Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum : Bach'n'roll

John McFerrin reviews Home

Best song: Whisky Train

A rather unfortunate thing happened between this album and the last Matthew Fisher, for whatever reason, up and left. This wasn't as disastrous as would have been, say, the departure of Brooker or Reid, but it still had a significant impact on the band, as Fisher's organ was one of the main pillars on which laid the unique sound of the band. In addition, bassist Dave Knights took off, so the band decided to kill two birds with one stone, and picked up one Chris Copping to fill both the organ and bass duties. The important thing to note, though, is that (at least here), Copping is a bassist first and an organist second, and that means that the unique setup of the original Procol evolved, in essence, into a "standard" rock setup (ie guitar drums bass keyboard). Hence, Trower's guitar becomes more prominent than ever, and there is even (amazingly enough) a straight-up riff-rocker to kick off the album. Yup, Whisky Train is one of the best (if not the very best) straight-up hard rock numbers ever done by any art-rock band, with a riff that any "real" rock band would kill to come up with and so many cool (and efficient!) ideas popping out of Trower's guitar that it suddenly becomes easy to remember why he always gets so many comparisons to Hendrix.

Alas, while the rest of the album is good, it's just that good. Not great, or particularly engaging, just a nice collection of ok songs with only a few highlights (well, and also with a whole bunch of good guitar work, but that goes without saying). The Dead Man's Dream is an interesting way to follow up Whisky Man [sic], almost as if the band wanted to follow the tale of an old drunkard with a tale that could come to him if he didn't stop and thus died. The melody is very standard for morbid funeral music, but the organ in the background helps add a terrific feel of gloom, and the lyrics are so incredibly disturbing that they actually manage to become engaging. I also have good feelings for Still There'll Be More, with a bunch of nice melody twists and some great piano-bass interplay not previously seen in Procol (with more great guitar work), and for the hilariously disturbing (in a good way) Piggy Pig Pig, that culminates in the whole band chanting the title in rhythm with the nagging piano line that drives most of the song forward (while there's more REALLY great guitar work. Trower am rule [sic]).

Now, this leaves five other songs on the album, none of which (I insist) are Procol Harum classics. Your Own Choice is a nice, soothing way to end the album, but the main melody, while decent enough, doesn't strike me as anything special given Brooker's composing talents. Then again, maybe it's just that I'm tired near the end. You see, right before it is Whaling Stories, which is ... ok. I mean, I can only imagine the cascade of flames that will come my way from angry Procol fans, but the fact that it's of an epic form is not enough to automatically make it a classic. I mean, just as there's good and less-good short songs, there's good and less-good "long" songs, and while this is by no means bad, I have trouble finding much to hang on to in order to provide me my desired level of entertainment. I mean, the mid-section is all right from an "instrumental firestorm" point of view, but heck, why should I listen to this when I can turn to Repent Walpurgis, which I insist is easily the better of this in most every way? The end works well enough as a rousing coda, but I'd sure prefer to have this (well done) section cap off a better piece.

The rest is the rest Nothing That I Didn't Know is most notable for the presence of an accordion near the end, About to Die has an interesting heavy distorted riff that matches the subject matter well (alas, though, the vocal melody isn't particularly interesting, though not bad), and Barnyard Story is ... just kinda there. Mind you, though, that I don't mind any of these songs when I'm listening to the album in retrospect, they get massively overshadowed by the highlights, but they're quite enjoyable when on.

So yeah, by Procol standards it's a slightly weak album, but then again, Procol Harum's standards were such that putting out anything less than a "very good" album was beyond them for quite a long time. Visible flaws exist, but there's enough new wrinkles (à la the increased importance of Trower) in the sound to keep things somewhat fresh, and there's enough in the way of highlights to help things out significantly. Don't make this your first PH album if you're more of an "art" than a "rock" person, but don't think about permanently avoiding it either.

Oh, as seems customary by now, my version of the album contains quite a few bonus tracks NINE to be precise. Of course, as usual, they're mostly just early takes, and while they have historical value, I'm not gonna go gaga over them. There is, however, an impressive bit of improvised band jamming from the very very beginning of the album sessions, as well as a take of the whole band completely cracking up for half a minute, so at least there's some novelty value this time around.

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Reproduced by kind permission from John's website


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