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Old 01-13-2011, 02:25 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Easy livin' - Uriah Heep reviewed



Stranger than the sunrise, darker than the night


Introduction

Very 'eavy and not at all 'umble, Uriah Heep were the fourth of the 'big three' in the first generation of heavy metal (and if you don't know which three, go straight to prison, don't collect $50!). They are by no means my favourite band, not even in the hard rock genre, but there once was a period of time during which they were. And in retrospect it's not that hard to see why. See, they were there from the very beginning, 1969 and onward, so obviously they must be the real deal, right? And they rocked just as hard as any metal act of the era with their uncompromising thumping anthems which vouched for some serious headbanging, right? And they did this in total harmony with bombastic melodies and artsy arrangements, sometimes bordering on symphonic prog which surely satisfied even the slightly more intelligent listener, right?

Well, not quite. See, Uriah Heep are essentially a dumb band, something which I definitely would not acknowledge way back when I propagated to my friends the awesomeness of "Demons & wizards". That's not to say they were that dumb themselves, but there are three main issues about them that prevent me from taking them very seriously these days. First, they were very limited in songwriting, often laid in the lap of keyboardist Ken Hensley, both from the perspective of a riff-based metal band as well as a melody-based art band. When I think about it, there are very few classic riffs to be found in their catalogue, and none of them are particularily profound unless you count their patented primitive powerchord sequences, established from the very beginning in "Gypsy". And the melodies, albeit slightly better, tend to be equally primitive and repetitive even on the numbers that aim for a higher goal, like "July morning" although this was the schtick they eventually would expand on the most until they degenerated into a bland soft-rock act in the late 70's.

Second, they were inadequate; All of them were decent instrumentalists, but none of them were really able to match some of the ambitions they set up for themselves on the more bombastic numbers (warning example: "The magician's birthday"). Instead they often ended up proving themselves unable to rise above the caveman approach in their lack of chops. And all those tales of wizards and demons and mystery tales and spider women and pilgrims were never backed up by any true substance. You're welcome to prove me wrong, but in the process of showing off their highly superficial literacy they more or less single-handedly invented the whole D&D imagery that to this day has infested heavy metal in general, all through the warriors of power metal, the satanic priests of black metal and the flesh-eating bacteria of death metal. So I gotta give them that; Thanks alot guys, for making generations of kids taking metal too seriously! Really thoughtful of you! In their defence though, Hensley openly admitted that "Demons & wizards" were just "a collection of songs which they had a really good time recording".

Third, they were - and this is the main factor which both of these abovementioned factors are derived from - dumb. This is probably something they were quite aware of themselves, which is why they from time to time allowed themselves a primitive but playful barroom rocker to which you could chug your beer. I admit that this is their most adequate approach and some of the tracks that falls into this category work just fine ("Love machine", "Easy livin'", "Spider woman" etc.) but however adequate in its own field, I still loath this whole approach. See, as differed from the mysticism, it boosted the c o c k-rock part of the metal community and this is maybe even worse. Anyone participating in clearing the ground for Aerosmith and Kiss, not to mention the hair metal of the 80's, has to be scorned for that. And this third factor is the main foundation of their fanbase, swallowing the bait of artsiness in order to persuade itself of being slightly more intelligent than yer average headbanger, something that the Heepsters have in common with Queen by the way.

But as I said, I used to like them a lot and I still somewhat do, because if I didn't, I wouldn't take all this time to theorize about them. True to what I said above, I reckon them as somewhat groundbreaking in their approach and however bad they were as influences, they still were good in their own right (good bands are often bad influences). Even if they surely rocked hard, I still think their main attraction during the classic years is the often successful simplistic bombast, at least when it's backing up a profound melody, and their harmonies simply cannot be beat. They are sometimes deemed as a 'poor man's Deep Purple", although I feel that is an unfair comparisation. Apart from the organ, which besides always were more prominent in Heep, they had little in common with Purple, much less Sabbath although some of Heep's more laid-back numbers bore some resemblance of Zeppelin in folksy mode. But all in all, Heep sure had an original sound which, as I hinted above, sort of pinoeered the use of opera-tinged bombast which Queen would expand on later on. And they have their fair share of good, and even awesome, songs as well. Just remember to never ever take their lyrics into account.

