If the name Uriah Heep rings a bell for you at all, it’s almost certainly for one song: “Easy Livin’,” from their fourth album, 1972’s Demons and Wizards. And that’s a great song, but they’ve made 21 albums since then. Their 25th, Chaos & Colour, came out last week, and if you’re a fan of a particular style of slightly proggy hard rock, with prominent keyboards, a driving beat, and big, fist-in-the-air choruses, you should be all over it.
I’m not gonna argue for their whole catalog. But they were good when they started out, and they’re really good now. Their original lineup included guitarist Mick Box, vocalist David Byron, keyboardist and second guitarist Ken Hensley, and bassist Paul Newton, but there was turnover from the beginning. Three drummers, Alex Napier, Nigel Olsson and Keith Baker, played on Very ’Eavy…Very ’Umble…, and while Baker lasted through Salisbury, he was replaced by Iain Clark on Look at Yourself. Newton left after Look at Yourself, replaced by Gary Thain. And when Thain died in 1975, John Wetton, fresh out of King Crimson, joined for a year.
All told, there have been 17 different lineups of Uriah Heep. The current version, though, has been together for over 15 years with just one membership change. It features Box (the last founder standing), vocalist Bernie Shaw, keyboardist Phil Lanzon, drummer Russell Gilbrook, and bassist Dave Rimmer, who joined in 2013, replacing the late Trevor Bolder.
The first five Uriah Heep studio albums — 1970’s Very ’Eavy…Very ’Umble…, 1971’s Salisbury and Look at Yourself, and 1972’s Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday — and 1973’s obligatory double LP, Uriah Heep Live, are the work of a very solid and creative band. They were one of a few British hard rock acts with prominent keyboards; Deep Purple were easily the most famous, UFO slightly less so, and Atomic Rooster the least. I like all those groups, and Uriah Heep were as good as any of them. The debut showed a strong Cream influence, but Salisbury was harder, and better; the opening “Bird of Prey” is a galloping hard rock attack with falsetto vocal screams (lead and background) that prefigure Judas Priest, and “High Priestess” is a fierce, jackhammering boogie. I’m genuinely surprised “Love Machine” and “I Wanna Be Free,” from Look at Yourself, weren’t hits. You get my point.
They lost their way a bit in the latter half of the ’70s, going first in a more mainstream AOR direction and then, beginning with 1981’s Abominog, a more metallic one (plus the New Wave, keyboard-slathered “On the Rebound”). Their last studio album was 1998’s Sonic Origami. They stayed on the road for a few years, and never truly went away, but they weren’t what I’d call an active band for a long time.
But Uriah Heep returned with a new album in 2008, and to my mind, they’ve been on a hot streak ever since. Their comeback, the aptly titled Wake the Sleeper, kicks off with its title track, which is a bombastic live-show intro disguised as a song: it’s just a blazing riff, the band chanting the title phrase, and some wild guitar and drum soloing. The ten extremely heavy but melodic hard rock songs that follow all land somewhere between Deep Purple and Opeth; they’re catchy, with plenty of guitar and organ solos, and the high, almost angelic vocal harmonies that set Uriah Heep apart from their peers. There are ballads, or at least slow songs (“What Kind of God,” “Angels Walk With You”), but for the most part it’s a hard-charging album, utterly uncool in its commitment to ’70s rock verities but not really retro cosplay, either.
The three albums that followed — 2011’s Into the Wild, 2014’s Outsider, and 2018’s Living the Dream — were more of the same, in the same way Motörhead or Obituary albums are “more of the same.” Uriah Heep had settled on a mature style, and could crank out ten or 11 songs in that style every three or four years with ease, staying on the road (mostly in Europe, of course) in between. Box is a down-the-middle guitarist; his riffs make you nod your head, eventually pumping your fist, and his solos are a quick burst of energy, never stretching to the point that you’re impatient for the chorus to come around again. But Uriah Heep music is well arranged. Instrumental breaks have a fine-tuned sense of drama; the vocal harmonies have energy and impact; and for the most part, the songs are concise. There were a few proggy epics in their early catalog, but their longest latter-day song is “Rocks in the Road,” from Living the Dream, and even that is a manageable 8:19.
Chaos & Colour is every bit as strong as its immediate predecessors. The songs soar; Box’s guitar and Lanzon’s keyboards complement each other perfectly, anchored by Rimmer’s thick, chewy bass lines and Gilbrook’s blunt, forceful drumming. Now, look, the one thing I must point out is that the songs are about nothing. I don’t know if Shaw or Box is writing the lyrics, but whoever’s doing it is absolutely stocked up on empty but inspirational lyrical tropes, and they’re really into the sun as an image. There are three songs on here that mention the sun in the title: “Silver Sunlight,” “Hail the Sunrise,” and “One Nation, One Sun,” and the first two of those come back to back. (I haven’t decided whether “Golden Light” counts.) We also get “Age of Changes,” “Fly Like an Eagle” (not a Steve Miller cover), “Freedom to Be Free”…these are all basically placeholder song titles which allow you to throw down three verses that say nothing but sound good enough. (Scorpions are the absolute masters of this, and their most recent album, 2022’s Rock Believer, kicks ass.)
Uriah Heep have been in the game for more than 50 years. It’s genuinely shocking, and possibly unprecedented, that they’re doing their best work right now. But they are. Unfortunately, Wake the Sleeper, Into the Wild, and Outsider aren’t on streaming services. Living the Dream and Chaos & Colour are, though, so start there and, if you’re so inclined, buy some CDs.