Regal Zonophone 1968 / Esoteric 2015
Sometimes, befuddled brains are more enlightened than the wise to produce flaming dreams.
By 1968 PROCOL HARUM must have had little qualms as to where to head to: all they had to do was to solidify the edifice that their self-titled debut LP still is, and that’s when the future curse of art rock kicked in in the form of conceptual thinking. Bizarrely, the song cycle “In Held ‘Twas In I” which occupies side two of the original record feels less epic than the joyful outburst of “Quite Rightly So” with its Shakespeare allusion in “ode by any other name” and a “too sick to see” skewed reference to “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” – a medieval royal entry! – and the trumpet-like electric glow of the title track positioned right after the opener which is also shot through with Matthew Fisher‘s beast of organ.
Cut the previous year, it’s the real tone-setter for the album that’s as serious as playful, never more so than in “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” where Robin Trower’s guitar hoots like a train whistle and B.J. Wilson adds tasteful battery to this aural rail-wreck adorned with harmony vocals until Gary Brooker’s piano brings relief and release – only for Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” to deliver a coup de grace. After this, the “Rambling On” dreamy flow is anxiously soothing, its crescendos notwithstanding, and when it came to deceptively simple songs such as “In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence,” out on ’45 and added as a bonus here, the band shone brightly, indeed, letting the Hammond swirl around the piano to a great effect.
But the guitar-cum-harpsichord-touched murky march of “Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone”) bids farewell to the image-heavy assault of the preceding songs and, at the same time, prepares one’s ear to the bitter-sweet Eastern nightmare of “In Held ‘Twas In I.” The piquant sitar ushers in “Glimpses Of Nirvana” – spoken-word-laden, dark as night and chilly as limbo which scatters into confetti in “‘Twas Tea-Time At The Circus” and gets spun into the philosophic cobwebs that is “The Autumn Of My Madness.” With “Grand Finale” the piano signals a renaissance of faith, but the whole tapestry illustrates the fact that PROCOL HARUM’s big ideas come best realized on lesser canvas, and their concepts worked better in the "Grand Hotel" setting.
On the way there, though, it was quite a forward thinking!
(The review is of Expanded Edition of the album, while Deluxe Edition on Esoteric has a lot of previously unreleased material.)