BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: EYES OF THE UNIVERSE (1979)
1) Love On The Line; 2) Alright Down Get Boogie; 3) The Song (They Love To Sing); 4) Skin Flicks; 5) Sperratus; 6) Rock'n'Roll Lady; 7) Capricorn; 8) Play To The World.
Woolly's departure did not make much of an actual difference — his regular «one track per album» quota (occasionally graciously increased to two) seemed to uninspire him to the point of not really giving a damn, and, with the possible exception of Octoberon, most of his songs recorded in the «silver age» of BJH were not the major highlights of those albums. His keyboards may certainly be missed, but the new guest player Kevin McAlea, drafted in mid-session when it became clear that Lees and Holroyd were unable to properly compensate without a separate keyboardist, does a fine job both filling in for Woolly's «old-school artsy» style and propelling the band into the electronic age — ʽLove On The Lineʼ opens the record with a gruff synth loop in a Kraftwerk fashion. Would Woolly have wanted that? Would Mahler have wanted that, for that matter? Isn't this transition a bit too straightforward?
Then again, who cares. Eyes Of The Universe sold exceedingly well in continental Europe, furthering BJH's reputation in Germany and other neighboring countries, but in retrospect, the only thing that makes it different is a bit of homage to contemporary musical styles. ʽAlright Down Get Boogieʼ, for instance, is a disco-rocker, supposedly tongue-in-cheek, given the unhidden sarcasm in Lees' lyrics — but if you do not consult the lyrics, it is quite easy to take the "lights, boogie, lights, get down boogie alright" chorus of the song for serious, and the more seriously one takes this song, the more stupid it ends up.
ʽLove On The Lineʼ, apart from its electronic loops, also makes room for a disco bassline; and ʽThe Song (They Love To Sing)ʼ is a completely synth-dominated rhythmic ballad that makes ABBA sound like tough hard-rockers in comparison. Sequenced together and placed at the top, these three songs really create a strong impression that Eyes Of The Universe is the beginning of something radically new for Barclay James Harvest — a third period, in which the gates are finally opened for the onslaught of disco, New Wave, synth-pop, electronics, and all kinds of fresh new ideas used in predictably bad ways. As if it were only the presence of Woolly that hindered Lees and Holroyd from finalizing the bill of sale.
However, once we are past the opening three, the remainder of the album is much more traditional. ʽSkin Flicksʼ is an acoustic-based, orchestrated, anthemic ballad about how glitz, glamour, and easy money separated the protagonist from his loved one, continuing Lees' ongoing and slightly suspicious fascination with «adult-oriented» themes. ʽSperratusʼ wobbles from tragic introspective ballad to agitated pop-rock chorus and back, before launching into a spirited, but somewhat cartoonish guitar duo battle à la Thin Lizzy. ʽRock'n'Roll Ladyʼ is one of those many late-Seventies songs that have a subversive mention of "rock'n'roll" in the title, but are really targeted at nightclub audiences, with their stiff, glitzy, dancebeat-oriented atmosphere. And the last two songs are traditionally «wall-of-soundish», but completely non-descript — ʽPlay To The Worldʼ, in particular, might be the most boring, uninventive, one-finger-on-a-piano epic ballad that ever served as a coda to a BJH album.
I suppose that it must have been the double-punch of the silly disco send-up and the achingly boring seven minute epic at the end that made me, at one time, think of Eyes Of The Universe as one of the worst efforts from an «art» band in the 1970s, and rate it as 1 star out of 5. In all fairness, it is not that bad — with a few exceptions, BJH do not have to sacrifice much of their usual melodic talent to keep up with the times. At the very least, it is about as consistent as XII, and should be rated modestly high by everyone who generally favors the «poor man's Moody Blues» vibe. Still, for old times' sake, I award it a thumbs down, if only because I still cannot stand ʽPlay To The Worldʼ and everything it represents — pretentious sentimental pomp without any genuine dynamics whatsoever. Leave it to the mighty state of Germany to disagree — they are all wusses anyway. Imagine making a national hero of Les Holroyd instead of Lou Reed.
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