ROUND TABLE REVIEW
John Lees' Barclay James Harvest - North
Tracklist: If You Were Here Now (5:49), Ancient Waves (7:10), In Wonderland (5:49), On Leave (9:11), The Real Deal (5:49), On Top Of The World (5:40), Unreservedly Yours (4:51), North (8:29), At The End Of The Day (2:34)
John Lees - Vocals, Guitar
Jez Smith - Keyboards, Vocals
Craig Fletcher - Vocals, Bass
Kevin Whitehead - Drums, Percussion
Geoff Feakes' Review
The name Barclay James Harvest has been around since 1967 when John Lees, Stuart Wolstenholme, Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard formed the band in Oldham, an industrial town in the north west of England. Although Oldham is part of the urban sprawl of Manchester, just a few short miles away is the scenic isolation of Saddleworth Moor, an area that inspired the band's songwriters. Following Wolstenholme's departure in 1979 the remaining BJH trio (augmented by session musicians) continued until 1998 before splitting into two separate factions. Holroyd and Pritchard reformed as the cumbersomely named 'Barclay James Harvest Featuring Les Holroyd' whilst Lees reunited with Wolstenholme under the even more unwieldy banner 'Barclay James Harvest Through The Eyes Of John Lees'. The latter recorded a studio album in 1999 entitled Nexus assisted by bassist Craig Fletcher and drummer Kevin Whitehead.
Following a hiatus, in 2005 they changed their name to a more practical 'John Lees' Barclay James Harvest' becoming regulars on the European tour circuit. Although they released the occasional live album and the excellent 2007 DVD Legacy, Nexus remained the only studio album. That is until now. North was originally planned by Lees and Wolstenholme as a follow up to Nexus, but eventually abandoned. Sadly, with his death in December 2010, Wolstenholme was not around to participate in the resurrected album leaving Lees, Fletcher, Whitehead and current keyboardist Jez Smith to jointly write and record all new songs for North.
Anyone familiar with the music of BJH will be aware that during the 1970's they specialised in melodic, symphonic rock which unfortunately took a decidedly mainstream, AOR turn in the 1980's. Given that the John Lees' BJH concerts have always favoured the more creative '70s material, then for this reviewer at least expectations for this new album were running understandably high. Encompassing as it does a broad range of styles, the end result for me thankfully delights far more than it disappoints.
Things get off to a lukewarm start with If You Were Here Now, a marginally better than average pop song sung by Fletcher. It does at least boast a catchy choral hook and the opening verses bear more than a passing resemblance to the Lighthouse Family's Ocean Drive. It's certainly pleasant, but is it BJH? Next up is the tranquil Ancient Waves with Whitehead's opening cymbals recreating the sound of breaking waves. It's good to hear Lees on disc in fine vocal form after more than a decade of absence although his chiming guitar sound is closer to the likes of Mark Knopfler and Chris Rea on this occasion. More surprises are in store with In Wonderland, a breezy mid-tempo song that could have easily come from the other side of the Atlantic with a smooth jazz swing that’s pure Steely Dan.
On Leave is one of the more ambitious offerings, sounding like a collaborative effort from several band members. The laidback opening section features delicate piano and Mellotron hovering inconspicuously in the background leading into a fluid, understated guitar solo around the midway point. Chiming percussive effects herald a lively staccato vocal section with elements of Yes, developing into a proggy instrumental interlude. Lees' soaring guitar and Smith's symphonic keys brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Now this is it BJH!
The Real Deal is mainstream rock with a rhythm 'n' blues riff and repetitive chorus perfectly suited to Fletcher's earthy vocal and although well performed it's not for me. A pity that it also fades just as Smith weighs in with some stylish organ volleys. Fletcher remains at the microphone for one of the albums strongest offerings, the bittersweet On Top Of The World. The glorious sound of the brass band and a touch of piano is the only musical accompaniment and with lines like "Maggie came and took away all our rights to work and play" there's no mistaking the sentiment. The band's riposte to the 1996 film Brassed Off.
It's not hard to see why Unreservedly Yours was the recent digital single, benefiting from Fletcher's fine bass work, jangly acoustic guitars and Lees' memorable Beatle-ish choral refrain. The title track North is another lengthy affair and a nostalgic elegy to times gone by. The opening song section with its subdued guitar, rippling electric piano and melancholic tone brings The Doors to mind. A gritty guitar break with a hint of distortion is bookended by Fletcher's uplifting vocal bridge with a majestic melody reminiscent of Elton John's Song For Guy although at a faster tempo. Only the lethargic instrumental coda lets the side down for me.
