Uriah Heep – Celebration

January 01, 1970





Back in
the early-70s, British progressive hard rock band Uriah Heep enjoyed an
unprecedented string of hit albums in the U.S. Beginning with 1972’s Demons & Wizards, and running
through 1973’s The Magician’s Birthday and Sweet Freedom and 1974’s Wonderworld, Uriah Heep albums would
consistently place in the Billboard Top 40. The band’s original musical mix of operatic vocals, bludgeoning
rhythms, Goth-tinged keyboards, and scorching fretwork found an eager audience
among (largely male) teenage ne’er-do-wells even as it was scorned by the
critical intelligentsia in the music press.


With the
benefit of the ensuing years, however, it’s not beyond reason to consider Heep
as important an artistic precursor to heavy metal as Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer,
Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. Singer David Byron’s over-the-top vocal style
would inspire a legion of imitators, from Bruce Dickinson and Ronnie James Dio,
to just about every European power metal band of note through the modern day.
Keyboardist Ken Hensley’s dark riffs and chiming notes would bring the
“prog” edge to the band’s sound, while guitarist Mick Box’s solid-but-spectacular
fretwork would forge the blueprint for bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden
to follow.


By the end
of the decade, however, Uriah Heep had all but fallen apart. Vocalist Byron was
asked to leave in 1977 due to his excessive drinking, while bassist Gary Thain
died of an overdose in 1975. Hensley left in 1978 to pick up on the solo career
that he began with 1973’s Proud Words On
A Dusty Shelf
. Box soldiered on throughout the 1980s and ’90s and well into
the new century as Uriah Heep toured constantly and released scads of new music
– some good, some not so much – with a line-up that has remained pretty much
the same for 25 years. In the process, Mick Box and Uriah Heep managed to
cement their legacy as one of the important heavy metal bands of the era.


recognition of the band’s 40th anniversary in 2009, Uriah Heep released Celebration in England, with the album recently receiving a
belated release in the United
States. A collection of the band’s
“golden oldies,” if you will, Celebration‘s
song selection skews heavily towards the aforementioned early-70s albums that
still represent the high water point of Heep’s extensive catalog. While singer
Bernie Shaw is no David Byron, his vocals are nevertheless perfectly suited for
this sort of lofty hard rock/metal, and his familiarity with the material –
he’s sung many of these songs hundreds of times during his two decades of fronting
Heep – provides an invaluable perspective to the performances.


While the
hardcore Heep fan may question the need for Celebration,
the truth is that the song selection here provides a great mix of beloved songs
like “The Wizard,” “Easy Livin’,” and “Stealin'”
as well as lesser-known Heep gems like “Free ‘n’ Easy” and “July
Morning.” The band delivers the proper amount of bottom-heavy ballast on
tunes like “Bird of Prey” and “Gypsy” while Shaw’s slightly
different vision for “Stealin'” brings a greater gravitas to the
song. Box’s fretwork on “The Wizard” is still amazing, and if this
modern version doesn’t quite have the magic of the original, it still treads
that fine line between folk-fantasy and balls-out rock ‘n’ roll. A new version
of “Free ‘n’ Easy” actually trumps the original (from Innocent Victim), Shaw’s raw, powerful
vox out-manning John Lawton’s more considered efforts as they rise above a
suitable rape-n-pillage soundtrack.


While Mick
Box’s guitar still crunches and devours every note in its path like a
snaggle-toothed predator, and Shaw’s vocals are second only to Byron’s primal
howl in the Heep canon; Phil Lanzon’s keyboards, while adequate, still pale in
dark malevolence to Hensley’s groundbreaking 88-key torture rack. Russell
Gilbrook’s drums are a suitably explosive replacement for retired pyro expert
Lee Kerslake and, coupled with bassist Trevor Bolder’s weapon-of-destruction
approach to the instrument, create a rhythm section that can beat the listener
into submission as brutally as any gang of hard rock/heavy metal punters. As a
result, the modern-day Heep may lag a step or two behind the band’s glory-day
roster, but as shown by Celebration,
they still put the pine to the ol’ cranium when the occasion calls for it.


Standout Tracks: “Easy
Livin’,” “The Wizard,” “Stealin’,” “Free ‘n’
Easy” REV. KEITH A. GORDON       



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