15. Uriah Heep

I don’t know anything about this band other than – I suppose – they got their name from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Last post, we heard Aerosmith, who (maybe) took inspiration for their name from Sinclair Lewis. Bands with literary references in their name. It’s a theme. I don’t know who any of the players in Uriah Heep are, and I don’t know any of their songs. A quick web search for “best Uriah Heep album” yielded a few dozen listicles with staggeringly consistent opinions: Demons and Wizards (1972) is their best, with Look At Yourself (1971) always at #2, and The Magician’s Birthday (also 1972) universally in the #3 slot. These records were all made in less than two years, just about 50 years ago. This band still perform and still record, but I guess they really hit a sweet spot in 1971/1972. All righty then. I don’t know if this is southern rock, metal, prog, pop, or hippie-land. Going in totally blind here.

The master: my rule of thumb is that for CDs and all streaming media (in other words, anything in the digital realm) a 1990s master is your best bet more often than not (see my Aerosmith post for more on this). If I’m taking a wild guess, I go 1990s. Although the “big three” Heep albums were remastered and expanded with bonus cuts in 2017, I ignored that and went straight for the older Mercury records release (812 297-2).

As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today (other than choosing an album to hear). The writing is entirely my stream-of-consciousness first impressions, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Uriah Heep
Demons and Wizards (1972)
Version: Mercury 812 297-2

The Wizard
Ok, right off the bat: we’re looking at a Roger Dean cover with a kind of butterfly-wizard guy on it. That and the song titles make me think we’re in for some serious prog here. I can deal with prog sometimes. Rush had their moments, but honestly I like them better when they were a little more concise; Permanent Waves through Signals are my faves. King Crimson are another prog band who I often have time for. But if you look into the early days of this blog, you’ll discover how deeply I loathe Marillion. They’re really a problem.
So: Uriah Heep.
Clean acoustic guitars. Well recorded. Nice and open with a good tonal balance. A little wary of this lyric though. I mean the song is called “The Wizard”, but yeah, they’re literally talking about meeting a wizard… and getting drunk with him. The delay effects on the voice are fun but a little heavy handed; even more so at 0:50; they’re messing with the modulation controls there. Then the song gets a little heavier. It would be effective to duck the acoustic guitars a little and let the electrics come forward a bit. The mix can build better by not leaving the acoustics static. Push the Hammond too. And that synthesizer: it’s playing one sustained note for like 35 seconds or more. Gettin’ some milage out of that one, buddy. Musically I don’t hate this song, but I’m not convinced yet. Big harmonies. And that soprano! Woah. Singing way up there, like his balls are in a vice. Wait, now the song is fading? It’s just getting going. No, this sounds incomplete. The song still had places to go. Well, better to be left wanting more than for it to have worn out its welcome. Needed a better climax though.

Traveler in Time
Boom, this one slams in at full throttle. Distorted guitars, wah-wah guitars, and then it settles into a semi-falsetto vocal. What is this, Sparks? A sci-fi lyric: a traveler in time trying to pay for his crime. This band’s sound doesn’t offend me. The arrangements are ok, the mixing is adequate for its era. We went from wizards to time travelers though. These themes always feel a little juvenile to me. Even if the words are a metaphor for something more grounded, it’s hard to really connect with these sorts of lyrics. Nice extended press roll by the drummer leads into a Clavinet jam mixed with Moog effects and a really fried-sounding guitar. That’s nice stuff. Does it predate Roxy Music’s “Re-make, Re-model”? Similar concept there… and both were recorded in London during March, 1972. Hmmm…. something was in the air (aside from weed). Ah, but this one ends in an odd spot too. This band’s weakness is song writing. They’ve got some fun creative musical ideas, but nothing that sticks.

Easy Livin’
This one also launches right in with maximum velocity, and gallops along at a good clip with dense fuzzy guitars, more nice gritty Hammond, and no room to breathe. Trite lyric, but at least they’re singing about the real world instead of wizards and time travel. Wow, then this falsetto thing again, and – why not – tubular bells. Kinda bonkers. These songs have all been pretty quick for a prog act. This one is in and out in a furious 2:38. Was this the album’s single? That’d be my guess. It’s trite but I don’t hate it. Let’s face it though, lots of music I do listen to regularly and by choice is also lyrically trite.

Poet’s Justice
Big choral effects. Powerful. Enough breaks and surprises to keep things interesting. These guys are good enough players to pull off what they’re trying to do, but not good enough to compete with the real kings of prog. They have an enthusiasm and an intensity to them, a nice sonic palette of sounds, and some level of musical ambition. It’s clear why they’ve been liked enough to hang around for all these years, but it’s also clear why they never really achieved the heights of contemporaries like Yes or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. But at 2:28: we’ve got the parallel 4ths again. This is the third post in a row that we’ve been subjected to this [see The Eagles (post 13) and Aerosmith (post 14)]. And so damned loud in the mix. I really hate that sound. But then: more really dirty Hammond, more ball-crushing sopranos, more guitar wankery, more more Hammond, then more more guitar wankery.

