rarity is also on the 'B' side of the 7-inch vinyl version of AWSoP. The familiar Magdalene, drenched in echo, sounds as if it was recorded in a large empty church. This out-take is the exact opposite and has an attractive and more leisurely chamber-music quality: Gary really sounds as if he is in the room talking to you around the piano on a Sunday evening after church and there is something very intimate about the 'count-in' at the beginning. Mandolin is used rather than acoustic guitar and the whole thing now sounds much more like something 'written, stoned, around the piano in the style of the Salvation Army' which – according to Gary – was the original intention! It’s a limited edition so get it before it disappears. All orders please to the 'Beyond the Pale' shop, the slickest internet music service on the planet!
In the absence of a new world tour and all-new studio set from the band, these new issues are as good a treatment of the existing material as one could wish for in this fortieth anniversary year and make one long for new recordings of recently aired gems: One Eye on the Future, Missing Persons, Sister Mary, and Victims of the Fury. Let's all hope that the complete reissue of the entire twelve extant studio sets over the next year or so might be capped off with a lucky thirteen!
More compilation albums | More reviews of this album