Best song: As Strong As Samson
It's odd, but for all of Procol Harum's renown as masters of 'symphonic majesty' or whatever, the albums out of their 'classic' period that I enjoy the most are the ones with a high number of relatively 'normal' rock and pop songs. As Gary explains in the liner notes of my copy, 'If we had any particular concept on this album it was: 'Hey, we've done enough orchestral crap. Let's get back to playing more like a band!'' Some fans may lament the simpler, more down-to-earth nature of most of the tracks on here (in other words, it's nothing like Grand Hotel), but let's not forget that while Brooker was best known as a genius in weaving rock and classical ideas together, he was also a master 'conventional' songwriter in his own right. As usual, there are some tracks I'm not wild about, but the number and quality of hooks throughout most of the album is just unbelievable, and combined with the high energy level and increased relevance of Grabham's guitar, this can't help but lead to a wonderful listening experience.
This experience kicks off with the opening Nothing but the Truth, which is built around a marvelous set of piano riffs and has, thanks to healthy amounts of both strings and guitar, quite a nice texture, one that definitely reminds you you're listening to Procol Harum and yet doesn't sound at all like a retread of previous ideas. It also helps that there are a few very unpredictable melody twists in the middle, and the end result is a three-minute pop song with more ideas than most bands could hope to come with for thirty. Similarly, the following Beyond the Pale has its own fascinating keyboard theme, with another great melody acting as counterpoint and vaguely adding to the tension near the end, until it too crashes down at about the three-minute mark and leaves me feeling much more satiated than the mere running time might suggest it could.
After the 'lightweight' opening duo, the album takes a slight turn for the more serious, but that's definitely not a complaint. Strong as Samson ultimately turns out as the big highlight of the album, as it manages to take a perfectly lovely, somewhat anthemic verse melody and then outdo itself by throwing in one of the best melody twists I've ever heard. No, really, I'm serious here - the melody in the 'ain't no use in preachers preaching when they don't know what they're teaching' part is one of the most perfect, shattering, totally cathartic hooks I've heard in my life, and that it gets repeated in different variations during the coda only makes me that much happier. As for its follow-up, The Idol, it might not be able to quite live up to Samson, but it's still an absolutely wonderful, gorgeous anthem about false Gods being exposed for the frauds they are (at least, that's what I'm guessing its about), not to mention that the guitar solo in the extended ending is absolutely superb.
None of the other compositions are quite as unbelievably brilliant as the opening quartet, but most of them have their good sides nonetheless. I could live without The Thin End of the Wedge, which tries to hard to be 'menacing' without remembering to be 'entertaining,' but everything else is quite satisfactory. My favorites are the two straight-up rock songs, both of which amply show that much of Procol's greatness in fusing rock and classical stems from the fact that they really knew how to do 'normal' rock. Monsieur R. Monde actually comes from the début album sessions (it was a bonus track on Whiter Shade, remember?), and while I wasn't particularly wowed there, this version gives Grabham plenty of opportunities to get his ya-yas out, while Brooker reminds us that piano can rock just as much as guitar if it really wants to. Better still, though, is the ending Drunk Again (not on the original album, but a B-side tacked on to the CD reissue), with a simple-but-GREAT crunchy riff that provides an ample foundation on which, just as on Monde, both keyboards and guitars are given the opportunity to rock and roll and boogie along like nobody's business.
The other three tracks aren't particularly noteworthy, but definitely not bad either. Fresh Fruit is the sort of piece you'll like if you liked Mabel on the début, Butterfly Boys is another piano-driven pop-rocker along the lines of Nothing but the Truth (not as hook-filled, but with a nice enough chorus), and New Lamps for Old is a bit anthemic along the lines of Samson and Idol but not quite as stunning (yet with its own charms, such as the way Brooker sings the chorus, or the little rising line he sings at the ending of some verses). The album ends weaker than it began: it may not sound like the unique Procol Harum we've grown to know and love, what with all these pop and r&r pieces, but it does show that Brooker, even as he might have slightly begun to slip as a creative genius, still had enough gas left in him to produce a great album that stands up to most anything in their catalogue.