Graded on a Curve:
Uriah Heep,
Demons and Wizards

I’m a bad person. A repugnant person. A very sick person. Take Uriah Heep. One of the few things I know about them—and the only thing about them that interested me until very recently—was that bassist Gary Thain was electrocuted on stage at the Moody Coliseum in Dallas, Texas on September 15, 1974 and had to be carried off stage, “stiff as a board.” I love macabre stuff like that, and can fill you in on every horrible rock death ever. Take Bobby Ramirez, the drummer for Edgar Winter’s White Trash. He was beaten to death outside a Chicago bar in 1972. Why? He had long hair.

What else did I know about Uriah Heep? Well, I know (and like) “Easy Livin’,” the band’s only U.S. hit. Oh, and I know they’re obsessed by—as the title of 1972’s Demons and Wizards amply demonstrates—Fisher Kings and swords and sorcery and gallant knights charging on snorting steeds to the rescue of virginal damsels in dewy merkins in peril of having their maidenheads stolen by evil princes, which is why I never bothered to listen to them in the first place. All that Middle Ages and Middle Earth bullpucky bores me more than reality television, unlike say the decadent and decaying Roman Empire, where you could drink until you puked and never had any trouble getting a good orgy up. Oh, and the Heep’s lead singer David Byron sometimes sang like a girl, which I find off-putting, which is a friendly way of putting it.

So I’ve always kept well away from Uriah Heep, for fear that the band might be catching, although listening to their tunes now many of them sound strangely familiar, and earlier this morning I was struck with the phantom memory of buying their greatest hits (on 8-track!) in my early youth at a mall outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, so perhaps I have heard some of them before. If so, they didn’t make much of an impression upon me and I couldn’t have listened to the 8-track much, although it wasn’t so bad my brother and I ran it over with his gold Dodge Duster, which was the fate we reserved for albums we considered too completely stinko to live.

So imagine my amazement when I listened to Demons and Wizards and actually like it—a whole lot. I suppose it’s considered Uriah Heep’s best LP for a reason, but I really believed it was one of those albums listened to only by unwashed 32-year-old dungeons and dragons fanatics who smoke schwagg nonstop while sprawled out on the ratty bean bag chair in their parents’ basement, where they still live.

What does Uriah Heep play? Well, you can call it progressive rock or art rock or hard rock (which I prefer), and it’s heavy on the organ and lots of impressive vocal harmonies and some very cool guitar, over which the flexi-voiced David Byron made like an opera star. The band was formed in 1969 and released its first LP (the wonderfully titled …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble) but didn’t really hit pay dirt until Demons and Wizards, which made them (in somebody’s words, not mine) “one of the Big 4 of Hard Rock” along with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and the Donny Osmond Experience.

Over the years The Heep has boasted such disparate musicians as Elton John drummer Nigel Olsson, Spider from Mars bassist Trevor Bolder, King Crimson/Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry bassist John Wetton, and never played for anybody interesting vocalist Bernie Shaw. At the time of Demons and Wizards, the band’s line-up included Byron on lead vocals; Mick Box on lead guitar and vocals; Ken Hensley on acoustic, electric, and slide guitars, as well as vocals, keyboards, and percussion; Lee Kerslake on drums, percussion, and vocals; and Gary Thain on bass, although Mark Clarke both played bass and sang lead vocals on “The Wizard.”

A Hensley note on the album sleeve reading that the LP was “just a collection of our songs that we had a good time recording” put to rest the idea that Demons and Wizards was a concept album. In any event, the LP’s first cut is “The Wizard,” which opens with some cool acoustic guitar and lots of freaky echo on Clarke’s vocals. The song begins slowly and then speeds up, and while Clarke sings lots of annoying tripe about the Wizard’s “cloak of gold and eyes of fire,” Hensley’s organ and Box’s guitar produce a Wunderbar sound. Then some harmonies that remind me of Styx come along, and I’m not so crazy about them, but the very happening melody soon returns and turns into a long fade-out heavy on the vocals (“Aaaa-aaaah”), organ, guitar, and drums. “Traveller in Time” opens with a bang and has a rad melody, but Byron’s high-pitched vocals almost ruin it for me. Fortunately he soon moves to a lower register, and Box plays some great guitar, including some far-freaking-out wah-wah and the song rocks hard the whole way to the ending.

“Easy Livin’” is an organ rave-up of colossal proportions. It moves like a ME-262, features lots of cool Box guitar, and Byron’s vocals shift whole octaves without being annoying. The chorus (“Easy livin’/And I’ve been forgiven/Since you took the place in my heart”) is natty too, but when all is said and done this is Hensley’s showcase, and he makes the most of it. Why, I’d put it at No. 3 on my list of all time organ-driven tunes, behind Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and a 2nd place tie between Mott the ‘Oople’s “All The Young Dudes” and ”Death May Be Your Santa Claus.”

