By 1975 Procol Harum had released an album a year since their 1967 debut and defining hit, "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and had gone three years without a chart single in either the U.S. or U.K. Their previous album, the solidly rocking Exotic Birds and Fruit, became their first to fail to chart in the States.
After five straight albums with producer Chris Thomas, and seeking new direction, the band turned to the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to steer their ninth. Leiber and Stoller, known primarily as the songwriters of such classics as "Hound Dog" and "Stand By Me," would have seemed a ludicrous choice for production duties, but their success with Stealer’s Wheel’s debut impressed Procol, a band in need of new inspiration, if not a hit.
The temptation to compare Procol’s Ninth to the Beatles’ Let It Be is irresistable. Both represented breaks with long-time producers, in favor of surprising replacements; they both revisited some of the bands’ old material; there was a common element of returning to their roots; and live recordings figured into both. In a final commonality, the outcome for both bands fell short of the hoped-for revitalization.
On Exotic Birds and Fruit, producer Thomas had departed from the ornate arrangements and orchestral accoutrements that had characterized both their last successful album (Grand Hotel) and single ("Conquistador," from the Live with the Edmondton Symphony album), focusing on the piano and organ-based sound so integral to their early success. For Ninth Leiber and Stoller not only forgo the orchestra, most of the arrangements downplay the Hammond organ, emphasizing Gary Brooker’s voice and giving B.J. Wilson’s powerful drumming plenty of room in the mix.
Things begin promisingly with "Pandora’s Box," a spare, sinister track featuring bass marimba, string synthesizer, and a flute solo. The song would give them their last chart single (reaching #16 in the U.K.) and seems indicative of a bright new sound. In reality, the song (though not the recording) dates from the band’s earliest days in 1967 and the track is far and away the album’s high point. Also, Brooker straining to hit certain notes and the near-absence of Chris Copping’s Hammond are harbingers of things to come on Ninth.
Not that there aren’t other bright spots. "Fool’s Gold" could pass for a lesser track from Broken Barricades, Procol’s hardest-rocking album, with Mick Grabham kicking in some meaty guitar work, subtle horns, and cool vibes. The bluesy swagger of "Taking the Time" and the Latin feel of "The Final Thrust" offer rhythmic variety. On "The Unquiet Zone," the clavinet/horn/cowbell instrumentation and odd timing provide a showcase for Wilson’s incomparable drumming.