Progressive rock — an ugly term for sometimes beautiful music. Procol Harum, a British band best known for “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, has been branded prog more than a few times throughout their prolific career. Traits indicative of prog rock (influences from classical music and obscure subject matter as lyrical influence) are prevalent in many of Procol Harum’s songs, but, as with many bands stuck in a genre box, the term sells short the commendable songwriting of chief members Gary Brooker and Keith Reid. With hope, Salvo’s recent reissues of four out of ten of Procol Harum’s releases should help to give the band some well-deserved credit.
The reissues concern Procol Harum’s mid-’70s output, starting with the Melody Maker-praised Grand Hotel, continuing with the canonical Exotic Birds and Fruit, the hit and miss Procol’s Ninth, and ending with the lackluster Something Magic. The liner notes argue that Procol Harum reject the common prog rock trait of ‘The Concept Album’ by limiting Grand Hotel’s concept to the first song, also entitled “Grand Hotel”. As to be expected from an album with such a title, the album is a swell in sonic decadence. Certain songs even appear to be about the dangers of a bacchanalian lifestyle, particularly the alleged venereal disease ballad “A Souvenir of London”. In this light, the assumption that Grand Hotel is a concept album isn’t entirely unfounded. Conceptual or not, its subject matter seems to be less lofty than that of a fair amount of concept albums from the prog field.
Exotic Birds and Fruit, released one year later, is more stripped down and is even more lacking in prog indicators. It even offers some lightness with “Fresh Fruit”, a song that initially seems like a novelty but on repeated listens reveals itself to be one of the more memorable tracks. The album still packs a literary conceit, with frightful tale “Monsieur R. Monde” featuring references to Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, and thus is not too drastic a departure.
The band pay a fair amount of homage on Procol’s Ninth, which was produced by famed American songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Along with a Leiber and Stoller cover in “I Keep Forgetting”, debt is also paid to the Beatles with a speedy shot at “Eight Days a Week”. Although the album loses its way among the original material, songs like “Typewriter Torment” provide enough intrigue to keep listeners rapt.
The same can barely be said for Something Magic, which was panned on its initial release and failed commercially. With song titles such as “Wizard Man” and “The Mark of the Claw”, the album is one of Procol Harum’s more blatantly proggy efforts, culminating with “The Worm & the Tree”, a three-parter consisting of 21 rhyming couplets in dactylic tetrameter. Efforts like this aren’t lacking in self-indulgence, but Something Magic is still somehow less punishing than a Yes album.
Despite being reissues, bonuses on all four releases are refreshingly scant, with rare b-sides and raw cuts replacing the usual overabundance of radio sessions. Thus, the albums in their original forms can breathe, be reevaluated, and — with hope — valued for what they are rather than what they were marked as.