Procol Harum

the Pale 

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'Novum' review

John Apice writing at No Depression May 2017

A Rousing First New Album in Fourteen Years Celebrates Procol Harum's 50th Anniversary 1967–2017

I’m not saying it is …but, this could very well be one of the best Procol Harum albums ever conceived or at best – one among many. I don’t impress easily but this album is impressive out of the starting gate. Virtually every track has moments of brilliance. Gary Brooker has written many wondrous songs throughout his career with this band but I didn’t always enjoy every single one. I just about enjoyed every note and drum beat on this album. And this – in their Fiftieth Anniversary year. All the planets must have been aligned for them. It's one thing to maintain an interesting career with a solid repertoire, it's another when you have to keep polishing your legendary status. The word 'has been' is never applied when discussing this band.

Novum is filled with surprises. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

What's at first obvious is that long time lyricist Keith Reid did not write any of the lyrics. That's a first. That chore fell into the lap of another legend in rock history: songwriter Pete Brown, famed for writing lyrics for that other impressive rock band Cream. And before anyone gasps, Brown’s lyrics are on target for this Procol Harum.

If you consider his composition White Room by Cream – yes, he could qualify …and he did. Maybe Brown is not as surreal and metaphorically heavy as Reid, nonetheless, this union jelled seamlessly to the 21st Century Procol Harum melodies and performances. Brown wrote the lyrics for all songs except Soldier and Somewhen.

With this chapter, Brooker is in fine voice. That's to be expected – Brooker seldom falters and the entire album pinches classic Procol stylings from several eras.

There’s a little dash of Whiter Shade of Pale Hammond organ, reminisces [sic] of Robin Trower’s note sustaining lead guitar style. Yet nothing that could be considered nostalgic or retro. Geoff Whitehorn’s lead guitar is astonishingly good throughout and in a classic Procol Harum tradition. He has managed to maintain his own great style at the same time and spices it with stinging Trower, Mick Grabham and/or Dave Ball punctuation (Conquistador live with the Edmonton Symphony). Brooker’s piano is, as always, fiery and the gas on the stove is on high.

One of the most impressive tracks musically is No 7: Can’t Say That, a seven minute plus workout that leaves behind all the modern-day rocker wannabes. Brooker’s venomous rock tone is delivered full throttle. Whitehorn’s sluicing power chords and [sic] with admirable lead guitar ammunition is consistent and splendid. There are moments where it sounds as if Geoff is offering a hat-tip to the early solo work of Robin Trower – but it’s a winning curiosity. Almost as if Geoff is suggesting what Robin would have sounded like had he remained with PH into the 70s and using his gorgeous Jimi Hendrix-influenced emphasis. But here, it's all Whitehorn for sure.

Drummer Geoff Dunn romps with an impassioned cut close to the bone beats {sic]. These guys transcend their professionalism and perform with assured ensemble playing. There’s Shine on Brightly smoke, Whisky Train energy, and they never get tedious or bombastic (something that most bands teeter closely to when performing progressive rock. Ask Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer). Procol Harum had been accused of that to a degree with their last, late 70’s progressive foray Something Magic, where the epic The Worm and the Tree unfolded. It was a beautiful piece too. But in the era of punk and new wave – dated. The majesty of In Held 'Twas In I was not going to happen a second time. It's a shame because there were moments of lyrical and musical brilliance on that project. Some melodies were impeccable, memorable and emotional. But this is where the band took a hiatus and recharged their batteries.

With this new 2017 album, none of their product settled during shipping.

It’s propulsive stuff from beginning to end so don’t go to the bathroom while listening to this raunchy gritty snarling rock that is peppered with poignancy and decorative songs as well. I guess my only problem is that I miss the alternate voice of Matthew Fisher in the original inception of the band (Boredom, Wreck of the Hesperus, and Pilgrim's Progress). Something to balance the Brooker vocals. A singular voice is good but an evocative secondary one – even female – could add significance to the showcase. Fortunately, with someone like Gary Brooker, they possess a brilliance of a distinctive signature voice.

Bravo with a standing ovation. Even the conclusion to Can’t Say That, is inspired. Gary Brooker will be 72 in May and this album proves what they say about elder statesmen: they have stamina. Never underestimate a man who is still standing. Brooker is firmly on the ground with both his voice and music. Procol Harum stands behind him proud of what he's created.