So, with the beneficial stand of a deeply rooted acquintance combined with a notably more critical view induced by time, consider these reviews as me washing my hands of both the undeserved scorn and the uncalled for praise for the arguably fourth best metal band of all time.
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Old 01-13-2011, 04:50 PM   #2 (permalink)
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An interesting take on Uriah Heep and I`d certainly say that they had elements of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Queen in their sound (even though Queen came later) But also they had their own originality and added prog influences to their sound which the other big three bands didn`t.

In singer David Byron they had a great frontman but from fairly early on, the band suffered from multiple line-up changes until they degenerated into a poor soft rock band by the late 70`s. Despite all of that, I own about 5 or 6 of their albums and they include their classic three albums of "Look at Yourself" "Demons and Wizards" "The Magicians Birthday"

They certainly were nowhere as influential as Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath but they had an influence on a number of bands, especially American bands in the 70`s.
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Old 01-13-2011, 06:24 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Very 'eavy, very 'umble
(Vertigo 1970)

1. Gypsy
2. Walking In Your Shadow
3. Come Away Melinda
4. Lucy Blues
5. Dreammare
6. Real Turned On
7. I'll Keep On trying
8. Wake Up (Set Your Sights)


I suppose some of you know the story of Uriah Heep rehearsing in the room next to a newly reformed Deep Purple and how they adopted their special brand of organ/guitar interplayed heavy rock. Not that it matters much since Heep from the very beginning were set to try out just about anything that made them look cool. It took some time before they eventually gelled together around their own brand of pseudo-art metal, but there are already traces of the future to be found on this rough-edged debut that's literally all over the place. Perhaps one reason that they couldn't settle in the beginning was the unstable lineup. The band was formed around the core members, guitarist Mick Box, keyboardist Ken Hensley and singer David byron, and in addition Paul Newton on bass guitar and Alex Napier on drums. Napier obviously didn't get along with the others and was temporarily replaced by Elton John's drummer boy Nigel Olsson about halfway through the recording of this album.

The songs themselves are mainly written by Box and Byron, apart from Newton's "Dreammare" (is that even a word?) and "Come away Melinda", apparently a cover. None of these two tracks are particularily representative of the things that would be though; The former is a primitive proto-metal, good-for-nothing ripoff of Zeppelin's "Your time is gonna come", showcasing lyrics depicting a nightmare and a stupid "lalalalala" climax which heralds their bad habit of filling lyrical space with nonsense. "Melinda" is slightly better, although I don't feel that neither they themselves nor the actual song match the intended sincerity, and it's mainly carried forth by Byron's nonetheless tender voice which he already manages to modulate in an impressive way. The blues workout "Lucy blues" can be dumped in the trashbin as well, as it adds nothing to their own significance and besides, I personally don't care much for blues in the first place, even if it's properly executed. Don't try to pass on faked crap like this! Thankfully, they wouldn't try to ever again. The two pedestrian Free-style rockers, "Walking in your shadow" and "Real turned on", are not much to write home about either.

So, having got the duffers out of the way, we can start concentrating on the good sides of the album. It starts off with a bang, as you all know. "Gypsy" is an instant classic and leads the way of how to make the best out of exactly one riff, and the most primitive riff imaginable at that. After the somewhat ambitious lead-in section it just proceeds to trample on everything in its way, like a bulldozer or a Godzilla or a brigade of stormtroopers or a... well, you get the idea. It just drags you along wether you want it or not, through the caves of operatic screams and the stormy battlefields of swirling organs. This is some mighty headbang for the bucks! Another interesting track is the closing "Wake up" with its naive anti-war lyrics, although set to a strangely adequate jazz-rock backdrop, almost reminding of Soft Machine in places. I say it works!

My personal bet for the best track on here though, is the oddly ignored "I'll keep on trying", the closest in style of what they would pursue later on. A moody organ-driven intro, interrupted by the trademark wailings before switching gears completely with the metallic guitar break, topped with peculiar bass triplets played at lightning speed underneath the rising lead lines leading into the very Sabbathesque verses. (That was a mouthful already! There's a lot going on in this song). And I'm really fond of the calm bridge section about two minutes in, where Byron really gets to shine as a melodic and powerful vocalist over the slowly ascending intensity of the lush backdrop, relieved by Box's furious wah-wah solo. Oh yes, everyone gets a share of the pie on this one and it's a shame that it seems to pass unnoticed even by fans.

