Procol Harum : The Prodigal Stranger : Zoo Entertainment
In May 1967, the Beatles threw a preview party for a few friends to introduce the groundbreaking Sgt Pepper tapes. John Lennon, already bored with Lucy in the Sky and A Day in the Life, kept slipping away from the gathering to go to his car to do some drugs and listen to a new song he was absolutely crazy about. That song was Procol Harum's Whiter Shade Of Pale, one of the all-time great songs of that or any era.
This little anecdote indicates the place Procol Harum occupied (or should have occupied) in the pantheon of influential British rock bands of the 60s. Before Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, before Yes, before Tull, Procol Harum was inventing the 'art-rock' genre, stretching the boundaries of what rock music could do.
Funny thing, though. Floyd, the Moodies and the rest far eclipsed Procol Harum, on the charts and in concert. The band hung around for ten years and ten albums, even scoring a Top Five single with 1972's Conquistador, but they never achieved the level of success predicted for them (although guitarist Robin Trower established a decent following with his mid-70s solo career).
Now, nearly 15 years since the last Procol Harum release, the key members of the original line-up – Trower, vocalist / pianist Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher – have reunited. This could've been another sad case of a 60s dinosaur trying in vain to rekindle past glories, but instead, The Prodigal Stranger is an excellent effort, worthy of airplay as well as cash register sales.
The biography supplied by the record company understandably makes a big deal out of the return of Trower, so it's curious that he seems nearly invisible on all but two of the 12 songs here. All Our Dreams Are Sold features a tasty Trower solo, and Man with Mission has his familiar layered guitar sound throughout. Beyond those two, however, it's the Gary Brooker Band.
Not that that's bad. To the contrary, Brooker is a strong singer, with a range and vocal styling that rivals another British wunderkind, Stevie Winwood. Witness the soaring voice on Holding On and the way Brooker caresses the lyric on Learning to Fly [sic].
As a songwriter, Brooker may be even better than Winwood, or at least more diverse. He and lyricist Keith Reid have teamed up to produce a handful of tunes that achieve the improbable: they would've fit nicely on albums from their heyday but also seem vibrant and fresh for 90s radio. [No mention co-writers of Fisher, Noble or Thompson! (Ed)]
Such regal-sounding cuts as The Truth Won't Fade Away and King of Hearts recall the Live and Grand Hotel-era Procol Harum, while the jaunty One More Time and piano-driven A Dream In Every Home rival much of the material currently coming from brand-new artists.
Between Brooker's piano and Fisher's organ, this is clearly a keyboard dominated album, which is fine with me but might cause dissent among the Trower fans who might. have wished for more guitar histrionics.
You'd be wise to check out this stuff. It's the kind of album that might easily be ignored by the largely myopic program directors. The Prodigal Stranger deserves your attention.