The Progressive Aspect review: Roger Trenwith online here
Almost exactly one calendar year passed between the release of Procol Harum’s self-titled début album and their second, Shine on Brightly, released in September 1968. The development of the band in that short time is nothing short of astonishing. That bold statement is fully justified, for with the seventeen-minute side-long epic In Held ’Twas in I, the band took popular music to a place even The Beatles had never thought of. This song is what you might call “proto-prog”, long before the dreaded latter part of that abbreviation had been coined. A few years ago I wrote a rambling four-part personal analysis of the development of progressive rock in the UK, and Shine on Brightly was one of a handful of albums to be given the “proto” appendage. I will leave you to make your own mind up on that one!
Leaving the Dylan influences of the début behind, and this time benefiting from a new-fangled stereo mix, the sound is fuller, and instantly recognisable as Procol Harum, who have by now carved out their own corner in the underground rock cavern. It is easy to get lost in the huge significance of In Held ’Twas in I and forget that this album had a “Side One”. Daft really, when you consider the easy confidence and swagger of opener Quite Rightly So, the grandiose title track, and Robin Trower’s bluesy showcase Wish Me Well. Even the sub-Beatles Rambling On manages to rise above its sources to carry that indelible Procol stamp, led by Gary Booker’s clear tones and ending with some fine guitar wailing from Robin.
However, there is no escaping the epic, is there? It’s what we’re here for after all. The psychedelic cover of the record, depicting a lysergically altered piano is reflected in the opening part of the suite, with Gary Booker reading a narration ending with the Dalai Lama saying “Well my son, life is like a beanstalk…isn’t it?”, and we’re off on a classic-Gothic sequence that mixes symphonic grandiosity and Chopin-esque piano. A second narrator – Keith Reid most probably – continues the story over Booker’s [sic] piano. The madcap 'Twas Tea Time at the Circus is a strange and fun interlude, and it is becoming fairly obvious that In Held ’Twas in I would be a big influence on a certain Peter Gabriel and his mates when writing their own rather famous side-long epic some four years later.
Robin Trower adds a marvellous and menacing guitar figure at the start of the highly psychedelic Look Into Your Soul [sic], a guitar line that will sound familiar to any fan of Gracious!. Reprising the main theme on his guitar, Robin is then joined by the rest of the band before a song emerges from the pomp, Reid’s lyrics musing on a grim realisation. More fab guitar work from Trower makes this part of the suite the most compelling. All too soon we have entered the Grand Finale with its angelic choirs and redemptive cadence. In Held ’Twas in I was a highly influential piece of music, that rightly or wrongly set the course for the “prog epic” to this day. Its sheer majesty leant [sic] itself to orchestral accompaniment as the superb version on the 1972 live album Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra bears splendid witness.
One of the bonus tracks on this single CD variant of the album is an Italian version of the title track that perhaps helped sow the seeds of the Italian progressive rock movement which blossomed only a few months behind its UK parent. As with the début album, my review copy is the single CD issue, but there’s an expanded 3-CD version available for the completist crammed with outtakes, radio sessions, and alternate mixes.
If you consider yourself a fan of progressive rock, and you do not yet own a copy of this album, you owe it to yourself to invest in a record that pointed the way, probably without the creators even realising it. As for the rest of you, it’s simply great music, regardless of genre, and you need it, oh yes you do!
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Procol Harum albums