Review Summary: And so it was that later, as the miller told his tale, that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale
The late nineteen sixties and early seventies were a time of radical societal changes in Western countries. The hippie culture that was largely embraced for almost a decade finally began to decline in the face of increasing opposition. Women, following the example of African American civil rights activists, would become more and more vocal in their campaign for equality. Technology grew exponentially, and electronics began to play a larger role in everyday life. Further accentuating this change, The Beatles, unarguably the poster-boys of sixties culture and music, disbanded. In short, a couple of years entirely changed the face of society.
All these change served as perfect catalysts for the evolution of music, and so the psychedelia of the mid-sixties grew into progressive rock. Procol Harum was one of the first bands to jump onto this trend, and their debut, A Whiter Shade Of Pale
, would set the standards for the genre (that is, until King Crimson would release the genre-defining In The Court Of The Crimson King
A Whiter Shade Of Pale
was released when prog rock wasn’t yet the norm, but some artists, bored with contemporary styles, had begun to expand the blues and psychedelic formulae. As a result, the album is very much an amalgam of the two genres: the bluesy grit of artists like Jimi Hendrix is mixed with the melodic tendencies of Pink Floyd, and a slight touch of baroque influence is thrown in every once a while. The latter is provided courtesy of Matthew Fisher, whose performance on the organ is one of the most stunning in rock music. His trusty hammond is seen here playing everything from jazzy solos (the best of which could be found in Salad Days) to Bach-inspired tunes, all of which sound surprisingly natural amongst a bluesy backdrop.
Procol Harum’s compositions are, like those of almost any other progressive band, theatrical and, for the most part, complex, but, unlike their contemporaries, the band never descends into pointless meandering and the songs never feel overblown. Organs, pianos, guitars, and even the occasional horns all intertwine and play atop one another, but never does the music become confusing and overwhelming.
Fortunately, the songs are all blessed with the succinctness usually found in blues music, and thus nothing on the album overstays its welcome. Not even Repent Walpugis, a five minute long instrumental which manages to blend melancholy, soulful blues with a Bach prelude, seems unnecessarily bombastic or dreary (indeed, it might just be the best thing on here).
Also of note are Keith Reid’s lyrics, most of which, aside from the fittingly straightforward Mabel, are dense, surreal works that rely less on meaning and more on atmosphere. Fittingly poetic and intelligent, but rarely pretentious, these texts serve as the perfect accompaniments to ethereal songs like She Wandered Through the Garden Fence and Conquistador.
What we have here is perhaps the most interesting and relevant album to be released in the turbulent time when the first foundations of progressive rock were being laid. A Whiter Shade Of Pale
is worth the time of anybody even vaguely interested in the genre; hell, that organ alone justifies a listen.