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Music Review: Procol Harum – Something Magic

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In 2007 the Salvo Records reissue label began releasing upgraded editions of all ten albums Procol Harum produced during their first ten years, concluding with Something Magic, from 1977, the band’s last work together until The Prodigal Stranger, in 1991. Like their reclamation of the similarly underappreciated catalog by The Move, Salvo did a commendable restoration of Procol’s music, including a two disc best-of anthology, Secrets of the Hive, and a four disc box, All This and More. With Something Magic, Salvo completes their 40th anniversary Procol collection with admirable quality.

Too bad the music doesn’t measure up to the packaging. This album, the most divisive in Procol’s history, is the one Stereo Review’s Steve Simels memorably labeled, “Something tragic.” The accompanying booklet calls for a “reappraisal” of the album as “an intriguing milestone rather than a millstone,” and a band of Procol’s caliber certainly deserved it.

Their previous release, Procol’s Ninth (1975), had yielded a UK chart single, “Pandora’s Box,” which should have provided some momentum for a follow-up. Ninth’s producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were unavailable, though, and the band wound up recording in Miami’s Criteria Studios, site of successful recordings by the Allman Brothers, Bee Gees, Eagles, Manassas, and Derek and the Dominos. Despite the invigorating change of scene, the choice of Criteria’s ace engineers, Ron and Howie Albert, to produce the album was something far from magic.

The album credits list both the band and the Albert brothers as producers. As the new CD’s booklet diplomatically puts it, the Albert brothers were “not tuned to [the same] wavelength” as Procol’s primary songwriters, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid. A 1995 Record Collector interview with Brooker reveals deeper incompatibility. Brooker contends that the band wanted the brothers to stick with engineering only, to which they responded by likening Procol’s material, as graced with their production talent, to “dogsh*t covered in chocolate.”

That appraisal, apocryphal or not, is both overly generous to the album’s sound and excessively scatological toward the material. Side One of the original LP, and this CDs first five tracks, are far from Procol’s top material, but are, at worst, uninspired. They also include rare songwriting credits for bassist Chris Copping and guitarist Mick Grabham, indicating a new openness to their contributions. The innovations also saw Copping give up his organ-playing role, replaced by Pete Solley, who eschewed the familiar Hammond sound for Farfisa organ and ARP synthesizers, a marked trade down.

Copping’s “Skating On Thin Ice” is a delicate waltz whose charm is undermined by gimmicky synthesizers and Brooker’s voice going thin in the upper register. Grabham seems to be channeling his predecessor, Robin Trower, on the menacing “Mark of the Claw,” its memorable riff and odd timing providing Something Magic’s high point, marred only by (you guessed it) a cheesy synth solo.

Primary songwriters Brooker and Reid’s title track promises more than it delivers, its bravura opening fanfare devolving into a ludicrous horn bridge, undermining what could otherwise have passed as a lesser Grand Hotel cut. It was issued as a single, but failed to chart. “Wizard Man,” a misguided, simplistic, three-chord attempt to sound contemporary, merely comes off as non-descript, a sad selection as the band’s final single (until the 1991 reunion). “Strangers in Space” is surprisingly ethereal for a band that so often sounded imposing, its dreamy atmosphere an interesting and satisfying departure, and by far the best use of Solley’s synthesizers.

So, half the album is merely substandard, a last gasp from a band that had once been able to inspire and awe with seeming ease. Then comes “The Worm & The Tree,” the sprawling suite that occupied all of the LP’s B side, which tends to divide listeners as definitively as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Love You.

The antecedent for “The Worm & The Tree” is their earlier “In Held ‘Twas I,” a 17-minute piece heard on both the Shine On Brightly and Live With the Edmundton Symphony albums; lyricist Keith Reid has stated that their label encouraged them to create another work of comparable scope. Where “In Held” was a thematically-linked mini-symphony; however, “The Worm…” is a spoken-word fable, an orchestrated narrative with instrumental interludes.

 

Perhaps “The Worm…” would have been better received with actor James Mason as guest narrator, as was considered; the CD booklet notes that “Brooker’s declamation . . . struck some listeners as rather severe and pedagogical.” Brooker claimed that, “given a few more days, I could have sung it.” Given the outcome, and the suite’s reception, taking “a few more days” with it might have been a worthwhile investment of time. Despite its sophistication and cinematic sweep, the recitation makes the lengthy track seem ponderous and pretentious, qualities even their weightiest music had always avoided.

Contemporary critical responses to the album ranged from disappointment to derision. If Procol Harum had wanted to seem out of step with the times in 1977, at the dawning of punk rock, they couldn’t have provided much more convincing evidence than an 18½ minute suite like “The Worm & The Tree,” which was pointed to as an example of what was wrong with progressive rock, and everything else punk was rebelling against. Even after a critical reappraisal, as the CD booklet suggests, it still seems like an albatross around the band’s collective neck.

A section of the suite is titled, appropriately, “Enervation,” and Something Magic, sadly, sounded depleted, like the work of a band that had outlived its inspiration and vitality. Following the album’s tepid reception, Procol toured briefly, then dissolved. Although Brooker revived the name in 1991, many purists consider this the final Procol Harum album. Coming from a lesser band, it might have been acceptable; from Procol, one of the most innovative and consistently excellent bands of the previous ten years, it was, if not tragic, at least disappointing.

 
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About James A. Gardner

  • Alisa

    Interesting article.Thanks for sharing.

  • James A. Gardner

    Thanks for reading and commenting!
    Procol Harum is among my favorite 60s/70s bands and it pains me to make negative comments about them, but I had to call them on this one.

  • L-O Ström

    Underrated!

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