The Music Republic review: Simon Redley here
(Four stars out of five: ‘Super Zone’)
When legendary singer and songwriter Gary Brooker was sat in the control room of the state-of-the-art Northamptonshire recording studios, owned by a member of funk band Jamiroquai, listening to the finished version of the superb Novum – Procol Harum’s first album for fourteen years – maybe he dreamed of a big hit.
Wind forward a few months to a sold-out Royal Festival Hall concert in London, where Procol Harum was joined by a full choir and orchestra to start a year of celebrations to mark the band’s fiftieth anniversary, I doubt Gary had envisaged the kind of “hit” he got at this concert.
After premiering Neighbour, track six from the new record, playing his accordion with Sam Brown and two fellow ukulele players joining the band on stage for the song, Gary told the audience there would now be an intermission. But as he walked off stage, he missed a step and fell face-first to the floor. Possibly unconscious for a short while, band and crew rush to his aid and lift him from the ground, to take him backstage for treatment. After a longer than planned break, and with a broken hand and battered head bandaged up under a hat, the old trooper returned to the stage and cracked on (excuse that phrase in the circumstances). Younger artists cancel whole tours when they break a finger nail, these days!
Mr Brooker’s determined “the show must go on” spirit won him a standing ovation and loud applause, but he was keen to put the accident behind him and get on with the gig, and nodded to the band to begin the next number; I Told on You, the opening track of the new record. In all, three cuts from Novum were aired at the show. Their first album for fourteen years and their first since The Well’s On Fire back in 2003. Novum released in their fiftieth anniversary year, which is marked by a major UK tour.
The first thing that strikes you when this album kicks off with I Told on You, is how distinctive Gary Brooker’s voice is. Without him, there is no Procol Harum. His skilful touch on piano adds huge value too. One of my favourite guitarists is in this line-up, Geoff Whitehorn, especially for his work with the band If and Roger Chapman’s Shortlist. He is joined here by bassist Matt Pegg, son of Fairport Convention bass legend Dave Pegg, drummer Geoff Dunn and Hammond organist Josh Phillips. The original band formed in 1967, and this line-up has been around since the early 1990s.
We get eleven tracks on Novum, all originals; eight penned by Brooker, Cream lyricist Pete Brown and Josh Phillips. One written by Brooker, Brown, Philips and Whitehorn, one written by Brooker and Phillips and the closer penned by Brooker. But while these are the credits on the booklet, it also credits the whole band as creators of all the songs! Produced and mixed by heavyweight US producer Dennis Weinreich, who has worked with a Who’s Who of artists and on major film soundtracks; including Jeff Beck, The Walker Brothers, Queen, Supertramp, Wham, The Real Thing, Talk Talk, Jack Bruce, Jon Anderson and Mick Taylor.
This collection doesn’t feel at all like treading old ground or running out of ideas after five decades. Far from it. Not a ‘farewell’ release to cash in on an anniversary, either. A big nod to the vintage Procol Harum sound for sure, but also perhaps a taste of things to come too, and a loud message that “we ain’t done yet”. It may not be the original line-up and it may well be many years down the road from their heyday, but if Gary Brooker is on the vocal mike, then it will always sound like a Procol Harum record.
Gary’s voice is still “Gary’s voice”, a little more gravel at times, which actually adds value and is not surprising considering he will be 72 this May. He received an MBE in 2003. The band are most famous for, of course, the classic first single A Whiter Shade of Pale, which attracted headlines in recent years with a court case where a former member claimed co-writer status and back-dated royalties. Enough has been written/said about that, so….. I Told On You kicks off the new album with plinky-plonky piano and ballsy guitar, pumping bass and driving drums. Gary’s vocal comes in with the song’s title and you know you are in safe hands. Reading the lyrics, which seem to be about a close friend or colleague plotting to betray you, I did wonder if………
Last Chance Motel is a gentler mid-tempo cut, a really fine song. Gary singing a fictional tale about falling for his best mate’s wife, an illicit affair which ended up with him getting a beating, and her a “bullet between those big blue eyes”. Gorgeous piano. Don’t Get Caught is wonderful and some of the best vocals among the set. Three minutes into the track, the synthed strings create a lovely ambience, on a song giving advice about how to live life and get through it. Neighbour reminded me of the late and great Ronnie Lane and his Slim Chance stuff. Strings open the beautiful Sunday Morning, another classic innate [sic] and relaxed vocal on this one, which comes close to a Beatles/Lennon & McCartney vibe.
Businessman and Can’t Say That are maybe Pete Brown’s follow up to his famed Politician, perhaps? Both have hard-hitting, socially conscious lyrical content. Businessman: “The more that he improves his sly moves, The more the customers get stung”….and Can’t Say That: “You are my willing servant, Don’t get beyond your place, Or I will lay my rod on you, And crack you round the face…” Both solid songs, the latter a rocking good listen. The Only One slows things down, and offers a melancholy ballad; another emotion-drenched vocal from Gary, with a very clever take lyrically, about whether there is an Him upstairs; the Guvnor behind the clouds, or not. Sweet guitar solo from Geoff Whitehorn.
Just Gary’s vocal and piano, on the love song ballad, Somewhen, which closes the 56 minutes of Procol Harum’s thirteenth studio album. Novum is Latin for “new thing”, and it was also the name of a game of dice. With the sheer class and quality of this new “thing” from this far from new “part of musical history” outfit, and the large, loyal fan-base this national treasure band has today, I can see this record being their most successful for many a long year. GB and his pals may well have thrown two sixes here!
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Procol Harum albums