Circle Of Hands
This Hammond again. So crunchy. Great tone there. Then we dive into lyrics that flirt with feel-good hippy shit but narrowly avoid mawkishness. Good, I was really hoping these guys wouldn’t get deep into Marillion territory. They’re oozing in that direction here. But they don’t quite cross the line. Big vocals, big riffs. Harmonies that remind me a bit of Pink Floyd. This song is much longer than any of the others so far, but it does tread water in a few places. Some of the manic intensity of their other stuff is missing here. There’s bits where the Hammond just lays on big blocky whole note chords for a long time, and nothing else happens. Cut that shit. We might say that it leaves itself room to breathe, or we could say that the arrangement needs to be tightened up. The song doesn’t quite earn its 6:27 running time though. You wanna talk about mixing or mastering errors? Those guitar squeals at 4:56, 5:09, 5:22, 5:59 etc. can easily be fixed, including with 1972 technology. They’re painful. Notch-EQ, my lads. The rest of this record seems to have been made with some care (really it sounds better than last post’s Aerosmith album, which presumably had a much bigger budget) but they dropped the ball on making this guitar solo work. For the 2017 remastered version, do we fix those squeals 45 years after the fact (super-easily done, today), or leave them in for purity’s sake? I’m not gonna track down the 2017 version to find out.

Rainbow Demon
Big dark into. This Hammond player really squeezes a lot of mood out of his organ. Oh my, that kinda sounded naughty. Onward. We got the wizard in the album’s first track, and now we have the titular demon. As advertised. There’s a crazy tremolo effect on the backing vocals. Are they singing that way, or running their voices through processing? This one, along with “Circle of Hands” create a longer respite from the intensity of the first few tunes. But these lyrics, ahhh, sorry, they went there. “Rainbow demon, pick up your heart and run. Rainbow demon, looks for his soul and his gun.” Nope, sorry, cheese alert. Is there also a little bit of “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent in here? A little influence in the basic riffs and the mood? That tune came out like two months before “Rainbow Demon” was recorded. I’ll bet Uriah Heep were listening to the Argent record around the time they recorded this.

All My Life
This one is another quick and intense burst, with our vocalist moving abruptly from singing about demons to talking about how much he loves his girlfriend. No comment. A straight up love song wasn’t what I’d been expecting from these guys, and hearing these really straightforward simple lyrics over the band’s standard musical intensity is jarring. They’re in and out in 2:47. These guys are probably also in and out in 2:47 with their girlfriends. “I wanna make love and it’s gonna be you”. Then these big choral “I. Will. Love. You. All. My. Life.” backing vocals while the soprano guy does his thing, then comes back in his normal voice, but stuttering. Stuttering. Yeah, fuck off; there’s nothing wrong with a love song, but this obvious bit of filler sucks a lot of ass.

The Spell
Had to happen. This song is 12:42. It is against the laws of prog rock to not include at least one song this long on all records, and of course if there is only one of them, it’s gotta be the side two closer. This track starts off with the tubular bells again, acoustic guitars, reverberated vocals, and a lilting feel as the guy sings about losing his girlfriend. Easy come, easy go. Well, if he sang the previous song to her, he shouldn’t be surprised that she left. I woulda’ left him too after that limp attempt at a serenade. Maybe if his love lasted longer than 2:47 he wouldn’t have a problem either. We’ve also got to examine the metaphor here: the song about the exuberance of the happy part of the relationship is only a fifth as long as the rather tedious and needlessly protracted song about the subsequent break-up. “Where’s the love we talked about, where’s my sunny sky”. Ack. Fine, they did it, they went Marillion on us. Two voices are alternating lyrics, ping-ponging between the left and right channels. Not sure if it’s the same guy. But it kinda works. Could be gimmicky, but they pull the idea off, even if the lyrics are at the level of an eighth-grader. Then they add the flanger.

Of course.

The flanger.

Used judiciously, a flanger is a wonder to behold. My rule of thumb is that any band, in any style of music, is allotted precisely one huge, epic, full-mix flange per album. More than that becomes cloying, like the little kid who says something funny and then keeps repeating it all damned day. Using it less than that – less than once, that is – is a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to use your one allotted huge, epic, full-mix flange. The band use their one crack at it here, to good effect.
I’m not buying this. At 5:10 the song randomly fades out in the middle of their huge, epic, full-mix flange, and a completely different song fades in mid-stream. It sounds totally random, and it doesn’t work at all. I’ve heard proggers stitch some unrelated ideas together while trying to fabricate an epic out of a bunch of half-baked ideas (er, Pink Floyd, I’m looking at you), but this attempt is epic only in its clumsiness. These guys had been pulling off some interesting sonics and some occasionally surprising musical moments, but this transition is just a wreck. Whatever they were going for is not convincing. At 6:57 a third idea comes in. It is executed a bit more convincingly, and sounds like Heep channeling Floyd again. If their extended album closer is to be a multi-segment suite, then so be it, but they really didn’t assemble this one effectively. A fourth segment brings us back to the story of the wizard, perhaps. Is the spell cast by the wizard in the first song actually the spell of love that is now fading? This narrator is seeming ever-more resolute about this break-up. Finally, at 11:20 we get into something happier sounding, this kind of boogie-woogie thing. “I will leave you now but you won’t defeat me” and “love and truth will follow me, an army of reality brought from every corner of the world” and “let us not begin this fight we cannot win”. So, are the demon and the wizard the battling couple?
Ah, who fuckin’ cares.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
I’m going to go with “Easy Livin'”, in spite of the low-effort lyric.

Meat Loaf, coming December 01, 2021

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