“Only the young stay young,” bleat Uriah Heep on Sonic Origami, the first American-released “new” CD (technically it’s a year and a half old, at least in Japan) by the Mortimer Snerds of heavy metal in, oh, about five years. Although the candle burns low at the turn of the century, it has always been this type of reflexive Spinal Tap-ism that made Heep worth buying into. Drubbed incessantly by American critics for having the gall to be just what they looked like—a band of unpretentious, friendly clods aspiring to be Jethro Tull or Deep Purple, but lacking the put-on class distinctions of the former, the snob star appeal of a Ritchie Blackmore in the latter, and the musicianship of either—Uriah Heep was a good hard rock band for a very long time expressly because of its presumed shortcomings.
Mick Box, never a virtuoso heavy guitarist, excelled at excess and stomping riffs—just the kind some kid who had started taking guitar lessons could haltingly imitate in the bedroom without divine intercession. It’s easy to imagine a lightbulb going on over the young Slash’s head in re the sinister applications of wah-tone upon hearing the last eight minutes or so of “Salisbury.” David Byron was an enthusiastically over-the-top singer whose best trick was a vocal exclamation that sounded more like a silly laugh than the shriek of a rock star, even though he would have preferred the latter. And triple-threat Ken Hensley (songwriter, second guitarist, and keyboardist) was just uninhibited enough to think slide guitar and a cheesy Moog could sound great while played simultaneously. The rest of the band, quite graciously, generally kept out of the way.
In other words, Heep’s clumsy but genuine joy for anything artlessly artistic or heavy was its strength on early-’70s albums like Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble and Look at Yourself. Songs were either breakneck shuffles on love machines and easy livin’, slow goose steps about nightmares and a gyspy patriarch’s horsewhipping of a pantywaist, or florid orchestral concept music centered around colored demons, alchemy, and magical birthdays.
So successful was this unselfconscious cartoon with the Yankee-prole teen class in rural America that there were a couple stabs at emulating Heep’s sound and philosophy—mostly with astonishingly poor results in the marketplace. Pavlov’s Dog was one attempt, except with polished musicians, the occasional fiddle, a nitrous- as opposed to whiskey-infused frontman, and snazzy production. And there was even a Heep-clone band in my PA coaltown hometown in 1973: Called Minotaur, they looked like they had walked off the back cover of Look at Yourself . . . which is to say they closely resembled the human equivalent of tree stumps adorned with some lichen and vines. Minotaur were immensely popular, played at the high school prom for a couple of years, and even nailed the corny a cappella “At the Hop/Blue Suede Shoes” medley Heep played live at the time. It brought the bleachers down every time.
It is particularly depressing, then, to report that Sonic Origami bites the root, even if you cut Heep a generous amount of slack for maturity, evolving taste, and loss or gain (depending upon your point of view) of personnel. That inane “Only the young stay young” line would’ve worked splendidly on anything from Look at Yourself in 1970. But when glued on top of ’90s-style white metal—sunny no-traction AOR suitable for play on the “Z” channel—it’s awful. Mick Box sounds like Buck Dharma or Trevor Rabin or anyone with a few too many studio racks of equipment and the time to twiddle: like anyone but Mick Box. Only on “Sweet Pretender”—the final track, not even credited on the outer sleeve!—do Heep break out a grubby trademark riff and stir up an unplanned, drooling frenzy.
Plans for a Heep fall U.S. tour timed to coincide with the release of Sonic Origami collapsed. Perhaps working the former Communist nations of Europe, rather than the New World, is a more practical calling these days, since—if you check the Usenet—living, breathing human beings appear to be nuts for Heep behind the former Iron Curtain. One can easily picture dozens of Minotaurs playing at high school dances somewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere in 2000. Oh my.
Ironically, somewhere on the Net an interview of Mick Box can be read in which he chatters on about “history” being the strength of Uriah Heep. Although Sonic Origami is utterly brainless in its lack of this, Castle America has been busily remastering much of Heep’s mid-’70s “history” over the last few months. In October, Wonderworld, Return to Fantasy, High & Mighty, Firefly, and Innocent Victim were redone, with the latter two being the most meat-eating in a torrent showing little sign of letup. (Live at Shepperton, Fallen Angel, Conquest, and half a dozen more are still due this spring. Add the Ken Hensley Anthology, and even I’m going to be fighting off Heep-induced delirium tremens.)
In any case, by 1977’s Firefly, Heep was faced with replacing David Byron for the common sin of smelling too strongly of drink. The job of providing seamless pinch-hitting fell to John Lawton, frontman for Lucifer’s Friend, a band once not uncharitably dubbed “the unthinking man’s Uriah Heep.” Sawing guitar, groaning synth, and muscular drumming fought Lawton for dominance. Innocent Victim was put out the same year and has been retroactively dismissed as “plodding” hard rock in one of those omnibus review books that are stocked in the “literary” section of record stores these days. As usual, no one was home on the subject.
My brother played a tape of Innocent Victim unceasingly. For him, it was four-on-the-floor rock. At the time, it was in triumphant competition with tapes of The Alice Cooper Show and Kiss’s Love Gun. “All you did was cheat ‘n’ lie/Now you’ve gone and made me cry,” one IV cut thundered; even though my brother’s girlfriend appeared not to “cheat ‘n’ lie” at all, it was the kind of loud, direct sentiment that appealed to him. And it really did rock much harder than the live version of Alice’s “Go to Hell.” IV proved just the opposite of the critical received wisdom: Rather than “plodding,” it was an album where Heep tromped on the gas pedal. Hectored by management to come up with another “Easy Livin’,” the band produced “Free ‘n’ Easy,” which had more velocity and power than the original but, unfortunately, none of the catchiness. Lawton sings himself in a circle at one point on one of two quasi-hallucinogenic “Heep waltzes” on IV: “Maybe it’s the dancer or it’s the dance the dancer dances.” Indisputable proof that the beloved Tap-ish compositional engine—then still without a name—was purring along smoothly under the Heep hood.
Castle America, www.castlemusic.com;