Tag Archives: symphonic rock

Searching in Vain by Candlelight: Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly

Today, I want to talk to you guys about Procol Harum. But first, here’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”:

This song actually isn’t on the album that I want to talk about, but it sort of sets up everything that runs through their second album, Shine On Brightly, and is the song that the band managed to smash into the long-term memory of popular culture. The dominance of the organ, Gary Brooker’s conversational vocals and the psuedo-intellectualism inherent (the chord progression and melody is lifted from Bach, and the lyrics reference Chaucer among other things) in the song perfectly set the stage for their more confident second album (though the actually recorded “A Whiter Shade of Pale” before even their first album came out, so it took them two, in my opinion, to catch up to their debut single).

Shine On Brightly was my first real experience of the band and it strikes me as curious now as to why I didn’t pick their debut first, as most versions have “Pale” tacked onto it, which is the logical one to go for – also because I like to start listening to an artist I plan to spend multiple albums with with their first one, but not here it would seem. Oh yeah, I remember why now. More on that later.

With a good balance of classical aspirations and psychedelia, the album has the band in an incredibly potent state, with the organ leading every step of the way – providing the simple intro and core for “Quite Rightly So”, and burbling up through the noise in the title track with that shows Matthew Fisher’s tastefully light touch while deftly handling a solo in the middle without going nuts proving virtuosity. “Shine On Brightly” to me is the key track here, as it shows off every great facet of the band in a 3-minute and 30-second window. While the aforementioned organ keeping things moving, B.J. Wilson is adding some electric ‘hot space’ with his stop start introduction to the verses, while Gary Brooker talks about his ‘befuddled brain’ and creates some grand chords on the piano. This all lays foundation of the best one-note riff I’ve ever heard as Robin Trower peels his guitar off with a most exquisite tone that serves as the platonic of the 60s British psychedelic sound.

The music really seems to bounce along in the piano-led “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” whole Trower is barely keeping his guitar under control underneath the verses before we come to a frilly piano interlude that underpins their classic leanings while the rest of the band exercises their right to launch into freak-out before someone shouts “HEY!” and the whole group fades out on a super-quick version of the Russian Sword Dance. While the songs don’t really go madly off in all directions (one song excepted), there’s a lot of creativity to be found within what seem to be straightforward tracks, as Sgt. Pepper’s had come out the year before and band’s were just going bonkers. The fact alone that the prior song bumps up against a good ol’ blues stomp in “Wish Me Well”, with a shouted twin lead vocal, gives you the impression that there are a lot of facets at play here, and the journey is not going to as simple as it seems.

And indeed the most-faceted are yet to come. The discovery of this album, to me, came in that summer where I dove headlong into progressive rock and tried to get right down into it, as much as possible. I was ultimately unimpressed with the message boards I’d been inhabiting that got me there, but a lot of the good stuff stayed with me. This album, of course, is regarded as the first to feature a 20-minute long multi-part suite of a song, with distinct sections and a hell of a delusion of grandeur. In the prog world, length seems to be king, as it aligns the music with that classical, that most legitimate of musics, as demonstration that serious art is happening and this ain’t just a three-minute pop song (which, honestly, by this time was already becoming an art in itself). The fact that I ended up liking the whole thing was a bonus.

“In Held ‘Twas In I” (the first lyric taken from each of the five sections forms the title) starts off with sitar and a spoken story about a monk going to visit the Dalai Lama to discover the meaning of life, and just goes up from there, expounding on the curiosities and intricacies of life with further spoken word sections of downtrodden spirits wondering about their place in the world. “‘Twas Teatime at the Circus” with shouting from the whole band and appropriately goofy music talks about the act of saving face despite confusion and “In the Autumn of My Madness” muses on the encroaching problem of age as the fear sets in that they will not remain as they are for much longer (very much in the vein of Pink Floyd’s “Time”), with a wistful guitar in the background peaking just as Matthew Fisher’s high vocals do (“Bring all my friends unto me/And I’ll strangle them with words”). This, of course, required a klaxon going off in the middle of it for reasons that are perfectly apparent. For all the pop-philosophy and metaphors upon metaphors, however, it really is the band’s finest hour, as the gravity of the piece is upon them and the required songwriting sophistication is on full display here (as well as Brooker’s crowning vocal moment, in “Look to Your Soul”), managing the transitions well and stepping outside of any of the blues-rock trappings they’d displayed earlier.

For an aspirational album with a touch of psychedelia, it’s hard to top Shine On Brightly. Every member of the band is working to create something new in the wide old world of 1968, when the onus of creativity much outweighed that of the playing, and the resulting content is much more accessible to anyone who’s curious to listen. The entire album contains the strength of what made “A Whiter Shade of Pale” such a big deal, only writ larger and with an incredible confidence at the centre of it.

