After a break from recording for almost fifteen years veteran English rock band Barclay James Harvest have returned with a fine collection of songs, which band leader John Lees hinted might be their final album. Since BJH began working in the late 1960s, they have moved through several creative periods, drawing in different stages of their careers on orchestral work, folk, prog, pop, in the 70s before re-launching themselves as European stadium rock band in the 80s, while the 90s were dominated by creative tensions between the different songwriters and their favoured styles - culminating in the dissolution of the original band in 1997. John Lees' version of the band have sought to continue the classic rock sound of the band's earlier, most creatively fertile period, while Les Holroyd's band favour the 80s sound on the European gig circuit to this day.
North is a distinctively Barclay James Harvest album with all the trademarks of that name; great melodies, interesting arrangements, lyrical intrigue, lush vocal harmonies, solid rhythms, moody keyboards and soaring guitar lines; constructed with a delicacy which is often described as 'pastoral'. Barclay James Harvest has a large and unusually devoted following, and there is plenty here for their traditional fans to enjoy. There are however a few surprises in store as there are new departures to be found on North as well as the band explore new territory in several of the songs.
The album opens with what to my mind is its weakest song, "If You Were Here Now", a light radio-friendly pop ballad. Although Craig Fletcher sings very well elsewhere on the album, the opening vocals are fragile and sound unfinished. John Lees' finely crafted guitar lines, and the catchy chorus certainly lift the latter half of the song - but I was initially disappointed.
That disappointment didn't last long however. Ancient Waves is a classic John Lees' song invoking their great anti-war anthems of the 70s, such as Summer Soldier. Written about the Iraq War, the song imagines that voices of the souls of soldiers killed in conflict past are heard in the waves - pleading for us not to send more soldiers to kill and die. Already performed live successfully many times, this song is bound to be a favourite amongst long-time fans.
If, at the conclusion to Ancient Waves, listeners to "North", were to settle back and assume that they were in for a nostalgia-fest of songs which could have sat on BJH records like Octoberon or Time Honoured Ghosts, then "In Wonderland" would come as something of a surprise! Apparently the band nicknamed the song Steely-John in the studio, as the light but deceptively complex jazz-pop so invokes the sound of Becker and Fagen. Alongside the quirky lyrics, this is a new departure for the band, perhaps taking the trajectory Lees' hinted at in 1997's "Pool of Tears" and following through to its natural conclusion. These are the first recordings from this line up of the band, following the tragic death keyboard player Woolly Wolstenholme in 2010 - and this track demonstrates the extent to which they are a good creative unit doing different things.
The up-beat and jokey mood of "In Wonderland" crumbles with the first few notes of the sombre, "On Leave", written about the debilitating depression suffered by their friend and fellow-musician Woolly Wolstenholme, which culminated in his suicide in 2010. This is a beautiful poignant and heartfelt love-song, presented as a requiem for a fallen brother. John Lees' guitar almost seems to weep as it lays down its opening lament, before he opens up into a ballad section which simply tells the story of his decline and fall from the perspective of a helpless observer. This would have been a straightforward but profound memorial if left there - but the band have much more to say about Woolly both lyrically and musically. To the sound of storms and falling rain they shift gear into 5/8 for a sung/chanted section which documents much about Woollys state of mind, before another gear change into alternating bars of 5/8, 6/8 for a complex guitar solo, followed by a 6/8 keyboard solo. This is a dramatic, compelling and musically interesting section of which Woolly (who had always wanted to push the bands musical boundaries) would surely have approved. The song ends with a bolder, more majestic re-statement of the opening guitar lament. The combination of the blunt, but heartfelt lyrics, and the power and beauty of this music make listening to it an emotional experience. I suspect that people who knew Woolly personally will have found this especially so. Little embellishments demonstrate how much love and care went into this song, while John Lees' sings of Woolly, "haunted by the old; hounded by the new", keyboard player Jez Smith underlays his words with trademark Woolly Mellotron sounds from the bands early albums. On Leave is a tremendous tribute to a much missed friend and colleague.
The mood and the rhythm doesn't remain static for long on this album however, as the next song, "The Real Deal" is a driving up-tempo rocker. Criticised by some fans for being too derivative of other 70s hard rock bands, my judgement is that this is hard rock song that John Lees has been striving towards for some time, with mixed results until now. In the original Barclay James Harvest John recorded a few songs which were straightforward rockers like Panic or the much derided Spud-U-like, which failed to impress because they lacked the aggressive intent which their genre and shape required. I suspect that Polydor's determination to push BJH in a MOR direction had much to do with the 'teeth' being pulled from these songs - something which I am sure Craig Fletcher (bass/vox) and Kev Whitehead (drums) were not going to allow to happen here. My one criticism is that the songs is too long, the chorus repeated too many times, without any musical changes to sustain interest, but the Kevin Peek like guitar solo soars over the song, and Whitehead gives it some real welly on the kit (he also drums for Dare), while Craig's vocals work especially well on this type of song.
The next surprise for BJH fans is "On Top of The World". Many of the songs on this album relate to aspects of life in the North of England where the band are all from, and where it was written, and recorded. This song is about the loss of the mining industry and the effect it had on the families of the miners, left with little but the friendships and music forged in working days. The surprise is that Fletchers vocals are laid over a brass band, with only a little piano to add variety. John Lees' love of brass is well documented, as are his son's skills as a cornet player. A little flourish of a cornet solo added to the structure of a regular song from the four members of the band would have been pleasant but unsurprising; the "Frugal Horns"! in all their glory is a wonderful sound however. The fact that (just as with Real Deal) the band have had the confidence to go all the way with their musical ideas, rather than just blending in a hint of this or that into their traditional sound is what sets North apart as an album. It may be too varied an album as a result, but I think John Lees has always been at his best when pushing himself, taking risks and not reigning in his musical and creative ideas.
Unreservedly Yours is the one recording on the album I already owned before I got the CD, as it had already been released as a downloadable single earlier in the year. It's a jaunty little piece of 6/8, celebrating the joy of lifelong love and one of only two weaker songs on the album. It wouldn't have been my choice as a single to take from it to promote the CD.
"North", the album's title track in contrast is magnificent, which along with Ancient Waves and the wonderful On Leave form a trio of latter-day BJH classics. The song begins by lyrically and musically describing images of the North; of bleak moors, ice on windows, abandoned factories, and children playing in the streets. John Lees' half-whispered vocal is a nice creative flourish; before the song lifts with some great playing, and change of vocals and a lyrical shift present a different picture, the other side of The North. This is brilliant writing, and very good performance - a really, really good song.
John Lees Barclay James Harvest complete this album with a final surprise, and another departure from the expected formula. Over music they have especially composed, Lees recites a poem by Ammon Wrigley, a noted early 20th colloquial poet from the bands own Saddleworth neighbourhoods. Surely, Lees has Wolstenholme in view when he intones:
Two gods watched o'er a young Norse birth
The god of ale, and the god of mirth.
Says mellow ale, "This child's my own"
"No, no", says mirth, "Not thine alone".
So each agreed to take a part,
Ale seized his throat, and Mirth his heart.
And made him together what people may ken
The best of cronies and the straightest of men
The best of cronies and the straightest of men.
North is a really good, album which I have played and played since its release. It is an essential purchase for fans of Barclay James Harvest, which stands firmly in the tradition of the great albums that band made between 1968 and 1979; with enough new twists and turns to make it full of surprises. The band take to the road in November, I'm hoping to catch them in Edinburgh,