So, a very sprawling debut with next to no focus that nonetheless serves as a token of the times. The heavy approach is already firmly in place but they don't yet know quite what to do with it, since they obviously didn't wanna get stuck merely in the "Gypsy" formula. Too bad they still did, then. (Joking, of course. But only slightly).
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Old 01-14-2011, 11:10 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Salisbury
(Vertigo 1971)

1. Bird Of Prey
2. The Park
3. Time To Live
4. Lady In Black
5. High Priestess
6. Salisbury




That's better, cut out the crap and leave the goodies! Well, it's still all over the place and not every track is worthy but as a whole I feel that "Salisbury" is a step forward for the band. It's obvious that they still do everything they can to avoid sounding like their genre brethren, and they mostly pull it off better on here than on the cobweb-covered debut. (That's not to say I prefer the full frontal display of a panzer tank, though). The sound is more polished and rehearsed and the songs themselves are more complex which makes for an intriguing listen this time around, although I'd still be hard pressed to dub it 'progressive'. They had already used up at least two drummers at the time and for this album they recruited Keith Baker. Not that it's really obvious or anything, but he did what he should just fine. What is more apparent is that Ken Hensley started to get involved in the songwriting which may have been a crucial factor for the improvement, and he gets a whole three tracks all by himself already, one of which turned out to be one of their most successful songs ever.

You know what I'm talking about, don't you? The acoustic-driven folk-rocker "Lady in black", consisting of exactly two chords repeated over and over again for almost five minutes and features Hensley himself on vocals for a change. And it doesn't even have a chorus, just a prolonged "aaaaah" that nonetheless makes it instantly recognizable. The anecdotic and somewhat preachy verses are set to a medieval-tinged melody of the kind that contemporary folk bands like Lindisfarne and Steeleye Span would cook up in spades. Of course, none of them would ever have dared to nail it upon a wall of acoustic repetitive strumming and booming drums. The Heepsters simply turned it into one big anthemic mantra and it is a deserved classic. Another mellow folk tune is the inferior but still decent "The park" which is sort of a follow-up to "Come away Melinda", only much better, thank god! The wimpy verses, delivered by Byron sounding almost like Pye Hastings in Caravan, suddenly become interrupted by a jazzy interlude featuring a weird start/stop structure, possibly inspired by "21st century schizoid man", although naturally less dexterous and like I said earlier, I refuse to acknowledge it as prog rock. Still a nice breather between the harder tracks though.

The heavier "Time to live" and "High priestess" are too primitive to offer anything special although the former is slightly better in terms of melodicity. When it comes to memorable riffs however, well, there aren't any! These two tracks successfully commenced their fine tradition of stuffing their albums with offensive c o c k rock fillers that lack both melody, power and riffs. And I don't mean that they are built upon bland and hookless riffs, I literally mean no riffs! Do you realize how worthless a metal tune becomes without at least one riff that carries it? Heep turned out to be true masters of the riff-less metal song, which spawned the way for trillions of sleaze bands and other forms of low-end collective organisms to come. So much for innovation. Jerks! The opener "Bird of prey" on the other hand, is really exciting. Now we have them riffs, and iron hard they are! But what makes the song is the marvellous interweaving between these riffs and the bizarre operatic wailings, crowned by Byron in overdrive. Of course, I can see why many people would think of it as a ridiculous put-on but then you'd have to write off stuff like "Bohemian rhapsody" for the same reason as well, and would you want to really? It's just pure fun that opens the album on a high and adrenaline-rising note.

The centerpiece is of course the 16-minute title track that concludes it all. Now, orchestral arrangements in rock settings were not, I repeat not, groundbreaking even at this time. Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and Nice had done the same thing several times before and a lot of other bands had ever since the glory days of psychedelia peppered selected outputs with symphonic arrangements, not least Yes, Procol Harum and Moody Blues, and don't even begin to mention "Pet sounds". Oh well, it's rather obvious that Heep wanted to hang onto the coattails of Purple on this one and what it mainly reminds me of is not so much the "Concerto for group & orchestra" suite, but rather "April" from their third album. There's not much songwriting to be found here; The sung parts are few and not very elaborate, working very much in the standard heavy rock they had established themselves. The orchestral themes aren't very impressive either as they vaguely seem to repeat the same stanza over and over again. But the arrangement as a whole is profound and dramatic enough to uphold the interest and for a band like Uriah Heep it sure is impressive. But please, could someone tell Mick Box that not everything needs to be played at rapid-fire speed through a wah-wah?

