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Procol Harum - Live In Concert With The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra CD (album) cover


Procol Harum


Crossover Prog

4.09 | 137 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars As far back as I can remember I've always been drawn to and enthralled by two forms of music in particular. Rock & roll and symphonic. As a young, snot-nosed brat I became familiar with the former by sneaking into my older sister's room (a big taboo) and listening to her Elvis and Buddy Holly 45s when she was away from the house. The latter through cartoons in which some character like Bugs Bunny would conduct an orchestra and via my mom's purchases of specially-priced "world's greatest music" LPs at the local grocery store. Those records brought the likes of Ludwig Van, Schubert and Tchaikovsky into my living room and I would stand atop the ottoman positioned between the stereo speakers as I dramatically led the musicians with a chop stick, imagining I was Leonard Bernstein. Both genres were somehow able to penetrate the usual adolescent obsessions I had with organizing scrub baseball games and racing bikes with my neighborhood hoodlum pals in order to make a lasting spiritual impression on my soul. The baseball and bikes are long gone. The love of music remains.

Therefore, the dream of someone combining those two genres into something cohesive and fulfilling was logical. And that wasn't a fantasy possessed by me alone. Others the world over shared that same desire. As progressive rock music exploded in the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s many groups felt challenged to scale that formidable Mount Everest and plant their flag on its peak. Alas, what seemed so natural and inevitable turned out to be frustratingly difficult and as elusive as arriving at a finite decimal point for pi. The Moody Blues dog-paddled around in the concept with mixed results, Deep Purple boldly recorded a concerto in the Albert Hall that fell flat as a runway model, and Yes swung for the fences on their sophomore outing but came up short, just to name a few. Technical advances in the science of recording have allowed some of the more recent attempts to come close to realizing the ideal (Parts of Yes' "Magnification" and Dream Theater's live "Score" are quite remarkable) but I'm starting to think that, ahh, we may as well try and catch the wind. With that concession in mind, Procol Harum's "Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra" from 1971 is as good as anyone else's stab at finding that Holy Grail, especially when viewed with proper perspective. I only held off buying a copy for 38 years (due mainly to being bushwhacked by the "rockestra" concept so many times) but now that I've given it numerous unbiased spins I can honestly say these boys did a bang-up job and deserve to be commemorated for their effort.

Probably no one on the planet was as surprised by the success of the opening track, "Conquistador," as the staff at Chrysalis Records. There was nothing like it on the radio charts but the song's exotic, Carmen-ish trumpets bouncing over the sprightly violins at the opening and the tune's memorable melody captured the fickle fancy of the public and a classic cut was born. You'd figure with good reason that not only this number but this entire album would've strolled right up my alley yet I was somewhat ambiguous about it. B.J. Wilson's too-loud drums always seemed clunkier and looser than should've been tolerated and that production oversight tainted the experience for me. Yet I must acknowledge the sizzling Hammond organ ride that Chris Copping performs in front of the penetrating brass section, though. It rocks. And Keith Reid's compelling lyrics have always been a plus: "And though I hoped for something to find/I could see no maze to unwind." The ruthlessness of an invading conqueror has no deeper meaning.

"Whaling Stories" is excellent. The collective yelp evoked from the musicians at the start is effective in grabbing your attention, and then the band lays down a cool, bluesy air backed by dense strings. As happens often during the course of this concert, the crisp horns provide startling dynamics and the ensemble's slow build using the upward-crawling notes is riveting. The aural plateaus they attain are splendid and Dave Ball's impassioned guitar solo blends well with the symphony. Yet none of it would amount to much if it weren't for Gary Brooker's inimitable vocal that soars above the fray like an eagle. He's in exceptional voice here and when the Da Camera Singers join in it's like a black & white flick changing to Technicolor. "God's alive inside a movie! Watch the silver screen," he sings. This song's a keeper.

I've always admired the artistry of "A Salty Dog" and the version they perform herein is impeccable. Its haunting melody lines and droll atmosphere exudes the isolation of a life spent at sea. The full, rich string section is beautiful and, once again, Gary's unique vocal delivery is superb as he rings out lines like "we sailed for parts unknown to man/where ships come home to die" with conviction. He sends chills down your spine. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the next track, "All This and More." It comes off as a glorified pub sing-along and, therefore, doesn't give the orchestra much to work with. Dave's guitar work is too repetitive and even the inclusion of the chorale can't save this one from mediocrity. There are some interesting words being sung, though. "In darkness through my being here/away from you/the bright light of your star confronts me/shining through." Too bad they're trapped inside such a trite ditty.

The album's 5-part, side-long opus is the much-heralded "In Held 'Twas In I." Not being much of a fan of Procol Harum, I knew practically nothing about this epic for decades. I only knew of the title because a dorky friend of mine always referred to it as "William Tell was High." My first hearing came on Transatlantic's confusing, ill-advised cover that appeared on their debut CD and I was underwhelmed, to say the least. I wondered what the fuss was about but now I know. I can't speak for the studio original but the treatment presented here is exquisite. They open "Glimpses of Nirvana" with a prosaic soliloquy spoken over a symphonic drone and the only complaint I have is that the spoken words would've benefited vastly from a heightened presence in the mix. It's a struggle to understand what he's saying. Following that a startling orchestral outburst awakens you abruptly as they, along with Brooker's piano, commence to introduce the tune's central theme. They eventually drift into another poetic reading that suffers from the same malady as the first speech but it's short-lived. One line stands out for me in particular, though. "Still, write it down/it might be read/nothing's better left unsaid/only sometimes/still, no doubt/it's hard to see/it all works out" we're reminded.

"'Twas Teatime at the Circus" is a fun detour into a phantasmagoric opera land in which the group openly encourages the exuberant participation of the chorale and symphony members. They gleefully oblige and it's both imaginative and entertaining. "In the Autumn of my Madness" embodies what I think of as the dense Procol Harum sound. A ghostly, thick Hammond organ dominates the mood and the orchestra's dissonant uproar midway through provides an eerie tension. "Look to your Soul" features a heavy guitar riff that keeps things from becoming predictable and the symphony's menacing stalk as they loom behind the band is akin to a thunderhead breaching the horizon. This movement's well- written and passionately sung verse/chorus structure is intriguing and successfully fends off the threatening storm. The song's "Grand Finale" is just that. Stately processional music fills the concert hall with the warmth of a glorious sunrise and though Dave's tedious guitar ride retards the momentum slightly the piece is rescued in gallant fashion by the brazen entrance of the committed chorale and all is forgiven. Everyone jumps in to deliver a fabulous, pompously huge climax that befits this ambitious adventure in symphonic progressive rock.

My ten-gallon hat's off to Gary Brooker for conceiving and scoring all of the orchestral parts for this project. He did a great job on an arduous task that probably took him a long time to finish. I do find it odd that these Brits had to hire a Canadian outfit to pull this off but maybe their English counterparts were too stuffy and/or expensive to deal with. Whatever, the symphony is top-notch and there's not a stray note to be found. I'm glad I finally turned myself onto this album because now I know that yet another band came tantalizingly close to successfully mating an orchestra with rock & roll. It's not perfect but I do like their style and the class they displayed in their courageous attempt. 3.9 stars.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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