Sound — 8
2017 marks Procol Harum's fiftieth anniversary, and while they weren't a band for fourteen of those years (from 1977 to 1991), they've otherwise been a solid example of symphonic and progressive rock's early glory. By now, the only remaining member from the band's classic era is vocalist/pianist Gary Brooker, with every other member having joined in either the 1990s or 2000s. Since their 1991 reunion, things have happened rather slowly in Procol Harum's world, this being only the third album in the sixteen-year span since (if you don't count 1995's "The Long Goodbye", a symphonic version of many of the band's classic songs released under the "Symphonic Music of Procol Harum" name), but it's perhaps not a coincidence that this album was released on the fiftieth anniversary of the band's existence.
The album is anchored by a rather strong opener, "I Told On You", which easily recalls the glory of past Procol Harum works, and at times, evokes the music of post-Waters-era Pink Floyd, with some nice crunchy guitar playing by Geoff Whitehorn under Brooker's piano chords, and an absolutely solid groove by bassist Matt Pegg and drummer Geoff Dunn. Josh Phillips rounds out the lineup with his rocking organ playing, which adds a distinctly vintage flavour to the album. "Last Chance Motel" is a bit more in the vein of adult contemporary pop, with slide guitars and a sort of heartland country-rock sound. It's not a sound I find particularly pleasant, and this is not one of my favourite tracks from the album, but they make it work. "Image of the Beast" is a bit more in line with the blues-rock ethos of the band at the time of their release "A Salty Dog", and the more guitar-centric writing is perhaps down to the fact that this is Whitehorn's only writing credit on the album. This is definitely the sound a lot of Procol Harum fans are going to come to this album for, and I doubt it'll disappoint. It definitely evokes the sound of the band with Robin Trower on guitar. "Soldier" has a rather cheesy sounding opening awash with synths and drawn-out piano chords, but it does build up in intensity and becomes a rewarding listen by the end. "Don't Get Caught" is a ballad-like track that, sadly isn't one of my favourites on the album.
"Neighbour" changes the pace a bit for the album, with a bit more of an upbeat kind of folk-y psychedelic rock tune with a rather humourous tone dealing with the kind of people who you really don't want living next door to you. Being that it's the shortest tune on the album, at just under three minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome at all, and actually comes off as one of the best tunes on the album, almost sounding like it could have fit onto any one of their 1960s records. "Sunday Morning" recalls the band's biggest hit, "A Whiter Shade of Pale", with it's baroque-style orchestral line in the opening, and the decidedly less-than-subtle use of the Pachelbel "Canon In D" accompaniment on piano. While chances are, it won't become as timeless as "A White Shade of Pale", this absolutely gorgeous piece is truly the biggest highlight on the record. "Businessman" is about as much of a contrast as one can get from the previous tune, opening with crashing, distorted guitar riffs, and despite taking a more prog-rock approach with the verses, with a heavier emphasis on piano, this is certainly one of the hardest-rocking tracks on the album.
"Can't Say That", clocking in at just a bit over seven minutes long, is another hard-rocking piece that's a bit more on the blues-rock end of things, and while the soloing of Phillips, Brooker, and Whitehorn is worthy on this track, one really has to commend Pegg and Dunn's groove on this track, where they really lock in together perfectly, and this is a track that is certain to get your head bobbing. The cinematic "The Only One" is another longer-form piece, just over six minutes long, and it's another track that swells in intensity quite effectively, in a sort of Pink Floydian way. "Somewhen" closes the album out with nothing more than Gary Brooker and his piano in a very intimate environment, where one can even hear the sounds of the pedals being depressed and what even sounds like the piano bench being shuffled. It's an absolutely beautiful way to close out the album.
The production is very clean and dynamic, being ably handled by Dennis Weinreich. However, it did seem there were times where the album forgot what decade it was in and on a couple of tracks, such as "I Told On You" and "Soldier", we hear synth and electric piano sounds straight out of the first half of the 1990s, which instead could have been done in a far more organic way. The songwriting is pretty much on point throughout, and the instrumental performances are exemplary, with each musician coming into their own in one way or another, but never stepping on one anothers' toes. There's a lot of lead guitar and organ riffing and intricate piano playing, but "taking solos" is something that rarely happens on this album. When a player takes a brief lead section, the accompanying musicians almost seem to be musically "cheering on" one another.
Lyrics — 8
One of the features that stood out about Procol Harum was the storytelling nature of their lyrics, and right from their inception, those lyrics were penned by lyricist Keith Reid, who has written every Procol Harum lyric, even on their reunion albums. However, the band seems to have ended that relationship with this album, as all of the lyrics on Novum were written by Pete Brown, perhaps best known for his work with Cream ("White Room", "Sunshine Of Your Love"), as well as being a musician in his own right. On Novum, the lyrics still retain the great qualities one comes to expect from Procol Harum, but there is also a slight political bent to some of the songs. "I Told On You" is a piece that can be interpreted many different ways, but there's a certain paranoia to the lyrics that kind of gives it an uneasy atmosphere, especially if you interpolate them to be about any politician you don't particularly like: "I told on you/'Cos I heard you singing/Gone cold on you/'Cos you would be the kingpin/I know you were planning/For your induction/The flames you were fanning/Meant my destruction". "Image of the Beast" deals with the idea of money being the root of all evil, and also deals with politicians in a rather unsubtle way: "Crowded round the new dictator/They're sure that he's the one to trust/Adoring all his tricky movements/Even though he's gonna lose/With everybody caught up in the bust". And "Soldier" is as much an anti-war anthem as I can find on an album such as this: "They tell us it's OK to kill/They're just vermin in the sand/Don't worry 'bout the blood you spill/You'll be forgiven by God's hand/The images etched behind their eyes/Will never fade away/Eternal buildings turned to dust/In just one day".
It's not all doom and gloom, however. The scathingly jocular "Neighbour" deals with a very relatable problem many of us face: having next-door neighbours that we wish would just go away. It's a bit mean-spirited, but the background music gives lyrics like these a jestful attitude: "I'm living in a semi, he's in a detached/I wish his Jaguar would crash/His wife makes mine look like a sorry sight/I hear their wild loving through the night". And while "Sunday Morning" may sound like a church-goer's type of title, the song is rather an ode to the weekend: "Sunday morning/Don't have time to take no rest/'Cos every minute's more holy to me/It makes me feel so free/Sometimes the wild nights go rolling/On into next day's sun/Always smile when my head hits the pillow/'Bout the time the trains start to run".
Gary Brooker's vocals are as strong here as they ever were, and fans who have stuck around for the past five decades will have absolutely no reason to complain.
Overall Impression — 8
In the fifty years since Procol Harum's inception, rock music has gone through so many drastic changes, but Procol Harum has changed very little, despite many changes in lineup. And it seems to be working for them, as this album is every bit as strong as their classic records. While the album doesn't have a song that seems destined to be a timeless hit like "A Whiter Shade of Pale", nor does it have a prog-rock epic along the lines of "In Held 'Twas in I", it is all-in-all a very solid record from a band that perhaps played a big role in creating the prog-rock sound.
While there are a couple of tracks that aren't as strong as the others, this is still an album that begs to be listened to in one sitting rather than consumed in small song-sized chunks. There is a lot of contrast on the record from slow, mellow piano-led ballads to rolling symphonic rock, even up to hard-rocking bluesy toe-tappers. For fans of classic prog-rock from the late '60s and early '70s, this album is a reason to rejoice, and a very fitting way for Procol Harum to celebrate fifty years.