“Poet’s Justice” opens with some big portentous vocal harmonies I’m not crazy about. Ditto Byron’s vocals. And the melody, while okay, is nothing that’ll impress your grandma who used to be in Spooky Tooth. Once again Box and Hensley are impressive, and the second half of the song is given over to their pyrotechnics. Box tears off some great riffs and one zip-a-dee-doo-dah solo, and is followed by some truly show-offy organ by Hensley, whose awe-inspiring keyboard pyrotechnics (while Byron’s vocals soar in the background) make him sound like the Phantom of the Opera playing his mad organ in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. Then Box follows with yet more excellent guitar. But then those portentous vocal harmonies return, and bum me out, and take the song out while they’re at it.

I’m only half thrilled by “Circle of Hands” as well, although Hensley plays fantastic organ and Box provides some monstrous guitar riffs. The problem is Byron’s several extended bout of singing backed only by the organ, and I’m always relieved when Box comes bursting in with his badass guitar. At about the halfway point the song picks up, and I can even forgive Byron’s “today is only yesterday’s tomorrow” (huh??) because it’s followed by some feral drum bash and a B+ Box guitar solo. Byron comes back and sings a little more slow stuff, but then guitar and organ combine to make a colossal din that goes on and on, Hensley throwing in some piano while Box plays and plays, like Prometheus chained to his guitar and condemned to jam, lucky for us, forever.

“Rainbow Demon” is a very heavy, dude—a mid-tempo number that features Box’s guitar and Hensley’s organ making a syncopated thump… thump… thump… until the 1:25 mark, when Byron comes in singing about the rainbow demon who rides on through night and day and evidently never stops, not even to hit the john. Finally there’s a chorus, and a cool chorus it is, and after that guitar and organ and cymbal crash don’t speed up but grow more insistent. After the second chorus the song abruptly stops and Byron goes, “Whoo!” Then Box plays one heavy piece of furniture of a guitar solo, until the chorus returns and gets repeated until the fadeout.

“All My Life” is a speed boogie of a love song, with the guitarists playing all manner of funky riffs that fly all over the place while Byron sings about the horrifying shock of suddenly seeking matrimony (“I never even thought I was looking for a wife/But I think I can love her for the rest of my life, yeah”). Byron’s vocals on this one are killer; I love the way he sings, “I only took one ‘cause I couldn’t take twoooooo!” And while I may not be wild about the high-pitched vocal harmonies that start at around the halfway mark, I love the way Byron introduces them by shouting, “Hit it!” And the way he hurls out fantastic screams, screeches, and stutters (“I I I I will will will love love love you”) above them, while Box’s guitar wails away until the finish line.

Long LP closer “Paradise/The Spell” starts with a very pretty guitar interlude, and then Byron comes in singing in a hush. “It’s the pain of your secret heart,” he sings, “Bringing you to tears” as the song goes on with those wonderful guitars and the bassist hitting the soul’s sweet spot. Byron’s vocals (I’m almost 1000% certain someone else is singing too, but have been unable to discover the identity of the “Secret Singer”) are fantastic, as is the piano and weird whooshes that come in. Then the song makes an abrupt and even jarring transition from “Paradise” to “The Spell,” which features some nice propulsion and gads of vocal harmonies, which one again unfortunately remind me of Styx. (You can be sure a young Dennis DeYoung listened to this baby around the clock, and listened carefully.) Then the song slows again and Hensley plays some nice piano until Box plays a long solo topped by an astral choir I wish would return to the astral plane from whence it came. Then Box quits and back comes Hensley’s piano playing a slow but lovely solo, and he’s joined by Byron singing about how “you’re wrong to trust in sunlight” (sure, if you’re a vampire) and the rest of the band playing a long and luvverly interlude until the song speeds up significantly in a way that I would love if Byron didn’t once again sound like the father of Styx before ending with the creepy Sting lines, “Every day and every night/You should know that I am watching you!”

Demons and Wizards was the high-water mark of Uriah Heep’s career, although the Heep’s next four LPs also did relatively well. But by 1976 the band had more of less imploded, with Byron, Thain (and his successor John Wetton) all gone, and the albums after that did less and less well. Oh, well. Nothing lasts forever, and that includes a band that failed to successfully spell the name of the Dickens character from which it stole its name. Still, Demons and Wizards is one extraordinary LP, and while I could quibble and wish that “Sweet Lorraine” and “Stealin’” were on the album instead of “Poet’s Justice” and “Rainbow Wizard,” wishing has never gotten me one damn thing.

As for Uriah Heep, they’re still around, although Mick Box is the sole remaining original member, perpetually touring the Balkans, Russia, Japan, and wherever else they still maintain a significant following. I’ll always have reservations about some of the flexible-voiced Byron’s vocals, but as often as not he comes through with those incredible pipes while the rest of the band is just plain… stellar. I may never have any patience with lyrics about demons and wizards, and I think I pay Uriah Heep a high compliment when I say that their songs are so good they make me forget all about them. Carry on my wayward Heep! Carry on!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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