Some tunes will lean on a rare poignancy that is just not evident in many other bands that have re-emerged from the 60s who have made comebacks. Harum never relied much on lyrical clichés and subject matter that has been covered by other artists ad nauseam. Procol Harum never had to make comeback. Fans always waited patiently for new albums, sometimes for a decade. The wheels never came off the track. The cake was never left out in the rain and when all the gears are working this is one fine oiled machine.

Because if their ages, health concerns and the gruelling exercise of touring – if this is their final studio album then they are going out at the top of their game. But for now, this new album is for savouring. It’s a bookend album, a bridge between 1967–2017 and an astonishing career. I am saying this because as of this writing Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, and Procol Harum are NOT in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But with music like this – these bands don’t need that commodity. These artists created works of art that will stand. Their fan base has been loyal for decades and their new fans are like Elvis’s fans – all ages, and cultures. I get chills listening to this album. Will it go over as big as their best? Well, that remains to be seen. It is a different time. Will it be ignored? I doubt it though American rock radio is finicky.

All the tracks for this effort were written as a band effort and credited as such. Every member made a valuable contribution and it's all steeped in the true, classic Procol Harum tradition. Respectful of the PH melodies of the past – and with a liberal sprinkle of vague musical remembrances and mementos – meant or not. Gary Brooker wrote one solo track, Somewhen, a beautiful song sung and played alone by Brooker and it’s a poignant, powerful love song. A love song – by Procol Harum? The rest of the compositional originality and creativity of this LP comes from the rest of the band and every individual gave creditable input.

Among the surprises: One song utilises the brilliance and majesty of Grand Hotel, orchestration. Brooker in a very early song that was an out-take from Something Magic had Procol Harum using fiddles effectively (This Old Dog). This vintage track is so good they could have added it to this new album as a bonus. With this new album, Brooker adds an accordion and Whitehorn injects acoustic guitar. The overall sound is bright and keeps the darkness away.

Despite being a progressive rock-art band, this Procol Harum doesn’t hesitate to sharpen their blades with the blues. Whitehorn stabs at times with little sharp accentuated lead guitar bursts between Brooker’s vocals and this is quite effective and dynamic. This band really came together for this effort. There’s even some humour in the production to lighten the load of the material. I Told on You, the opening number has a dominant piano intro and rousing blues-inflected drive on lead guitar. The lyric doesn’t get fancy or artsy but Brown does inject wondrous colourful language and turns of phrases [sic ]Harum is famous for. It’s a straight forward biting rock lyric story. A surprise: the other male members are on board to sing with deep, penetrating voices on the chorus – surrounding Brooker’s bluesy baritone. The track soars and penetrates with a Hammond organ that gives the entire track a nice bottom. It’s like 'everything that’s old is new again' as they churn this into a PH 2017.

Last Chance Motel starts with bright piano notes and Brooker, in a sentimental mode, picks up the beat and the song ascends melodically with his stylistic full-bodied range. His grand piano tone is resplendent. Whitehorn is there but never intrudes. Strings unravel beautifully in Grand Hotel fashion [sic] and the song simply opens up like a dew filled morning rose.

Just like the old Harum, Image of the Beast has that darker Something Magic album approach that’s not as dark and death-ridden as Home. Harum had to have at least one dark song right? Something to remind us of Piggy Pig Pig, Dead Man's Dream and Whaling Stories. (Those were the days). Beast is a heavy, tight, prickly, pulverising tune and Brooker with his best ominous vocal. Nice pounding piano runs with steady cohesive drums. The guitar churns like hot pudding with a wooden spoon and Whitehorn stirs. The pieces all come together as a somewhat sophisticated rock push. The power is in the musicianship. No showboating. But is it dramatic? Absolutely.

Soldier starts pensive and it's a solid Procol Harum old fashion [sic] melody. Everything is as it was during Shine on Brightly – powerful, melodic, haunting, and Whitehorn once again slips into a perfect lead guitar role with that signature Hammond organ riding the finale with beautiful horns. Pete Brown takes a respectable lyrical page from Keith Reid with political-sturdy verses. No pomposity. This one has an emotional melody that is relevant and time and care to this music: applied [sic]. No one in rock music since 1967 has ever approached the literate rock of this band and how it marries their intense music and arrangement to the presentation. Some come close, Van der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, PFM (but what they lack is a solid foundation in the blues – that which Procol Harum possesses and understands). Potency … that’s the word that best describes Procol Harum yesterday … and today as well.

