Procol Harum

Beyond
the Pale 

PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home

Procol Harum • Procol's Ninth 3CD set

November 2018 • reviewed at RealGoneRocks here


This is a detailed and insightful review, weighing in at about 2,800 words. However the excellent RealGone have politely
asked us not to exhibit the whole 'stolen' text, as previously. Accordingly, here's a redacted version of
what you'll read when you navigate to the actual article, which is well-worth reading!


For many listeners, Procol Harum’s legacy centres around [sic] their first three albums (1967’s Procol Harum, 1968’s Shine on Brightly and 1969’s A Salty Dog) and the evergreen classic single A Whiter Shade of Pale. Indeed, that would have been enough to secure them a place in the rock history books, but the ever-prolific band released a further six albums between 1970 and 1977. While these albums were destined to only be heard by the more faithful fan, each one provided a selection of highlights, and while 1975’s Procol’s Ninth doesn’t seem too inspirational in terms of either title or sleeve art, it is certainly no exception.

It’s worth noting, before looking at the music itself in any detail, that nothing on the album clocks in at longer than five minutes — it’s a record that values song craft over indulgence: in thirty-nine minutes, Procol’s Ninth is very much a flagship for succinct arrangements and songs. This didn’t sit well with all fans, but perversely fans of progressive rock are sometimes the most closed-minded listeners — they don’t want their favourite musicians to change or progress; they seem much happier when bands stick to familiar formulae and for some of Procol’s fans, the more commercial edge on this album was just a step too far. That’s their loss, as the bulk of Procol’s Ninth is actually thoroughly enjoyable.

The opening track gives the album an interesting starting point that links the past with the present. Pandora’s Box had begun to take shape as early as 1967, but was abandoned when the pieces didn’t quite fit. Trading in its psych roots for a more pop/rock style, the finished version included here pitches various clanking xylophone sounds against a slightly haunting arrangement where stabs of synthesiser fight for dominance against a very rhythmic backdrop. Gary Brooker’s lead vocal isn’t as powerful as some of his earliest performances, but retains a husky soulfulness that really has a distinctive edge, whilst guitarist Mick Grabham — a fixture of the band since 1973 — turns in a fantastic solo. Despite a quirky arrangement, the track became popular on US radio and, for most fans, remains the album’s best loved offering.

However, for those willing to keep a more open mind, Procol’s Ninth features a handful of tracks that are both far more melodic and actually more enjoyable. The album’s finest four minutes, Fools Gold takes cues from ’70s’ rock and soul, serving up a hybrid of Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears throughout. This, of course suits Brooker’s voice very well, while the rest of the band appear incredibly comfortable with a simpler arrangement. The way the main riff punches against Brooker’s rolling piano is very cinematic, while — as before — Grabham tops everything with a very well-played solo. This track carries an undeniable spirit of the era in which it was written, but for fans of ’70s’ pop-rock, it’ll have a timeless [?] appeal. Likewise, the slightly bluesy Taking the Time has an easy charm, rolling along with a touch of New Orleans style — something accentuated with some very cool muted trumpet and clarinet work. For Procol, everything is taken in a natural stride: the guitars are understated; the piano respectful of the mood. It doesn’t challenge the musicians especially, nor to [sic] they succumb to over-playing anything and as a result it’s a clear stand-out. Vocally, too, it’s easily Brooker’s best performance on the album.

Going for something more percussive and a touch busier, The Unquiet Zone finds everyone stretching out on the most ’70s arrangement of all. Featuring fiery guitar leads, a wall of pianos and an obtrusive cowbell, Procol move even further away from their psych, prog and neo-classical roots on a number that could easily slot into a Santana or later period Traffic album. The very fact that they sound so natural when attacking the busy Latin rhythms makes this another easy highlight, before moving into The Final Thrust, the albums [sic] settles upon something that often feels closer to some of Procol’s earlier work. During the intro, Brooker strikes the keys in a very hard way, lending the simple melody a strength from which the rest of the track can then build. There’s something in the style and tone that sounds like a forerunner to Elton John’s Song for Guy, before the rest of the band usher in an odd progressive pop tango. This in turn allows them to experiment just a little, particularly in the way a rattling snare-drum fills space between a ringing piano motif and Alan Cartwright’s bass often sounds like an out-of-place stretched rubber band. Multiple listens to the track uncover each of the layers, but it’s always the clean and bright piano that leaves the strongest impression. It might not be as easy to enjoy unconditionally — as per Taking the Time — but it’s a great recording nonetheless.

