If a band plays its cards right, it can build an impressive career off of cult popularity. Consider the case of Barclay James Harvest. Never a critical darling – they were famously dubbed “the poor man’s Moody Blues” by their detractors, an epithet they’d later use as the title of one of their classic songs – they still managed to build an international fanbase by taking care of the music-biz basics: they recorded a lot, they toured a lot and they put all their artistic energy into making well-crafted, accessible music.
In the case of Barclay James Harvest, their approach was a synthesis of progressive rock grandeur and psych-pop melodic prettiness. Their self-titled debut is often shrugged off by hardcore prog fans for not having enough pomp-tastic flourishes: indeed, it frequently sounds like a well-observed combination of several psychedelic pop rock specialists, namely the aforementioned Moody Blues, Procol Harum and perhaps a bit of Odessa-era Bee Gees. It wears its influences on its sleeve in a way that ensures rock critics would never take it seriously.
However, if you don’t judge an album solely by its originality, there is plenty to be enjoyed on Barclay James Harvest. For starters, the group makes up for the pronounced amount of stylistic borrowing with a very well-honed sense of psychedelic songcraft in its many flavors. Whether they are doing a rocker like “Taking Some Time Out,” a folk-tinged ballad like “Mother Dear” or an epic production piece like Dark Now My Sky,” the group is able to deliver each style in confident and thoughtfully-arranged manner.
On the down side, the lyrics are as twee as you might expect from a psychedelic record and the vocals are a bit reedy in spots but this is not the kind of album you listen to for those kind of things. It’s all about the kind of sweet, wide-eyed mood and boundless instrumental grandeur that defines the most appealing psychedelic music from this era. For example, a song like “The Sun Will Never Shine” is simply an artsy expression of the blues that come with a cloudy day but the arrangement, particularly the soaring harmonies and thick layers of mellotron, convey the song’s operatic sense of longing and poetic extremes beautifully.
It also helps that the band is excellent at performing the orchestral flavor of psych that their music favors. There is a consistency to their performing style that unifies the songs’ varied styles: keyboards – particularly mellotron and piano – are the main core, with guitars to add bite or soaring melodic touches in the appropriate spots and the rhythm section moving it all forward in a driving yet unobtrusive manner that keeps it all grounded. The band is careful to balance these moods and follow one type of song with a different kind, ensuring the album has a sense of variety that keeps it engaging from cut to cut.
The final important element here is the production, which was handled by cult psych-music hero Norman Smith. Barclay James Harvest has a sound that mixes the heavy and the fanciful in the same way Smith did for the Pretty Things on S.F. Sorrow and Parachute. It’s a really strong and atmospheric late-1960’s sound, with the mellotron swooping and soaring, the guitars buzzing and the drum and bass sounds having a thick, weighty quality that gives the recording a real stick-to-your-ears quality. If you go for this sort of sound, Smith’s production works hand in hand with the band’s arrangement skills to deliver the psych-sound mother lode.
In short, Barclay James Harvest is a solid debut and a pleasant period piece that retains its value thanks to the band’s savvy investment in melodic craftsmanship. They would soon refine their approach to tackle more distinctive musical territory but the pleasant pre-prog buzz they deliver here is worth revisiting, particularly if you’re a fan of psychedelic sounds.