The latest in the freshly polished Barclay James Harvest series.
Release Date: 27th January 2023
Label: Esoteric Recordings / Cherry Red
The ongoing question of how an album from over fifty years ago sounds today. A bang-up-to-date 5.1 remix (plus the standard remastered stereo mix, new stereo mix…etc ) and the chance for microscopic audiophile comparison with the original and the 1972 SQ Quadrophonic mix. To some of us, a little mind-boggling, when we can simply put on our long-loved LP, play one side and then flip the record over for side two as we always used to. Oh, what it is (or was) to be young!
There’s no doubt that the fresh polish offers the sort of clarity and attention to detail that might make the original versions which have been burned into our brains over half a century appear somewhat cloudy and dulled by comparison. Signs of the times maybe? Always the case when comparing the clarity of digital CDs and the warmth of vinyl – the old debate that sees both formats having their supporters while both thriving in a market that values authenticity over access and convenience.
It’s why we still value such artefacts from BJH and the stables of Cherry Red/Esoteric and associates. Having spent time and effort with a substantial part of the BJH catalogue already, most recently on Time Honoured Ghosts, the current BJH offering finds us heading back in 1971 to the days when BJH was following the lead of the Moody Blues with orchestral arrangements – played by a full orchestra.; none of the patches and digital strings which can be called upon these days. People playing in a room. The furor in later years where Robert John Godfrey took umbrage at his lack of acknowledgment – that’s another story. Indeed, the opening (and continuation…) of She Said is in the Moodies backyard – no wonder BJH eventually succumbed to writing the Poor Man’s Moody Blues in the later Seventies. Anyway…
For a second album, setting up camp at Abbey Road with an orchestra (once again) shows no lack of ambition. Once Again is an album that received some commercial and critical success, and in hindsight, remains a strong contender in the Barclay James Harvest legacy. It’s also an experience that the digital – streaming – Spotifying audiences of 2023 will fail to appreciate in all it’s new sonic glory. How do you get a Quad or 5.1 mix on your laptop? I can’t quite make out the difference between the original and the Quad versions on the desktop Mac, but guess there must be a way of wiring something up. But Once Again wasn’t made for Apple devices. It simply reinforces the fact that our new Once Again is one for an audience who were there or thereabouts and will value, nay cherish, the physical product that comes with a lavishly illustrated booklet with a new essay from Barclay James Harvest experts Keith and Monika Domone (we enjoyed their BJH ‘On Track’ analysis) and a replica of a 1971 promotional poster.
Cue wibbly wobbly lines…while we reassess the album, one notable for the inclusion of a number of landmark BJH tracks in the form of She Said, Galadriel and Mocking Bird – where you can pick out the Moodies inflections/inspirations/comparisons. Indeed, the latter has been deemed both “perhaps THE definitive Barclay James Harvest classic” and “an evergreen Prog Rock anthem” and rightfully so.
However, for an alternative, take up Woolly Wolstenholme’s quivering Happy Old World that might well have come from the pen of Ray Davies; Ball And Chain takes on an unfamiliar moody and bluesy cloak where the spirit of Hendrix or Clapton may be at play while The Lady Loves wallows in a tinge of soft Country Rock. The heavier rock vein is explored a little further in the Too Much On Your Plate bonus track, with even a hint (possibly) of Jimmy Page’s Whole Lotta Love riff and quivering slide guitar. Along with non-orchestral versions – orchestras jettisoned for once – the stripped-back nature of the versions of Galadriel and Mocking Bird are most welcome. Mocking Bird lite if you will.
In addition to the plentiful supply of Once Again’s to enjoy and compare, there is also a rare live performance recorded for BBC Radio One’s John Peel in February 1971. “We start off with the admirable Barclay James Harvest,” deadpans Peel in familiar style before we get She Said and Mocking Bird from Once Again plus Dark Now My Sky from the eponymous first album. It’s a nigh-on half-hour of much more frantic passion – considerably more so than the restrained symphonies on Once Again. A live sound soon to be set in stone on the Live album from a few years down the road. The vocals are raw and throaty and even Mocking Bird loses some of its fragility in the climactic sections. Smooth edges roughened up a tad and the electric guitar lines, dare we say, dirtier.
These new mixes naturally open up the door (give the windows a little wipe if you prefer) to a little more clarity and empathy for the mass of instrumentation. The impression of music from the early Seventies is often of lack of clarity and occasionally separation that results in a muddiness. The old equalizer in your hi-fi separates would have been worth its weight in gold. There’s possibly an argument for getting the album out ready to start on the next stage – they were pumping out the …And Other Stories album in the same year. The time to work up the production has come fity years down the line.
Of the seven bonus tracks dotted about the set, the early version of Mocking Bird from 1970 is actually really nice – perhaps like listening to earlier incarnations of Strawberry Feids Forever – where the orchestration seems gently reined in. There’s also the full version of the unreleased piece White Sails (A Seascape), one considered totally unsuitable for the album at the time. Yep – can understand that with its overblown sweeping arrangements that veers into classical, leaving any resemblance to rock in its wake.
Final answer? Once Again certainly hits the spot in the swathes of glorious progressive rock tropes and sees BJH right in the ring with their progressive peers. Offering a new clarity is well worth a dabble.
Here’s the evergreen Mocking Bird:
Barclay James Harvest: Website
John Lees’ BJH online: Website / Facebook
BJH featuring Les Holroyd online: Website
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