The Barclay James Harvest reissue series continues with the wonderful Octoberon. Originally released in 1976, Octoberon marks the creative peak of the band. Gone was the sometimes uneven quality and rushed production of their early output. In fact, I find Octoberon to be the band's most fully realized progressive rock album. Though there are a couple of mainstream rock songs, the overall tone exudes the same melancholy that permeates Genesis' Wind and Wuthering or perhaps The Moody Blues' Seventh Sojourn.
Comprised of seven songs as well as copious bonus tracks, Octoberon is possibly the band's darkest release. Many of the songs focus on alienation and the arrangements are skillfully sympathetic to the subject matter. On past albums, BJH would often include an orchestra to pad out the songs and the end result would clearly be detrimental to otherwise excellent material. However, Octoberon is an almost perfect album. The album starts with three of the band's most progressive tracks, all ranging from six to eight minutes. "May Day" is a particularly beautiful piece. It has a medieval flavor, some great lyrics and a nice choral arrangement. One doesn't hear this type of song on the radio these days! Keyboardist Wooly Wolstenholme's sole writing contribution on the album is the haunting "Ra". This symphonic piece just gets better with each listen and it's doom laden atmosphere actually calls Pink Floyd to mind. The rocking tracks include "Polk Street Rag", guitarist John Lees' reaction to the then current sensationalism caused by Linda Lovelace and the porn industry in general. Les Holroyd's "Rock N'Roll Star" is another rock song, with great harmony vocals-a Barclay James Harvest trademark-and an irresistible chorus. The album proper ends with "Suicide?", a John Lees symphonic opus that includes intentionally ambiguous lyrics and a beautiful melody carried by guitar and mellotron. The only criticism I have of this piece, or the entire album, is that the inclusion of two minutes of sound effects to illustrate a man's suicide is much too drawn out and unnecessary. But the song itself is a Barclay James Harvest classic.
The rest of the Polydor remaster includes five bonus tracks, four of them being earlier mixes of songs from Octoberon as well as a version of "Rock N Roll Star" recorded for the Top of the Pops BBC series. One's mileage may vary with these early mixes and most of them are pretty similar to the released versions. The remastered sound is excellent and the booklet contains a splendid essay as well as vintage photos of the band. Octoberon is a Barclay James Harvest masterpiece and a great place for the uninitiated to begin.