PROCOL HARUM – Something Magic

Procol Harum’s ninth album, the prosaically titled ‘Procol’s Ninth’, is hugely disliked by some fans. A far cry from the pomp, adventure and bombast of their early work, it took them in more of a pop-rock direction under the influence of producers Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller. Against the band’s wishes, the record included covers of Leiber/Stoller’s ‘I Keep Forgetting’ and The Beatles’ classic ‘Eight Days A Week’. Although, in many ways, it remains a true oddity within the Procol canon, its an album to which time has actually been very kind, sounding better decades on. …And regardless of what you may have thought of the original LP, the two discs’ worth of live material appended to the Esoteric Records deluxe reissue in 2018 created a fine package.

The follow-up to ‘Procol’s Ninth’, 1977’s ‘Something Magic’ injects a lot more of the expected musical grandiosity – thanks in no small part to the record being partly self-produced – but often sounds very much like an album that was headed for commercial failure, released as it was in the face of the punk and new wave movements. The band forged ahead and, regardless of changing fashions, created an album that’s much truer to themselves than ‘Procol’s Ninth’ ever had been. Within the original album’s forty minutes, you’ll find a couple of punchy rockers rubbing shoulders with atmospheric ballad-oriented fare and, on the second side, a musical suite concerning the life cycle of a worm and a tree. If there was anything more anti-punk in ’77, anyone has surely yet to find it. It’s almost as if Procol understood there were only a few grains left in their hourglass and if they had to go, they certainly weren’t going to compromise.

Written by guitarist Mick Grabham with lyricist Keith Reid, ‘The Mark of The Claw’, shows how the band were able to take their grand ideas, add some harder edges and still sound very much at ease. Grabham’s riffs sound much closer to Mick Box’s early work with Uriah Heep than anything his predecessor, Robin Trower, had ever played with Procol Harum but, nevertheless, it’s a riff that really works. It has a defiantly 70s aggression, yet isn’t especially heavy; any tough rock chops are given a perfect balance elsewhere with swirling organs, stabbed rock ‘n’ roll pianos and a wonderful vocal which lapses into melodies that ensure the listener becomes more than aware that this is a Procol recording, regardless of musical style. Similarly direct, the buoyant pop-rock of ‘Wizard Man’, driven by a punchy bass, jubilant organ swirls and carefree gang vocals, showed how Procol could go toe-to-toe with several dozen US AM radio fillers du jour and still come out winning.

Joining these, you’ll find more typical Procol fare in the heart-breaking waltz ‘Skating On Thin Ice’ which makes a great feature of Gary Brooker’s sweeping piano style and harp accompaniments, as well as a few beautifully arranged harmonies and some understated brass. As great as that is, it’s outdone by ‘Strangers In Space’, a soft, floaty affair that places a new age-ish, very prog-friendly electric piano high in the mix, while Brooker croons a soft melody that occasionally resembles the same aching beauty that drove some of his earliest performances. The addition of tasteful strings, some (then) futuristic synth effects and some wonderful soaring guitar sounds from Mick Grabham really give this thoughtful track a very tasteful send off. It might never make the pantheon of the all-time great Procol Harum tracks but, as an integral part of this album, it’s great.

Perhaps best of all is the title track, which opens with a bloody enormous fanfare, a rumble of drums and a genuine sense of intent. Like the most memorable Procol songs it’s not all bombast, of course, and with the arrival of Brooker – front and centre – some terrific vocal passages are intercut with frivolous piano fills while the rest of the band set about their own weird hybrid of prog, jazz and classical influences. There are times when this number sounds as if it were written for the stage – visions of high-wires and circuses seem to be conjured through the playfulness of the arrangement – and that feeling is definitely reinforced by repetitive string swells and stabs. In terms of sophisticated rock music, few bands could fit quite as much into approximately four minutes.

Side two of the original album sounds like far more of a 70s oddity when approached with more modern ears. During a time when the musical landscape seemed ever shifting, a side long suite about a worm and the life cycle of a tree – an idea that truly evokes the hippie ideals of 1971 – seemed doomed from the point of conception. Nevertheless, the ‘Worm and The Tree’ very much shows how Brooker and friends had retained some great compositional chops and hadn’t been entirely dispirited by any of their previous Leiber/Stoller experiences.

An obvious nod to previous Procol Harum epics, the suite begins with a soft piano melody from Brooker as if he’s revisiting an old overture from a ballet. His playing is grand, though never overbearing, and when a compliment of strings and a rumble of drums arrive to build mood, the neo-classical flair really starts to take shape. Swooping melodies and occasional wordless vocals suggest things will get even bigger but, instead, the first of a few spoken word passages leads us into a second movement where clanky, prog rock melodies dart back and forth as Brooker’s piano is joined by soaring guitar lines and a full orchestral sound. Following a narrative about the worm nibbling the tree, the suite finally arrives at its first classic moment when a mournful melody – with hints of Albinoni’s ‘Adagio’ and a future echo of Giorgio Moroder’s score for Midnight Express – calls back to Procol Harum’s earlier years.

