Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sonic Origami: A Uriah Heep Buyer's Guide

Everyone knows Uriah Heep. That is to say, everyone knows "Easy Livin'." From that point you can narrow it down. Damn near everybody knows "Stealin'." Anyone who's left after that point is more or less a diehard fan. With a massive catalogue, lineups that rotated over two dozen musicians through its ranks across four decades and one or two tracks that continued to receive mainstream airplay after the 1970s, Heep can be a formidable beast for the curious music fan. It's worth the effort, though. For fans of classic heavy metal and progressive rock, the works of Uriah Heep are a veritable treasure trove. And what's more, the band remains incredibly active through present day, having released two new - and very good - albums across the last four years.

The easiest way for me to divide Uriah Heep's output is by vocalist and I'll do so chronologically. That said, the one consistent cog in the evolving Heep machine has been guitarist extraordinaire, Mick Box. A man whose accomplishments on the guitar cannot be overstated, I do not think it is hyperbole to say he easily belongs on the same pedestal occupied by icons such as Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi. It is Mick Box's sound, perseverance and unwavering vision that can be credited with one of the most incredible discographies in classic rock:

David Byron - 1970-1976
Considered by most to be the classic Heep vocalist, David Byron performed on some of the band's best - and most commercially successful - material. Heep's debut, Very 'eavy... Very 'umble is infamous for its review in Rolling Stone in which the reviewer threatens suicide if the group succeeds. I'll have to look for her grave sometime as Very 'eavy... Very 'umble is a thick slab from the foundation of heavy metal that should be enjoyed by anyone delving to the genre's roots. Like early Zeppelin, this one is drenched in the blues through a UK hard rock filter. Leadoff track "Gypsy" is the acknowledged gem and rightfully so. It's layered thick with organ, riffs and insane vocal harmonies. The band leaps light years ahead and lands an all-out prog classic with 1971's sophomore Salisbury. Every track works and Salisbury is easily my favorite Uriah Heep record. The epic title track, "Bird of Prey," "Lady in Black" and "Time to Live" are all absolute essentials when building a Uriah Heep playlist. If you're hopelessly undecided on Heep, skip any Best Of or Greatest Hits. Buy Salisbury and, if you love it, get ready to lay out a lot more cash. If you don't care for it, think about giving up on music (and/or look for work with Rolling Stone).

If Salisbury is the jewel in Uriah Heep's prog rock crown, Look at Yourself, also released in '71, is their straight up hard rock masterpiece. The progressive elements (especially that heavy organ) remain throughout but the guitar is absolutely over the top and Byron's vocals rage - and range - intensely here, arguably creating the blueprint for the multi-octave "classic" metal vocal style that would dominate the genre through much of the 1970s and 1980s. "Tears in My Eyes" is insane, recalling and rivaling the heaviest moments of Cream, and "July Morning" as well as the title track are must-hear numbers.

Demons and Wizards and The Magician's Birthday, both from 1972, are probably Uriah Heep's most instantly recognizable records, if for no reason apart from their fantastic Roger Dean cover art. Both are worthy of the "prog rock classic" mantle laid upon them and both find Heep shedding the stage where comparisons to Deep Purple, Cream and other peers persists, firmly having established their own signature, successful sound. These are both definitely essential records, with Demons and Wizards home to Heep's biggest hit, "Easy Livin'," and they also signal the end of stability for the band. The "classic era" lineup of Mick Box, Byron on vocals, Ken Hensley on keyboards and guitars, Gary Thain on bass and Lee Kerslake on drums was well established and would continue through a few more records but, past this point, Heep's discography becomes less consistent, though no less rewarding. I would advise the newer listener to skip ahead to '75's Return to Fantasy (with John Wetton stepping in on bass). True to its title (and fantastic lead-off title track), the record largely jumps back to the ethereal sounds of Salisbury. While nowhere near as solid or consistent as that record, "Return to Fantasy" combined with the eerily gorgeous "Beautiful Dream" make it a must-have. Byron would leave the band after the largely abysmal High and Mighty (though it does offer a great piece of rock and roll in "One Way or Another").

