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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Ring Of Changes

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: RING OF CHANGES (1983)

1) Fifties' Child; 2) Looking From The Outside; 3) Teenage Heart; 4) High Wire; 5) Midnight Drug; 6) Waiting For The Right Time; 7) Just A Day Away; 8) Paraiso Dos Cavalos; 9) Ring Of Changes.

There is practically nothing that could be called «synth-pop» on this album, but neither is there anything that would even remotely qualify for a «rock» sound. Acoustic guitars, keyboards, and orchestration fully dominate the proceedings: Ring Of Changes is Barclay's mellowest album since the very beginning, and that says a lot, considering how mellow they had been since 1974. In a way, this is even curious, because the record goes against the grain: in 1983, «mellow» usu­ally meant stuffing your songs with bland synthesizer tones that reached all the way to heaven, not placing your trust in old-fashioned cellos and violins.

Much of the credit for this must proba­bly go to the band's new producer, Pip Williams, who was previously mostly known for produ­cing a long bunch of Status Quo records — but who also helped relaunch the comeback of The Moody Blues. And, supposedly, once he had helped the «rich man's Moody Blues» get back on their creative feet with Long Distance Voyager and The Present (the only two of their Eighties' records that could at least partially match the quality of the old days), it must have been only natural for him to go across and try and do the same thing with the «poor man's Moody Blues».

The beginning is weirdly promising: a baroque chamber music passage instead of the expected synthesizers. Midway through, the strings turn Hollywoodish, though, and then sink into the background as ʽFifties' Childʼ finally takes shape as a typical BJH number: soft, romantic, thinly intellectual, mildly nostalgic, just a teeny bit touching while it's on, and completely forgettable when it's off. The vocal melody in some respects seems like a variation on the already not-too-awesome ʽHymnʼ — and the message is of comparable profundity: ʽLove was a lesson we tried to learn / There were no exams to pass or failʼ. With each passing year, as nostalgic tributes to Sixties' idealism keep multiplying and, consequently, depreciating in net value, there is less and less motivation to be interested in this one.

But you know what? Easily the best thing about ʽFifties' Childʼ is its bassline — all of a sudden, Holroyd's lines start drawing more attention to themselves than whatever Lees is doing, because the guy suddenly gets the urge to make them as melodic and expressive as possible. Maybe he had some serious Sgt. Pepper inhalation or something, but the way he explores all possible swerves from the basic rhythm is really the only thing that prevents me from falling asleep to Lees' soft preaching. And later on, it turns out that this is not an exception: about half of the songs here have excellent basswork: ʽHigh Wireʼ, ʽJust A Day Awayʼ, ʽMidnight Drugʼ... we probably have Pip Williams to thank for putting these parts so high in the mix, but, whatever be the situa­tion, Ring Of Changes is the first album in the BJH catalog that made me aware of Holroyd's above-average talents as bass player.

Holroyd is also responsible for the most memorable, if also most repetitive and unadventurous, bass phrase on the album — the pulsating loop that drives the title track, which is itself an anthem to the endless cycle of life, going on for way too long (unless the underlying message is that the endless cycle of life is a continuous bore, which would be at least worth considering) but cleverly arranged, with the bass loop, the grumbling electronic bleeps, and the strange Eastern-vibe strings combining in a unique manner. The bass loop and the bleeps might illustrate the relentless cogs of life locked in an endless grind, but the psychedelic strings?.. Makes one wonder.

As for the rest of the songs, they're okay — on the whole, less satisfactory than Turn Of The Tide because of the lack of a rock sound (not a single uplifting Lees solo!), but, as usual, melodic and somewhat memorable for those who will stand several listens. Occasionally, they do begin to sound like late period Bee Gees (ʽWaiting For The Right Timeʼ — strange that Les held back on singing this one in falsetto, all the other adult contemporary ingredients already present), but on the whole, the 1970s folk-pop vibe is still prevalent, and as long as they manage to hold out against mainstream Eighties' values, BJH are still a listenable outfit.

One last particular mention: the orchestration on ʽParaiso Dos Cavalosʼ, John's hyper-sentimental ode to a horseback vacation in Portugal, is absolutely marvelous — formulaic and a little cheesy, perhaps, but the New World Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Katz, gives the song a far more uplifting and grandiose flavor than its main melody. Probably an accident — on the whole, the orchestral arrangements on the album are not too adventurous — but every happy ac­cident on a late period BJH album counts, because that's what a typical late period BJH album usually is: mush and mediocrity with an occasional tasty treat for the seeker.

Check "Ring Of Changes" (CD) on Amazon

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