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Barclay James  Harvest - XII CD (album) cover

XII

Barclay James Harvest

 

Crossover Prog

3.57 | 105 ratings

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Joolz
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars A BJH classic, no doubt about it, with a string of top-notch songs from all three songwriters. All members are on top of their form, singing and playing as well as they have ever done. As befits a 'proper' BJH album, John's wonderful inventive guitars are all over XII like a rash, though Woolly's keys are sometimes too recessed for comfort. Material is suitably varied and typically eclectic, ranging from light-rockers, ballads and a foray into classicism, all performed as a tight unit yet with an openness lacking in some degree from its immediate predecessor.

The scene is set by John's double-entendre laden Loving Is Easy, a solid mid-paced rocker with strong guitar work underpinned by meaty Hammond and synth.

Les produces the first enduring classic in the emotional form of Berlin, a timeless ballad inspired by the still divided city, beautifully written with evocative imagery.

A Tale Of Two Sixties, John's homage to his 1960s influences, is a loping slowish melodic rocker awash with guitars.

Les's love song, Turning In Circles, is very superior rocking-ballad with an inventive arrangement, some wonderful bass work and an exciting guitar riff that fires it all off.

The Closed Shop is John's scathing attack on that union practice, now outlawed in Britain. It is a lively ballad reminiscent of Mill Boys from Everyone Is Everybody Else: acoustic guitars combine with strong keyboard elements and varied percussion to produce a languid country-rock feel.

In Search Of England is the last in a long line of characteristic 'symphonic' classics Woolly would record with the band, and one of the very best. Mood shifts abound, of course, as do Woolly's layered keyboards, but it is John's ecstatic soaring guitars which steal the show!

Sip Of Wine, a not entirely serious tale of groupie seduction, is a simpler mid-paced soft-rock song, musically the first dip on the album yet still producing a rasping guitar solo.

Harbour, offering reflections on reaching a home port after a long journey, represents the other side of Woolly: a simpler ballad with a beautiful melody supported by chiming guitars, rich harmonies and a fine duplexed guitar solo. Even here he manages to insert a contrasting mid-song break.

Nova Lepidoptera may have meaningless lyrics derived from science fiction books, but John succeeded in turning them into a stunning atmospheric song coming quite close to a languid approach to space-rock. It has an airy other-worldly feel but with a conventional song structure featuring one of John's best guitar solos and some gorgeous swooping bass from Les. They did this sort of thing so well. Incidentally, the Morse Code at the beginning spells U F O!

Les, as usual, simplifies things with his ballad Giving It Up, a pretty love song but a good one. Drums from the second verse give it a distinct lift beyond the mundane.

John closes the album on a high with his sublime Streets Of San Fransisco. Inspired by the old 1970s TV series ["Karl Malden was great (unlike the film, though)"], it is blessed with a detailed arrangement, hidden depths belying what is actually a fairly simple song. Its crowning glory is a wonderfully laid-back and understated coda, topped by a bluesy harmonica that paints a vivid picture of lazily watching the world go by at sunset, sitting on a whicker chair under the verandah, iced beer in hand with chirping crickets as a backdrop .....

End Of An Era

XII: end of an era and the last before Woolly packed his Mellotron and left for pastures new. There is no hint of change afoot, or of anything amiss in the BJH camp. Quite the reverse in fact: not only is XII one of their best albums, but the years of hard grind were at last beginning to reap a material reward. Record sales were soaring, especially in Germany where BJH would shortly enter sub-superstar orbit as a stadium act or filling the Reichstag with a couple hundred thousand adoring fans. This process had begun well before Woolly's departure, and was a significant factor in his decision.

With hindsight, we can now see the trip to USA to record Time Honoured Ghosts in 1975 had set the ball rolling towards a simpler, more streamlined and polished sound that would dictate the band's direction for the next twenty years. But, while Woolly remained as an influence, BJH would continue to be a very English guitar-led melodic rock band with a degree of Prog-ness, a hybrid of well-crafted songs, involving and evolving arrangements, skilled musicanship and professional outlook.

Musically, XII is a matched pair with its predecessor Gone To Earth: it is these two albums that together fuelled the fires of success, sustaining them well into the 80s before a spate of poorer albums took their toll. It represents the final flowering of what I think of as 'BJH Mk 2' - that distinct group of superior albums from the late 70s representing a transitional phase where keener commercial instincts of the later 3-man band rubbed shoulders with the old prog sensibilities of the early 70s in a rich vein of creativity as yet untainted by the demands of a hit-making business.

Woolly's departure would mean more than just the loss of a keyboard player, singer and songwriter, much more! Woolly was the link that bound together the disparate styles of Les and John, melding them into a cohesive whole while adding something of his own free-spirited, classically inspired ideology. In many ways, Woolly symbolized the old band's essence and everything it stood for, as John claimed many years later, he was its soul, and a light dimmed when he left.

Why XII? You have to cheat to consider it the band's twelfth album, but it seems that was the intended meaning, though it also marked the start of their twelfth year together as a band. It subsequently came to mark their final year as a working four-piece. They ended on a high, not of course scaling the rarified atmosphere and precipitous slopes of the Prog-bound peaks of Everest, but rather fell-walking on more accessible slopes and crags of the high Pennine moors of northern England with a midday sun warming their backs. Believe It!

Joolz | 4/5 |

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