While it's not without its flaws, this is an interesting album and not merely because it's the final one to be released during the lifetime of Ken Hensley, who died last year at the age of 75. I think I find it fascinating because I know Hensley best as a keyboard player, most obviously for Uriah Heep back in the seventies but also for Blackfoot in the eighties and a string of others in the decades since, up to the fantastic Blind Golem album earlier this year that was my Album of the Month for January. Yet, I would say that this album focuses more on his other talents, moving as it goes from a guitar album to a vocal album.
It starts with Lost (My Guardian), an unusual mix of sixties melodies and seventies guitar, that's at its best during the weeping Hensley guitar solo in the middle. The Cold Sacrifice starts out with guitar, a riff leading into a solo, and we wonder for a while if it's going to be an instrumental. For three out of the first four, The Silent Scream starts with guitar too, though not as obviously; we know that voice is going to come in pretty quickly. In between those, Right Here, Right Now kicks off as a keyboard piece, parping away like a Europe stormer, but it calms down, the music stepping aside so that we can listen to Hensley sing.
And that's what this becomes. As the album runs on, the keyboards make themselves scarce and the guitar follows suit, albeit without ever leaving. There are a quite a few points in later songs where I'd focused so much on Hensley's voice and the words that he's singing that I kind of forgot there was any music playing behind him. This starts with Cover Girl, still in the first half, as it's voice over piano and backing that sounds as carefully absent as a house band deliberately not trying to upstage the star in front of them. There is a solo here and it's a nice one but it's almost a token in between verses so the singer can grab a swig of water.
Light the Fire (in My Heart) continues this, as if Hensley is shifting into a Dan McCafferty ballad mode, and Stand (Chase the Beast Away) is the epitome of this. It's a great song, one that I'm sure vocalists will be queuing up to sing it themselves, from Bette Midler to Tom Waits. It has a real majesty to it, a patient motion, but the primary instrument is Kensley's voice and the secondary is the backing vocals swelling behind him. There are people playing things here, but they could frankly all go away and this would stand out as a stark but effective a capella piece.
It's almost a surprise when The Darkest Hour kicks off with more weeping guitar. I say weeping, as it's used far more as emotion here than it is an instrument to be explored on its own merits. The emotion here is usually melancholy. There's a deep sadness that infuses the album, perhaps because Hensley was feeling his own mortality. This is a posthumous release, after all, and it's difficult to listen to it in any other way than as a eulogy from his own hand. It's as if he knew and stripped these songs bare to leave a simple honesty, sung from the heart, that resonates to us.
I liked this album, even though it isn't what I wanted from the man who wrote organ-driven songs like July Morning, Easy Livin' and Stealin'. It's what he wanted to make at this late point in his life and it's poignant and emotional. Thank you for all the music, Ken, whether it's Heep or Blackfoot or the more obscure albums you made way back when, with bands like Toe Fat and Weed. There's a vast catalogue to explore beyond the obvious. This is a fair coda to it.