Thursday, June 2, 2011

Uriah Heep - Into The Wild - Album Review

Uriah Heep's 23rd studio album is the best record the band has released since the days of David Byron and Ken Hensley. Maybe it's even the best record in the band's 41 year history. I can state without hesitation that if this album had seen its release soon after Byron was fired in 1976, the story of the Heep would have been one closer to the legacy of AC/DC. To replace a singer as identifiable as Byron is a tough task, and only AC/DC comes to mind as an example of a band that ever successfully pulled it off.

Into The Wild is a very, very good album. It stands on its own without condition, regardless of when it saw its release. The title tune begins with the Hammond organ tone you always want to hear from a classic British rock band, and the heavily overdriven intro is kicked into gear in fine fashion by stalwart guitarist Mick Box, drummer Russell Gilbrook, and bassist extraordinaire Trevor Bolder. Cool harmonies, a singable chorus, and lead vocalist Bernie Shaw make this a memorable song, not just something attached to a great riff. This is too energetic, too melodic, and too exciting to be coming from a band that's been on the boards for 40 years, but fact is, it is all of this.

Mick Box has been the driving force of Uriah Heep since every guitar player in America went out and bought a Foxx Fuzz/Wah to emulate his tones on such hits as Easy Living, and Stealer. All credit to Box that he never falls back on the easy money and tries to replicate these past glories. Instead, he focuses on crafting well played rock and roll riffs, choosing to explore newer ground, as opposed to plodding through familiar paths. His aggression, fiery attack, and sharp edged tones belie the years, and almost make one blush in their sheer audacity and passion.

I'm Ready is a great example of Box's take on Uriah Heep, 2011. His tone is familiar, yet it's a new tune, and his soloing sounds like the guy who played those old hits, then spent the next 30 years working on his craft, and is continuing to grow. Surrounded by the massive tones provided by keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and the explosive drumming of Gilbrook, Box comes through shining. The tune sounds warmly familiar to any longtime Heep fan, but only in style and tone.

Bernie Shaw has now been fronting Uriah Heep for 25 years. However, he's still seen in the Americas as the new kid. He's kept the band moving forward for decades, and he's made the band his own. His singing has gotten better over the years, a relative rarity amongst aging hard rockers, and even more of a rarity is the fact that his writing has continued to improve - to the point at which every song on this album is a proud addition to the legacy of this long underrated group.

Uriah Heep's stock in trade has always been the keyboard and vocal driven madrigal. Here, Trail of Diamonds takes its place alongside such heralded songs as Sunrise, and July Morning, when suddenly Mick Box tears off a volley of notes that are as Ozzy as anything, before taking the tune down a rockier trail that guarantees a smile from any fan of David Byron. Byron's work was often great, and the band does his memory justice in a manner that surely has David smiling down upon them. This tune is a Heep classic, and maybe even better than its predecessors. The vocals, and melody are truly astounding, and I smile to think of the joy this must bring to the entire band.

Trevor Bolder is best known as the mutton-chopped bassist from David Bowie's Spiders From Mars. He should be better known, as he is  amongst a handful of rock bassists that I consider to be the best in the world. His playing is never less than stellar - his choices are always wonderful, his tone perfect, and he is constantly pushing the envelope with great notes, runs, and fills. After 40 years of stellar service, Bolder is still pushing, never resting on his laurels, or mailing it in. He also contributes a great lead vocal on his tune, Trail of Diamonds.  On every cut, his playing is a jewel. If this was the only place you had to study, you could walk away being a fine bassist.

Nail On The Head starts the album, and if there were still such things, this would be the single. It's very immediate, a straight ahead rocker that if I had to qualify, I'd say it sounds like Billy Squier writing for Deep Purple circa Perfect Strangers, a very cool swagger going on. Again, Mick Box is soloing like man half his age, and shaming most of the fodder that makes up modern rock radio along the way.

Strong choruses are in abundance, and nothing here is more appealing than the unexpected twist of the tale that takes I Can See You, into the land of milk and honey -  as gorgeous a refrain as I've heard in too many years. Excellent writing that is once again familiar, but new.

Keyboardist Phil Lanzon signed up in 1986, and has since been a huge component of the Heep sound. His organ playing is never buried, it's always thrusting aggressively into every mix on the album. He sounds like he's ingested every riff Jon Lord ever laid down, and put his own spin on them along the way. Uriah Heep always featured the Hammond pretty prominently, but Lanzon ratchets it up a good deal, and it is often the main rhythm instrument, allowing Mick Box to play more colorfully. This results in some very exciting verses and fills throughout. Lanzon, like Bolder is a player who is right at the top of his field, yet gets not nearly the attention he deserves.

Ensemble vocals have always been a large factor in the Heep DNA, and they've certainly taken their time here to create a consistently interesting and compelling blend on most every song on Into The Wild. Southern Star is a great sample of the boys doing what great British rock bands have done better than anyone else since the mid '60s.

Fans of melodic AOR will love Believe - I hope the new Journey record can keep up with this platter. If so, 2011 will be the most exciting year for new material in some time. Stylistically every song sounds like it comes from the Heep factory - forged of solid steel, with a large dose of rock and roll heart. The tune is another grand sample of the finest this genre has to offer. It features a huge dollop of wah encrusted licks from the guitar of Mr. Box.

Fear not, Mrs. Gilbrook, I've not forgotten your son. There is no greater angel in the world of rock and roll than a mother whose love allows her son the time and tribulations it takes to become a great drummer. Russell Gilbrook fills huge shoes when he steps into the seat formerly occupied by Lee Kerslake. Lee Kerslake was not just a drummer's drummer, he also contributed to the mighty chorale that made Uriah Heep so unique amongst early metal bands. Gilbrook's work on this disc is simply fantastic. He's busy, his fills are extremely musical, and he drives the band in a most compelling fashion.

Kiss of Freedom closes out the album, and it may be the finest piece on a record full of fine pieces. It has hit single sensibilities, amply demonstrates the superb technical skills of all involved, and fits the definition of epic. Christ, it even modulates, and not in a hokey way, but in a manner most majestic - maybe the hardest trick in the whole rock and roll playbook. If you're not a Bernie Shaw fan by now, my heart breaks for ya. The guy just sang the album of a lifetime.

This may be the finest Uriah Heep record. I know that to state that may be blasphemy to some Heepsters, but I'm pretty sure I'm right on this one.

Regardless of where you wish to place it in the pantheon of Uriah Heep, a listen to Into The Wild will reveal that this is a longstanding band continuing to make great music long after most of their contemporaries have lost their creative way.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Ricky UK said...
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Jan Ensing said...
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