British hard rock stalwarts Uriah Heep seem to be still celebrating fifty years in the business, even though they were formed in 1969 and their debut album came out in 1970. I can't help but mention that they were busy early in the seventies, as so many bands were, so they now have five albums to their name that are more than half a century old. This one's brand new, but it's the first to see the light of day since no fewer than three prominent members passed over the last few years: vocalist John Lawton in 2021 and both founding guitarist and keyboardist Ken Hensley and longest serving drummer Lee Kerslake in 2020. It's a fair tribute to all three of them.
What surprised me here wasn't that this was a good album, because I've been gradually finding an appreciation for their post-David Byron work which I already loved, but that there have been very few line-up changes in forever. In fact, there have only been two since Bernie Shaw and Phil Lanzon joined in 1986, when Russell Gilbrook replaced an ill Kerslake in 2007 and when Dave Rimmer took over on bass after the passing of Trevor Bolder in 2013. Guitarist Mick Box may have been the only founder member in the band since Hensley left over forty years ago but this has been a consistent outfit now for nearly that long.
And it sounds just like Uriah Heep should. Save Me Tonight and Silver Sunlight are decent openers. They're not the best tracks here, but they sound good and they drive forward nicely. Box provides solid riffs to both and Shaw's voice seems as strong as ever, just rough enough but always melodic. It's when we reach Hail the Sunrise, though, that the album starts to be notable for me, albeit for different reasons.
Hail the Sunrise isn't a bad song, with some gorgeous organ from Lanzo, an excellent guitar solo from Box and a striking approach that's impossible to ignore from its opening power chords, but it talks about building stone circles, which has been dubious lyrical territory since This is Spinal Tap in 1984. Nobody's going to listen to this without picturing dwarfs dancing around a tiny Stonehenge on the Uriah Heep stage and that is acutely unfair to the quality of the material. It's a damn good song.
While Age of Changes feels more generic, it also feels right and it's one of my favourite songs even if it might not be one of the best. Like Hail the Sunrise, the guitar solo is excellent and it hands off to Lanzon's keyboards and back with style. The intro and outro are impressive too, again courtesy of Lanzon, who shines on this album, as indeed he should playing for one of the pioneers of the heavy seventies organ sound. Hurricane is more urgent and Lanzon's keyboards mirror the lyrics well, so that we can easily visualise the oncoming storm that Shaw's singing about.
Just as the best songs on the first side are towards its end, the best on the second follow suit, the early songs decent but not essential. Rimmer is more obvious on songs like One Nation, One Sun, which is a ballad for its first few minutes and not much more than that for its remaining four, and Freedom to Be Free, but I'd call out You'll Never Be Alone and Fly Like an Eagle. The former was a stronger track anyway, with Shaw on top form, but then Box elevates it and so does Lanzon with a neat drop to piano from organ and again with an excellent organ solo late on. The latter is a good companion to Hurricane, with another solid riff and keyboards that mirror the lyrics.
And then there's Closer to Your Dreams, which is also the closer to the album, because it's the one that brings back that old school Uriah Heep gallop. The most obvious connection to the early days here has been the heavy organ sound throughout, but this one hearkens back to Easy Living, from one of those fifty year old albums, Demons and Wizards. I enjoyed Ken Hensley's 2021 solo album, if Lee Kerslake's not quite so much, and I adored the Blind Golem album that Hensley contributed to, but it's good to see the source band back and as strong as ever.