BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: OCTOBERON (1976)
1) The World Goes On; 2) May Day; 3) Ra; 4) Rock'n'Roll Star; 5) Polk Street Rag; 6) Believe In Me; 7) Suicide?
As the band keeps on wobbling between slightly pleasant and slightly tasteless ideas, this somewhat less gimmicky recording from 1976 seems like a bit of an improvement over Time Honoured Ghosts. The title makes little sense — it is a pun on the name of Oberon, making use of the fact that this was to be the band's eighth record; yet there is absolutely nothing «Oberonian» about it other than the album sleeve, as that would surmise either medieval folk or at least colorful psychedelia. But then, we should have already gotten used to BJH's senseless discrepancies between the sleeves and their contents (a curse they do share with many other artists). The important thing is that Octoberon is a little less commercial than its predecessor (maybe by accident, I don't know — it feels a little weird in the overall context of the curve), and takes a little more time and effort to crack open.
The anti-hero of the album is Les Holroyd. On Octoberon, his mind seems fully and completely occupied by orchestrated soft-rock of the mushiest category. ʽThe World Goes Onʼ and ʽBelieve In Meʼ are not entirely devoid of hooks (the former, in particular, is partly redeemed by a cathartic pair of guitar solos), but use tenderness rather than melody as their chief weapon, and Les' high register is just not very interesting or engaging, unless you simply like high registers, period. Even when he goes for something different and contributes a simple moral message about the perils of stardom (ʽRock'n'Roll Starʼ; this time around, it is up to Les, not Lees, to plunder and pillage the classics with a lyrical and musical quotation from the Byrds' ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Starʼ), he does it in such a sleepy, near-frozen manner that I just can't imagine anybody who'd want to be that kind of a rock'n'roll star.
The «art silk» of these numbers is in some ways compensated for by Lees. ʽMay Dayʼ, in particular, is a worthy epic on the subject of ideological confusion, appropriately mixing in a mishmash of musical segments (some short hard rock blasts, some choral vocals, even a bit of ʽIt's A Long Way To Tipperaryʼ) over the primary jangle-folk melody. ʽPolk Street Ragʼ is the heaviest, sleaziest number on the album, reportedly inspired by Linda Lovelace ("Didn't know when I entered / Second seat, second row / It was then that I saw you / But your mouth stole the show" — yikes!) — cringeworthy, I guess, but at least I prefer this over ʽTitlesʼ. Finally, ʽSuicide?ʼ is a funny cop-out to end the album: a song pervaded by vocal and instrumental melancholy, but the question mark in the title and the line "felt the quick push, felt the air rush" in the lyrics eventually leave you in the dark as to whether there has been a suicide. After all, Barclay James Harvest are in no position to negate the value of life — not even Pink Floyd, to whom they are so indebted, went that far. And so the song forges out a bushel of pure sadness, but not depression.
All of which leaves Woolly with just one composition — expectedly, the most far out one out there. Maybe the gentleman was inspired by an Aida performance or a trip to Hurghada, but anyway, ʽRaʼ is an attempt to quickly trace the rise and fall of the great pagan deity over a seven-minute musical journey. One might ask, perhaps, why the musical journey owes all of it to the European tradition (Woolly himself admits that the first notes were directly quoted from Mahler's 1st Symphony — oh no, not Mahler again!) rather than trying to go for a mid-Eastern flavor, but then, heck, one could ask the same of Verdi, I guess. As far as slow, stately, atmospheric multipart epics go, this one passes for a «poor man's Pink Floyd», with a heavy ideological debt to ʽEchoesʼ, yet still manages to hold its own — with heavy help from Lees, who is well willing to get into character and play the role of high priest-axeman.
So, as you can see, Octoberon is highly uneven in quality, but its diversity is appealing — Holroyd pulling the band in the direction of Kenny Loggins, Lees blindly shuffling ideas from his own bag of thoughts and experiences, and Woolly still being able to remind the guys that they started out as a classically-influenced art-rock band. Of their mid-Seventies' albums, this is the one that best illustrates this odd «Steven Stills meets Mahler» melange, and works well on the nerves (if you are not looking for the sharpest of thrills in the art rock department). Consequently, the album deserves its not-too-excited, but honestly-deserved thumbs up.