The final track, clocking in at a little over two and a half minutes, is At The End Of The Day which takes the heartfelt words of early 20th century northern poet Ammon Wrigley (who like Lees was inspired by Saddleworth) and sets them to a lush strings backdrop. A worthy epitaph for the late Woolly Wolstenholme and a reminder of his performance of The Poet / After The Day which remains for me Barclay James Harvest's finest hour (or ten minutes at least).
If there's a theme running through this album then the evocative cover photo sums it up nicely featuring as it does the war memorial atop Pots and Pans Hill in Saddleworth. This same location appears on the cover of BJH's 1990 album Welcome To The Show and, as coincidence would have it, I drove past that very same hill on the day the North promo dropped through my letterbox. The cover artwork also features the familiar butterfly and band logo where 'Barclay James Harvest' is conspicuously more prominent than 'John Lees'. On a musical level the converging style of those involved is clearly evident in much the same way that the BJH albums of old reflected the contrasting tastes of Lees, Holroyd and Wolstenholme. They certainly cover all the musical basses so on reflection and in response to my earlier question, yes this is BJH.
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
Fourteen years. Fourteen years it's been since the last Barclay James Harvest album (Nexus in 1998) so this one has been a while in coming really and with that sort of break one wonders what the results will be like. How will they compare to what preceded it, the glories of yore as it were.
Barclay James Harvest have, of course, a lengthy and at times embittered history and there has been much water under the bridge since their glory days, but even so BJH have always been a marker point along the way of progressive rock with their gentle melancholy and glorious use of both melody and harmony. This album continues those traditions admirably.
Cunningly entitled North in homage to their roots and origins in the North of England, this is a sumptuous affair with a consistently high level of both music and performance throughout.
The opening track, If You Were Here Now, is a strident affair with some fine musicianship especially from the keyboards which support and enhance the song magnificently. It's always good to hear a classic Hammond in the mix, the song itself recalling lost times fondly remembered but questioned. It features a brief but elegant guitar break that slowly builds before the chorus returns, but then John Lees is usually a very fluid and elegiac player.
In my experience most of Barclay James Harvest's material takes several spins to sink in and like all good things in life the pleasures are revealed slowly, but it is a great opener with a good extended instrumental outro.
Ancient Waves follows, opening with just guitar, keyboards and cymbals and sounding like the aural equivalent of the tide coming in and then receding once more, before an acoustic guitar is gently strummed leading into the verse. A wonderfully pastoral piano and guitar solo that follow each other in moments that are simply sublime make this one of my favourite tracks on the CD, the song speaking of man's inability to listen and learn from the past.
In Wonderland follows, opening with a quirky riff as it discusses the rise of social media and our on-going and continuing reliance on such things, telling us to "turn it off". In the mid-section common text speak is quoted effectively before a brief piano and organ solo. Not the strongest song on the CD but an interesting one nonetheless.
On Leave is next, an emotive song dealing as it does with Woolly Wolstenholme's suicide a few years ago. It's a very compassionate song handled very delicately and with sensitivity, a fitting testament and legacy to a departed friend "haunted by the old and hounded by the new", which is a fine way of describing what troubled Woolly in such a dramatic and tragic way. There is another fine guitar break that exudes emotion, yet is also very dignified.
In the second section of the piece the pace picks up a little with call and response vocals that mirror confusion and opposing views before a more impassioned guitar break surges to the fore alongside stabbing keyboards to evoke a glorious moment of triumph over tragedy before reprising the main melody to bring this epic song to a suitably fitting conclusion.
The Real Deal opens with a fairly dirty riff with keyboards mirroring and underpinning it, a gritty vocal enters talking about a one-eyed man selling broken dreams and how it's a long way back. It's not the best song on the CD but it is fairly up-tempo and rocky.
On Top Of The World is something completely different as it features a brass band prominently. Historically these have been a feature of Northern towns and villages who have their own works or colliery brass band and it is this tradition that is honoured in this song. John Lees' son is featured on cornet in this song which is different yet really works with the band playing most of the music with subtle support from the keyboards. Nostalgic yet full of warmth, it is not sentimental of cloying but quite simply a beautiful song handled superbly.
Unreservedly Yours is the ballad on the album. Gentle, acoustically driven and fairly simple but effective in its delivery, it talks about a loved one and the good things they bring to one's life. There is also a wonderful keyboard motif and solo on this song.
North, the title track of the album, opens with plucked electric guitar, cascading keys and a popped bass before the song begins extolling Northern life and painting a vivid picture of its industrial heritage compared with the reality of today. It's another evocative song of a time and a place taken at a measured pace and featuring a fine guitar break from John Lees. Musically there is a lot going on from subtle cowbells to some fine ensemble playing and again it's a fantastic track on what is a very interesting and valid album.
