Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Broken Barricades

Mike Saunders and Melissa Mills in 'Rolling Stone', 10 June 1971


To fans of the group, Procol Harum's history has been like this: an excellent first album, Procol Harum, a shaky and very uneven second album, Shine On Brightly, and then a very good and completely self-assured third LP, A Salty Dog. When Matthew Fisher then left the group, the question for many was whether his departure would jeopardize Procol Harum's distinctive piano-organ sound.

In a way it did, for on Home, the group's fourth album, they made no blatant attempt to recreate their old sound, but rather indicated a direction toward a style without as much organ playing; and they pulled it off quite well. Two of the songs in their new style, both organ-less and worlds less pompous than the PH of the past, ranked along with the huge list of their best: Still There'll Be More and Your Own Choice.

Overall, Home was yet another impressive album, coming just a shade under Procol Harum and A Salty Dog in quality. Most interesting though, was an internal redefinition on Home: Robin Trower's role within the group (both in amount of solo space and general role as guitarist) was much smaller than on past albums. No trifling matter, this, for Trower had been among the best guitarists extant in rock: using a sparse yet incredibly intense technique, he had done on Shine On Brightly and A Salty Dog what Eric Clapton endlessly bullshitted about but never did play with the emotional intensity of the blues in a rock framework. But on HOME the Brooker-Fisher-Trower axis of power seemed to have met its end, with Gary Brooker, a fine singer and songwriter, now seeming to be the definite leader of the group and the dominant member on record as well.

Broken Barricades, the fifth Procol Harum album: the last three songs on side one create a typically good PH groove, but the rest of the album is, at this point in the group's career, a disaster. Over half of Gary Brooker's songs (five of eight on the LP) are incredibly sluggish, Robin Trower has reduced himself to a sort of anonymous everyman's heavy guitar style, and BJ Wilson's drumming is unremarkable for the first time since Shine On Brightly. The sound of the band is muddy, dense, and lethargic, lacking the kick of Whiskey Train or About To Die, which were also dense but forceful, not plodding.

Procol Harum never rocked anyway, but here their fantastic melodies and punch are gone, save the aforementioned songs on side one and Robin Trower's Poor Mohammed, which in closing the album is the first noteworthy cut on the whole second side. "Shit," as Greil Marcus once said "this IS tragic."

Many have not liked Procol Harum, especially within influential critical circles. If Nik Cohn's one-sentence dismissal of them was "As for Procol Harum, they made one classic record, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, and then kept reviving it under different names and disguises until everyone got sick to death of it," then The Sound Of The City and Jon Landau's "The State of Rock 1970" article failed to mention PH at all and Robbie Robertson's brusque comment was "I've heard vaguely a few records by them, and they're still singing that same song."

Quite possibly, much of the reason for so many's abhorrence of Procol Harum may have lain in the bloated pretensions, both lyrically and sometimes musically, intrinsic to the original group's basic posture and stance; the half-disastrous, half-great In Held 'Twas I [sic] On Shine On Brightly is a perfect example. Yet now that the pretensions have mostly departed along with Matthew Fisher, what's left here seem to be a lethargic boredom.

Broken Barricades is one of the most enigmatic, puzzling albums to come down the track in a long time, simply because of the high quality of the albums preceding it. It would be easy to speculate that Procol Harum has of late been overly influenced (for the worse) by the whole Led Zeppelin scene, but hopefully, it's more than that. Because if stylistic originality, consistency, and impressive songwriting in bulk are the standards of a great group, Procol Harum has often been one of the very best post-1966 rock groups, though Broken Barricades doesn't show it.

Thanks to Marvin Chassman for contributing this

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