Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Trotsky' reviews 'A Salty Dog'

Despite the many highs and relatively few lows (I'm talking musically) of Procol Harum's initial decade-long run of 19671977, I think the group never made an album of such consistent brilliance as this one. If forced to choose, I'd concede that my three favourite Procol Harum songs (A Whiter Shade of Pale, Quite Rightly So and As Strong As Samson) aren't on this album, but by God, it seems as if the rest of my top 10 is!

The fun starts with the title track which is about a crew on a sinking ship (The theme of maritime disaster is a real PH constant and is never far away on this album). Eschewing the traditional PH sound in which organ and guitar are pre-eminent, this song ranks among the greatest bits of pop/classical fusion I've ever heard. The tragic lyrics are brought to life by Brooker's enormous aching voice, glorious orchestral string work and top-notch drumming from BJ Wilson, who by this third album had become a real force to be reckoned with.

The rest of the album sees all the Procol elements at their peak on a wide range of material. There's old school blues (Juicy John Pink) and a few Brooker-led stompers like the rasping The Milk of Human Kindness, the ballsy The Devil Came To Kansas [sic] and the rather more subtle All This and More, all of which feature Trower's stinging guitar, usually in tandem with Fisher's organ. A really moody Too Much Between Us slips in and out, stopping only to slip a dagger between one's ribs, courtesy of a Brooker solo on celeste.

There are also three pieces with lead vocals from Fisher. First off there's the totally infectious "rich and fruity" marimba-driven calypso of Boredom. The Wreck of the Hesperus is a glorious piece of sheer genius, driven by a constant rippling piano arpeggio and sweeping strings. It has a totally chilling fade-out as the sound of waves wash over our protagonists. The monumental organ-drenched Pilgrim's Progress is perhaps the closest PH ever get to the A Whiter Shade of Pale feel on this album, but Fisher's vocals give the song a totally different flavour.

Then there's Robin Trower's stunning turn on Crucifiction Lane, probably my favourite track on a stupendous album. Reid's lyrics are magnificent (You'd better listen anybody/Cos I'm gonna make it clear/That my life is unimportant/What I've done I did through fear) and this awesome semi-Biblical bluesy rant chills me to the core. It's a work of real power, on which Trower wields his guitar like a sword.

Indeed Trower was making his presence felt more than ever before, but the balance between Procol's blues and classical tendencies are virtually perfect on this album. The bonus cuts include the raucous, hilarious B-side to A Salty Dog, Long Gone Geek, the tale of a big bad tabby cat who carried a gun and wore a Stetson hat. 'Tis a potent tune to be sure. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the previously unreleased ditty McGreggor. An ironic ballad about an executed soldier, this is the sort of the song that probably should have remained in the vaults. The other bonus cuts are just alternate takes of tracks on this album and an additional one of Still There'll Be More, which was eventually cut on the next album, Home.

If you want to know why Procol Harum was a great creative rock band, I can think of no better starting point than this majestic album. ... 92% on the MPV scale

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