Procol Harum

the Pale

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Hard to Remember, Harder to Forget

Bert Saraco takes another look at Something Magic

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Procol was touring; Procol was breaking up.

There was a new album! It was the last album.

Something Magic.

Seemingly, something magic was in the air - and whatever it was didn't seem to sit well with anyone. From all reports, Gary and company were hitting roadblocks all along the way - not the least of which was the defection of a support-team that had less-than-kind words to say about the new material, leaving the band to self-produce (not such a bad thing, really!) for the first time. Critics, not a kindly bunch anyway, did little to boost morale. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all; even the fans came to call the project 'something tragic'.... but why?

Certainly, the LP was surprising on many levels before the first note was ever heard. A new Procol Harum album! 10 points for that alone! The cover art was intriguing - nice title for a PH project. Side one promised five new songs, and one was by Grabham-Reid! Interesting! Side two looked to be a new magnum-opus (shades of In Held 'Twas In I!) in three parts by Brooker-Reid! Wow! The whole side! This was enough to make a Procoholic's heart flutter. More surprises: Pete Solley on organ and (oh-oh! ) synthesizers. Chris Copping on bass ... just on bass, eh. OK. Oh, and Copping also arranged the orchestration on one song ... gee, does he know how to do that?

Quite a lot of potential here for glory or disaster, isn't there? Whenever a band gains and / or loses members there will be fans that are resentful. Where was Alan Cartwright? And Procol Harum - with a synthesizer?! And who's this Pete Solley, anyway? To top it all off, an entire side devoted to one piece could potentially pull the whole project down if it failed to deliver - simply by virtue of its great length and placement as the last piece on the recording, if The Worm & The Tree wasn't something magic ... it just might create ... a vile-smelling crust.

I come not to bury the worm, but to praise it.

Well, sort of. Let's really examine this fine (don't hit me!) album:

Something Magic
If there's anything wrong with this song, I can't find it. It's sort of mysterious, sort of fun ... and quite unique! Gary's vocals are fantastic - nice harmonies used. BJ sounds in fine form and is very well recorded and mixed throughout the whole album! Certainly, by the time Gary sings 'when the clouds which seemed so dark ...' you know you're hearing Procol Harum in fine form! 'Night-time's panic swept away' repeats sweepingly at the end in a swirling storm of strings, bass, drums, piano and guitar that sounds pretty impressive to this fan. No complaints here. And don't tell me it's better live. It's always better live! Whatsamatter? Ya' wanted a big guitar solo? And I thought you were a Procol Harum Fan!

Skating On Thin Ice
I dare you to listen to this song again objectively. I've actually come to regard this as one of Gary's most beautiful and delicate melodies. BJ's rolls on the snare sound like living things! Amazing! Perhaps the real shocker on this track is the delicate hand of Chris Copping on the orchestration! There's real beauty in that arrangement. The contrast of the 'German Oom-Pah Band' sound in the middle to the way Copping 'paints' Gary's melody with lighter-than-air washes of strings (listen to the last verse ... you were the searcher ...) all somehow makes a seamless masterpiece of a song. Listen to the way Gary sings the end of the line, 'Changing the players to fit with the game ...' Listen to the interplay of the solo horn, the piano, the strings. This is not normal 'pop' music here, folks!

Wizard Man
I know several fans that really like this song. Any group putting out an album has got to have material for a single - Wizard Man is that song. Am I the only one that thinks that this was the weakest song on side one? It's still Procol Harum and it's a fine song, but it follows two better ones and precedes ...

The Mark Of The Claw
What a fine surprise! Here's Mick the Lad contributing a song that ... sounds just like a Procol Harum song! Here's a song done with a lot of humor, good playing all around and fits hand-in-glove with the band's style. Listen to the re-introduction of the piano just after the middle section - that's vintage PH! Mick's solo has his usual fire - fine playing, as always. The fact that this isn't a 'guitar song' shows the respect that Mick had for the band's musical legacy. It's interesting to contrast this with the way Trower's Song For A Dreamer and Poor Mohammed on Broken Barricades sounded totally removed from the Procol Harum style. It would have been good to have been able to hear future Grabham-Reid compositions.

Strangers in Space
Here we go again - another classic. Romantic baroque melodies accompanied by mingled piano and organ lines suddenly plunging into a cool, funky blues! Try to write one like that, anybody! There's probably not another song around like this anywhere. A good listen will reveal a treasure-trove of aural delights! Layers of wailing, almost ghost-like guitar - about as tasty and funky as you can get. Copping's bass lines are strong and vital to the structure of the piece. Gary on electric piano is fine - another surprise. Listen (another dare) to the way the song changes from a spacey dream-like jazz wash as it 'falls' into a classic Procol-style melodic section: 'trace of a feeling, trace of regret, hard to remember, hard to forget ...' finally, the song ends with a dark, jazzy, bluesy jam that gets about as close to low-down as English boys can get. Can't you hear Ray Charles doing this? In my opinion, this track is about as good as you could ask for.

The Worm & The Tree
OK, the big one. What do we already know? Most people don't like the fact that the lyric is spoken, not sung. I'd say that there's merit to that argument. Had this been a special children's project - a kind-of Peter and the Wolf for today's kids - it would certainly have been appropriate. But ... it just didn't seem to work. As a matter of fact, I think that the narration served to distract from the fact that there's some good music happening in this piece. Unfortunately, some of the themes are repeated under the narration in a rather tepid manner and seem to lose potency when repeated again instrumentally. I'd venture to say, take out the narration and you've got quite a good piece of music. The way Gary introduces and later resurrects themes to interplay in different context works very effectively. Anyone who has ever heard the 'newer' versions of Procol Harum play sections of Worm live as part of Last Train To Niagara will attest to the fact that the song really cooks! Trust me. Listen to the section just after the words, 'the forest lay dirty and blackened with grime' and before the words, 'now down in the forest ...' in the next section. Notice the overall playing and the song itself. Listen for the subtle organ work by Pete Solley. And, OK, none of us likes synths ... but listen to the lovely, tasteful synth solo by Solley just before the 'now down in the forest ...' passage. That's tasty playing! Once again, BJ is in great form and sounds crisp and vivid in the mix. Mick, in my opinion, does some of his most gut-wrenching playing in the 'Battle' section of the song - listen to that section for BJ and Mick (listen for the feedback between the notes near the end of the solo) ... turn up the volume. The roaring, screaming guitar and the fierce attack of the drums against the thunderous swells of the orchestra ... it's a moment that I find almost overwhelming.

So let's listen again to this album - don't make the mistake of only hearing the flaws inherent in the format of Worm. There's a lot of good there. Now let's dream:

The re-issue CD - The Something Magic album featuring all of the original songs including the newly mastered instrumental version of The Worm & The Tree (now somewhat shorter) and, to fill in the space, bonus cuts featuring the songs that were recorded but left off the original!

Also included: 1 dartboard featuring Ron and Howie Albert, and a mini-CD featuring the original version of Worm, with narration, and a children's coloring book introducing them to the orchestra and classical music.

... and maybe even rock and roll.

Many, many thanks to Bert Saraco for this delectable polemic!

Something Magic
the album in question

Something Missing
ruminations about the lost tracks

Reviews of Something Magic

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