Arguably we find Heep at the top of their artsiness on here and the interesting thing is that the more complex stuff really works this time. It may seem contradictory regarding my introductory statement but I still feel that it's the naivity of a young and aspiring band trying out all kinds of things that carries the pretentions on "Salisbury", as differed from the more straight-faced bombast that would soon emerge on the later albums. As soon as they had settled with their trademark style, which they nonetheless mastered just fine, they simply became stuck with very narrow prospects which made their limitations all the more visible whenever they tried to diversify it. But that's later.
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Old 02-20-2011, 04:33 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Look at yourself
(Bronze 1971)

1. Look At Yourself
2. I Wanna Be Free
3. July Morning
4. Tears In My Eyes
5. Shadows Of Grief
6. What Should Be Done
7. Love Machine (3:37)



Another album, another change of drummer - this time in the form of Ian Clarke - and another change of direction. This is probably their heaviest record, at least in the classic era, and among fans and critics considered one of their finest works ever. I wouldn't know about that though, even if it happens to contain a handful of classics. It also sports a cover which is impossible to render on a computer screen as the original releases had a foil-like area in the blue-framed mirror which meant that the aspiring record buyer would do exactly what the title suggests. Clever move for a bunch of drunken cavemen, eh?

That's as may be, but it's the content that counts in the end, right? And the content slaps you right in the face from the moment you press play when the title track assaults yer speakers with a furious drum beat that never ceases its intensity throughout the whole song. Just as simple and hard-hitting as "Gypsy" but thrice as fast and the expected next-to-none riff thumps relentlessly in what would be their trademark stress-shuffle rythm which was to be abused to death on later records. On here it's still fresh out of the box (Mick Box, YEAH I did!) though, and it even features some really energetic percussion work from the ethnic band Osibisa towards the end that just rises and rises in intensity till you think that they just can't go any faster. Now, this is some true vintage Heep at its very best, I tell you!

At the other end of the scale, at least their scale, we have the other classic, the majestic "July morning" which nonetheless is equally simple in pure melodic terms, but it's cleverly built upon the mounting-of-tension principle which makes for a really dramatic listen. It rises toward the sky several times, each one concluding in a total freefall before slowly starting to rise again. Too bad they just couldn't come up with enough lyrics to fill out the chorus and instead decided to substitute it with all these stupid lalala's. But it doesn't really do much harm on a whole, and during the lengthy coda (featuring another guest star in Manfred Mann on Moog synthesizer) they literally crawl out of their skin to prove themselves capable of turning the tension up to eleven. Once again, I applaud them in their embryonic bombast. Now, keep these two tracks in mind whenever you listen to their later albums and notice how most of the songs from now on would be built upon either of these two formulas. Rarely reaching up to their level though.

The third track that I think deserves attention is the gothic quasi-progster "Shadow of grief" (with stupid lyrics that don't come anywhere near the spooky musical atmosphere, but like I said, don't pay attention to their lyrics). It's built upon a weird and fumbling structure, constantly breaking down and grasping after something to hold on to which often turn out to be a descending organ riff that probably took about a nanosecond to come up with. But again, that's the charm of Heep, how they managed to spark life to the simplest phrases possible. It's sort of a logical successor to "Bird of prey" with all the vocal gymnastics from Byron, although this time they go for a more epic atmosphere, drenched in all these organ flourishes that surely manages to cast deep shadows upon the listener. Bizarre and intense, three cheers for fresh ideas!

Unfortunately, that's where the fun stops. "I wanna be free" and "Tears in my eyes" are the exact equivalents of the previous album's "Time to live" and "High priestess". That is to say they both sound alike and deliveres nothing interesting at all musically, and "Tears" features some really obnoxious slide guitar on top of that. Leave me alone! "What should be done", allegedly written and recorded in about half an hour (you don't say!) is a bland piano ballad and the closing "Love machine" recycles the stress-shuffle from the title track, and naturally ends up being just as stupid as the title suggests.

