Music: Uriah Heep, Why Wake the Sleeper

by Rick Rockwell

Why do bands that creatively peaked more than 35 years ago bother to put out new studio albums?

That question has to be foremost when approaching the new release by Uriah Heep, Wake the Sleeper. The title, sounding like a twisted out-take from a space opera like Dune, is also very appropriate. The entire enterprise has an air of Rip Van Winkle to it. Somehow, if you put the band in a time capsule in the mid-1970s and they recorded an album during decades of dormancy Wake the Sleeper would be the result.

For those unacquainted with Uriah Heep, this band, along with Deep Purple bridged the gaps between heavy metal and progressive rock. Today, they are regarded as the precursors of the sub-genre known as progressive metal. Pick up Look at Yourself, Demons and Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday (all from 1971-1972) and you’ll have the band’s best. But it’s been all downhill since. This critic remembers shuddering in 1978 when an editor sent a copy of the band’s Fallen Angel for a review because it was apparent Uriah Heep was out of ideas then.

Some would question if they ever had any ideas. If there is any band that seems to be the singular model for the parody of the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap, it is Uriah Heep. Spinal Tap’s hilarious “Stonehenge” was clearly both a visual and musical satire of Uriah Heep’s classic period when the songs mostly revolved around fantasy, magic, and wizards. From 1969 through 1980, Uriah Heep also went through five drummers and various line-up changes, very similar to the band Spinal Tap, although none of the drummers in Uriah Heep were victims of spontaneous combustion.

However, some of Uriah Heep’s decline began with the death (by heroin overdose) of bassist Gary Thain in the mid-1970s. Founding member and distinctive vocalist David Byron was dismissed from the band, and eventually died of medical complications related to alcoholism. Today, guitarist Mick Box is the only remaining original member. (Bassist Trevor Bolder — better known for his work with David Bowie’s back-up band the Spiders from Mars — who began playing with Uriah Heep in 1976, off and on, is also in this incarnation of the group.)

So what’s the reasoning behind Wake the Sleeper (released in the U.K. in June, but in the U.S. on Aug. 26)? Is it all just profit-driven, hoping to cash in on past glories? Perhaps. The band claims it has sold 30 million albums since its inception in 1969, and although it has been reduced to cult status, Uriah Heep frequently tours Central and Eastern Europe and fills stadium-sized venues there. Some of the band’s motivation for recording its first studio album since 1998 (the forgetable Sonic Origami) may be a line-up change. Long-time drummer Lee Kerslake (he anchored the band through much of its classic period) who has played on and off with the group since 1971, retired due to health reasons in 2006. New drummer Russell Gilbrook gave the band a creative boost.

But not enough of a boost to make Wake the Sleeper more than an odd exercise in nostalgia or perhaps give the band some new songs for its live sets that will meld nicely with its 1970s hits. The title track starts the album off with plenty of energy, however it isn’t really a song: it is a fast-paced chorus in search of something more. “Overload” is an attempt to use radio traffic samples and ambience to give the band’s sound more texture, but it seems like a wasted technique heading nowhere. Some of the problem is vocalist Bernie Shaw. Shaw approximates Byron at times but his vocals are mostly generic and have the style that was popular in the 1970s: over-the-top tenor with over-dramatic and even operatic tendencies. The one-dimensional lyrics on most of these songs don’t help either. (From “Overload,” a sample: No one cares about the role you play / Generations lost in space / A billion miles away.”)

On the positive side, Box is still a strong hard rock soloist. He knows how to work an effects box and foot-pedal along with delivering some skittering solos. But the arrangements are so predictable (“Tears of the World” and “Heaven’s Rain”) a listener can tell exactly when the solos will pop up and for how long on the very first listen.

Some of us haven’t missed Uriah Heep since their 1970s heyday. The band seems to want to keep it that way.

(The photo shows guitarist Mick Box and vocalist Bernie Shaw during a Uriah Heep performance in London in 2001; the photo is by Rodrigo Werneck and is used through a GNU Free Documentation License. Uriah Heep will open its European tour on Oct. 10 in Rheinbach, Germany. To see Uriah Heep perform a live version of "Overload" from last year in Germany, please check below.)

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Gilahi said...

Wow.... In the early '70s when I was a teenager, I thought Uriah Heep was the only group worth listening to. I saw them in concert 3 times with the "big 5" lineup: David Byron, Gary Thain, Lee Kerslake, Mick Box and Ken Hensley. As far as I was concerned, they simply weren't listening to after David Byron. I do have the Uriah Heep box set now, and there's a LITTLE decent post-Byron stuff on there, but overall I feel that they were pretty much done by the late '70s.

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