“Shine On Brightly”:

“Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)”:

“In the Autumn of My Madness/Look to Your Soul/Grand Finale”:

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#23: Muse – The 2nd Law

(Capitol, 2012)

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(Image from amazon.com)

My history with grandiosity junkies Muse goes back to their third and, arguably, breakout album, 2003’s Absolution. From the spectacle of the Storm Thorgerson cover to the needle-like riffs, overwhelming basslines and incredible falsetto, it was something completely fresh to me at the time – a more extreme, bigger sort of rock music, but not in the way that metal was. I was shocked to learn that the din came from only three people. I was on board.

The follow-up, Black Holes and Revelations scaled back a little on the guitar attack, but turned up the grandeur eminently. Songs like “Map of the Problematique” and “Knights of Cydonia” had an immense gravity without necessarily having headbanging riffs to go along with them. It was this that would become Muse’s stock in trade, which took me a little while to get into when I realized what was happening. For the most part, I took a pass on The Resistance, but I have come back into the fold on The 2nd Law.

They have perfected the art of bombast to a tee, which is typified best on the lead track “Supremacy” and on the lead single and London Olympic theme, “Survival”. The former has its main riff realized by what sounds like a massive orchestra (strings and horns) on one side, and Bellamy’s guitar on the other, descending slowly but with force every step of the way, not to mention a legion of martial drumming to carry the verses along. The icing on the cake, is a now trademark vocal leap by Bellamy when he finally sings “suuuuuuuuupremacy!” near the top of his impressive range. “Survival” feels like a self-knowing wink at their own tendencies at this point, starting off with a plinky piano and fingersnaps, but rocketing up to a giant chorus with a huge choir backing his shouts of “I’m gonna win!!” (Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme providing an excellent steady rhythm section bedrock all the while).

It seems as if they’ve risen to the position of this generation’s Queen – they have a number of fantastic anthems in their pocket now, and are one of the best group arena rockers of the age (their visual show is also astounding and adds an extra dimension to the experience – even the songs you don’t like become events you can’t help enjoying). Each member is becoming more involved (bassist Chris Wolstenholme takes a turn both at the pen and the mic on “Save Me”, a slower paced paean and “Liquid State”, a solid, more straight-ahead rocker). And, except for their parlay in “United States of Eurasia” (I know, I said I pretty much passed on The Resistance, but I still heard it once or twice), they’ve very much done it on their own terms – there is no sense of them being a nostalgia act. And on The 2nd Law, they’ve seen fit to try and expand their palette.

“Panic Station” is where they dive into funk territory (Queen’s Hot Space, anyone?), conjuring Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” quite readily (even employing a clavichord and horn line in verse breaks that sounds very close), and providing a perfect dance beat that straddles the line well with their rock sound (whereas their earlier “Supermassive Black Hole” dove headlong into dance, quite unapologetically).

The first of the two title tracks sees Muse make the inevitable dabble with dubstep – the genre relies on the gut feeling and gigantic sound that Muse make such an intrinsic part of their music anyhow, it was only a matter of time. It begins, of course, with a mass of violins dashing out a panicky, frenetic line, and adds in a choir and quick sound clips come in and out. It works perfectly as the drops hit as hard as possible with a dash of guitar histrionics overtop to remind you who you’re listening to. Curiously other track also titled “The 2nd Law”, is a slower piano piece, which builds up some synthesized riffs and sounds similar to Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells”, giving off the same spooky vibe, made even more ominous by the clips of news programs speaking of overwhelming disaster and crisis on top of each other. At the live show, this piece was played with a fantastic visual element that lends itself to what could be an incredible narrative, which fits perfectly with the line of breathless paranoia which runs through just about all of the band’s albums.

Despite the quite successful bombast, my favourite moment on the album comes on the second track and single – “Madness” – which is one of the band’s quieter moments, with a fantastic melody, and great rhythm-establishing clip of Bellamy singing “m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mad-mad-mad”. Through its straight verse-chorus format, each run-though adds something extra – more harmonies, heavier beat – crescendoing with a chorus of Bellamys towards the end and the melody taking off. No falsetto or gigantic, crunching riffs. Not to mention the best solo I’ve ever heard from the band, with a fantastic tone and fantasic melody in its own right over the fairly serene backing.

This is the album of an assured band finally at the top of the heap. Not afraid to experiment, never afraid to go too over the top and consistently building on previous successes. For having originally made their name as a live band, their studio techniques are impressive. This is a nice swatch of what the band is capable of now having attained a status as current rock royalty.

8/10

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