That leaves us with a total of three good, nay, awesome tracks and four relative stinkers, and it's a good thing that the lengthiest tracks turned out to be the best. Is this enough to make it a classic then? For a better band, no, but it's Heep we're talking about so I guess we'll have to settle for their own standards.
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Old 05-01-2011, 11:50 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Demons & wizards
(Mercury/Bronze 1972)

1. The Wizard
2. Traveller In Time
3. Easy Livin'
4. Poet's Justice
5. Circle Of Hands
6. Rainbow demon
7. All My Life
8. Paradise
9. The Spell



This is the album that Heepologists will recommend to any unsuspecting freshman, containing no less than two classics as well as being the first and arguably best album featuring the classic lineup of Byron, Box, Hensley and the once again reassembled rythm section of Lee Kerslake (of future Blizzard of Ozz fame) and Gary Thain (of future heroin overdose fame). In a certain respect, this is as good as Heep ever would be, becasue even despite being ridiculously overblown and inadequate in all its hollow D&D imagery, it's still fresh enough music-wise as well as containing a reasonable low amount of offensive c o c k-rockers. In other words, the balance between pompous banality and primitive banality is just about right this time around. Just about.

You probably already know of the two evergreens "The wizard" and "Easy livin'", both sort of covering in the two main areas of Heep's musical legacy; one being an acoustic-driven post-hippiesque celebration of magical mystery wonders, the other being a fast-paced boogie stomper to please the beer-drinking crowd done in their trademark stress-shuffle style which they would overabuse in the future. Both of these are good as long as you disregard the lyrics (the ones in "The wizard" are among the most embarassing they ever did, even by their own low standards), something you by the way should do throughout the album anyway (or throughout any Heep album; oh my, why am I even touching the subject?). Another minor classic is the proto-doom "Rainbow demon", as stupid as ever of course, but damn is it enthralling in its slooooow plodding progress! This is probably how Sabbath would sound had they acquired an organist and a better singer. I believe it has even been covered by some modern day metal band whose name I've forgotten.

"Traveller in time" is a nice enough pop-rocker where Hensley drives his organ through a wah-wah to an interesting effect, and the somewhat similar "Poet's justice" is even better melody-wise. "Circle of hands" drags a bit though, and even dares to rip off the mellotron part of King Crimson's "In the court of the crimson king", and the "Wizard"-like "Paradise" which naturally betrays the sign of self-repeating, is just dull. And of course, being released in the year of progressive heights, they try to top themselves with an epic ending in "The spell" which starts out as yet another "Look at yourself/Easy livin'"-clone, albeit in a major key this time. Soon it dissolves itself into a slow, supposedly moody, passage that claims to be spine-chilling with a soaring slide guitar part. Now, we all know that Heep are still a bunch of drunken heavy rock bums that could never hope to even begin approaching the grandiosity of Genesis or Yes, so it wouldn't be fair to condemn their attempts at creating dumbed-down prog for the masses by the standards of the prog elite. But even when you take all this into account, "The spell" still remains completely worthless; it's not heavy enough to be exciting (like "Shadow of grief"), nor is it daring enough to be artsy (like "Salisbury") but the intent of making a chilling epic are as clear as the end result is just pathetic. I mean, if you want truly emotional tension building, go check out "Firth of fifth" by Genesis, and if you want unadulterated excitement, go check out "Child in time" by Deep Purple. "The spell" is just one big fat zero.

Unfortunately it heralds the way of what they would spend just too much time and effort on in the near future, i.e. trying to one-up their already failed amibition at being an art band, way above heavy riffing and simple headbanging. Still, disregarding this duffer as well as the two preceding tracks ("All my life" is another waste of space; Byron's "I-I-I-I wi-i-i-ill lo-o-o-ove you-u-u-u" is beyond stupid, but at least it's short), "D&W" contains their biggest ever bunch of decent-to-good songs. After all, it was good enough for them to build their subsequent 3 or 4 records on, and that has to account for something, right?
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Old 05-01-2011, 06:07 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Totally disagree. But great review!
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Old 05-01-2011, 06:10 PM   #8 (permalink)
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"D&D" was actually my first album with them once upon a time, and I remember loving it then. Not so much now though, but still my bet for their best album together with "Sweet freedom".
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Old 05-01-2011, 06:22 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Aww that's cool. I did find that when I was young listening to this album I abused it until I couldn't listen to it anymore. Eventually the songs do become tiresome so in some ways I see your point.
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Old 05-02-2011, 07:16 AM   #10 (permalink)
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The magician's birthday
(Mercury/Bronze 1972)

