Procol Harum are an English rock band formed in 1967. They are certainly one of the bands that contributed to the development of progressive rock. Their best-known recording is their 1967 hit single A Whiter Shade Of Pale, which is considered a classic of popular music and is one of the few singles to have sold over 10 million copies. Although noted for its baroque and classical influence, Procol Harum's music also embraces the blues, R&B and soul. For those who are not that familiar with the band and most of all their early recordings, Esoteric Recordings did a great job by rereleasing their first four album releases, titled Procol Harum, Shine On Brightly, A Salty Dog and Home. They are all newly re-mastered from the original tapes. All of them include a lavishly illustrated booklet that fully restores the original album artwork and features a new essay by Procol Harum biographer Henry Scott-Irvine. Furthermore the booklet is illustrated with previously unseen photographs. Even some of the releases come along with a facsimile promotional shop poster for the release of the original album at the time. Of course many bonus tracks are included as well. Some of them on the original disc and some of them are featured on an extra bonus disc. So for the real Procol Harum-fan there is something to offer as well.
Procol Harum is the band's eponymous debut studio album which was recorded in 1967 between the not on the album included two hit singles A Whiter Shade Of Pale and Homburg, but was held back until early 1968. The band at the time featured Gary Brooker (vocals, piano), Robin Trower (guitar), Matthew Fisher (organ), Dave Knights (bass), B.J. Wilson (drums) and Keith Reid (lyrics). Recording a full album after the wondrously intoxicating hit, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, must have seemed an extremely difficult task, but it is one that the band pulled off with an enormous amount of musical and lyrical success. Songs such as Cerdes (Outside the Gates Of), with its guitar drenched British R&B sound and mythologically inspired lyrics, as well as the jangly She Wandered Through The Garden Fence are obvious masterpieces. The album's instrumental closer, Repent Walpurgis, is one of the most powerful passages in rock history. The only song that is really missing on the album is the slightly humorous Mabel, but the song clocks in at under two minutes and does little to ruin the beauty of the remaining tracks. This reissue includes A Whiter Shade Of Pale as well as the bluesy B side and appropriately titled Lime Street Blues and the majestic and mournful Homburg and its B side Good Captain Clack Overall. This album is an essential part of the Procol Harum canon, and is a nice starting point for those new to the band's unique style and sound.
1968's Shine On Brightly is Procol Harum's second album, and it's another classic Bach-meets-rock hybrid from the band. It is by many considered as an early example of progressive rock. As for the songs on this album you can say that Quite Rightly So and the title track are both classics in the band's history. Skip Softly (My Moonbeams) has a great ominous bounce to it. The gospel-esque Wish Me Well is another buried treasure from the band, as are Rambling On and Magdelene (My Regal Zonophone). Finally, they delivered the first of their two epic pieces in their catalog, the 17-minute In Held 'Twas In I, a classical-rock suite containing different movements, plus a couple of spoken word passages. It is a very adventurous piece, filled with lots of great moods and melodies. And, as one of rock's very first epic compositions, it's also quite groundbreaking. For that reason it wasn't that strange that Transatlantic covered it for their debut album SMPTe (2000). Furthermore it is somewhat of a concept piece. It seems to chronicle the fall and subsequent rise of an ordinary individual as he/she progresses through paranoia and insanity to self actualization and nirvanic bliss. This journey is most of all summarized on In Held 'Twas In I. The single disc version of this reissue features three extra songs. On the first one Gary Brooker does a nice job with the Italian rendering of the lyrics to Shine On Brightly in the rarity, Il Tuo Diamante. Next is the single Quite Rightly So and its B side In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence. All in all you could say that from start to finish, the album was another great milestone for the band. Most of all because it is just an exciting and magnificent album, worth owning not only for fans of the band but fans who admire intelligent lyrics and songwriting of a high quality.
A Salty Dog was the last Procol Harum album to feature the original 5-piece line-up. It was released in 1969. Compared to the previous two, which were very much dominated by Gary Brooker's songs and vocals, more space was given to guitarist Robin Trower and organist Matthew Fisher. Moreover Robin Trower debuts as a lead singer on his own Crucifiction Lane and he wrote Juicy John Pink- both songs which show the roots of Procol Harum as a tight R&B band. Trower also co-wrote the acoustic Too Much Between Us with Brooker - beautifully sung by Brooker, by the way. Matthew Fisher produced the album, and arranged the orchestra for three of the songs - most note-worthy the title track. Compared to the vocals of Brooker you could say that on this album Fisher's voice may appear somewhat thin. But he sings his two songs Wreck Of The Hesperus and Pilgrim's Progress beautifully, and both songs fit in nicely on the album. Pilgrim's Progress bears big resemblance to the classic A Whiter Shade Of Pale. The charming Boredom with its Carribean rhythms is a Brooker/Fisher collaboration, adding to the great variety in styles which characterize the album. Apart from the unique A Salty Dog, the album features another Brooker classic, namely All This And More with its classic Procol Harum sound. At the time The Band was a big inspiration for Procol Harum as you can hear on the song The Milk Of Human Kindness. The extra disc that comes along with this reissue contains mainly live recordings of the band. Very interesting are the 4 rare live-tracks from a 1969 April tour in the United States. Great to hear the original band live - again their R&B roots shine through. Included are also a mono version of the single that was made of the title track along with its B-side Long Gone Geek. With this album you could say that the band scored a natural hat trick; having their debut and Shine On Brightly in mind.
The last of the reissued albums was originally released in 1970 and got the title Home. The album was recorded without organist Matthew Fisher and bassist David Knights. Both duties were taking over by Chris Copping. He was an old friend of Brooker and Trower with whom he had played music in the early 60s in the band The Paramount. The purpose of bringing in Copping was to return some of the R&B sound that they had with their previous incarnation to the band. In a way the album follows the band's three previous albums with much the same sound, except that Trower's guitar takes centre stage on a number of tracks. However the band's sound has taken on a more powerful overall sound that gives the songs some needed firepower. As for the songs on the original album you can't say that this time around no hit singles were presented like on their earlier albums. The extra discs includes demos, radio sessions, special mixes made by George Martin and Chris Thomas. Finally a special mentioning for the art work. It was decided that the cover would be a parody of the British board game Snakes and Ladders featuring members of the band.
Listening nowadays to the four Procol Harum reissues you can certainly say that they sound very dated and don't live up to the modern day technology of recording. However this does not mean that they can't be enjoyed. All of the albums are real treasures from a time when progressive rock was invented. Therefore lovers of the progressive rock genre will find some beautiful moments on the well produced reissues. I certainly did enjoy them and I guess a lot more will if they are willing to take a step back in time.
**** (all) Henri Strik (edited by Astrid de Ronde)
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