|For as long as anyone can remember, the genre of heavy metal music has concerned itself with epic themes and a penchant for the macabre. One of the very first and most consistent practitioners of this style was the mighty, oft-overlooked URIAH HEEP. The HEEP are one of the first heavy metal bands to ever form, striking the scene with a hard-hitting album in 1970 that could easily rival BLACK SABBATH's debut from the same year, or even DEEP PURPLE's crushing "In Rock" album which had already soared through British charts. LED ZEPPELIN had not yet hit their peak, and so it was a very interesting time for the fledgling genre of bone-crushing bluesy rock music people would later term "heavy metal."
One of the most intriguing (both musically and lyrically) bands to emerge from this style of music was the great URIAH HEEP. At heart, their incredible sound was characterized by by-the-books progressive rock with a much harder edge. Much of the hard guitar sound was balanced by soaring organ melodies that would remind one of DEEP PURPLE, and it was to little surprise as the HEEP drew a significant influence from bands like DEEP PURPLE, LED ZEPPELIN, and PINK FLOYD. But the band added an extra element to the mix, which would set them apart from their contemporaries: the epic, story-telling lyrics and ear-piercing harmonies of vocalist extraordinaire David Byron.
In 1970, URIAH HEEP released their first album entitled "Very 'eavy... Very 'umble." Initially the full-length did not receive much interest from rock critics, who discounted the band as "gothic" and "cartoonish." Little did they know that 30 years later this album would still be regarded by many as an all-time classic of heavy metal. The LP began with the fiery anthem "Gypsy" which told the story of a man who had fallen in love with a girl whose father disapproved of him and portrays his fight to win her heart regardless. The next tune, "Walking In Your Shadow" begins with what is considered to be among the greatest electric guitar riffs ever written. The real gem of this album is the fifth track "Dreammare" where the band gets a chance to flex their heavy metal muscle and fuse it with their stylish brand of progressive rock. Each song is chock full of complex vocal arrangments, harmonies and choruses which beg the listener to sing along and could easily rival the work of QUEEN.
In the following year, the HEEP managed to record two more full-length albums, and were beginning to find their niche in heavy music. The first album of the year, "Salisbury", generated the radio hit "Lady In Black", a haunting acoustic ballad with extensive vocals harmonies. The HEEP seemed to effortlessly fuse heavy metal, progressive rock, and folk music all into one epic mass, and in doing so, they slowly began to form a loyal cult following not only in the UK but also the in Russia and other nations. On "Salisbury", URIAH HEEP began to experiment with many different styles of music. There was the folk ballad "Lady In Black", the ethereal gospel tune "The Park", the crushing heavy metal thunder of "Bird of Prey" (which must have influenced KING DIAMOND tremendously), and finally the 16-minute long title track, which saw the HEEP exploring and expanding their style of progressive rock with a massive live orchestra.
URIAH HEEP's ascent in the world of heavy metal was only just beginning. In the early years it was not uncommon for the HEEP, overflowing with creativity and musical know-how, to release two splendid albums within the same year, and that is exactly what they did in 1971. To follow up the magnificent "Salisbury" would be a difficult task, but the band did just that by releasing "Look At Yourself". This album continued in the same vein as "Salisbury", except the experimentation and progressive complexity would only continue to rise. "Look At Yourself" opened up with the pounding title track that boasted the band's muscular rhythm section and elastic vocal abilities. The second track "I Wanna Be Free" put the spotlight on vocalist David Byron and his incredible, soaring range. But it was the third track "July Morning" which truly solidifies this as one of the HEEP's most classic and essential albums. Boasting a swirling moog solo from none other than Manfred Mann, this 10-minute long epic contains each and every trademark of the HEEP: the glass-shattering vocal harmonies, thick guitar layering and solo virtuosity (I'd like to hear Ritchie Blackmore replicate the solos in this one), the epic balladry and story-telling lyrical themes, the swirling keyboards. Add it all together and the equation can only be heavy metal in its purest form. But the tireless experimentation would not stop there. The next track, "Tears In My Eyes" is another HEEP classic, combining a twangy rockabilly riff with soulful lyrics and a bit of heavy metal. The album ends with the upbeat "Love Machine", which could easily be mistaken for a DEEP PURPLE tune.
In the year 1972, URIAH HEEP released what would become their most well-known and classic album, "Demons and Wizards" (the band by the same name featuring Hansi Kursch of BLIND GUARDIAN and Jon Schaffer of ICED EARTH would gladly testify to this). "Demons and Wizards" was a very focused album which combined heavy metal and progressive rock with epic themes that could almost bring Dungeons and Dragons to mind at times. The opening track, "The Wizard" (covered by BLIND GUARDIAN) is a heartfelt acoustic ballad about a man's encounter with a wizard that recalls J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Ring trilogy. "Traveller In Time" displays guitarist Mick Box's proficiency with his wah pedal. But it was the third track, "Easy Livin'" which solidified URIAH HEEP as a household name in Britian and an international success. This stomping metal anthem became an instant radio hit, and to this day remains the most successful HEEP song, still receiving airplay on many rock stations around the world. The album continues with outstanding quality and muscianship with the acoustic ballad "Circle of Hands", the eerie "Rainbow Demon" (covered by VINTERSORG and TAD MOROSE), the vocal acrobatics of "All My Life", and the swords-and-sorcery themes of "The Spell." All in all, "Demons and Wizards" is simply a masterpiece, a landmark for the band, and a milestone for heavy metal as we know it.
Following in the epic and majestic footsteps of "Demons and Wizards", URIAH HEEP released a second album in 1972 entitled "The Magician's Birthday". Though not as focused as the previous album, the experimentations found on this latest installment were amusing and entertaining at the very least. Beginning with the dark anthem of "Sunrise" and following with the country-rock tinged "Spider Woman" the band proved that they could not be confined to one specific genre. Another highlight of this album is the acoustic "Rain", one of the HEEP's best ballads. But the real centerpiece of this album is the 10-minute title track, in which the band sings along to the tune of the Happy Birthday song: "Happy birthday, dear magician / Happy birthday to you"
Unfortunately URIAH HEEP saw a decline in the following years and their material was not as fresh and exciting as the older albums, although there are many more scattered highlights to be found throughout their extensive discography. But it was vocalist David Byron who truly set this band apart from any other, and his departure due to problems with alcohol in 1976 marked the end of the classic era for HEEP.
Over the years, URIAH HEEP have influenced many different metal bands around the globe, among the most popular being DIO and BLIND GUARDIAN. Bands such as KROKUS, DEMONS & WIZARDS, FIFTH ANGEL, and AXEL RUDI PELL have also cited URIAH HEEP as a band of personal influence. In the year 2003, Century Media Records released a long-awaited tribute entitled "Return To Fantasy: A Tribute To URIAH HEEP" which included many exciting cover versions of classic HEEP material by bands young and old such as: ANGEL DUST, TAD MOROSE, LIEGE LORD, SACRED STEEL, and a live cover by METALIUM.
URIAH HEEP are not only a classic band who is still going strong after 30 years in the business, they are one of the true originators of what we today call "Heavy Metal"!