Don’t Get Caught has the appeal of excellent cymbal work by Geoff Dunn who plays with expertise and open circuits across his percussive kit. All the drummers that followed in the footsteps of the supernatural BJ Wilson had to be good and they all were – Dunn asserts himself very well.

This track is classical in its balance [sic] and Brooker sings with ease. His inflection, phrasing and expressive vocal are what aspiring singers should aspire to. He has what Elvis Presley had, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles. Style and a vocal filigree [sic] of perfection in lyrical interpretation. Whitehorn does what he does best and again soars on lead guitar and departs in between Brooker’s performance [sic]. On piano Brooker’s touch on the keys is gentle and gutsy.

Procol with accordion and a sense of humour begins with the short tune Neighbour, and it’s a confident well-deserved place for them to be. Not taking it so seriously is something to admire. Taking a page from the excellent English band Stackridge they rollick and roll like a saloon band. Pass the jug.

The next track is the wonderful Sunday Morning – a work of art by this veteran band.

This is the most stirring, rousing, beautiful song in their new repertoire. Delicately balanced, excellently written and performed. Brooker is assured and continues to present pure evidence of the worthiness of this band in this new century. Violins [sic] frame the classical piano and the articulated acoustic guitar of Geoff Whitehorn supports it all. The lyrics are stunning. This was the song I listened to the most because I just couldn’t believe a band with this run – fifty years – could possibly come up with something so treasured. New material – not rehashed, not an oldies show, or re-recordings of old favourites, or out-takes. This is certainly a Procol Harum classic that could easily stand beside their best and most revered songs down through the decades. Whitehorn’s lead guitar toward the finale is reflective and he has earned his spot in their history.

Businessman is the new Whisky Train, Long Gone Geek rocker. With Presley, John Lennon and Jim Morrison gone, Brooker is a master of the rock vocal with grit and authority. None of the new rock singers have this power – not that I have heard. Dave Matthews? Eddie Vedder? Most new rock singers have whiney voices and none project with authority. Not like Morrison, or Presley or, or....Gary Brooker.

Dunn’s battery of rhythms and sharp snare bursts ride alongside Whitehorn’s flaming impulsive and blistering leads. It gives this veteran rock band and its new music that necessary venom. Matt Pegg’s bass is a wall of sound that holds it all together like glue. Josh Phillips’s Hammond slithers like a snake in the grass. This song will send smoke out of your wires and speakers.

The Only One is a powerful Procol Harum tune and I now will admit I was wrong in the past on other Harum albums. I always admitted that Geoff Whitehorn was a good guitar player but I never fully gave him credit for being a great Procol Harum guitarist. Just an accomplished guitarist who mastered the original leads fairly well. But, Geoff Whitehorn is his own man on lead guitar (acoustic and electric) – his work on this album is exemplary. On this song – he borders on spectacular. Absolutely Procol Harum in spirit.

Whitehorn maintains the legendary sound on lead with his original takes [sic ]and they are all filled with the chemistry and alchemy of his excellent predecessors.

Brooker and the rest of the musicians are always on target. This is quite a satisfying album of songs and melodies. I am going to stretch a bit – it could be one of their very best for consistency. This song will become a new Procol classic easily. If not for Brooker’s stirring vocal then for Geoff Whitehorn’s guitars. He is indeed, one of the best and deserves that recognition.

The concluding track: the poignant solo vocal of Gary Brooker with piano of  Somewhen. Written entirely by Gary it’s an intensely emotional song that is an appropriate closer for such an impeccable and long-awaited eleven tracks.

I guess the only criticism I have: with all the influential friends/musicians that Gary Brooker knows and has played with you would think one or maybe two would have contributed to one of the tracks on this album. Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr etc …it just would have been a nice anniversary gift to a band of true survivors.

The album was produced and engineered by Dennis Weinreich with the album art also in keeping with the Procol Harum legacy. The illustration and artwork were created by Julia Brown. Designed by Stuart Green with all photography by Alex Asprey.

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