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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Barclay James Harvest: Caught In The Light


1) Who Do We Think We Are; 2) Knoydart; 3) Copii Romania; 4) Back To Earth; 5) Cold War; 6) Forever Yester­day; 7) The Great Unknown; 8) Spud-U-Like; 9) Silver Wings; 10) Once More; 11) A Matter Of Time; 12) Ballad Of Denshaw Mill.

Apparently, browsing the Web reveals that a small bunch of fans continues to regard this album as a «comeback» of sorts — some call it BJH's most «progressive» effort since the late 1970s. But only a very strong love for the art of John Lees and Les Holroyd, leading to malicious self-delusion, could trick anyone into mistaking this vapid, turgid, somnambulant pile of sonic mush for an artistic comeback. The way I see it, Caught In The Light simply scales another peak in turning the band into a bland adult contemporary act — and this time, their act lasts all of sixty minutes, letting you savour each whiff of that blandness for minutes on end.

Maybe Barclay James Harvest were never a first-rate art-rock band, and maybe their devolution was slow, subtle, and treacherous, but it actually makes sense to think back twenty-three years and compare their first (and, in my opinion, best) album with this piece of junk. Think, let's say, ʽTaking Some Time Onʼ, a song that seriously and amusingly mined the psychedelic rock mines, and ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ, a song about... well, basically, this is John Lees complaining about Gameboy and «Mega drives» squishing out the rock'n'roll spirit, get it? "Don't want a Gameboy, just rock and roll... Don't want a system that ain't got no soul", Mr. Lees complains over a backdrop of electronic drums and synthesizers that is, altogether, more «Modern Talking» than anything even remotely approaching ʽrock'n'rollʼ. In a long, long story of one stylistic embarrassment after ano­ther, ʽSpud-U-Likeʼ just might be the lucky one to take first prize.

Subtler, but even more embarrassing, is ʽOnce Moreʼ. If you already know your BJH well enough, you might, perhaps, suspect that the title really means «let us re-record an old song», and indeed, this is a re-write of ʽMockingbirdʼ, lock, stock and barrel, only with synthesizers replacing strings — Lees does let go with some frenetic soloing towards the end, but this does not save the ridi­culous monster, it only raises further questions, such as, if this guy's only remaining talent is to squeeze out beautiful lead sequences from his guitar, why does he do this on one or two songs per album, and lets generic synthesizer parts rule with an iron fist over the rest of it?

But wait, there is more. ʽBallad Of Denshaw Millʼ is a nine-minute track that is almost complete­ly — barring the noisy intro and the small solo of the outro — ruled by a keyboard «melody» that requires the compositional skills of a 6-year old after his second piano lesson. «Based on a Saddleworth legend», apparently, but who gives a damn? In a world populated by miriads of at­mospheric epics, this one does not even begin to qualify. ʽForever Yesterdayʼ took me a few lis­tens to understand its source, but then the title ultimately helped out — of course, the verse me­lody is but a slight variation on Dylan's ʽForever Youngʼ, with the first line completely the same and the rest deviating by split hairs. And if I were offered to cherish the memory of my departed father with a corny synth ballad like ʽBack To Earthʼ, I know I would quite certainly be offended. (And I can certainly understand this grief, but did those lyrics really need to sound like a rhyth­mic rearrangement of a schematic memorial service?).

And now for the big one — all of the songs mentioned above are Lees songs. You can try to imagine what the Holroyd songs are like — better still, don't even try, because it is fairly hard for a mind not thoroughly accustomed to sentimentally synthesized adult contemporary to imagine such a copious amount of pathetic triviality all at once. Each of these songs must have been com­posed in about three minutes' time, then took about three years of huffing, puffing, and convin­cing oneself that this is one of the most serious, profound, heartfelt songs ever written. Then they go in, play the required three notes on the rhythm synthesizer and the required one note on the «lead» synthesizer and go out.

All in all — my hearty congratulations: after Welcome To The Show, it seemed that they could already sink no further, but Caught In The Light successfully conquers an extra five or ten feet of depth (we are talking sewer territory here, of course). Then again, for justice sake, it should be remembered that this is just my irate personal opinion, and there are alternate ones, for instance, such as «in the age of trivial grunge, these brave people returned with their deepest, most intro­spective album in more than a decade!» So take this next thumbs down with a grain of salt — especially if you have a habit of, for instance, thinking of Chris de Burgh in terms of «depth», «introspection», and «progressiveness».


  1. From what I've read, "Spud-U-Like" suggests a Devo deconstruction, given the similarity in title to one of their best songs, "Girl U Want."

    1. Oh, and potato references. Lots of 'em. Fortunately, there seems to be no record of John Lees dressed in a Devo outfit.

  2. One thing, though- that album cover's gorgeous.

    1. Well, if you like this SF style... Isn't it highly reminiscent of Roger Dean's "classical" (for prog-lovers) output in the 70s? Although it seems the artist here, Rodney Matthews, usually draws his inspiration from Fantasy, rather than SF.

      Anyway... I was also flabbergasted to see the title "Copii Romania" listed for this album. 1) This is not correct romanian, one should say "Copiii României" or maybe "Copiii din România" (note the triple 'i'). 2) I had the unfortunate curiosity to go and check the lyrics, and they're just awful; "copious amount of pathetic triviality" indeed. 3) What were they thinking, trying to expand their rule in Eastern Europe? (East) Germany was not enough for them?


    2. I don't see any resemblance to Roger Dean here. It seems to me that someone ripped off the cover art from some 1950's era pulp sci-fi paperback and slapped it onto the latest BJH abomination. It looks tacky, ephemeral, and cheap: in other words, perfect cover art for Britain's Very Worst "Rock" Band of the 1970's.

  3. George, would you say this is their "Calling All Stations"? I haven't heard either record -- I own CAS through the remastered Genesis box sets, but have been too wary to touch it. I did hear the title track, though, and I really don't have much of an opinion: good or bad. It just sits there, grey and impenetrable.

    My BJH collection ends at 1974. This album sounds like it doesn't elicit as much hate from you.