Leading with the incredibly bright sounding piano once more, Without a Doubt often sounds like an old Traffic cast-off and whilst occasionally derivative of Winwood (especially vocally) the number more than holds its own. Grabham’s slightly fuzzy guitar work recalls Clapton’s early seventies style and Brooker’s voice, carrying those Winwood inflections against his own confident style, sounds particularly fine. With a finely tuned balance between pop, rock and a horn driven pomp, this manages to impress despite a couple of unwarranted light reggae interludes. With more focus on a vocal than a memorable tune, The Piper’s Tune fares less well, but even then, there are glimmers of Procol’s former glory throughout, especially since Chris Copping’s organ blusters against the subtler elements of the track, before Typewriter Torment offers stabbed piano on a slightly lop-sided tune that fuses soul-ish flair with art rock anger. Echoes of ’70s’ glam lurk underneath the general pomp, and although an odd lyric means that there isn’t a distinctive hook, as with Taking the Time and The Unquiet Zone, very little fault can be found within the meticulously arranged melodic rock. Of particular note is the way in which extra percussion weaves in and out of the organ solo while the otherwise rigid beat and bass keep everything anchored. Again, it’s quite removed from Procol Harum’s more grandiose earlier work, but in the confines of this album, it’s another musical highlight.

In a career first, Procol’s Ninth also includes material that wasn’t penned by the band themselves. Since Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were chosen as the album’s producers, it seemed sort of tight that Procol should put their own mark on one of their classic compositions. And so, I Keep Forgetting offers a fantastic rock and soul hybrid that’s a great outlet for some featured horns and a very tasteful solo from Grabham. Perhaps best of all, though, is Brooker’s lead vocal: impassioned and heartfelt at all times, he takes the lyric and breathes real life into each syllable, as if he’s channelling a more tuneful Randy Newman or Joe Cocker. It’s seriously great. Much less fortunate is an ugly, lumbering version of Eight Days a Week. No amount of stabbing piano or handclaps will ever disguise the fact that all of the breeziness of The Beatles’ original has been sucked out and subsequently stomped upon. Procol approach the classic pop ditty in the manner of a bad wedding band and while Grabham’s guitar flourishes are commendable, Brooker’s husky voice absolutely murders the overall performance. Sticking it at the end of the original album only serves to damage any lasting memories of a record that’s otherwise often rather fine. It’s a massive factor as to why Ninth is often treated like the uninvited guest.

With less focus on trying to be quirky or grandiose, the arrangements often let the songs speak for themselves and, as consequence, that puts a lot of focus on both Brooker’s vocal and Grabham’s ability to fill space. Luckily, on the best tracks both musicians excel and while, overall, Procol’s Ninth rarely feels like the most exciting album of the ’70s — or even of Procol’s own career — there’s something about its relatively easy, melodic style that often results in an enjoyable and consistent listen.

*

An elaborate deluxe reissue released by Esoteric Records 2018 adds various materials that even Ninth’s most stubborn critic would struggle to dislike. Across three discs, the deluxe edition includes eight bonus studio recordings (five of which are previously unreleased) alongside audio of two complete live shows from 1975.

Appended to the end of the original release on disc one, several rough drafts of the album’s tracks give a glimpse into a work in progress. The best of these, a previously unreleased version of Pandora’s Box strips back the clankier elements and instead shows the track as a flowing Traffic-esque ’70s’ pop-rocker on which Brooker’s piano often takes the dominant role in place of the xylophone. At this instrumental stage it feels very different, often allowing Grabham’s soaring guitar to cut through, before Copping drops in with a busy organ to fade. The final studio recording is good, but this ‘raw track’ version is absolutely stellar. Equally thrilling, a ‘raw track’ recording of Taking The Time makes a bigger feature of a jazzy piano intro and makes Brooker a much bigger personality throughout. His piano takes the lead instead of the organ [?]; his vocal is more forthright and overall, it’s actually a much stronger take. The recording also pushes Cartwright’s bass to the fore — he’s nowhere near as present on the final take, or indeed most of the album in general.

Also capturing the harder side of the band, a ‘raw track’ of The Unquiet Zone shows the percussive and Latin elements firmly in place, but includes a funky clavichord that’s nowhere as obvious on the final recording, while the early version of The Final Thrust makes a bigger feature of the bass, giving the intro the feel of an old soul number before dropping into something that sounds like a louder rendition of the album track, albeit without the dominating piano. Again, it’s brilliant to hear bassist [sic] Chris Copping and understand the talents he inevitably brought to the recording sessions, only to be mixed far too low on the final product. It’s definitely another essential listen for fans of the album. A similar hard-edged sound can be found on the raw mix of Without a Doubt (still called The Poet during these early recording sessions) and the take presented here shows a decent tune has already taken root. In many ways, the slightly rockier and more rugged approach gives the number more personality than Lieber & Stoller’s production ever could — or, indeed, did. Legends they may have been, but they also tried to make Procol’s album sound a little too perfect. This earlier recording sounds good and lively — especially at the point the drums punch through before the guitar solo — and it’s all the better for that.