At the End of the Day closes the album sounding not unlike the old Hamlet cigar advert except that it is a spoken poem set to music. It's an unpublished piece from the early 1900s and is a fitting conclusion to an album that explores elements of the history of the North of England; not a concept album as such but more a themed album.
So it's taken 14 years but it has been worth the wait. This is a fine addition to the body of work that Barclay James Harvest has previously given us, both looking back to the past but also giving a nod towards the future.
I recommend it highly with no hesitation. Give it a spin and see if you concur as it's certainly well worth investigating.
Theo Verstrael's Review
For a long time fan of Barclay James Harvest the years since the breaking up of the original band in 1997 due to personal differences between principal song writers John Lees and Les Holroyd have been a period of hope and fear. The first hopeful development was the return of BJH-co-founder Woolly Wolstenholme to the music business. He was asked to join Lees' version of the band which led to the Nexus album on which some classic BJH-songs were re-worked and some old songs that had been shelved were re-recorded; a very nice album that was also toured successfully. Thereupon Wolstenholme decided to reform his Maestoso band and recorded a couple of fine albums with them. Meanwhile Les Holroyd recorded his own album under the ‘BJH featuring Les Holroyd’ name which turned out to be a very nice album too. So the split seemed to lead to two interesting versions of the band.
Unfortunately difficult times were ahead. Firstly, co-founder Mel Pritchard, who had continued to play with Les Holroyd, sadly passed away and Holroyd hasn't recorded any new songs since. Lees on the other hand picked up touring again with Wolstenholme and part of his Maestoso band, namely Craig Fletcher and Kevin Whitehead and chose to play classic BJH-songs again, to great acclaim from audiences in many countries. Jez Smith joined them on stage playing keyboards and then Wolstenholme tragically took his own life in 2010 and everything was different again.
The suicide was a massive blow for all members of John Lees' Barclay James Harvest, an act they couldn't comprehend at all, although everybody knew that Woolly had his mental problems. They played a tribute concert (the bonus disc of the special edition version of North) and concluded that their mutual interests were far too much fun to let go of so they decided to go on playing and recording.
As a result we now have North, the first John Lees' BJH-album with all new material since the split. The band announced its release in early spring of this year so it has been rather a long wait but it has certainly been well worth it as the band sounds inspired. They have chosen to explore some new paths out of their musical history, maybe because they just wanted to do so, and have come up with a very varied album on which classic and modern BJH are blended together. It's really a group thing which has always been Lees' preference when playing in a band, as we have known for many years.
If You Were Here Now opens the album with a catchy intro which could have been longer. It is the leading theme of this track, sung by Craig with backing vocals by John. The organ is quite up-front which makes this a bluesy, deceivingly easy love song. The guitar solo is quite nice but far too short and the song slowly builds towards the Mellotron laden finale with a driving guitar and organ outro. It is a rather unexpected opening to the album because it is a completely different song in terms of atmosphere than we are used too. But after a few spins it starts to work.
Ancient Waves had already been played during the Metropolis gig in 2010 but here it is given a new, longer and very atmospheric intro with keyboards and piano. It shows the growing importance of Jez Smith as a convincing replacement for Woolly Wolstenholme. Lead vocals are by John whose voice seems to have become a little hoarser and slightly weaker. The lyrics deal with a familiar Lees' theme, his failure to understand the violent actions of humans and our inability to learn from history. It's classic BJH with an absolutely beautiful piano middle section that gives way to an even more beautiful guitar solo, backed by keyboards.
In Wonderland is another bluesy track, going back to the days of the ...And Other Short Stories album (it's reminiscent of Blue John's Blues from that album). Imbedded in heavy keyboard layers it proves that this band is capable of playing very different styles of music. Yet to my ears it doesn't underpin their major asset which is, in my opinion, creating subtle, often melancholic or haunting melodies. And I miss Lees' guitar playing - it's almost completely keyboards. On the lyrical side singing the alphabet proves to be quite a daring exercise!
With On Leave the band goes back to their roots and do so very convincingly on a stunning long piece that grows and grows with every listen. A haunting melody, great symphonic middle section with outbursts of guitar, Mellotron, bass and organ ending with a return of the leading theme. It could have gone on for many more minutes! With the title track this is absolutely the best song of this album.
The Real Deal shows the rocky side of Lees' BJH, in the vein of Tales of Two Sixties and Cheap the Bullet. It works rather well after the symphonic On Leave but it is not an outstanding track as such. Craig Fletcher on bass and Kevin Whitehead on drums take the lead here and make it a rather straightforward rock song. It also illustrates where John is coming from; both Woolly and he once started off playing in a blues band back in the sixties, inspired by bands such as Family. In that respect this track can also be judged as a trip down Memory Lane.
