Reviewed by Bert Saraco, for BtP
Five decades after A Whiter Shade of Pale, the legacy of Procol Harum is in very good hands on Novum, the band’s first new studio album in fourteen years
Eagle Records, 11 tracks / 56:10
Procol Harum – the iconic band that in many ways planted the seeds of ‘art rock’ and the progressive movement – closed the door on their contribution to the Classic Rock era with 1977’s Something Magic. Punk and disco were fast becoming the musical currency of radio, and the band that ten years earlier began a decade of brilliance with A Whiter Shade of Pale decided – to the great disappointment of legions of fans – that to gracefully bow out was a better choice than musical compromise. It took almost a decade-and-a-half for Procol Harum to release another studio album. That album, The Prodigal Stranger, re-introduced Procol Harum (plus and minus some familiar faces from the Procol Past), declaring in one song that “you can’t turn back the page.” While that sentiment might have some merit, on Novum, the first new studio album from Procol Harum since 2003’s The Well’s On Fire, Gary Brooker and company prove that you can, in fact, turn the page forward.
Of course, Procol Harum is a band that has spawned legendary players throughout its evolution, like a large planet spawning planetesimals throughout the rock universe. Although the origins of the band that we first heard some fifty years ago was a fortuitous mix of former members of Gary’s band, The Paramounts, and musicians culled from ads in local papers, the Procol Harum that we hear on Novum are seasoned, hand-picked musicians. The ‘new’ Procol Harum have been carrying on the musical tradition (and adding to it) for years – in fact, they are the most stable line-up in the band’s history. Geoff Whitehorn (guitar, vocals), Matt Pegg (bass, vocals), Josh Phillips (organ, synth, vocals), Geoff Dunn (drums), and at the helm, 'The Commander', Gary Brooker, on piano and vocals, are a dependably-solid team capable of delivering the musical goods time after time, without the volatility and temperamental ups and downs of earlier incarnations.
Novum is unmistakably Procol Harum, yet sounds like no other album the group has ever made. The historically eclectic band that was known for its mix of elegant melodies, baroque musical settings, unapologetic soul/blues roots, and poetic (and sometimes perplexing) lyrics has these days condensed those early elements and arrived at a mature and road-tested sound. Whitehorn, Pegg, Phillips, and Dunn are, in fact, a well-oiled musical machine, and under the guidance of Commander Brooker (the only constant in Procol Harum through the last fifty years), the musical legacy is in very good hands.
The single most apparent change in this new phase is the absence of Keith Reid’s lyrics. The words on all songs except Soldier and Somewhen are written by former Cream lyricist Pete Brown, whose words are more specifically aimed at issues and philosophical points of view than Reid’s were, at least in the band’s ’67-’77 period.
It would be pointless to debate the musical authority of this fine band. The current group members have honed not just their sound but have developed a stage-camaraderie through years of touring – that they were able to record Novum essentially ‘live’ in the studio gives testimony to their synchronicity. Producer Dennis Weinreich has captured a true band sound, which permeates this project – a band that’s well-rehearsed and sure of exactly where they want to go. This is a collection of tracks featuring a band playing songs – it’s certainly not a jam-fest, despite the aforementioned skills of the players. That the album was done in a mere fifteen days is a remarkable tribute to the skill of the players and the plan of the producer.
After a gentle piano prelude the first chord of the rock-steady I Told on You, which starts to sound very Procol Harum-like on the chorus, explodes into your speakers. The band sounds tough and funky – a rich, textured sound, bluesy, jazzy, and right in-the-pocket, thanks to the sure-footed drumming of Geoff Dunn and the solid, fat bass lines of Matt Pegg. Josh Phillips's very classic Procol Harum organ parts are written and executed to perfection, and Geoff Whitehorn supplies powerful chords and tasty, economical guitar licks with equal parts restraint and grit. Gary Brooker’s vocals are, of course, the very definition of blue-eyed soul – more character than the 1967 vintage, having aged like a fine wine.
