When this, Uriah Heep’s 23rd studio album, arrived on my doorstep earlier this week, my strongest hope was that it would maintain the high standards set by 2008’s superb Wake the Sleeper. Having played it a few times, I am surprised and delighted to say that it surpasses them. Truly, British hard rock’s most venerable institution have outdone themselves.
While WTS gained plaudits with heavy rock purists for its bludgeoning intensity – the band’s hardest-hitting opus since 1982’s roaring rebirth Abominog – the new album has the edge over it for me in, amongst other things, one key area: even stronger hooks, as on the instant-anthem opener, ‘Nail on the Head’ and the gorgeous finale ‘Kiss of Freedom’, to name but two standout tracks. Added to this, the band have pulled off the truly remarkable feat of veering even closer to their classic sound without ever coming across as mere nostalgists. The album is awash with Phil Lanzon’s Hammond leads, forming a formidable two-pronged attack with Mick Box’s snarling guitar which, as on WTS, is fired up and ferocious throughout; their interplay on the barnstorming title track is truly reminiscent of the frenetic and anarchic live heyday when Ken Hensley was the frontline sparring partner for Box and the late, great David Byron. Meanwhile, the revamped rhythm section of Trevor Bolder and Russell Gilbrook give new meaning to the term ‘powerhouse’, with Bolder’s pulsating bass sounding more dynamic and aggressive than ever, and Gilbrook’s crushing drum work – as powerful as Lee Kerslake’s, but utterly distinctive – firmly established as an integral component of the wonder that is 21st-century Heep.
As for lead vocalist Bernie Shaw – amazingly, celebrating his 25th anniversary with the band – you really do have to marvel. He just seems to get better and better, and how he was omitted from Classic Rock‘s top 40 AOR vocalists list is beyond me. His outstanding affinity for emotive ballads shines through gloriously on ‘Kiss of Freedom’, while on fantasy-tinged epics like ‘Trail of Diamonds’ and ‘Southern Star’ (the kind of songs you thought nobody wrote anymore!), his yarn-spinning delivery is as compelling and persuasive as that of David Byron on classics like ‘Traveller in Time’, ‘Rainbow Demon’ and ‘Tales’. As with WTS, songwriting duties are dominated by the long-standing, fruitful Box/Lanzon partnership, with Bolder contributing just one track this time: the riff-driven, Zeppelin-esque ‘Lost’, which, if my ears don’t deceive me, features the bassist’s first lead vocal for the band since ‘Fear of Falling’ from Sea of Light (1995) – a fine slab of muscular hard rock it is too. Fans of the band’s era of high AOR pomp will particularly enjoy ‘Believe’, a rousing anthem that, with its uplifting lyric, belongs in the tradition of ‘Time of Revelation’ (from SOL) and ‘Everything in Life’ (from 1998’s Sonic Origami). Lastly, special credit must also be given to producer Mike Paxman, who has succeeded once more in capturing a Uriah Heep sound that is at once punchy and potent, and marked by a crystal clarity.
In sum, massive congratulations are due to the Heepsters for this one – if Wake the Sleeper was an 8, Into the Wild has to be a 9.5. You’ve definitely hit the nail right on the head here, guys. Can’t wait to hear these songs on tour.