Esoteric Antenna [Release date: 07.10.13]
‘North’ is an unlikely but successful return to recording by John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest. It’s an unlikely return because for the best part of 5 years, the band’s guitarist and composer Lees actually retired, and the album marks a return to form because the band successfully achieves its stated aim of updating the BJH heritage. And just as John recently emphasised, ‘North’ is all about rekindling the original spirit of the Barclay James Harvest in terms of collaboration and shared creativity
Once you overcome the radio 2 friendly, sugary opener ‘If You Were Here Now’, and possibly circumnavigate the rather syrupy waltz of ‘Unreservedly Yours’, ‘North’ gently captivates through its instant melodies, mellifluous harmonies and delicate instrumental work.
More importantly, all four members contribute equally to the writing and recording process, meaning that although the material is still shaped by the band’s extant musical legacy, the current line-up is also breaking new ground with a mixture of inspired playing and coherent material.
‘North’ represents the band’s first new album for 14 years, but the album was recorded in a piecemeal way – as and when – rather than the old school way of taking months to nail a drum track etc. The result is a delicately crafted work, laced intricate detail, subtle dynamics and glued together by gentle harmonies and expansive playing.
This is especially so on the impressive keyboard sweep of the anti-war song ‘Ancient Waves’ which is heavily reminiscent of America. ‘On Leave’ is even better, being up there with the very best of BJH. It’s a dreamy piece that effectively comprises two parts, conjoining a yearning melodic ballad with a prog rock middle section.
It also represents the best example of the band updating their style, right down to the gently rising mellotron, melodic guitar line and the mesmerising interwoven vocals over dancing synths.
‘The Real Deal’ is a bluesy groove that represents a stylistic departure from the material as a whole but it cleverly anchors the album, as the harmonies glisten and the bass pulsates. More surprising still, is the brass band arrangement of ‘On Top Of The World’, which suggests John Lees really has bought into the conceptual nature of album title.
The closing ‘At The End Of The Day’ also makes a poetic and geographic connection with his native North West, drawing on the moving lyrics of early 20th century northern poet Ammon Wrigley. Both songs contribute hugely original arrangements and fresh ideas that represent the undiminished creative spirit of a band who obviously still have much to give.
There’s a similar sense of adventure and creative spark on title track, represented by the quartet’s intricate playing – there’s a beautiful blend of guitar, keyboards and violin – marvellous harmonies and John’s defining solo.
Imagine a melange of Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonies, Steely Dan sophistication (also to be found on ‘In Wonderland’) and whispered vocals that draw you in. It’s a classic BJH track and probably represents one very good reason why John decided to give things another go.
Given the sporadic nature of its recording ‘North’ doesn’t quite have the same sense of grandeur as classic BJH, but the 9 tracks impress in so many other ways. It’s an album that should lead to a deserved reappraisal of John Lee’s take on Barclay James Harvest and suggests the band’s legacy is not only in safe hands but is set to endure and prosper. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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