March 1, 2023

Once Again is undoubtedly an essential album in any rock fan’s collection, so this box set is an opportunity for younger rock enthusiasts to discover one of the hidden classics or for seasoned admirers to jump in……once again.

Over recent years Esoteric have been doing a fabulous job of remastering, remixing and issuing comprehensive editions of the back catalogue of Barclay James Harvest. It’s now the turn of Once Again and this is the one that I, and I suspect many fans, have been waiting for. The importance of the album is reflected by the package itself – at four discs, it is the longest in the series so far.  The three CDs and one DVD are housed in a sturdy and elegant slide-out box set. Disc one reproduces the original gatefold vinyl sleeve, and the remaining three disc are also generously in a gatefold format. There’s a lavish booklet and a stylish fold-out poster to complete the bundle. It’s so classy that it’s almost worth buying to grace your collection even if you never listen to the music!

Before delving into the content, let’s recap the context of Once Again for any readers not intimately familiar with it. Once Again was the band’s sophomore album, hence the slightly flippant title. It was released in February 1971 and was part of a run of four albums that the group released on the Harvest label prior to decamping to Polydor and abandoning the more progressive and orchestral elements that characterized those early Harvest releases. The debut album had been a little amateurish and over-ambitious and it was with Once Again that Barclay James Harvest found their feet in terms of the core sound that would stand them in good stead for years to come.

For the French market, Mocking Bird was only the B side of She Said

Looking at the tracks on Once Again, one cannot ignore the elephant in the room: Mocking Bird. This is the one Barclay James Harvest song that just about everybody knows and it is undoubtedly one of the finest and most original examples of symphonic rock ever written. It is a song that is disarmingly simple, slightly trite in its lyrics, and yet always manages to be deeply moving. But Mocking Bird is not the only classic Barclay James Harvest piece here. The opening She Said is all drama and majesty with its heavy use of Mellotron and the beautiful solo on recorder both reminiscent of King Crimson. Similar to She Said but in a more compact form is Song For Dying, where John Lee’s rising guitar theme never fails to thrill. Many songs on Once Again are blessed with wonderful melodies, so even straight forward songs such as the wistful Galadriel or the serene Lady Loves are very enjoyable and memorable. That melodic vein only fails a couple of times: Happy Old World has a pleasant verse, but the chorus dips a little, and the bluesy Ball And Chain is ruined somewhat by the irritating vocal delivery (apparently a paper cup with the bottom pushed out was used to create the distorted voice!). Despite those two glitches, Once Again is a very strong candidate for the best studio album in the Barclay James Harvest catalogue.      

So, returning to the details of the present release, the box set consists of the original album remastered, the remastered version with a new stereo mix, the stereo mix of what was a quadrophonic version of the album from 1973, and finally a 5:1 surround sound mix on DVD, along with 24-bit stereo mix. Enough to keep the most rabid Barclay James Harvest aficionado happy, I believe! All the remixing work has been done by Stephen Tayler who has a long history in record engineering and did recent remixes in the prog field for Marillion and Van Der Graaf Generator. I confess that I sometimes listen to remastered or remixed versions of albums and struggle in the ‘spot the difference’ game. But, listening to this remastering, the difference is evident and quite startling in places. The vocals and synthesizers both come across as warmer and more rounded, and the drums less harsh. Not surprisingly, the orchestral parts of Mocking Bird and Galadriel benefit considerably and are much clearer. There are countless little details that I’d never spotted before that are now clearly audible (for example, the dampened bass notes during the recorder solo in She Said, but you’ll spot many more for sure).

Sadly, album sales didn’t allow them to buy the Rolls Royce

People can be so familiar with the original version of an album that remastering, and especially remixing, however good it is done, can grate. Tayler does a fine and sympathetic remixing job here though, with the only change that sounded questionable to me being the prominence of the percussion in the first part of Mocking Bird. But offsetting that is the thrilling remixing of the faster section of the same song, with the orchestra brought much more to the fore. Note especially the transition to the vocalizing section where the momentum is maintained brilliantly rather than the slight dip in tension that you sense in the original and live versions. Galadriel also benefits from the orchestral parts being raised in the mix, revealing it more as a symphonic companion piece to Mocking Bird rather than just a simple ballad. One excellent addition in the stereo remix is a couple of originally omitted segments of music.  For She Said, the original intention was to begin with a near two-minute dramatic and cacophonous intro (similar to the start of Speed King on Deep Purple In Rock) and that is restored here, extending the song to ten minutes in length. Musically, you could say it doesn’t add that much but once you’ve heard it then the original does seem a little abrupt in its entry. The second addition is in Song For Dying where the final guitar solo and fade-out is longer, again by about two minutes. Again, this is not earth-shattering but helps add a bit of gravitas to this song which always seemed a little on the short side considering its epic nature.  

As usual, we have a good selection of bonus tracks. The three songs that were broadcast live on BBC radio for the John Peel Concert in 1971 are included. She Said and Mocking Bird are showcased from Once Again along with Dark Now My Sky from the debut album. They did actually perform Song For Dying too but presumably time constraints prevented it from being broadcast. Of greater interest were two pieces I hadn’t come across before: Too Much On Your Plate and White Sails (A Seascape). The former is a quite enjoyable bluesy number but it does sound a little rooted in the ‘60s which might be why it was overlooked for release back in 1971. White Sails (A Seascape) is much more substantial at almost twelve minutes and is basically a classical piano concert or rhapsody in the mould of Rachmaninov. It’s an impressive composition but you can see why the record label would have been nervous about including this sort of work on a rock album. Apparently, with White Sails (A Seascape) excluded, the band had to speedily write a new song to replace it, and that turned out to be Ball And Chain. It’s easy to look at things wisely in hindsight but I’m convinced that dropping Ball And Chain and Happy Old World, and leaving a first side of vinyl consisting of White Sails (A Seascape) and She Said, would have been a better bet, creating a much more progressive album.

Once Again sadly didn’t trouble the charts, although consistent sales meant that it did go silver eventually. Despite the lack of commercial success, it was described by Prog magazine in 2020 as one of the fifty most influential albums in the development of Progressive Rock. Once Again is undoubtedly an essential album in any rock fan’s collection, so this box set is an opportunity for younger rock enthusiasts to discover one of the hidden classics or for seasoned admirers to jump in……once again.