Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Procol Harum's "Home"

I posted this review of the 1970 Procol Harum album Home on the Sputnik Music site earlier today.


As someone who came of age musically in the late '60s and early '70s, this album had a profound effect upon my life. I got my first transistor radio when I was about 12, and for a few years, Top 40 radio was all I knew. I was the oldest child in my family, and my parents were from a pre-rock generation, so for awhile, I had no one to teach me that there was more out there. Luckily enough, I became best friends with someone who had two older brothers, and everything that they exposed him to, he shared with me. Favorite bands like The Monkees and The Guess Who were gradually replaced, as I began to experience albums like Tommy by The Who, In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, We're Only in It for the Money by The Mothers of Invention, and Shine on Brightly and Home by Procol Harum.

Procol Harum has always been a unique band. They were formed out of the ashes of the English beat group, The Paramounts. Their vocalist, Gary Brooker, possessed a distinct and immediately identifiable voice. For their first five studio albums, they had a guitarist, Robin Trower, who is recognized as one of the all-time greats, yet many of their songs were heavily dominated by Brooker's piano and the organs of Matthew Fischer (on their first three albums) and Chris Copping (thereafter). They were known as a progressive rock band, but unlike bands like Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer, their music was influenced as much or more by the blues and R&B than it was by classical music. Finally, to the best of my memory, they were the only rock group of their time to name someone whose sole job was to write lyrics, the ever-poetic Keith Reid, as a full-fledged member of the band.

Home was Procol Harum's fourth album. After the release of 1969's A Salty Dog, Fischer and bass player Dave Knights left the band, and were replaced by former Paramount member Chris Copping, who doubled on organ and bass. For this reason, while Home contains all of the epic fantasy/sci-fi/horror imagery the band was beloved for, the music veers into more of a bluesy direction than some of their previous work.

I think that to a certain extent, Home has become a somewhat overlooked album in the Procol Harum catalog, possibly because it's the first not to be identified with one standout track as were each of the previous three records ("Whiter Shade of Pale" on Procol Harum, "In Held 'Twas in I" on Shine on Brightly, and the title track on A Salty Dog). Nevertheless, it's a solid album throughout. 

The first song, "Whiskey Train", was released as a single, but it never charted, and in comparison to the rest of the album, it's a case of "which doesn't belong and why". Unlike most of Home,"Whiskey Train" is the one track totally dominated by Trower's guitar. A fast-paced song about the despair of alcohol addiction, in some ways, this is Robin Trower's "Mississippi Queen", as he is allowed to completely cut loose while the rest of the band just backs him up.

From there on, Procol moves back into the reign of dark epic fantasy, with songs of death, adventure and horror. My personal favorite as a teenager was "Still There'll Be More", a gleeful revenge song wherein the protagonist plots the many afflictions he will inflict upon his nameless enemy, vowing "I'll blacken your Christmas/And piss on your door/You'll cry out for mercy/Still there'll be more". Something about the sheer elation of the singer as he recounts all of the outrages he's planning can't help but put a smile on your face. This contrasts nicely with the song immediately following it, a slow, sad number called "Nothing That I Didn't Know". On this one, the protagonist laments the sufferings of his 26-year-old friend Jenny Drew who has just died from some sort of horrible progressive disease.

Throughout the album, imagery of death prevails. "About to Die" is Reid's vision of the last moments of Christ, as the crowds applaud him, all the while seeing him as more of a symbol than an actual person. "Dead Man's Dream" is reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe story, as the singer recounts a strange and frightening dream. Even "Barnyard Story" touches on the subject of death, as an old man recalls his many fantastic adventures in life and quietly looks forward to his own eternal sleep.

The one track from Home that seemed to get the most FM radio airplay back in the day is "Whaling Stories". A classical adventure with an incomprehensible narrative, this one reminds of "In Held 'Twas in I", although its running time of 7:06 minutes makes it less than half as long. All I can tell you about the story here is there's some sort of plot to rob a village, and there's a violent and horrific battle, as "Lightning struck out - fire and brimstone! Boiling oil and shrieking steam". Thankfully, in the end all is triumphant, as "Shalimar! The trumpets chorused." Is it any wonder that my teenage self loved this album?

Shine on Brightly first made me a Procol Harum fan, but after Home, they became my favorite band for many years to come. Although time eventually led me to other bands and new favorites, I've always retained a special love both for Procol Harum and for Home. All in all, I think the album still holds up pretty well today.


Rating: 3.5/5 stars