This four-disc set (three CDs/one DVD) is tempting in the extreme, in both its packaging and what it seems to offer -- and it would seem to some that the first Procol Harum boxed set is long overdue. But it is almost certain to be a disappointment to all but the most hardcore fans of the group's work, despite a valiant effort by the producers to make it impressive. On the plus side, although there have been no shortage of Procol Harum compilations, ranging from early best-of LPs on Fly and A&M to various double-disc sets, which seemingly culminated in 1997 with Westside Records' 30th anniversary triple-CD anthology, this release is the first to encompass the complete history of the group across four decades. That said, however, it should also be cautioned that their "classic" period, from 1967 through 1982, is encompassed on the first two CDs, which leaves a good deal of space for the various reunions and tours that followed in the '90s and beyond, none of which is half as interesting as the group's early output.
The first two discs do a fine job of representing their catalog, although any listeners expecting to hear their most AM radio-friendly work, such as the single "Conquistador," will be disappointed -- there are singles here, interspersed, along with some B-sides amid the album tracks; but after "A Whiter Shade of Pale," the emphasis is on musical import and significance. These discs carry us on a journey from psychedelic pop through vast conceptual pieces and into this band's unique brand of sometimes-bluesy progressive pop, filling in some unusual holes along the way, such as their adaptation of Johann Strauss II's "Blue Danube Waltz" as a closer -- live, no less. The probem is that most serious fans will have most of this material already, and certainly all of the essential parts -- there are no lost outtakes of the early band to enhance this side of the collection. And the live renditions of "King of Hearts" and "Man with a Mission" stuck on disc two come off as out of place with the surrounding material. And that brings us to the third disc, a collection of live tracks ranging across four decades, from 1969 up through 2007. There obviously wasn't enough vintage live material to fill a whole CD, but the producers are fooling no one but themselves to pretend that the reunited band's concert efforts can be equated as being in any way as interesting as the classic material. And a similar problem comes into play, in a more pronounced manner, with the fourth disc, a DVD consisting of video performances that starts off well enough, with a 1974 Danish TV appearance, but then jumps forward 32 years to 2006. As well-recorded as the latter material, which makes up the bulk of the DVD is, and as good as Gary Brooker sounds, it's still filler -- heaps of light, fluffy, insubstantial icing on a somewhat flat (if filling) cake, in an effort to make the latter look bigger and more appetizing than it is. In fairness, the sound quality, even on the earliest cuts, is phenomenal; and the set comes with a beautifully illustrated and heavily annotated booklet that must have been very expensive to produce (and which could be the jumping-off point for a good full-length book about the band, incidentally). But those virtues don't overcome the flaw in the content, or the heavy emphasis on the reunited version of the band -- or the annoying package design, which makes the discs cumbersome to remove or replace. Serious fans will have to own it, and absent the out of print 30th anniversary set, this is the only collection like it on the market, and the best extant survey of their work circa 2010 -- but someone can (and, one hopes, will) do better than this by this band.