Procol Harum

the Pale

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Procol's Ninth

Contemporary album review

Angus MacKinnon in Sounds, 1975: Procol breathe again

First off, it should be stressed that this is in every way an excellent record. It's more than reassuring in the wake of Procol's last effort, the somewhat laboured Exotic Birds and Fruit, which upon reassessment, remains a hesitantly ineffectual parody – unconscious I'm sure – of past glories. The reasons for Ninth's excellence are various. It was produced by Leiber and Stoller who, among their many other accomplishments, can claim a wholesome share of the responsibility for Stealers Wheel's unaffectedly sparkling début album and whose involvement has severed Procol's long-standing relationship in the studio with Chris Thomas.

The results of this change in producers are undeniably beneficial. Thomas favoured an expansive 'sound-wall' effect, achieving this with notable success on songs like Grand Hotel where lush orchestral and choral arrangements were employed – epic musical collage, and overwhelmingly nostalgic. However, Brooker and Reid's new batch of songs would not, I think, have lent themselves to this kind of treatment. They are taut, very rhythmic and seductively understated; Ninth is correspondingly stark and viciously exact in its sound. Each instrument's contribution is clearly emphasised. Brooker's voice hasn't seemed so assured on record since Broken Barricades and his piano, Grabham's guitar and BJ Wilson's drumming – this especially – are all reproduced with startling clarity. There are horn backings on several cuts, unobtrusive and pleasingly muscular, in some cases particularly effective ... the R'n'B orientated Taking My Time [sic] and Procol's confident reading of L&S's I keep Forgetting. One could perhaps suggest that Ninth was affectionately retrospective: Lennon and McCartney's Eight Days a Week is included and a handful of songs see older Procol melodies staging much improved returns – for example Final Thrust recalls Magdalene my Regal Zonophone and Without a Doubt the more recent Robert's Box. No harm at all in that – it's not parody this time round, but rather ingenuous redefinition.

Grabham's playing is throughout painstaking and concise, breaks thoughtfully constructed and chord work as accurate as Atomic Time, while Copping has opted for an evocatively metallic organ tone, rather akin to Irmin Schmidt on Can's Future Days, which lends substantial support to Brooker's interpretation of Keith Reid's reliably pessimistic lyrics. Of the eight new songs here, Final Thrust, Typewriter Torment, and the mysterious Pandora's Box prove the most resilient. Yes, Ninth signals reinvigoration for Procol Harum; you'd do best to savour it.

More reviews of this album
More reviews of Procol Harum albums

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