Despite Procol Harum’s newly recorded output being rather scant since their first reformation in the 90s, the band managed to maintain something of a public profile. Gary Brooker and associated friends kept themselves busy on the road, while fans got plenty to enjoy during the recording drought thanks to various super-deluxe reissues and a couple of excellent box sets. Their ‘Still There’ll Be More’ set – released by Cherry Red Records to celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary – was especially wonderful, bringing together classics, rarities and various live shows on DVD for the first time. For those who could afford the expensive price-tag, it was a genuine treasure trove.
The ‘Missing Persons (Alive Forever)’ EP features the first new Procol studio recordings since 2007’s ‘Novus’, but the basis for the newly heard tracks dates back a little further than their 2021 release date. Brooker seems particularly non-committal about how far the original demos date back; his claim that “they aren’t new, but aren’t old” would suggest these aren’t barrel scrapings from the past, but rather more likely things that didn’t find a home during the ‘Novus’ sessions. Although it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain – especially when Brooker himself seems a little unsure – fans will certainly welcome the musical ideas receiving a proper send-off here.
If the intervening five years has had any effect, it’s made the band’s sound seem even richer than before. Brooker’s voice now shows signs of wear, but it’s a voice that’s still got a fantastic presence. Even during moments where there are signs of ageing, his performance is much more appealing than Dave Cousins’s hugely unsuitable squawk, or Ian Anderson’s five note yelp – it’s the kind of voice that still suggests dignity. It takes all of ten seconds for ‘Missing Persons’ to become recognisable as Procol, with a wall of mournful Hammond organ paving the way, before the band break into a very 80s sounding piece of AOR. The sound is very commercial in a retro way, but there’s a lot to love between Geoff Whitehorn’s ringing guitar sound and a semi-busy bassline from Matt Pegg. As is often the case, though, it’s Brooker holding it all together and his lyric regarding newspaper obituaries, friends who’ve “fallen on hard times” and being “caught in a bad place” all seem to be amplified by the tricky situation in which the recording was made. Despite being pieced together remotely during the ongoing pandemic lockdown, it has all the sheen of a studio recording made in the more traditional way, and the final mix is great, allowing Whitehorn’s featured solo pride of place as he tackles an especially rocky lead break. [A radio edit of this track bulks out the CD’s scant playing time.]
The more groove-laden ‘War Is Not Healthy’ works a mean, syncopated groove, various gang vocals and brilliant electric piano sound throughout. There’s plenty about the arrangement that a lot of people wouldn’t even recognise as being Procol Harum, and that’s a great testament to their varied and ever shifting sound. The interplay between that electric piano, an understated organ and bluesy guitar provides a couple of minutes’ worth of superb rock, while a slightly jagged vocal arrangement adds to the driving feel throughout. The whole band can be heard working really hard to keep the groove in place, but the real star is Whitehorn, throwing out various slide guitar stings and the kind of sound you’d more closely associate with killer blues rock than a potential Procol classic. It’s the kind of tune that could split fan opinion with its busy style, but for those who loved the funk rock rival of the early 90s, it will bring something of an unexpected treat.
With just two new songs and a radio edit, this comes up somewhat short even in EP terms. However, huge Procol fans will welcome the arrival of any new material, and it’s worth remembering that, had it not been for a pandemic giving Brooker the extra time for looking into the archive, these tracks mightn’t have seen the light of day at all. As short as it is, this EP is a more than decent collection filler.