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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Turn Of The Tide

BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST: TURN OF THE TIDE (1981)

1) Waiting On The Borderline; 2) How Do You Feel Now?; 3) Back To The Wall; 4) Highway For Fools; 5) Echoes And Shadows; 6) Death Of A City; 7) I'm Like A Train; 8) Doctor Doctor; 9) Life Is For Living; 10) In Memory Of The Martyrs.

This time, the album title is anything but random: this is arguably the most optimistic-sounding record put out by BJH since God knows when, if not ever. Perhaps it had just sunk in how much happier they were without Woolly and his Mahlerisms (not likely), or maybe, like the song ʽHow Do You Feel Now?ʼ, it reflects John's uplifted mood upon the birth of his daughter (a little more likely), or it could be a consequence of the band's surprisingly high commercial success in Europe — in many a well-known case, all it takes is to start making a little money on artistic depression to make artistic depression go away. But this is all guesswork, and the plain fact is that most of these songs (with the deceptive exception of the opening lost-love-style number) stick together as a consciously designed, and sincere-sounding, ode-to-joy.

More importantly for long-time followers, Turn Of The Tide is also the first BJH album to be almost completely keyboard-dominated: in addition to Kevin McAlea, new guest member Colin Browne also adds his support on numerous instruments, including synthesizers — and guitars are all but relegated to either, sometimes, providing a wimpy acoustic foundation, or, even more rare­ly, squeezing out a hard-rocking solo or two, just to remind us that John Lees can still play guitar and remember what a lead melody is. So, from a purely technical point of view, one could try and argue that this is the band's first «synth-pop» album — except that, from a deeper point of view, «synth-pop» also requires a shift of approach to melody as such, and in this respect, BJH remain staunch traditionalists ("that kind of rock don't appeal", grunts Lees on ʽHighway For Foolsʼ be­fore engaging in one of those ass-kicking rock'n'roll solos with wah-wah a-plenty).

Surprisingly, though, it's all neither as boring nor as tasteless as could be expected. The band pays a little more attention to the hooks — a little too much attention, in fact, with obsessive repe­ti­ti­ve­ness as a key factor in their memorability — and carefully avoids falling into the trap of mistaken identity (e. g. posturing as disco kings or «New Romantics»). Instead, they just focus on their old-school, «Beatlesque» idealism, dress it up in trendy (but not too trendy) new (but not too new) sounds, give it a bit of punch, and voilà, something listenable is born.

As usual, I could very easily do without the sappier Holroyd parts. His high point here is pro­ba­bly ʽI'm Like A Trainʼ — not coincidentally, the least catchy of his songs, but the one that grows the most, with an almost surprisingly complex vocal arrangement, coming in cadences and cas­cades that are normally associated with The Beach Boys; the whole thing ends with a series of accappella harmonies that were earlier reserved for the likes of Smile. It's not tremendously great in all its derivativeness, but a fair try nonetheless — which I couldn't say about the rather idiotic Caribbean-styled ʽLife Is For Livingʼ, written with ritualistic arena audiences in mind (it is all based on exactly one endlessly repeating musical phrase), or about ʽEchoes And Shadowsʼ, also minimalistic to the point of stupidity (and it doesn't help, either, that they are selecting some very yucky, long since outdated synth tones for both).

Lees, however, is in better form, and a more variegated one: he contributes a sentimental, but clear­ly heartfelt ballad (ʽHow Do You Feel Now?ʼ, delivered in a vocal style midway between Jeff Lynne and George Harrison), a couple of glossy, but crunchy pop-rockers with a hard edge (the instrumental sections of ʽHighway For Foolsʼ are the only corner of this record where a heavy rock fan could find some refuge), a dumb post-disco dance number (ʽDoctor Doctorʼ) that should probably count as the most «modernistic» song on the album (when applied to a band like BJH and a year like 1981, this does not promise any bliss, though), and the obligatory closing anthem — ʽIn Memory Of The Martyrsʼ, where «the martyrs» explicitly refers to those who perished while trying to cross over the Berlin wall. Naturally, that last song would have been a success in Germany even if it were melodically horrible, which it is not: as far as anthemic acous­tic ballads with a singalong chorus and a sophisticated touch (symbolized by moody fusion-style synth solos) are concerned, it is simply overlong, but at least the punchline — "we are love, we are, we are love" is delivered without pathos, and that is laudable.

Altogether, for an «uplifting» record (and in art rock, good or bad, convincingly «uplifting» re­cords are a relative rarity — usually reserved for the likes of Yes), Turn Of The Tide is not at all disgusting, and occasionally entertaining. This is not sufficient grounds for a thumbs up, but it does show that Barclay James Harvest did not enter the Eighties completely empty-handed; like most of their art-rock contemporaries, they still had something to say at that point, or at least it could have seemed that way. They left the Eighties quite empty-handed, to be sure, but in that, too, they were quite far from being alone.

Check "Turn Of The Tide" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Turn Of The Tide" (MP3) on Amazon

2 comments:

  1. Melodrama and cheese adorned with wall of soaring keyboard sounds - yes, this is the definite BJH album to own. And I mean it, without irony. Their early albums are pretty nondescript to me, their mid albums suffer from "poor man's this-or-that", and they finally somehow arrived to this being, ahem, original.

    I must admit liking "Life is for Living" - it's like a children song with a nice, catchy and simple moral. And I really prefer "In Memory Of The Martyrs" anytime over "Hymn" or "Berlin".

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  2. Very nice album. Shows that Barclay James Harvest could master the synth layered pop sound as well. I can't think of any other prog band who ever did.

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