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Barclay James  Harvest - Barclay James Harvest CD (album) cover


Barclay James Harvest


Crossover Prog

3.25 | 183 ratings

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4 stars As barbed tongues of frost descended towards the dark days of another northern winter, four young members of Barclay James Harvest rose from their bleak moorland retreat and once more ventured south towards The Smoke and a date with Destiny .....

..... to be more precise, to EMI's Abbey Road studios and a date with famed Beatles engineer and Pink Floyd producer Norman Smith who would produce this, their first album. It was here too that the Barclay James Harvest Symphony Orchestra was formed by their new Musical Director Robert Godfrey, assembled from a bunch of students from the Royal Academy. Keyboard player Woolly Wolstenholme, in particular, would enthusiastically embrace the idea of orchestrating BJH music, but recording presented a few problems, particularly when they attempted to match up the separately recorded efforts of band and orchestra.

The band had previously recorded some unadventurous singles, pretty songs like Brother Thrush, but by the winter of '69 their ideas had moved towards a harder edged rock sound married to pastoral songwriting all wrapped in an overcoat of aggressive orchestration. It was a big undertaking for a new (-ish) band - it didn't always work, and that remains one of the charms of this album as they strove to keep it all under control. The album displays their naivety in bucket-loads: lush sounds and consummate professionalism were a thing of the future, but for all that it has a raw energy that is infectious, an enthusiasm undimmed by studio polish.

It was Woolly, destined to be the most enduringly Prog-orientated member, who hit the ground running with a strong contribution on all fronts: songwriting, singing, playing and arranging. Les Holroyd was still finding his voice, his singing and bass playing not as solid or assured as it would become, while his one songwriting contribution was derivative. John Lees apparently lacked confidence to sing his own compositions though his guitar playing is very forthright while not yet fully matured. Mel Pritchard was already an accomplished drummer [already he had turned down an offer to join Fairport Convention] and that is much in evidence here in his full and busy style.

The songs are a mixed bag. The hard rocking Taking Some Time On is a tongue in cheek hippy song, specifically designed as a rousing opener. Mother Dear, a gothic tale of ghostly apparitions in the night, is a gentle ballad sung by Woolly in an acoustic setting with sympathetic orchestral arrangement. The Mellotron finally appears to introduce Woolly's eerie The Sun Will Never Shine, a song about depression which builds to a chorus with some weird dis-harmonies and soaring guitar. The only song written by Les, When The World Was Woken is a convincing Procol Harum clone complete with church organ and Hammond well to the fore, though later it is overwhelmed by an unsuitable orchestral arrangement.

Good Love Child is a psychedelic hard rocker, based on a nice little guitar motif which is simply repeated far too many times with too little variation. The Mellotron finally comes into its own on The Iron Maiden, a song actually about an "obnoxious" girl nicknamed 'Behemoth', yet evoking an 'Olde English' feel of pastoral peacefulness. Sung simply without the bells and whistles of the full band and some nice harmonies on the chorus.

At over 12 minutes the longest track they would ever record, Dark Now My Sky is the big Prog finale, based on The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a book written in the sixties about man's destruction of the environment. Full of symphonic complexity, it seemed at the time BJH would move more in that direction like many of their contemporaries, but on the contrary, they would never again attempt anything quite as adventurous as this. Starting with Woolly comically over-acting a short excerpt from Shakespeare and some maniacal laughter from Robert Godfrey, an orchestral interlude prefaces the song proper which alternates between very quiet simple verses sung by Les and loud instrumental breaks. Later, there is some heavenly interplay between choir, church organ, piano and Mellotron before the orchestra finishes it all off with a flourish.

The 2002 re-issue has no less than 13 bonus tracks, including their early singles and 7 tracks recorded for John Peel sessions in 1968. Of particular interest is Need You Oh So Bad which features Les on cello and John on recorder and an early 3 minute version of Dark Now My Sky without all the orchestral extras.

Ambitious - boundary-pushing - extravagent - rough-edged - unrefined - imaginative - exciting ..... Foolhardy and reckless perhaps, but for an unknown band to have their own orchestra was an exceptionally brave and 'Prog' thing to do even at a time when creativity oozed out of the studios. As they progressed, BJH would develop their more melodic tendencies and refine techniques, but this first album shows them still exuberantly finding their way, grubbing about in the dark to some extent as they come to terms with new technology and ideas.

Too flawed to be considered a classic, but highly recommended nevertheless

Joolz | 4/5 |


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