1. Sunrise
2. Spider Woman
3. Blind Eye
4. Echoes In The Dark
5. Rain
6. Sweet Lorraine
7. Tales
8. The Magician's Birthday



Worse. I mean, if you ever thought that the tales of wizards and magic spells and paradises and rainbow demons were ridiculous, then cop a load of this! However, I reserve myself by being open for the possibility that they were self-conciously goofing around, but you never know with these guys. That Hensley fella seems a bit too sincere and naive to be sporting that kind of self-distance (and he really likes to write a lot about himself and his music, which goes to show in the booklets of the Heep reissues), so I'll go ahead and assume that they really meant business once again.

Well past the first seven tracks that is, because on a whole, this album is actually a bit more humble in its approach than "Demons & wizards. Some of their most lightweight material during the Byron era is to be found on here, but alas it also turns out to be quite bland. Songs like "Spider woman" and "Sweet Lorraine" are their take on simple barroom rock, a genre pretty dull in itself even when done good, and it doesn't get any better in the hands of Heep. Then there's the almost purely acoustic (piano, I mean) "Rain" which claims to be heartfelt but ends up vanishing in its own, well, rain without a trace. "Blind eye" is a passable acoustic-driven shuffle with a neat little guitar line that makes it memorable, although the vocal melody is rather flat. The two 'mystery epics' "Echoes in the dark" and "Tales" sound just the same but they are quite pleasant while they're on, even if the former repeats the melody of "Circle of hands". And Hensley really starts to overabuse his synthesizers by now, inserting all these supposedly spooky lines in every second song, regardless of wether it's suitable or not. Please Ken, you're not the prince of darkness no matter how you wire your Moog!

The funny thing is that all of these rather bland tracks are bookmarked with two of Heep's most noteable songs ever. The lead-in track "Sunrise" is, hands down, one of their best ever, continuing the line of "July morning" in a pompous yet somewhat humble note. Not an ounce of fake mystery to be found, just a by-the-book lament over lost love, but the arrangement can't be beat. The contrast between the quiet verses and the mastodontic chorus is classic Heep at its absolute best!

And all the way on the other side we find the closing suite which is the title track, and I can't even begin to describe its utter stupidity, banality, inadequacy, idiocy, clumsiness, bad...ness....thing...y! Oh my, it's like kicking a maimed kitten! First of all, "The magician's birthday"? What the hell is that? Were they trying to cross the gap between cheap fantasy mysticism, drunken barroom populism and McCartney-esque jolliness or something? And the actual music seems to have been thought up on the spot by minds totally drained of any creativity. All the way from that stupid "riff" in the beginning through to the fadeout of the equally stupid end section, it's one big fat facepalm that even Styx would be ashamed of. That "happy birthday" chanting, what?! And just as you think it couldn't get any more down the drain, it does with the aid of an ugly "spooky" synth line, cheaper than your ma, followed by a year-long guitar wankfest (I refuse to call it a solo) accompanied by drums, and by drums only, with that childish horror-flick synth fading in and out every now and then, totally out of sync. And those clumsy transitions, oh my, I shudder even by thinking about it, not to mention writing about it. And the "evil" ending where Byron imitates the magician's intentions of spoiling the party, oh well, he was right about that. And to think that this is supposed to be a Heep classic! Says it all about their fanbase, doesn't it?

So this puppy can't help but being dragged way down by the misdeeds of the title track alone, something which probably was only bound to happen sooner or later with a band like Heep. But like I said, apart from that last piece of decomposed dung, it's actually not bad. Certainly not very good well past the marvellous "Sunrise", but at least listenable without too much stupidity coming in the way of the flow until you-know-when. The formula carried on from the predecessor is all but set though, and it already starts to show just how thin that formula is.
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