Procul Harum ‘The Wells on Fire’ – 4 stars

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The roots of progressive rock band Procol Harum can be traced back to 1964, to a group called the Paramounts who were very popular on the London music scene at that time.  When they broke up in 1967 it proved to be the springboard for Procol Harum to be formed.  Since then there have been over twenty-five active members of the band, most notably Keith Reid, the poet who has written all of Procol’s lyrics from the very beginning, including on this album.

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But the band that recorded their standout classic “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” consisted of Gary Brooker on keyboards and lead vocals, Ray Rodgers on guitar, David Knight on bass and Matthew Fisher on the Hammond organ.  A session drummer was used in the studio and legendary rock’n’roll manager Guy Stevens was at the helm.  The single of course was ‘the hit’ of 1967, selling over 10 million copies. (If anybody can ever make any sense of the lyrics to this song, please let me know.)

To consolidate the success of their studio work Procol Harum went out on the road and conscripted former Paramounts Robin Trower on guitar and B.J. Wilson (drums).  With various further line-up changes the band soldiered on until 1977 when a halt was finally called to proceedings.

The band reformed in 1991 around Gary Brooker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, with Geoff Whitehorn being brought in on guitar.  They toured all over the world to great receptions, especially from their ever-loyal fans.  Matt Pegg arrived on bass in 1993 (Matt being the son of David Pegg who has been a mainstay of both Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention, as on occasion has Matt.  Very incestuous these bands at times).  Fisher left the band in 2004 to be replaced by the multi-talented Josh Phillips on keyboards and finally Geoff Dunn made the drum stool his own in 2006, so for the last decade the Procol line-up has been stable.

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The Procul Harum bandwagon was brought to a sudden halt in 2009 however whilst Matthew Fisher won a protracted British court battle for songwriting credits to “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.  Fisher received 40% of the songwriting credits due to his keyboard composition and playing on the single, leaving Gary Brooker and Keith Reid sharing 30% each.  More than enough I would have thought.

In 2003, after a twelve year break, we got what is more than likely Procol Harum’s last studio album, their eleventh in all.  “The Well’s on Fire” features Fisher on keyboards and Mark Brzezicki on drums but certainly contains the updated sound of the band.  It’s still very British, very progressive, very Procol Harum… and very posh.

The album opener “An Old English Dream” leads you nicely down the garden path, with Gary Brooker’s vocals leading the way, strident and as firm as ever.  The dual keyboard playing is immaculate and perfectly complimented by Geoff Whitehorn’s beautifully stated guitar work and the rhythm section is also powerful and perfect.

There are many highlights on the album, most of which rock more than you would think.  The two standout tracks have to be “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Every Dog Has His Day”.  The closing track “Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature) is almost a self tribute to the Procol Harum sound, with Geoff Whitehorn allowed to cut loose on some blistering fretwork.

If this is indeed the last Procol Harum album, it stands up well with anything else they have ever done, while in the ‘live’ arena the band can still be relied on to pull no punches.

Geoff Whitehorn (left) and Matt Pegg of Procol Harum. (Photo/Harpic Bryant/Breezeridge Photography)
Geoff Whitehorn (left) and Matt Pegg of Procol Harum. (Photo/Harpic Bryant/Breezeridge Photography)

Track List:

An Old England Dream

Shadow Boxed

A Robe of Silk

The Blink Of An Eye

The VIP Room

The Question

The World is Rich (For Stephen Maboe)

Fellow Travellers

Wall Street Blues

The Emperor’s New Clothes

So Far Behind

Every Dog Has His Day

Weisselklenzenacht (The Signature)

(Written by Hells Bells and Mott the Dog)