On Top of the World is dominated by a brass band in which Lees' son, John Jr., plays the cornet. Such brass bands are one of the cultural assets of the North of England where the band has always resided and it challenges the listener to step into a totally different world. It is something Lees has sporadically done before (Delph Town Morn on Baby James Harvest, Mayday on Octoberon) but never was the brass section so dominant as on this track, the only other instrument to be heard is the piano. On my first listen I could hardly believe my ears; was I really hearing what was played? But also this song grows slowly, getting better and better with every spin. Does it work? Yes, it does! But it demands a really open ear!
Unreservedly Yours is a very nice, mellow ballad. It was released on the internet earlier this year and played during the European spring tour. The band were glad that the song was well received but they shouldn't have worried. Musically it is in the same vein as Hymn, one of their most popular songs, or Titles, very nice, quiet ballads that contain enough musical layers to stay attractive after many listens.
North is again classic BJH, a very strong and attractive melody that immediately appeals and stays in your memory for many days. It is sung in turn by Fletcher and Lees and contains a very nice long and typical Lees' guitar solo. The song pays tribute to the region they all come from and does so in a really respectful way. The bass playing in the coda is very good too, leading fluently into At the End of the Day, a Mellotron/piano backed traditional poem, read by Lees. It is reminiscent of the Moody Blues in their heyday.
This is a very varied album, a glorious return to their roots both lyrically and musically. At the same time I found it quite a daring album because of the new elements (brass bands, bluesy tracks, spoken poem) added. Lees rightfully has nothing to prove anymore, having been around for more than 45 years now and having written so many classic songs. This band inspires him, they write and play collectively and that brings out the best in him. We listeners are the winners; Barclay James Harvest is back and, hell, that's good news!!
Alex Torres's Review
As a life-long Barclay James Harvest fan - and as this is a round-table review - I thought I would present my review of North from that perspective, rather than striving for a completely objective description of the music. What I have to say, however, should also be of interest to more general readers who are open-minded about the band's music, and who might be interested in purchasing the album.
Barclay James Harvest's best albums have always manifested certain characteristics that have appealed to their fans down the years, making their music live to this day. North exhibits those characteristics strongly and it is likely that it will become a firm favourite with most fans of the band. As part of my review, I address those characteristics in the paragraphs below. Because North exhibits strong Barclay James Harvest characteristics - in terms of overall soundscape I would place it into the band's "Harvest" period (from 1967 until about 1973) - then it is also true to say that if you have sampled the band's music from the 1970s, particularly the early 1970s, and you have not liked it, then it is unlikely that you will enjoy North.
The first, and perhaps most important characteristic, is the over-riding importance of melody. North is lush with melody. Even a song that might sound innocuous on a first listen, the soft-rock opener If You Were Here Now, burrows its way surely into your head after only two or three listens. Similarly, the blues-riff driven The Real Deal boasts a memorable refrain and the final track, Lees' recitation of a poem by local poet Ammon Wrigley, is overlaid with beautiful orchestration. Elsewhere, the melodies are even more delicious, with perhaps the greatest plaudits going to On Leave, the band's elegy to Woolly Wolstenholme, the founder member of Barclay James Harvest who passed away in 2010.
Second: John Lees' guitar soloing. Whilst he's not recognised by press and peers as being one of the great guitarists, Lees' soloing has always delighted the band's own fans by virtue of his uncanny ability to balance the right amount of power, melody and riff. The lines are smooth and legato, always played with musical emotion and sensitivity. In short, a joy. On North Lees treats us to some superb examples of this playing, with a number of songs boasting tasty Lees guitar-moments. When combined with gorgeous melody - On Leave - the result is mesmerising.
The third characteristic is the desire to adorn the music with arrangements that adventure beyond the simple pop/rock format, filling them with nuances of sound to attract the listener. Of the nine compositions on North, at least six include an element of adventure or innovation. This mix of straight pop/rock songs - the "pop" of If You Were Here Now and Unreservedly Yours, together with the straight Deep Purple-ish blues-rock of The Real Deal - with more progressive music is archetypal of the most celebrated Barclay James Harvest albums. Ancient Waves, a song that has been in the live set for a few years, is the first to showcase the album's "progressive" credentials. In Wonderland is an absolute delight, even if its Steely Dan inspired jazzy treatment will surprise fans as this is rare musical territory for the band. That song, as well as On Leave and the title track, sports well-integrated but discrete musical sections. Finally, On Top of the World and The End of the Day both boldly depart from the norm: the former is inspired by Lees' love of brass band music and the latter by his admiration of a local poet. Lyrically, On Top of the World is an eulogy to the region's mining communities, of which the only remaining visible sign is the hall used to house the brass band. Musically, the song - played by a brass band and light piano - provides a link to "family" in that Lees' son plays the cornet. The younger Lees also plays flugelhorn on The End of the Day which, as I've already mentioned, is the recitation of a poem.
