Procol Harum

the Pale

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Something Magic

Contemporary album review

Something Magic: Procol Harum (Chrysalis): Patrick Humphries in NME, 5 March 1977

Itís unfortunate that Procol Harum are lumbered with this image of being purveyors of humourless, Gothic Rock, trying to maintain their dignity as they play their rococo music in the emptying ballroom of a once grand hotel.

Even now, ten years on, mention Procol Harum and most people still think of Whiter Shade of Pale but that particular sword of Damocles (good title for a Brooker / Reid song that) must be behind them now after a series of consistently excellent albums, from the majesty of Salty Dog (which must rank as one of the seminal 60s albums) to the hardcore rock of Exotic Birds And Fruit.

And then thereís Something Magic.

Iíd like to say itís their best yet, or at least a "worthy addition to a distinguished canon", but alas itís not. Itís another Procol Harum album that will probably please their old fans, but wonít blow many cobwebs away from their reputation. Itís not a bad album ĺ I donít think Procol are capable of producing a real stinker ĺ but itís a disappointing release to mark a decade of otherwise excellent music.

Thereís little but a feeling that weíve all been here before ĺ not in the sense of revisiting former triumphs, but rather that through lack of direction the group have come to a full stop.

My particular bone of contention is the latest Brooker / Reid magnum opus The Worm And The Tree, which takes up the whole of side two. The last time Procol attempted anything of this nature was the magnificent In Held 'Twas In I, which occupied half of the Live at Edmonton album. That particular piece had the scope and wealth of ideas that Worm so frustratingly lacks.

Gary Brooker insists on receiting the seven verses of the parable in a "Pay attention at the back Iíll be asking questions afterwards" sort of voice (which means you canít even dance to it), and the words donít supply any glimpses of nirvana, just a tedious fable which ends "The worm can be killed yet the tree may not be dead/For from the roots of the elder a new life will spread". And I hope theyíll be very happy together, but to take over 18 minutes to get that message across is excessive, especially galling since in the past Procol have been masters of economy.

As it is theyíve gone calamitously down in an overblown parody of their former glory.

As for the music; no real surprises there, pseudo spectacular stuff with little real excitement, only occasionally livened up, as on Expectancy, where newcomer Pete Solley plays around with his keyboards.

However, like a slice of toast, there is another side, which is more the Procol I know and love. The title track opens with a regal sounding orchestra heralding the entry of Brooker. Itís a typical Procol song, with Reidís lyrics back in their natural domain of "The dark hour of the soul when nightmares take their toll" and the music demonstrating the grandeur for which Procol are renowned.

The albumís piece de resistance is Skating On Thin Ice, with a melody which reminded me of a music box tune. Choir and orchestra blend beautifully behind Brookerís voice and piano as he sings Reidís doomy, Tarot inspired lyrics, while BJ Wilsonís cymbals and Pete Solleyís synthesisers swish away in good atmospheric vein. Wizard Man (for some reason omitted from the sleeve) is a strong choice for a single, short and simply effective, filled out by Mick Grabhamís restrained guitar. Mark Of The Claw is up to scratch, and Strangers In Space is ethereal stuff.

I was looking forward to giving this album a good review, it being Jubilee Year and ten years on from Whiter Shade, and this being Procolís 10th album, but in all honesty it is a disappointment.

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