Look out Los Angeles (and all points beyond); once again your crusty chronicler felt the need to resurrect his old “Listen Again” series. For those of you just joining us, the “Listen Again” series is a series in which we revisit albums that for one reason or another perhaps did not receive the attention/acclaim they deserved when they were originally released. Whether it was the recording was ahead of its time, broke away from the artist’s usual style, was poorly publicized or initially misunderstood, the “Listen Again” series urges music fans to listen again. This time we reconsider an album suggested by a friend on Facebook and also from a Los Angeles reader–Uriah Heap’s Demons and Wizards.
Uriah Heep is a rock band from the UK. Formed in 1969 in London, England, this group was one of the seminal rock bands of the early 1970s. Their music was a distinctive mix of art rock, heavy metal and prog rock.
Their signature sound is marked by their generous use of keyboards, strong, harmonious vocals, and (originally) lead singer David Byron’s operatic vocals. The band roster would go through some changes over the next couple of years but Byron, Ken Hensley (guitars, vocals, keyboards and percussion), Mick Box (lead guitar and backing vocals) would remain the core of the group. The other members at who contributed to the Demons and Wizards album were bassist Gary Thain, and Lee Kerslake on drums, percussion and vocals. This was—to some—the “classic” Uriah Heep line-up. (Mark Clarke—who actually quit the band before the release of the record would co-write and contribute bass and vocals on”The Wizard”.)
They had a unique artistic chemistry that would eventually be evident on the 9-track Demons and Wizards album. The album’s opener is the aforementioned “The Wizard” which was co-written with Hensley. It would be the first single off the album and was a semi-acoustic ballad with some nice guitar work. Listeners often think the lyrics make reference to the fictional character Gandalf or even God but there is no evidence to confirm either.
The second selection is “Traveller in Time”. This one was actually written by Kerslake, Box and Byron. “Easy Livin'” is the next number. It’s a hard-rockin’ track seemingly written specifically for Byron’s particular talents. This would go on to become the second single off the album. It would also be the only single to succeed in the US.
Kerslake and Box would also co-write a cut with Hensley. It was titled “Poet’s Justice”. It is followed by “Circle of Hands” which was written by Hensley who wrote much of the material on this work.
“Rainbow Demon”, another Hensley composition, was one of the tracks that led some to believe the record was a concept album although band members stated otherwise. There is no doubt, however, that this and other songs on the album were connected to the world of fantasy. “All My Life”—co-written by Box, Byron and Kerslake—comes next followed by yet another seemingly thematic track “Paradise”. The closing cut is yet another fantasy-related number titled “The Spell”.
The completed vinyl album would also have an interesting presentation. It included a gatefold sleeve. The front included a subtle, hidden image of male and female sex organs and was designed by Roger Dean.
It was released in the UK on the Bronze label and on the Mercury label in the US in 1972. The original vinyl release had a running time of almost 40 minutes although future re-releases would contain additional material. It went gold in the US before the year’s end.
On the charts it would climb to 20 in the UK and 23 in the US. Elsewhere it would reach even greater heights. In Australia it would hit number 14, In Italy it would make it to number 12 and in both the Netherlands and Norway it would reach number 5. Most notably, it would camp out at number one in Finland for over 3 months.
While “The Wizard” didn’t make a dent, the single “Easy Livin'” peaked at number 38 in the Billboard Hot 100. It would be a huge hit elsewhere—such as Germany and the Netherlands—and scrape to number 75 in Australia.
John Swenson, records editor at Crawdaddy and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, gave the album only one star. He stated that the band was but a “mutant version of Deep Purple” and once considered Byron’s voice to be “one of the most strident and annoying singers in rock history”.
On the other hand, he could not deny that the group was “commercially successful”, sincere and that Hensley was both “intelligent” and “capable”. Furthermore, Mike Saunders of Rolling Stone said the group was genuinely good. More specifically, the first side of the album was noted to be “the finest high energy workout of the year, tying nose and nose with the Blue Oyster Cult”. He concluded that while the band “may have started out as a thoroughly dispensable neo-Cream & Blooze outfit” they were “shaping up into one hell of a first-rate modern rock band.”
The recording would not be forgotten as the years went on. In fact, in 1995 the power metal band Blind Guardian would release a single of their cover of “The Wizard” and on their 1996 compilation disc The Forgotten Tales. More importantly, the 1990s would also witness the 1995 remastered reissue of Demons and Wizards.
It included four bonus tracks. The cuts were Box and Byron’s composition “Why”—both single and extended versions. It also included the demos for “Home Again to You” and “Green Eye” which were both recorded during the album’s original recording sessions.
In the new millennium the recording served as partial inspiration for Hansi Kürsch and Jon Schaffer’s new, second band Demons and Wizards. Another reissue of Demons and Wizards would hit stores in 2003. This, too, would feature bonus tracks. The cuts included were the extended version of “Why”, the single edit of “Rainbow Demon”, the song “Proud Words On a Dusty Shelf” and the demos “Home Again to You” and “Green Eye”.
Today both critics and fans agree that the disc is a “definitive . . . crowning achievement” and their best work to date. Most recently, AllMusic gave it a four-star rating and said it “solidified Uriah Heep’s reputation as a master of gothic-inflected heavy metal”. Considering that the band has sold over 30 million albums worldwide perhaps some of the initial negative criticism was a bit too hasty. If you’ve never listened to Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards, listen to it. If you’ve already listened to it . . . listen again.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.