Album review: PROCOL HARUM – Something Magic

PROCOL HARUM – Something Magic

Cherry Red/Esoteric Recordings [Release Date 30.10.20]

Procol Harum certainly needed to spin a spell or two after new US producers, Ron and Howie Albert, threw out half the songs they’d written for “Something Magic”, their 9th album.

This was 1977. The band had regrouped after losing ground and members over the previous eight albums. Gary Brooker, Chris Copping, Mick Grabham, BJ Wilson and Pete Solley formed a classy line up, but were hurried into recording “Something Magic”. It was to be their last new studio album until 1991.

Its flaws are not immediately apparent. The title track, which opens the album, is a cracking little piece of pared down prog. Sketched around Brooker’s piano, it proves that arrangement is often more important than composition. ‘Strangers In Space’ closed the original LP’s Side One. Surprisingly, Brooker’s smoky, bluesy, vocals blossomed inside the songs spacey sound FX.

The three tracks that come between, ‘Skating On Thin Ice’, ‘Wizard Man’, ‘The Mark Of The Claw’, are underwritten and worse, underpowered. This was 1977, bands like Procol Harum were facing down the rise of punk, and here, found themselves in a musical cul-de-sac, deserted by their muse and let down by their producers.

The relative mediocrity of those 3 tracks is eventually redeemed by the bonus tracks on CD1. It seems strange that these were voted down in favour of the tracks that made the cut.

‘The Old Dog’ is perhaps the most appealing. An old fashioned piano rag, that goes barelling along on the strength of “too much wine last night”. It has all the fun, fiddles and energy of a Louisiana Saturday night. It would go down great live.

That’s not to say the plaintive plaintif on ‘You’d Better Wait’ doesn’t deserve a mention.

The band’s 3 part suite ‘The Worm And The Tree’ filled all of the original LP’s second side. It’s a simplistic, spoken work parable set to music. It doesn’t succeed, but it doesn’t really fail either. Fast changing musical trends had holed Prog below the waterline, temporarily at least. Arguably this track was the band drowning, not waving.

The second disc is a recording of the band’s 1977 appearance on the BBC’s Sight And Sound in Concert series.

Taken from ‘newly discovered’ master tapes, as with the original album, this remastered version sounds superb, it’s clean and clear, with only a little of the analogue warmth missing. The original TV programme cut ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ presumably on the basis we’d all heard it a couple of million times. It is now restored.

The concert focuses on the new album of course, but throws in crisply recorded versions of the biggies, ‘Conquistador’ and the fabulous ‘Grand Hotel’.

No one realised it at the time, but this is a snapshot of a band apparently ready for flight, but running out of runway. As it turned out, it is as much an historical document as a piece of music.  ***1/2

Review by Brian McGowan

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