BJH devotees will be well aware that the background to North is steeped in sadness, since it was conceived quite some years ago as a collaboration between John Lees and his co-pioneer of the band’s epic legacy, Stuart ‘Woolly’ Wolstenholme. When it was shelved, they went about separate endeavours for a while before reconvening with John’s name above the title, but Woolly’s tragic death in 2010 means that the current four-piece are finally unveiling the new work in tribute, not in collaboration, as the first all-new BJH studio recording since 1999’s Nexus.
John Lees' Barclay James Harvest: North
The time-honoured BJH sound finds new voice and momentum.
That’s a powerful enough back story, to which the happy payoff is that the modern-day BJH have delivered an album that respects all of their melodic traditions. Lees is accompanied by co-vocalist and bassist Craig Fletcher, the keyboards and vocals of Jez Smith and drummer Kevin Whitehead, their cohesion confirmed by the fact that all nine new songs are group co-compositions.
To say that they have perfected a gently experimental but warmly familiar sound with its roots firmly in the classic rock era is no criticism. North is planted in the guitar and synth landscapes of the 1970s, but then no BJH fan would want them to travel too far down the contemporary road, and the group are, clearly, respectfully aware of their heritage.
Opening ballad If You Were Here Now, which could almost be a classic American AOR radio favourite, and the even more reflective Ancient Waves is an atmospheric mid-tempo piece with lyrics fuelled by recent global conflict. In Wonderland is an amusing dig at the vacuousness of modern culture that entertainingly lays bare its distaste for today’s prevalent fame-and-attention-at-all-costs ethic. Lees effectively suggests that your world may not end if you switch the phone off and start living.
Strong on harmony throughout, the album gets expansive with the episodic, nine-minute On Leave before switching back to a more mainstream rock structure on The Real Deal. But before you start to picture them too mid-Atlantic, they head back to Lees’ northern roots in the latter stages. On Top Of The World is an affectionate reflection on childhood friendships, with a really English feel evoking brass bands and mining imagery.
Unreservedly Yours is a full-on, strumming love song, before another nod to the north of yesteryear on the nine-minute title track and the closing At The End Of The Day, set to a poem by turn-of-the-20th-century poet Ammon Wrigley. It caps a worthy latter-day addition to the BJH canon.