The moodier aspects could possibly sustain entertainment for a while longer, but the band has other ideas and avenues to explore, and ‘Enervation’, really lightens the tone. It takes the listener to an unexpected place where unashamed prog rock keyboard solos are juxtaposed by middling disco grooves. Hearing a descending scale, funk bases and a booming voice-over coming together in this way, it’s almost as if Brooker and company had pre-imagined Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, or perhaps Wayne possessed a massive gift for being clairvoyant… Although it’s the album’s most dated musical offering, it’s very well constructed. A Keith Emerson derived fanfare leads into ‘Expectancy’, a fractured tune driven by hard piano stabs and a vocal meter that’s not a million miles away from Cream’s ‘Pressed Rat & Warthog’, before ‘Battle’ offers some heavy sounds to balance out the theatrics. Here, Grabham finally gets to take centre stage with a howling, angry solo symbolising the death of the tree and although the melodies are relatively simple, the guitarist’s tone is epic enough to make a genuine impact. To finish, ‘Regeneration’ returns to a sad melody, where the chosen orchestral elements sound better suited to 1970s BBC Light Entertainment than full scale prog rock, and the organ-heavy ‘Epilogue’ closes the album with a piece of music that seems to call back to Procol’s late 60s roots more than anything else on this album. As much as this narrative suite deals with themes of birth, growth, life-span and a subsequent return to earth, the music, too, seems particularly cyclical in choosing to end the first phase of Procol Harum’s career by returning to their formative years.

Although ‘Something Magic’ might never have the same levels of consistency and emotional pull as a couple of their earlier albums overall, it has more than enough enjoyable moments and the sheer audacity of the LP’s second side would surely be enough to win back a few listeners who felt that ‘Nine Lives’ had been too lightweight. While never destined for the status of true classic, it’s a more than respectable way for the band to say goodbye…at least for the time being.

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As with the deluxe ‘Procol’s Ninth’, a wealth of bonus materials included on Esoteric Records’ 2020 double disc reissue makes for an essential upgrade. Three studio based recordings, ‘Backgammon’ (an excellent instrumental b-side which works the rhythm section into a funky stupor), ‘This Old Dog’ (an adventurous attempt at country rock that sounds like Gary Brooker jamming with The Marshall Tucker Band) and ‘You’d Better Wait’ (a big MOR ballad that sounded promising but was abandoned at the demo stage) had already graced the 2009 Salvo Records reissue, but their reprisal here is obviously welcome. The big draw for those who’ve previously bought the album on vinyl, CD (and subsequently the 2009 expanded CD) is the opportunity to own the complete audio from the 1977 BBC Sight & Sound show. The original video footage finally saw the light of day officially as part of the ‘Still There’ll Be More – An Anthology 1967-2017’ box set, so it’s good to finally have the audio for completeness’s sake.

The gig captures the twilight of Procol’s original lifespan more than admirably. What’s particularly notable about the eleven song set is that five of ‘Something Magic’s original tracks get an airing. That’s everything, in fact, except the ‘Worm and The Tree’ suite. While this is a “promotional” show in every sense, the pride that Brooker and company obviously feel in the newer material comes across at every turn.

The stop-start arrangement of ‘Something Magic’ positively dances, despite being presented in a slightly heavier arrangement which lends the more bombastic moments a Greenslade-ish air, and although Brooker’s voice seems a little unsure at first, somewhere around the middle of the second verse, when his voice rises, he sounds like a man who’s been performing the track for years. Likewise, ‘The Mark of The Claw’ is a little tougher than its studio counterpart, with Grabham chugging hard 70s riffs for all they’re worth. One of the best – and most accessible album tracks – it really shows off the power in this line-up and although the instrumental passages occasionally sound more like ‘Riding The Storm Out’ era REO Speedwagon than the progressive, symphonic talent behind tunes like ‘In Held ’Twas In I’, it’s great to hear the band truly cut loose.

With the atmospheric synths given a much freer rein, the live version of ‘Strangers In Space’ sounds like the ultimate soft-drugs fantasy trip. Although the synths are far more dominant throughout the extended eight minutes, you’ll also discover some fine bass work and a timeless vocal. Brooker’s truly emotive performance actually seems to convey a feeling of being lost within an atmosphere he doesn’t quite trust. Also demonstrating the more atmospheric elements of the new material, aside from an overly loud synth in a couple of places, the fragile ‘Skating On Thin Ice’ shows off a huge range of Procol’s quieter tropes. It might not translate quite as well so many decades on, but for those who were there – in an age long before such things were spoilt by incessant gig natterers – it must’ve been really special.

Joining the newer tracks, a bombastic ‘Grand Hotel’, rocky renditions of the classics ‘Conquistador’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’, a ragged but jubilant ‘Nothing But The Truth’ and the omnipresent ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ round out a fantastic live set. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to own the expensive box set and have seen the DVD, you’ll know how good this show is already.

The 2020 double disc reissue of ‘Something Magic’ is a perfect example of how good reissues should be handled: the new remaster actually sounds good, the original price point is affordable to everyone and the bonus materials pretty much round up all the period rarities worth having. With the inclusion of a live set that’s vastly different from any previous shows and presented in pristine quality too, Procol Harum fans are promised a great all-round package.

Read a review of Broken Barricades here.
Read a review of Procol’s Ninth here.

October 2020