The musical contribution of the rest of the band deserves a mention at this point, as their input to the arrangements is first class. BJH's bass and drums have often been unfussy, adding to musical texture rather than being in the front-line and that is a feature that Craig Fletcher (bass) and Kevin Whitehead (drums) continue. The same cannot be said for the role of keyboards/orchestration within the music - this has been a major feature of the "BJH sound". Jez Smith is the man now in Woolly Wolstenholme's original role and his playing fits the BJH-style to perfection, whether the keys are in the background or leading the arrangement. The greatest compliment I can pay him is that he is the best BJH keyboardist since Wolstenhome himself, able to demonstrate passion for the music and suffuse it with soul and emotion. His Mellotron-run on On Leave, replicated in tribute from Wolstenholme's own performance from Medicine Man on the celebrated BJH LIve album, just provides the high-carat diamond-studding in what is a golden performance.
The fourth characteristic is the provision of added interest to the listener through the use of two main vocalists and beautiful backing harmonies. On North, bassist Craig Fletcher steps formidably into Les Holroyd and Woolly Wolstenholme's role on those "classic" earlier albums by taking the lead vocal on a number of songs. Flectcher's vocal is not as different in tone to Lees', so there is less contrast, but nevertheless the use of two vocalists is extremely effective, especially on the title track where the pair sing alternate lead parts, Lees depicting the grim aspects of the north, Fletcher its beauty.
Finally, fifth - but very importantly - we have intelligent and interesting lyrics. Once the music has grabbed you, its enjoyment is enhanced by lyrics that engage the listener. The album is replete with such lyrics, discussing the problems of that part of the country, delving into the modern obsession with the social media, discussing family and friends. Even Ancient Waves, written some years ago as a comment on the Iraq War, still retains its relevance.
Overall, North works very well listened to as an album; it has a strong cohesive quality. Is it another "classic"? Another to put alongside Once Again, Everyone is Everybody Else and Gone to Earth? Does it have a "classic" song to match the ones on those albums - another Mocking Bird, Child of the Universe, For No One or Hymn? Well, the contenders for "classic" song are On Leave and North, but we need time to reflect on the music before reaching a conclusion on North's status within the band's mighty canon of work. However, what one can say immediately is that this is a hugely enjoyable album, one that will delight most, if not all, fans of this vastly underrated band.
GEOFF FEAKES : 7 out of 10
JOHN WENLOCK-SMITH : 8.5 out of 10
THEO VERSTRAEL : 8 out of 10
ALEX TORRES : 9 out of 10
|From the DPRP Archives...
Previous Recommended Barclay James Harvest CD & DVD Reviews:-
|"The bands richly melodic and tightly structured music is conveyed with just the right amount of conviction, grace and grandeur."|
(Geoff Feakes, 8.5/10)
|"To compare Barclay James Harvest Live and Live Tapes in terms of preference is a tough call although for my money the latter just has the edge. Whilst the 1974 album has a rawer, more energetic performance from the band, Live Tapes benefits from a superior recording."|
(Geoff Feakes, 8/10)
|Sea Of Tranquility - The Polydor Years 1974-1997|
|"thoughtfully and chronologically compiled and the superb packaging includes a 32 page booklet with archive pics and candid observations on every stage of the bands career from the members themselves. This is another excellent addition to the Esoteric catalogue and an entertaining insight into one of the most underrated and genuine classic progressive rock bands of all time."|
(Geoff Feakes, 8.5/10)
|"For Barclay James Harvest fans this DVD is an absolute must and it comes highly recommended to anyone that has a soft spot for classic symphonic rock."|
(Geoff Feakes, 8.5/10)
|Other CD & DVD Reviews:-|
|Caught Live (2002)||Eyes of the Universe (2006)||A Concert for the People (Berlin) (2006)|
|Face To Face (2006)||Welcome to the Show (2006)||Ring Of Changes (1983/2012)|
|Victims Of Circumstance (1984/2012)||Eyes Of The Universe (1979/2012)||Turn Of The Tide (1981/2013)|
|Previous Barclay James Harvest Live Reviews:-|
|2010:-||Zoetermeer, The Netherlands|
|2013:-||Zoetermeer, The Netherlands|