March 7, 2023

Credit goes to Cherry Red for putting together this anthology that also complements their existing Hensley box sets. In doing so they are ensuring that his legacy lives on and doesn’t become just proud words and music on a dusty shelf.

Two years on from Ken Hensley’s death, this compilation provides fans with a first panoramic view across his entire career. At the same time, it completes something of a trilogy of Cherry Red releases, all reviewed by Velvet Thunder, which began with Ken Hensley: The Bronze Years 1973-1981 and continued with Tale Of Live Fire And Other Mysteries. The former consisted of the three albums from his early career while the latter covered the fertile period 2012-13 (mostly with his band at the time, Live Fire). Three of the six CDs in this anthology overlap partially with those two previous compilations, while the other three CDs fill in the missing pieces, so to speak, by presenting 1990’s A Glimpse Of Glory, 2002’s Running Blind, and The Last Dance from 2003.

The wonderfully titled debut album

So, let’s start with that early period. Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf was the first solo release from Hensley and didn’t stray too far from the template that Hensley had used within Uriah Heep. The heavy blues tinged When Evening Comes opened that album as it does this anthology, and rightly so since it is an outstanding track. It’s joined by two excellent acoustic-driven pieces: From Time To Time and Black Hearted Lady, as well as a version of Rain, which had already appeared on the Uriah Heep release The Magician’s Birthday. This version of Rain is musically similar except of course for vocals which are courtesy of Hensley not Byron. Hensley does sing it rather well, but Byron’s emotionally wrought interpretation of the song is the gold standard that is simply impossible to match. Eager To Please is represented by Secret, which is characterised by some good steel guitar work, the languid The House On The Hill, and Take & Take, the most Heep-like song on that album  thanks to its marvelous guitar refrain.

By the time of his third album in 1980, Free Spirit, Hensley was no longer a member of Uriah Heep. One senses listening to the tracks here that he was striving to both distance himself from the Uriah Heep style and to keep up with the changing musical times. He did distance himself from Heep, and might have created a more contemporary sound, but he seemed to have lost some of his own essence in the process too. The funky Inside The Mystery is an enjoyable piece, even if more like something I’d expect from the pen of Glenn Hughes than Hensley. New York, When and Brown Eyed Girl are all agreeable boogies without being memorable. The bluesy Woman (not the John Lennon song written in the same year) slows the pace down and is the only song here that looks over its shoulder at the ‘70s legacy. In addition to these twelve solo songs from his first trio of solo albums, the first CD in the anthology generously includes six songs penned by Hensley and released with Uriah Heep (three each from The Magician’s Birthday and Demons And Wizards) thus giving an insight into his band output at the same time as he was about to kick off his solo career.

At this point, you may be wondering why neither the epic Cold Autumn Sunday from the debut release, nor the lovely ballad Through The Eyes Of A Child from Eager To Please were included. Luckily that wasn’t due to poor track selection by The Cherry Red folk. Instead, this box set also includes the 2005 album Cold Autumn Sunday where Hensley revisited many of these early tracks, and thank goodness included those two. The excellent Longer Shadows from Eager To Please also finds a place here, as does Do You Feel Alright which at first seems totally bizarre, but once you accept that it’s OK for Hensley to write a dance-floor hip hop tune then it’s very enjoyable! In addition to a number of tracks that already appear on the first CD, Cold Autumn Sunday interestingly includes Send Me An Angel, a fine song he recorded with Blackfoot in 1983.

It would be the best part of two decades after Free Spirit before we saw another album of new solo material from Hensley. A Glimpse Of Glory was recorded with his band Visible Faith in 1999. Hensley had been living in the States for a number of years and that seems to have rubbed off on his music, in particular with the strong gospel feel of tracks like Shakey Ground and Guard Your Heart and the funky soul of Win Or Lose. Believe In Me also opens with a negro spiritual before a more standard piano-based ballad ensues and builds up nicely with organ and choir.  There’s more predictable mainstream rock in the form of It’s Up To You, which is good but a little too reminiscent of Toto’s I’ll Supply The Love. Beyond these interesting songs, there is quite a bit of filler material, I have to say. Listeners might also be put off by the strong Christian message which is laid on pretty thick. The closing track could be a good singalong if it were called ‘The Joy Of Being On The Road’ but instead the title of ‘The Joy Of Knowing Jesus’ limits its karaoke appeal to a Sunday School audience.  

Three years later saw the release of Running Blind where the soul and gospel influences were dropped in favour of a fairly mainstream American sounding rock album. It contains a couple of excellent rockers – Out Of My Control and Free Spirit are two fabulous upbeat songs and are highlights along with the more acoustic and catchy I Don’t Wanna Wait. It’s Up To You and Movin’ In from A Glimpse Of Glory are dusted down and presented here again and both of them fit in with the sound of the album. Attempts at more commercial material are less successful, and again there’s a little too much filler material. For once, Hensley fails in his attempt to write ballads with the low point being I Close My Eyes which sounds like a watered-down version of Bread (if that is even possible!).

The cover of Hensley’s final album

Running Blind was followed only a year later by The Last Dance. Hensley had moved to Spain, which would become his base for the rest of his life, and this change of location appears to have positively influenced his sound – less American and closer to the British sound of his early career. The opening salvo of Crying and Letting Go are impressive prog-tinged pieces, both less than five minutes long but solid intense songs. His ability to write good ballads returned too with the epic power ballad Second Chance (A New Beginning) and the reflective Who Knows. Hensley had clearly rediscovered his ability to churn out good tunes and melodies on The Last Dance and it is probably the high-water mark of his solo career. The very large cherry on the cake on The Last Dance is without doubt the title track (subtitled El Gitano Viejo).  Anyone who believes that Hensley’s ability to write long prog songs ended around the time of Sweet Freedom should take a good listen to this one. Hensley initially creates a magical atmosphere with acoustic guitars and a sublime melody before the song builds effortlessly and leads to a spine-tingling steel guitar solo prior to being capped by a typical Heepish epic conclusion. It’s a brilliant eight-minute song and certainly one of the best songs he wrote as a solo artist.

The final CD is subtitled ‘Collaborations 2011-2021’ and covers his collaboration with Live Fire, plus two tracks from his final album (the collaboration in this case was with Vladimir Emilin). Hensley recorded two studio albums and one live album with Live Fire. The good mid-paced Blood On The Highway is represented here just by the live version of the title track. In contrast, there are four songs from Faster. The title track and Somewhere In Paradise are pleasant enough but nothing special, and The Curse starts off anonymously but is turned around by a quite brilliant solo. The highlight of the Faster material though is I Cry Alone, a heavy blues piece with brilliantly impassioned vocals from Hensley. To wrap things up and bring us full circle, there are four Uriah Heep classics taken from the live album (which has the tongue-twisting title of Ken Hensley & Live Fire Live!). Look At Yourself, Circle Of Hands and July Morning are all performed in an exemplary fashion while Stealin’ is abbreviated as a song but proceeded by a lengthy keyboard and band jam which stretches it out to ten minutes. Not the best version you’ll hear but an interesting one all the same.

An anthology such as this is broad enough to ensure all the top-drawer material by an artist is included. I myself would have preferred to see Mine (a stunning piano ballad that is a sort-of latter-day Rain and one of Hensley’s most intense vocal performances) but all in all it is a well thought through selection of material. Credit goes to Cherry Red for putting together this anthology that also complements their existing Hensley box sets. In doing so they are ensuring that his legacy lives on and doesn’t become just proud words and music on a dusty shelf.