Best song: The Mark Of The Claw
Another lineup change occurred after Ninth, and while at a glance it may not seem that important (in other words, just another part of the revolving door), it betrays a good deal about the essence of the album and the band at this time. Alan Cartwright, who'd served as bassist starting on Hotel, departed (he probably could see the writing on the wall, lucky guy), and Copping moved away from his organist duties and became the full-time bassist once more. The band then brought in one Pete Solley, and in the process got rid of the Hammond Organ and replaced it with a Yamaha, as well as all sorts of generic synthesizers to augment the sound. Now, you may think that I'm about to say something along the lines of, 'Solley's tasteless synths are a major downfall of the album,' but that's actually not where I'm going with this. I mean, while I sorely lament the death of Procol Harum's 'pure,' 'organic' keyboard interplay that came from the mix of the Hammond and Piano, Solley's synths are used fairly sparingly, and don't really affect the album one way or the other.
Yet while this move may not have a direct impact on the album, it is definitely symptomatic of the overall problem here: there is no surer sign of an art-rock band losing touch both with themselves and with the overall music scene than when they decide that the best way to become 'artsy' again is to make the keyboards sound cheesier. After Ninth predictably failed to bring Procol Harum any newfound pop success or acclaim, one gets the impression that the members kinda flopped around looking for some new direction, and eventually compromised on getting artsy once more. Unfortunately, while there are certainly a few glimpses of solid inspiration, it is clear that, in this direction at least, Brooker's genius was gone (or going, at least).
It's quite telling, indeed, that the best song on here is Grabham's The Mark of the Claw, based around a terrific heavy riff and with a neat repeated start-stop coda. There are some cheesy synth solos within, but there's also a terrific guitar solo near the end, so I'm willing to forgive it. The Brooker compositions, though, are, um, uneven at best. One of them, Wizard Man, doesn't fit in whatsoever, as it's just a verrrrry average happy pop song amidst a sea of slow melancholy. The opening title track makes a vague attempt to revisit the glory of 'classic' Procol, but it falls flat on its face; there's none of the usual genius to be found here, only a hope that the listener will fall for it because it resembles something classical, even though it just presents the band as a lame, mannerist parody of itself.
The other two songs on side one aren't brilliant either, but they do manage to stand out quite well, if only because there's a good chunk of really sad, really powerful resonance within each. Skating on Thin Ice is quite nostalgic in tone, but it's not an annoying kind of nostalgia - on the contrary, it shows the band as very very sad that whatever bit of respect and love they might have been able to command at one time with their brand of music had long since dissipated, and without a real understanding of why that had to be so. Strangers in Space is similarly sad, but also has the added effect of conveying a real feeling of floating in the middle of space, knowing you're not going to find anybody ever again, all the while feeling somewhat numb emotionwise and yet also quite depressed about where circumstances had led them. In terms of pure musical worth, these songs may not amount to much in the Procol Harum catalogue, yet within their context, they're quite powerful - they're like reading the diary entries of somebody who knows he/she is going to die within a very short time, and spends time lamenting over time lost and opportunities wasted.
Unfortunately, much of the currency this album gains with me with the good tracks on side one is lost on side two. Yes, Procol Harum decided it was time for one more stab at epic bombast, and while I've never been that much of a fan of In Held 'Twas in I, it's a friggin' masterpiece compared to The Worm and the Tree. Parts of the music are ok, sure, but as a whole, this eighteen minute monster is just AWFUL. The lyrics are done in fable form, and remind me of something Neil Peart might have written on an average day in the mid-to-late-70s. To make things worse, the lyrics aren't sung, but rather spoken at various parts, and I just can't help but cringe the whole time. By the time the very end comes, with the expected big bombastic ending, my eyes have rolled so far into the back of my head that I can see my brain stem.
The band broke up soon after touring this album, perhaps not wishing to sully their name anymore, and left their fans a solid legacy to enjoy for as long as they so wished.