Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale

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Something Magic

Contemporary album review


PD, in Beat magazine, a musicians' publication from the 1970s.

The tenth album from these grand old men of rock in as many years cannot be described in superlatives, but it would be wrong to regard this as a symptom of musical decline. You have to look at these things in perspective: if Something Magic was a debut album from a group of previous unknowns, how differently we would listen to it. This is always the problem with well-established bands: the more established they are, the more they become easy targets for the shafts of 'music critics'.

That said, the album has a very definite atmosphere to it, well captured by the gothic, surreal illustration on the sleeve. An underlying menace has always been a feature of Procol's tunes but never more so than here. And this is one of the indications of a mature band. With a large cannon [sic] of material behind them the way is open for greater subtlety, since we are already familiar with the various obsessions, affectations and sense of humour the band carry along with them.

The title track is what you might call an 'instant classic' typically gloomy Reid lyrics and a vocal line meshing in consummate taste with the orchestra. Yes, this flourishes all the band's trademarks in your face. Typical without being in the least corny. That takes style. Skating on Thin Ice is the best track on the side, with some truly admirable sound effects on synth and phased snare drum. It is also the best orchestrated of all the songs congratulations to bassist Chris Copping here. The rest of the side is also well up to scratch, though not remarkable. Wizard Man, for example, is their single and includes some thin Dylan-style organ from Pete Solley.

The entire second side is taken up with the epic Worm and the Tree, and it is here that things begin to go wrong. Gary Brooker does not sing the words but speaks them in a solemn, strident, almost school-masterly tone. 'But is there a moral or a meaning?' the press handout asks. I don't know. Whether there is or not doesn't really matter though, because let's face it, the words are pure doggerel. How about this for a sample: 'Now years may have passed since this tale I have told / Yet the truth of this story does still seem to hold ...' Oh, come on, Keith you can do better than that. And often Brooker's inspiration too seems to fail him, viz the corny descending chord-sequence in the second part of the story. In the last bit, however, there is much pulling-up of socks as the orchestra comes striding to the rescue, and things generally finish on a positive note, though the ominous little opening phrase on the high notes of the piano creeps in at the end. But what does it all mean? OK it's a fable, but it's still doggerel. There's no getting away from it.

On the other hand we may all snap our fingers one day, about three years after buying the album, as the mystery suddenly becomes clear in a flash of inspiration. Until that time, Something Magic doesn't quite live up to its name but will at least keep your foot tapping for 40 minutes.


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