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Music

45 years of Procol Harum's detailed album 'Something Magic'

Procol Harum was a fastidious band. Despite their ornamental instrumentals, they were not known for their waste. “Well, they’re often saying, ‘Was there any outtakes,'” Gary Brooker admitted. “And we didn’t have a lot of outtakes with Procol. We’ve always tended to go into the studio with our 10 or 12 songs and record them, and they usually work out fine.”

And that explains why Something Magic breathes so nicely because it discards any moments of undue fat for a clean, clear presentation of the band’s output. Naturally, Brooker’s voice dominates, but Mick Grabham’s guitar interpolations cut into the mix, bringing the listener into the vortex of Keith Reid’s narrative. The former progressive rock band was jumping into poppier, more commercial territories, turning their hands at the pop numbers Phil Collins and Genesis were effortlessly churning out during the late 1970s. Indeed, out of eight tracks, only two pivots past the average radio length of the average radio single, while the others fall comfortably in the four-minute, five-minute runtime.

The title track is the most noteworthy of the songs, and features one of Brooker’s most captivating vocals, embellishing the backdrop with a collection of shimmering cadences, but that’s not a dispersion on the other tracks. The album returns to more dizzying territories with ‘Wizard Man’, giving audiences one last chance to enjoy batty, British prog before springing the clocks forward into the 1980s.

Reid, as ever, is responsible for charting the maps and writing the lyrics for the album, giving the record a flavour and a colour that has stood with the album, giving it an individual feeling that draws you into the world. ‘The Mark of the Claw’ holds true to this sentiment, bringing an added pathos that is only strengthened by the barrelhouse piano and fadeouts, making the product design one of the most contemporary sounding in the band’s canon.

‘Strangers In Space’ updated ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ to mark a voyage set in space, bringing the Carollian, Beatlesesque message into a newer, more psychedelic territory. The band were casting off the shackles of yesterday, in an attempt not to be compared to the singles of the past. And it is to the band’s credit that they decided to abandon the trappings of their past work to become more invested in their work. Creative spontaneity takes a tremendous risk to reach complete absolution.

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The second side is completely based around a three-song arc that details the trappings of a worm in the vicinity of great greenery. Brooker and Reid worked well together. “Keith always used a typewriter,” Brooker recalled. “He would type the lyrics out, and at the same time, I would have ideas going around my head. I’d have ideas sitting at the piano, just waiting for the right thing to come along. And that’s the way it happened most times. There is an idea I would have, and suddenly there was a lyric there that was perfect.”

Brooker ensured that the words were at the forefront of the work, never letting his vocals or the backdrop of instrumentals drown out the work, no matter the power of the riffs, or the ferocity of the drums in the background. Procol Harum were no less committed to the strength of the band’s historiography, never discarding their essence for the importance of the moment. The songs sound like they were being tailored for a more stadium oriented audience, and it’s possible to imagine the band rehearsing the work as they recorded it. Indeed, the album is as much a live document as it is an extension of their knowledge of the studio.

Something Magic is interesting, not only because it’s the band’s most impressionistic view on the decade that had made a concerted effort to leave the progressive pioneers behind them. Out of their peers, only Genesis had survived, and they had lost a frontman and a lead guitarist in their quest to reach more palatable territories. Pink Floyd were also abandoning the trappings of their past work for more immediate anthems, as was evident from The Wall. Led Zeppelin was floundering creatively, which might explain why In Through The Out Door sounded so pedestrian, and devoid of contrast.

Paul McCartney and Wings, seen by many to be the rightful heirs to The Beatles legacy, were also unsure whether or not they should embrace punk, or revile it. David Bowie had run out of great ideas and spent much of the late 1970s releasing disappointing work until coming across Nile Rodgers, who put the spark and beat back into his work. Procol Harum, by contrast, sound confident in themselves and their work, creating an album that holds up. Brooker wasn’t wrong; this album did indeed turn out fine.

Stream the album Something Magic by Procol Harum below.