Procol Harum remind me of The Moody Blues in a way; not in terms of their sound but in terms of their place in the history progressive rock, and how it evolved. Both bands got in on the ground floor, which makes them pioneers, at the very least. But both also got in before progressive rock really became its own thing, and so their music sounds incredibly traditional and convention compared to much (if not most) ’70s prog.
That’s true of Procol Harum’s second record, which sounds pretty far from the “progressive rock” that I have listened to all my adult life. The songs on side one are pretty conventional pop rock songs, for the most part, with clear art music influences, but only to the extent that I would call them “art rock” rather than prog rock. These songs are catchy enough, with above average lyrics, but which feel like very tentative steps to a new music, if you could even call it that. (In fact, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see the tentative steps to some form of new music, as these are pretty conventional.)
But all that changes on side 2, when the prog rock band’s favourite test of mettle appears to have been invented (to the best of my knowledge). I’m talking about “In Held Twas In I,” a nearly 18 minute long, five song suite, which predates all the major prog side-long suites by at least two years, the second side of Abbey Road by a year, and whose only precedents I know of are the considerably less ambitious and “A Quick One While He’s Away” and “Real” by the Who, and “A Saucerful of Secrets” by Pink Floyd. I am inclined to overrate such pathbreaking, but I can’t really help myself.
The track itself – or collection of tracks – is not necessarily as successful as I’d like to be, as I’m not sure it really coheres together quite as well as subsequent efforts in the genre (or the above mentioned early stabs at long rock suites). But it’s still an absolute landmark in the evolution of progressive rock, creating a new standard in rock ambition that would not be matched for a few years.