John Lawton - 1977-1978
As much as I revere the contributions of David Byron, John Lawton's brief tenure with the band is still pretty exciting for me. Adventurous heavy metal historians may be familiar with Lawton from his work with Lucifer's Friend, whose eponymous 1970 debut is itself essential listening. Lawton recorded three albums with Uriah Heep, one of which I highly recommend. 1977's Firefly is a refreshing return to basics after the pop experimentation of High and Mighty and also sees the Heep debut of former Spider from Mars, Trevor Bolder, on bass. Sample the spooky album opening narrative, "The Hanging Tree," and see if you can resist. "Sympathy" and "Firefly" close the record strongly, with another hooky rocker and prog classic added to Heep's repertoire. 1977's Innocent Victim and 1978's Fallen Angel comes perilously close to "safe" rock but maintain just enough presence on this side of the line to land a conditional recommendation to check them out only if you absolutely love Firefly.

Mick Box and Uriah Heep shuffled through multiple musicians across the next few years recording one lousy record with John Sloman (Conquest) and three with Peter Goalby (the very good but not essential Abominog as well as the respectable Head First and Equator).

Bernie Shaw - 1986-Present
With the addition of Bernie Shaw, Uriah Heep experienced the most consistent lineup (and easily one of its very best) from 1986 with Box, Shaw, Bolder and Kerslake in place with Phil Lanzon on keyboards. Raging Silence was an uneven debut for this roster but Different World, from 1991, finds them hitting their stride (and benefiting from a hard rock production aesthetic courtesy of Trevor Bolder).  It is 1995's Sea of Light, though, that ushers in for me what I consider to be Heep's renaissance. "Against the Odds" returns us to the degree of majesty associated with vintage Uriah Heep. With the exception of the heavy-handed socially conscious "Universal Wheels," Sea of Light finds Heep at their most rewarding since the early '70s and I consider it just as essential as any of those first works. Sonic Origami provides a solid follow-up though one, admittedly, without too many memorable peaks.

After Sonic Origami, Uriah Heep seemingly retired as a recording unit for nearly a decade. They re-emerged in 2008 with new drummer, Russell Gilbrook, and absolutely astounded listeners with Wake the Sleeper. Hands down one of my favorite records by the band, Wake the Sleeper is jaw-droppingly good and Shaw cements his status as the Heep vocalist. Not to downplay any past incarnation of the band but Wake the Sleeper's personnel are so tight, yet so fluid, that I can no longer imagine anyone else occupying their respective roles. A killer double-disc document of this record on the road, Live in Armenia, was released in 2011 and includes a DVD of the entire show. 2010's superfluous Celebration is a 40th anniversary collection of Heep classics recorded by the current lineup and, while fine, is absolutely unnecessary. The troupe has released a number of "Official Bootleg" live records through E-A-R Music that provide much better representations of how they can stretch out this classic material in a live setting.

Finally, 2011's Into the Wild. It is here, actually, that I also recommend new listeners may start along with Salisbury. For a band to sound this alive, this exciting, four decades into a recording legacy is inspiring. It's refreshing to hear new, quality material that can equal that upon which a great band built their reputation. I was fortunate enough to witness the band play live in support of this record and will never miss an opportunity to see them again. They're that good.

Much of Uriah Heep's discography, from Very 'eavy... Very 'umble through Different World, are available as superb deluxe remasters through Sanctuary Records. Each features a bevy of bonus tracks and utterly fantastic liner notes from Heep historian and Classic Rock contributor Dave Ling.

Recommended Chronology:
Very 'eavy... Very 'umble - 1970
Salisbury - 1971
Look at Yourself - 1971
Demons and Wizards - 1972
The Magician's Birthday - 1972
Return to Fantasy - 1975
Firefly - 1977
Sea of Light - 1995
Wake the Sleeper - 2008
Into the Wild - 2011

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