Best song: Shine On Brightly
For some fans, this is the first "true" Procol Harum album, an improvement on the début, and sometimes even the best PH album ever. Best as I can tell, this is for two reasons - first, almost all of it fits into the "Procol Harum sound" (ie the band had figured out its desired style after the first album, and dropped the "anomalies" à la Mabel and the like), and second, it has the big "epic" of the band's catalogue, the revolutionary 17-minute In Held 'Twas In I. Frankly speaking, neither of these developments makes me jump up and down for joy. As for the first, since the emphasis often seems to be more on the sound than the songs, there's a lot more filler here than on the début, and several moments where I need to have an ironclad will to keep myself focused on the music. I'm also irritated that Trower's presence is much more muted than before - there seems to have been more of an effort to "integrate" him into the sound, but in the process they eliminated a lot of the cool guitar tricks that made the début so cool - he gets some nice parts, sure, but they're much less frequent than the consistent fireworks on Pale.
As for the suite, well, I've heard better. I won't begin to deny its importance or influence - it is of course the forefather of Supper's Ready, and Close to the Edge, and Gates of Delirium, and Thick as a Brick, and all sorts of other great epic tracks that I have enjoyed many a time in my life. It also has some great passages all its own - 'Twas Teatime at the Circus brings out the silliness that the band did so well on the début, In the Autumn of My Madness (sung, I believe, by Fisher) is quite pretty, the guitar line that introduces Look to Your Soul is GREAT, and I'm more than a bit pleased with the moving guitar soloing during Grand Finale. However, many seeds of bad prog rock are also sown here, from the not-so-great poetry recitation during Glimpses of Nirvana to a bunch of other bits that just aren't interesting on their own. Basically, it has a lot of nice musical passages, but on the whole, it is a VERY rough beginning to the world of overblown epics, and not one I exactly see myself turning back to again and again.
The first side, then, is where the good stuff lies. The side-closing [sic] Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone) is totally blatant filler, but the first five tracks have more than a bit to offer (and besides, even when the melodies are a little worse than usual, I can't really resist the band's great overall sound). Wish Me Well is the one few times here where Trower gets to use his Hendrix-y bluesman skills, with the keyboards mostly staying out of the way and the whole band singing while Robin gets his ya-yas out. Rambling On is a cute story (set to a mellow piano theme) about wanting to be like Batman after watching a Batman movie at the local theatre, followed by all sorts of morbidly funny things (indeed, this may be the funniest poem Reid ever allowed to be put to tape by the band).
The best of the side, though, is the three tracks that start off the album. Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) was a bit too "sissyish" for me when I first heard it, but that's only because of the bouncy melody - the song, with the loud bass, eerie organ, moody guitar and totally unexpected quote from ... WHAT IS THE NAME OF THAT BLASTED CLASSICAL PIECE ... [Sabre Dance ... RC] anyway, the thing that comes at the end, all make this anything but sissyish. Even better, though, are the first two tracks, where the vocal melodies match most anything from the first album, and where Gary almost tries to match it with some emotion in his voice. Quite Rightly So has some great climaxes throughout, with Trower's guitar subtly coming in at just the right times to up the tension and drama when building up to Brooker's best wailings (oh, and there's more great keyboard work, but that goes without saying). The best of the lot, though, is the title track, with a vocal melody that once more demonstrates Brooker's genius and is accentuated by a well-placed monotonous guitar line in the chorus. And hey, I could never ever get tired of the organ part creeping behind Brooker's voice as he builds to the climaxes before each chorus.
Overall, then, this is a good album - though it's way too flawed in some places (in my opinion) to have any chance of matching, let alone exceeding, the brilliance of the debut.
As for the bonus tracks, my edition of Shine on Brightly... Plus contains a whopping EIGHT bonus tracks. And all of them suck! Nah, just kidding, it's just that two of them were also bonus tracks on Whiter Shade (Seem to Have the Blues, Monsieur Armand), two of them are versions of an OK political piece called In the Wee Small Hours of Sixpence, two of them are early takes of Quite Rightly So, and one of them is the title track sung in Italian. There is also an ok jazzy piece called Alpha, which the band never did live until its various reunion tours in the 90s. Anyway, though, if you have the choice between this version and the original Shine On, feel free to grab this one, but only if it doesn't cost too much more than would the version without these bonuses.