The ‘raw track’ of Fool’s Gold, on the other hand, is nothing of the sort — musically, it sounds every bit as good as the finished article and it’s only a slightly wobbly vocal being swamped by the guitars on occasion that actually gives the idea that this isn’t quite finished. Never the best track on Procol’s Ninth, the ‘raw track’ of Piper’s Tune shows off a reasonable vocal and a warmer sound, but that doesn’t lift one of the band’s more pedestrian tunes. It’s nice to hear if you’re a fan, but lacks the excitement of hearing the unfinished Pandora’s Box, for example. Finally, with a couple of huge chords and a crashing piano, the previously unreleased alternate version of Typewriter Torment shows promise in that it comes with the same kind of warmth shown on some of the raw tracks. Beyond that, it isn’t substantially different enough from the released recording to be considered a Procol essential, unfortunately.

The real meat of the extensive bonus materials, though, comes on discs two and three, with a wealth of previously unreleased live audio from 1975. For haters of Procol’s Ninth, these archive recordings should be reason enough to investigate this deluxe set, especially since the still new album’s material really doesn’t get much of a look in.

Disc two features a complete live show from The Capitol in Passaic, New Jersey on 17 October 1975. Like so many of the Capitol’s shows from that time, this gig partially [sic] exists on film, sourced from the venue’s own recording. It’s in black and white and the previously circulating audio wasn’t the best. With that in mind, it’s a real treat to have the audio from the full show here in better quality. The audience aren’t audible at first, which gives everything a slightly odd feel, but the band themselves are on good form. An opening Shine on Brightly is an obvious highlight, with it’s [sic] slightly distorted bass and piano giving a sense of the power in the live act; Conquistador brings plenty of pomp and builds nicely to a busy climax with plenty of organ swirls and busy piano work and a quirky Pandora’s Box really holds its own among the more familiar material. A Salty Dog’ is well received by the crowd and despite the occasional vocal issue, is very well played — even Brooker jokes about a new key-change proving difficult — before an epic rendition of Grand Hotel interpolating The Blue Danube Waltz really shows the band stretching out. It’s only really with the bluegrass-ish stomp of A Souvenir of London this twelve-song set misfires. The banjo is too loud; Brooker’s voice is all over the place and it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be taken seriously or not. There are better live recordings out there — both in terms of quality and performance — but this is how a genuine live document should sound. There’s a real pleasure in listening to this set: the band give their all and with the bum notes unfixed, the presence of a devastatingly loud cowbell and requests for changes to audio levels still present, it’s the next best thing to having been there.

Disc three features a complete, twelve-song set recorded at Leicester University just over a month later on 21 November. The set list is notably different, with only a few staples reappearing, so that alone makes it a decent addition to an already enjoyable set. The regular set opener Shine on Brightly comes across much more crisply on this recording and Brooker is in fantastic form and although the guitars are a touch low in the mix, it still has the makings of a great Procol live experience. After the opening number, though, it’s quickly clear that this is the superior show, both in terms of band performance and audience response. On the whole, the audio is much clearer; the band, while not always sounding quite so forceful, are in brilliant shape. Conquistador is a full on blast of late ’60s’ progness once more and it’s also a pleasure to hear how naturally the newly recorded Pandora’s Box comes across — especially since the crowd aren’t hating it. What definitely makes this University show the stronger of the two, though — aside from the relatively humble and intimate surroundings — is the track selection itself. The nautical epic Whaling Stories comes with a world of Hammond Organ noise, whilst Brooker taps into a mournful vocal that eclipses its studio counterpart before everything peaks with a clattering anger, and this show’s Grand Hotel finds the mid-’70s Procol in full flight, ready to go off on a tangent at any second, should they wish.

Midway, Brooker makes reference to the then new album (Ninth), claiming it ‘hasn’t done much’ and it being ‘a sleeper’, suggesting the band’s fortunes are very much on the wane, but if that’s the case, it hasn’t affected their live show. The Blue Danube is performed as a stand-alone set piece stretching to a full ten minutes and since it features a gorgeous soaring guitar and a dominant feeling of shameless prog rock, it could easily be considered Procol’s definitive performance of the track. The night’s encore gives the sense of a genuine encore, since a fun run-through of Be Bop A Lula (with Brooker encouraging students to get rowdy) and a rock ‘n’ roll take on Stephen Foster’s Old Black Joe suggests really being in the moment, before signature piece A Whiter Shade of Pale ends a marvellous set. The well- known hit seems slightly out of place next to the newer and sometimes rockier material but he [sic] performance is brilliant, and on this night — and indeed, many others — it stands as an impressive and stately piece of music.

As far as deluxe editions go, this is the way to do things. It puts the various 2CD Emerson Lake & Palmer deluxe sets in the shade, since unreleased material — live or otherwise — should always take precedence over a revisionist approach with newly created mixes, assuming both can’t be included. Presenting quality and quality [sic] in almost equal measure, this is a great set. Ignore the nay-sayers — Procol’s Ninth is a decent album ... and this reissue makes it a hell of a lot better!


About the original album | More reviews


 
PH on stage | PH on record | PH in print | BtP features | What's new | Interact with BtP | For sale | Site search | Home