Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol Harum : Bach'n'roll

John McFerrin reviews A Salty Dog

Best song: A Salty Dog

A little overrated by PH fans, I think (then again, I'm probably overrating To Our Children's Children's Children, not that I'll ever admit to it or lower its grade), but that's perfectly understandable almost undoubtedly, this is the pinnacle of the "classic" Procol Harum sound, and seeing as fans of any band tend to gravitate most towards the album that holds that band's sound most consistently, I can definitely see where they're coming from. The big mistake of Shine on Brightly, the significant reduction in Trower's impact on the sound, has been completely eliminated, and this album shows an almost perfect balance between the two keyboardist functions and Trower's powerful (and yet enjoyably versatile) guitar. In addition, a few of the tracks feature orchestral arrangements in addition to the part of the main players, and they manage to fit in perfectly, adding a further blast of rich sonic *ooomph*.

Conveniently enough, it's the two tracks with all-out orchestrations attached that grab my attention the most (and are almost certainly a primary reason for this album's popularity amongst fans of the group). The title track is an absolute, stone-cold PH classic, with absolutely jaw-dropping imagery in Reid's lyrics (and graced with a very nice Brooker vocal, both in tone and in the amazing vocal melody) set to completely orchestral backing that only seems appropriate given the utter majesty of the whole piece. I'm not going to be quoting Reid lyrics much in these reviews, but I just have to say there is just something absolutely devastating that happens within me when I hear this final stanza.

"We fired the gun, and burnt the mast, and rowed from ship to shore
The captain cried, we sailors wept: our tears were tears of joy
Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman's log: your witness my own hand"

Anyway, I'm also very very fond of the Fisher-sung Wreck of the Hesperus, this time with the orchestra accompanying the rest of the band. Fisher once more proves himself as every bit Brooker's equal as a songwriter (at least, in the smaller quantities that he was allowed to contribute), as he combines a simple (but very effective) rolling Brooker piano line with a vocal melody filled to the brim with climaxes, and (best of all) allows Trower's guitar to interact with the orchestra in one of the greatest sonic moments I've ever heard. Seriously, I have no idea how to adequately describe those parts in the instrumental breaks where Trower's guitar soars upward through the midst of the orchestra, like, I dunno, like the great god Poseidon rising up from the sea, with giant waves walling up and announcing his arrival. It's almost a shame this track has the misfortune to share space with the title track on almost any other PH album (barring the début), this would be the highlight.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album falters somewhat in comparison. Don't misunderstand me, there's not a single track on here I really dislike it's just that, when it's all said and done, I have to exert a bit more effort than I'd like to keep my head from drooping over and my will from faltering. The biggest problems are (a) no "light" tracks to lessen the load a bit (in other words I miss Mabel and Good Captain Clack *sniff*) and (b) almost no tracks with any "bounce" in their step. Well, sort of there's actually one bonus track that's mislabeled as an album original, an old B-side called Long Gone Geek that's a terrific guitar-heavy up-tempo "old-timey" (though only sort of it's actually quite hard) rocker that also has bits of the expected great piano work we've come to expect from the band. Truth be told, I GREATLY wish they'd ended the original album with this one it may not provide the same hymn-like, conclusion of an epic feel given by the Fisher-sung Pilgrim's Progress (quite pretty in its own right), but as an unexpected blast of energy, one to rouse up the faculties of the mind and cause it to better process all the lushness it just sat through previously (because, after all, contrast between two groups of objects is the best way to bring out the strengths of each), it's just great.

Ok, ok, there's also one other really good up-tempo piece on here, the wonderful The Milk of Human Kindness, with the piano playing off Robin's brilliant riffage with great aplomb. Plus, it has one of the best melodies of the album, and one that, I swear, Genesis "adapted" for the song That's All on Genesis (listen to the melody of "She left me for a wasp without a sting," here and the melody of "I can't feel a thing from my head down to my toes" there, and then tell me if I'm really crazy). Other than that, though, basically everything is somewhere between slow and vaguely-above-mid-tempo, and that hurts things a bit. Too Much Between Us is a lovely ballad, yes, and Boredom is a novel effort that does a good job of conveying boredom without actually being boring, but while the band is nice enough to place a "rockier" piece between them (The Devil Came from Kansas, with all sorts of GREAT guitar soloing), that piece in itself is totally mid-tempo, so there's not enough distinction to help the brain crisply remember all the good characteristics of each. As for All This and More, the melody is once more quite good, but it fails to do much (except for Trower's guitar, that is) that could make it stand out from the other pieces on the album with good melodies.

On the plus side, Trower gets to throw in two of his own compositions, which give a heavier blues rock feel to the album ... but on the minus side, these are ALSO mid-tempo, so even when they break the monotony, they really don't. They're still enjoyable, though after all, you could hardly expect Trower to restrain himself in his own pieces, and he definitely busts out well in both.

When it's all said and done, then, I'm less sold on the album than a lot of fans are. The songs are all good, yet as an album, it manages to simultaneously succeed marvelously (due to the incredible richness) and, well, not succeed so marvelously (as they fail to, if I may bring in terminology from my chosen field, hedge against "tempo risk"). Still, I don't want to give the wrong impression I don't dislike this album: please don't kill me.

As for the bonus tracks, they're OK, but once more not that much special (except, of course, for Long Gone Geek). Only one of the tracks is of a previously unreleased piece, but even that (an early version of a song called McGreggor) is nowhere near finished. Otherwise, it's initial takes of All This and More, The Milk of Human Kindness and Pilgrim's Progress, as well as an eighth take of a piece on the next album (Still There'll Be More), Home.

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Reproduced by kind permission from John's website


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