The debut self-titled release from Barclay James Harvest ranks as one of the finest albums of the early prog era, yet has remained an unsung classic outside of their loyal following. Trailing the psychedelic frenzy of the late 60’s and aiming toward a pop grandeur blended with the rock underground, the post flower power grooves have now been remixed in surround for the first time. Available as a limited edition 3 CD and 1 DVD edition from Esoteric Records, high resolution enthusiasts will find an all new 96kHz / 24-bit DTS 5.1 and AC3 5.1 mix, along with a LPCM 96kHz / 24-bit new stereo mix plus a remaster from the original stereo masters.
Produced by Norman Smith, who also is famed for his work with Pink Floyd, their debut release was dominated by the epic 12-minute “Dark Now My Sky.” But, other symphonic progressive tracks including “The Iron Maiden,” “When the World Was Woken,” along with the more rock based tracks such as “Taking Some Time On” and “Good Love Child” established BJH as one of Britain's most unique groups. The expanded reissue reviewed here is newly re-mastered from the original master tapes and contains an additional 33 bonus tracks drawn from the new 5.1 surround sound & stereo mixes created from the original multi-track master tapes, plus some 1968 and 1971 BBC radio sessions, their singles “Early Morning, Brother Thrush” and “Taking Some Time On,” plus a previously hard to find Woolly Wolstenholme solo demo from 1969 of “The Sun Will Never Shine.” The DVD also includes the 1968 short film “Mr. Sunshine,” and the box includes posters, photo book, and plenty more for fans to sift through.
Unlike their previous deluxe reissues, this 1970 album has been elevated to super deluxe status simply by virtue of the packaging and all of the goodies found inside. Housed in a heavy weight 10” x 10” box, collectors will find nuggets including promo photos and letters, plus concert posters and pamphlets, along with a detailed book with plenty of pictures and of course the music. It is a really excellent package, although it doesn’t fit with the previous releases at all, or with anything else in my deluxe box collection for that matter.
All of that aside, it is the music we are here for, so let us first get the two different multi-channel codecs out of the way. While there is a distinct difference between the AC3 and DTS layers, the good news is the AC3 codec is very passable for listeners who for whatever reason can’t decode the DTS 96/24 layer. This review is based on the DTS codec which offers greater detail, adding greater dynamics and a noticeably more vibrant top end.
Thankfully while the 5.1 mix doesn’t suffer from the issues found on the Octoberon surround release I reviewed in the summer of 2017, it does tend to be focused more on the front channels than I expected. This is somewhat surprising, given the depth of the many parts, yet I surmise this was an artistic mixing choice that still creates a good depth while grounding the listeners focus up front.
The churning and riffing opening “Taking Some Time On” merely offers ambience in the back channels, from my perspective a missed opportunity to move either the guitars or strings away from the fronts. Digging in, some of the subsequent tracks exhibit a higher level of reflections and embellishment’s that lean toward a true surroundscape. Throughout the album I easily heard the grit and tingle of John Lees’s guitars, along with distinctly isolated lead vocals permeating from the center channel. I was pleased with the overall clarity which makes sense for an album recorded at the famed Abbey Road studios on just two 8 track machines by engineer Phil McDonald who has been associated with the Beatles. I continue to be delighted with how clean the overall mix actually is, allowing for a very wide soundstage and transparent quality.
Orchestration raises the bar on “When the World Was Woken” as it swells from the rears filling the room with the progressive edge for which Barclay James Harvest is known. The split of Les Holroyd’s bass into the subs deeply resonates while Mel Pritchard’s drums clock out the time between the front left and right channels. Vocals stretch out across the room reverberating in the back channels all while maintaining a very distinct clarity up front.
Considered one of the finest albums of the early progressive hay-day, it is often keyboardist Woolly Wolstenholme who is cited as the genius behind these compositions that took the young lads a year to create. Certainly the spellbinding 12-minute closing piece “Dark Now My Sky” exemplifies the groups compositional mastery and has been enhanced when with this all new 5.1 mix.
While the album ends with the seventh track, an additional three bonus tracks have been mixed into surround, which is a wonderful addition to this set, giving modern day fans an even more complete edition. For stereophiles, the new 2018 mixes carry the feel of the surround mixes, although flattened to the front channels. However, for purists, all of the new mixes are a definite new aural palate, which you may find you end up preferring. Significant changes to reverb that lies under the lead vocals is most evident, but also noticeable level changes to guitars and strings can be heard throughout the disc. When remixes are done these subtle changes are not uncommon, but they feel more pronounced between the original and new mix for this classic self-titled release from Barclay James Harvest.
The three compact discs contain the original mix and bonus tracks on disc 1, the new mix of the entire album and bonus tracks on disc 2, and several songs recorded at various BBC sessions. Disc three most likely contains material of interest to BJH fans, along with the many extras on the first disc.
This super deluxe box set is best suited for completists and serious BJH fans. Surround enthusiasts will likely be disappointed with the front centric mix, but are recommended to consider this if they also collect hi-res stereo mixes. Progressive rock fans who don’t need the surround nor hi-res stereo layers may wish to consider an alternate version of this fantastic release. All in all, it is a very good buy for those who, like myself, enjoy BJH and high-resolution music.