Fifty years after "Whiter Shade of Pale" introduced the concept of progressive rock, Procol Harum roll on, even with singer and pianist Gary Brooker as the only remaining original member. Novum is their first new studio album in 14 years. Their last, 2003's The Well's on Fire, marked the end of the decades-long writing partnership between Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid. Organist Matthew Fisher and drummer Mark Brzezicki left shortly thereafter. Brooker still had guitarist Geoff Whitehorn and bassist Matt Pegg. They recruited organist Josh Phillips and drummer Greg Dunn. This version has been together for a decade.
Novum is a worthy 50th anniversary offering (though it's not, as Brooker claims, Procol's finest). This is the sound of a working band, not a tired reunion project. Brooker enlisted lyricist Pete Brown -- known for his work with Cream and Graham Bond -- and in an unusual move, brought the entire band into the songwriting process. What's on offer here is the most rocking sound Procol Harum have delivered since Broken Barricades. There is only one overtly "classical" moment here, and it's a send up -- there's a direct quote from Pachelbel's Canon as a brief intro to the wonderful "Sunday Morning." Some truly perverse lyric moments are expertly crafted into well-composed songs (would we expect anything less?). Opener "I Told on You" is a forceful prog rocker about professional jealousy, bitterness, and retribution. Its bridge and chorus are classic Brooker (think Home and Grand Hotel). "Last Chance Motel" is a strange and ironic take on the murder ballad that recalls the musical structure of early Elton John and Bernie Taupin tunes. It's among the many vehicles here for Brooker's voice, which remains as resonant and expressive as ever -- there's the hint of graininess in it, but his power remains undiminished by time. There are also some atypical, straight-on political swipes at hyper-capitalism, too, as on the bluesy "Soldier" and the meld of mean rock and Baroque pop in "Businessman." "Don't Get Caught" commences as a ballad with Brooker's trademark nearly sepulchral singing, but becomes an anthem offering sage advice for guilt-free living atop blazing guitars and swelling strings. One might hear traces of Queen's extended sense of vocal harmony in the rowdy chorus of the loopy "Neighbor," but Brian May himself would admit that Queen snagged it from Procol Harum in the first place. "Can't Say That" is an angry number and it rocks hard: Brooker's signature piano style runs up hard against Whitehorn's electric blues guitar vamps (think the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues") with a killer Pegg bassline. "The Only One" offers Brooker at his most confessional and melancholy, as he builds himself up and lets himself glide down the poignant lyric. Novum is far better than anyone had any right to expect: It's energetic, hungry, and swaggering. That said, it retains the trademark class and musical sophistication that makes Procol Harum iconic. ~ Thom Jurek