So why would a specialist Procol Harum site choose to devote a page to this exquisite CD by a self-styled 'Cabaret Rock Nouveau'?
Well, partly because their music is uncategorisable in the way that the best of Procol Harum music is; partly because the words – despite being much less oblique, and much more self-consciously Aquarian than Keith Reid's – are artful, reflective, eerie, and predominantly melancholy; partly because the lead voice is evocative and highly unusual; partly because the compositions draw freely from all sorts of influences without imitating any of them; partly because the instrumental playing is detailed, deft and perpetually intriguing ...
And also because the band themselves are Procol fans who have put a lot of effort, so far in vain, to getting our heroes over to the US to play gigs with them.
We hear the 'cabaret' part all through the album in the very European voice and phrasing of Xyra Harper-Cann, who was born (or who 're-entered this world') in Munich, and whose musical parents certainly include Kurt Weill, Nico, and Piaff. Her voice trembles with emotion, intimate, swooping over more than three octaves, her clear diction tinged with Sprechstimme: it is the main source of drama, since the instrumental playing of the chamber orchestra which is Verborgen (the concept came to her 'as a dream') is deft and engaging, but prefers not to break sweat too often. 'Verborgen' apparently means 'bestowed subliminally' and it is certainly true that this record abounds in 'ear-worms', that penetrate the mind virtually undetected, but wake you up by humming in the night: hard to remember, hard to forget, indeed.
The European sensibility resounds from song to song – we're on a train to Paris, through Lautrec paintings, Fellini film-sets ... Excalibur is tempted by primitive fate, and a Viennese café shudders in silence – oddly it doesn't extend to checking pronoun gender ... after all their 'chanteuse' looks decidedly 'la' and not 'le'! Occasionally clumsy stanzas ('Prometheus flew by, scattering ashes / Jung and Freud tallied up their losses / Marie Antoinette, you were, so said, a would-be prophet') suggest that the songs are over-burdened with import; to these ears they are most effective at their sparsest, as in the stand out title-track: 'Garden, empty garden where glass birds fly ... and your bird cannot fly with just one wing ...'. Shades of Kate Bush, shades of Curved Air ... all excellent kinsfolk. There's much here that will appeal to idealistic fans of Imagine-period Lennon: the title track pays a haunting homage with 'above us only sky' though I notice that this line appears, copyright-bustingly, as 'above us lonely sky' in the word-booklet. Conversely there's a blunt chill about Postcards in the Rain, the longest offering, which sees Hitler as a spirit-monster that could return at any moment: raucous clarinet offers this a haunting, almost klezmer counterpoint.
There are many angry moments, but an acoustic flavour pervades the recording. The music makes its mark with understatement, its harmonic touchstone being primarily 'classical': though when the wailing sax of Don Stapleson invades the opening tracks we're briefly back outside the gates of Cerdes, with Robin Trower forging an unexpectedly blue trail. Elsewhere Stapleson's flute evokes the pastoral side of early King Crimson (I Talk to the Wind, Cadence and Cascade) to delightful effect. There's some tasty overdriven guitar mingling with 'cello and flute on Ancient Incubus, but most of Cris Chillura's prominent guitaring on the album is acoustic, with neatly-adapted echoes of Roderigo and Castelnuovo-Tedesco. The drumming of Norm Thorne is surprisingly crisp and authoritative given the way that Verborgen promo shots focus on the 'wooden' end of the spectrum. By contrast to the opening PH album, the recorded sound is fantastic, the CD having been mastered by Bill Wolf, formerly of the Fugs: Procol fans will be relieved to know that synths can scarcely be detected anywhere, though the piano sound is occasionally treated. Oddly the most Procolesque track (the piano-led instrumental Riding the Dragonfly) is one of the least memorable: it shares a Rachmaninov intro with Grand Finale, and its right-hand ostinato strays somewhere near Stoke Poges, but it is lean on melody, which is strong elsewhere in the set.
Yes, there's not much elsewhere like this. Limpid yet harrowing, passionate yet highly-mannered; backward-looking in its musical idiom yet primarily New Age in its whole-world outlook, and its predominantly positive response to issues of confusion, loss, and the inevitability of decay. It seems very much Xyra's album: it is her unique, powerful and compelling voice that sells us the album's various 'issues' such as 'Did you know, there's a choice to be made! The worst can happen once again?' and the Bowie-tinged 'Gardens on Mercury, factories on Mars, test-tube humans controlling the stars.' But since it is not practical to quote the entire album, it might be better not to excerpt any of it: this is music that doesn't want to be listened to in any sort of reductive, limiting spirit; its diversity ensures that it will appeal widely, and though there will be aspects of it that will seem a bit fey to devotees of Brooker / Fisher / Reid, it remains substantial, rewarding music: hear / buy it here.
And the Harum connection? Richard Fuller has in recent months written to BtP on the band's behalf like a true Procoholic!
'... regarding a Xyra / Procol billing here in DC / USA. Of course, any chance of this actually happening depends on ... the assumption that Procol Harum can effectively be resurrected as close as the original group; Brooker / Fisher and possibly Trower. We have several strong possibilities for venues here in DC. Although ... we are not in the booking business we have favorable contacts here in the DC area who would be most interested in placing the band in area venues ... I did receive a nice response [from Gary's office] which was somewhat encouraging but tempered with a reality dose but we stand ready to assist in any way that will prove successful in reuniting Procol Harum and to bring them back out on the road and to the USA. Regardless, they remain in our hearts ... I believe the time is right for this to happen and there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the band. I wonder what it will require to rekindle Brooker, Fisher and company to SERIOUSLY take action to whip Procol Harum back in shape. I can't believe that they don't have new song material and what is so bad about their current catalog? After all that is what their many fans really want to hear anyway. If they have several new songs, all the better. Plus the band always presents a wonderful visual and cerebral experience when they perform live. I petition Gary, Matthew Keith, Robin and their aides to NOT delay one more day! The world is waiting ... get back in the studio and back on the road. All your loyal fans will be diminished if you don't. THE TIME IS NOW!' (quoted with permission)
July 1999: Richard advises us that Verborgen are playing Blues Alley in Washington DC on 19 July 1999, and are looking into a European visit, where I am sure they will be well-received. Meanwhile a new CD is imminent, entitled Frightening Beauty.