Last Chance Motel is about as country as this British band gets, sounding quite Nashville-ready to these ears. Never a country music fan myself, the song has still managed to make its way into my head and is awfully hard not to sing along to. The unsavory subject matter is almost a caricature of the typical Country tune (an affair with 'my best friend’s gal') but is redeemed by the wry, darkly humorous irony at the end of the ‘love’ story (no spoilers here – you’re welcome).
Sounding for a moment like the opening organ swell of Quite Rightly So, the boys in the band take a Steely Dan-like turn on the stunning Image of The Beast, a rocking, jazzy slow-burner that really shows how these five musicians can cook. Aside from the amazing vocals, Brooker gets in a nice little piano solo early on and Whitehorn provides a melodic and very economical guitar solo answered by a brief but shining organ statement before the song ends in an unresolved chord.
Yet another Procol Harum anti-war song, Soldier, is next. A rhythmic ballad, one could easily imagine Dylan (before he turned his attention to pop standards) doing a cover of this song. Dunn’s interesting drumming and Pegg’s percolating bass give the song some punch and Phillips creates an interesting wall of synth sound with convincing string and horn parts.
The somewhat cynical Don’t Get Caught is a moderately-paced song about lessons learned over a lifetime. 'Just remember all the things you’ve been taught,' sings Gary, 'and never, never, never get caught.'
Comic relief comes along in exactly the right place with Neighbour, a jaunty exercise prominently featuring an accordion, no less. 'He’s my neighbour,' sings Gary in sometimes mocking tones, 'but I wish he didn’t have to live next door'. Vocal counter-punches come in pseudo-Queen harmonies from Josh, Geoff, and Matt. Perfectly done and a lot of fun to listen to!
The pastoral Sunday Morning starts with Josh’s synth strings in ensemble mode and Gary’s piano. The vocal comes in, then the band eventually falls into place and a new Procol Harum classic is born. The vocal melody reaches challenging heights but Gary’s unmistakable phrasing still comes through with passion and class. The melody will get into your head.
The rock and roll returns with a vengeance on Businessman, which shows the heavy chops this band can cut loose with. Geoff’s guitar wails without mercy and Matt’s bass is under and around every part of the song in stunning fashion. It should be pointed out that Matt Pegg’s bass work is nothing short of amazing on the whole album – and extremely well-mixed. Which leads us to….
Can’t Say That is a relentlessly-paced boogie that starts off a bit like Old Brown Shoe and then takes off running. Josh and Geoff get in some tasty solo spots and Gary spurs it all on with piano and powerfully delivered vocals easily as threatening as those in Still There’ll Be More. The song changes tempo at the end and turns into a slow jazzy jam with everyone getting turns to make musical statements, including some stunning drum work by Geoff Dunn. Once again, Matt Pegg’s bass is a revelation!
The most powerful ballad on this album is The Only One, a melodic song with one of Gary’s most stirring vocals. This is one of those tracks when Procol Harum proves that they don’t need an orchestra or choir to produce exhilarating moments. Ironically (for me, anyway), the lyrics to this inspirational performance promote the idea that God is really a mental construct rather than the Biblical God of the Judeo-Christian belief. Still, despite my personal issue with the message, I’ve rarely heard such a moving arrangement and performance in my years of listening to pop music.
The album closes with just Gary Brooker and a piano. Somewhen is, simply put, a very beautiful love song. With words and music by Brooker, the intimacy of the simple performance, and the background of the nearly half-century of marriage that Gary and Franky Brooker share, the intimate nature of the recording makes sense. The emotion in the vocal is raw and real. To misquote an old rock song, the beauty of the melody sounds like a symphony. The last thing we hear is the sound of shut-off switch as the recording ends.
Dennis Weinreich’s production on Novum is sparkling-clean and un-cluttered. Brooker’s still-amazing voice is presented very up-front and free of tinkering – sounding more immediate and intimate than we’ve ever heard it before. Free from layers of added-on guest musicians, string and horn sections, and studio tricks, the musicians’ performances are pristine and perfectly mixed from start to finish – it’s a wonderful-sounding recording.
‘Novum’ is Latin for ‘new thing,’ and though Procol Harum has managed to start a new chapter – truly turning a page forward – it’s still the same book, and it sounds like they’re keeping at least one eye to the future.
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Procol Harum albums