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Barclay James  Harvest - John Lees' Barclay James Harvest: North CD (album) cover


Barclay James Harvest

Crossover Prog

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4 stars It was a long wait .. but a rewarding one!! After 14 years and turbulent developments, with the tragic deaths of founder members Mel Pritchard and Woolly Wolstenholme to whose memories 'North' is dedicated, the John Lees' version of BJH return with a glorious album that is full of great melodies, variation and craftmanship. And although this album is quite different from their latest studio album 'Nexus' in the sense that 'North' contains only new songs collectively written by the whole band, it sounds so familiar BJH in some songs. But in other most certainly not! 'Ancient waves' was already played live for a while but it has grown. The mellow intro is new and makes this ballad dealing with man's insanity in going to (the Iraq) war almost vintage BJH, with a great melody, good lyrics and some very nice guitar playing. The same is true for the title track, inspired by their surroundings and containing a melody that sticks to your memory immediately. It is sung both by Lees and Fletcher, who turns out to be an excellent vocalist. The extended coda of that song in the form of a spoken poem by Lees is very appropiate, very loving to the region they reside and also quite new for this band. But what's new? BJH has always done what they thought was best, no matter what was modern at the time. So now they record a Steely Dan-like track ('In wonderland'), a blues track ('The real deal') and a full brass band track with Lees' son John jr. on the cornet ('On top of the world'). The last one is absolutely beautiful, almost haunting and so tasteful, the first mentioned are less my cup of tea. Yet there is one outstanding track, dedicated to the sorely missed Wooly Wolstenholme: 'On leave'. It is this combination of a great vocal melody, beautiful keyboards by Jez Smith who turns out to be an excellent addition to the band, soaring guitar by Lees, a nice break to return to the central theme, classic BJH. And it lasts for more than 9 minutes which was quite unusual for the band.

There is only one conclusion to draw: 'North' is a very convincing, very tasteful and beautiful album for John Lees and his band. The listener is the great winner because BJH is back again! Hopefully this band will produce many more of these great musical moments in the near future!

Report this review (#1063695)
Posted Sunday, October 20, 2013 | Review Permalink
Symphonic Team
2 stars The best Barclay James Harvest album in three decades, yet still not all that good!

Released in 2013, North is the first proper studio album to be released under the name of John Lees' Barclay James Harvest. (1999's Nexus was a mixture of original material and re-recordings of classic Barclay James Harvest songs; and besides it was released under the alternative name of "Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees".) Before he passed away in 2010, Woolly Wolstenholme was involved in this version of the band (which can be seen on the very good live DVD Legacy - Live At The Shepherd's Bush Empire released in 2007). The John Lees' Barclay James Harvest moniker is thus more appropriate than it was when it started as John Lees is now the only original member of Barclay James Harvest involved. (Les Holroyd has his own version of the band called Barclay James Harvest Featuring Les Holroyd, which included the fourth original member Mel Pritchard before he passed away.)

Nonetheless, North is a full-fledged Barclay James Harvest album in sound and appearance and is indeed the best studio album that (any version of) the band has produced in a long, long time. Almost all the songs bear the trademark Barclay James Harvest sound embodied in the voice and guitar sound of John Lees. The opening track If You Were Here Now does however not have this sound and I wonder if it is not bass player Craig Fletcher who sings lead here (?). It is a rather weak song which does not leave a good impression.

The album continues with Ancient Waves which was previously familiar to me from the live album Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London. This is one out of three good songs on this album, the other two being the title track and On Leave. The latter is the longest track on the album which leaves room for some tasteful guitar and keyboard work. These three songs easily rank among the best songs that the band has produced since the 1970's. Unfortunately the album as a whole is not up to that standard.

Unreservedly Yours was released as a single to promote this album. It has a rather standard, Beatles- esque melody and failed to leave any lasting impressions. On Top Of The World is a decent symphonic ballad which is pleasant enough, but again hardly impressive. Is it Fletcher singing again?

The real embarrassments of the album have not yet been mentioned however. In Wonderland is an absolute miss, especially the lyrics are cringe-worthy implicitly criticising the age of information technology by urging us to switch our phones off making the band appear like some old Luddites. With lines like "Facebook, YouTube, you loose" and "Schmetterlings for brains" this is best avoided by contemporary beings. The Real Deal is another weak track, a dull, middle of the road rocker.

With some strong moments, some decent moments, and some really weak moments, North could certainly have been a lot better than it is. If you are a fan of the band, by all means check this out, but for most people this is far from essential.

Report this review (#1162308)
Posted Thursday, April 17, 2014 | Review Permalink
Prog-Folk Team
3 stars After a period of mourning the tragic loss of Woolly Wolstenholme, a founding member of the original BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST, the John Lees faction decided to soldier on, and "North" is the first progeny of that resilient group, to which long time BJH fan Jez Smith was added on keyboards. It is in fact the first disk of entirely new material under the BJH name since the late 1990s split.

First of all, the mere title of the album speaks volumes, alluding to the pastoral Oldham origins of the group, which somehow adhered to the mellotron soaked sound like chocolate to almonds. What's enlightening to me is how, for the first time, if only at times, BJH sounds closer to a low voltage kiltless version of a few Scottish acts I could name, as they draw more than usual, which is to say, more than not at all, from the traditions of their surroundings. As such, it's difficult to compare this disk to any other era of the group, as it represents a bold renaissance of their identity, that, while not always captivating, is commendable in anyone past middle age.

Of note, Lees' vocals remain readily identifiable and effective within a wisely preset narrow range, and bassist Craig Fletcher sings on several tracks for variety, his voice more suited to conventional rock. Lees' guitar has mellowed, opting for melodic phrasings a la MARK KNOPFLER. Jez Smith shines particularly on piano on several tracks but also on organ and of course mellotron, though its use does not approach that triple washed sheen of early BJH albums, nor does it attempt to. A luxuriant breath of styles is afforded, including epics, basic blues, jazz rock, romantic ballad, and even an ambient brass song. From the perspective of most prog listeners, the lengthiest tracks will offer the best mileage, the best of these being "On Leave", a tribute to Wolstenholme, which is as intricate a composition and arrangement as anything the band has done in any era. Of special note is a frantic call and response midsection that acquiesces to their departed friend's confusions, standing with him without judgement, as true friends.

Even the more conventional tracks often yield unexpected pleasures. The STEELY DAN influenced "In Wonderland" includes a symphonic break that STEELY could not have conceived. "Unreservedly Yours" reminds me of GORDON LIGHTFOOT, but with a simple lilting chorus that delights. "On Top of the World" reaps glory out of its initial lassitude.

While BJH will probably never glisten again like they did in the glory years, "North" succeeds because it sets its internal compass onward and upward, respecting the past but refusing to be haunted by it.

Report this review (#1437128)
Posted Tuesday, July 7, 2015 | Review Permalink

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