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.