July 27, 2020

Having already brought us a box set rounding up the first three solo albums recorded by Ken Hensley for Bronze Records back in the ’70s (see review), Cherry Red have now turned their attention to a period rather closer to the present day, with this five-disc box containing four very different albums, all of which appeared, astonishingly, during 2012 and 2013 – an unbelievable fertile time by anyone’s standards. In fact, an alternate title for this box could have been ‘Four Sides Of Ken Hensley’, as this is in essence what we have here. Over two live albums (one a double) and two studio works, we have Ken the romantic wordsmith, Ken the solo live troubadour, Ken i his pomp onstage revisiting much prime Uriah Heep with his current band Live Fire, and finally a new studio collection of all-new Live Fire material. Whichever part of Ken Hensley you gravitate to, it’s available for you here, without the need for him to be pulled apart by wild horses! Let’s have a look at the albums in more detail though, shall we…

The first disc here is the 2012 album Love & Other Mysteries, and it is perhaps the most divisive one here, at least for those expecting epic heavy rock material in the Heep or Live Fire vein. Rather, this album sees Ken swapping his more familiar guise for that of a songwriter exploring different avenues of romance and the heart, both upbeat and melancholic. The resulting compositions are arranged for a full band, but in fact this is scarcely a rock album at all, in the accepted use of the term. Instrumentation largely takes a back seat to the delivery of the songs, the emotion and feeling behind them and the mood of the overall album in terms of a listening experience, and suspension of heavier expectations reveals a thoughtful and mature record. Several guest vocalists appear, both male and female, including Glenn Hughes, who lends his unmistakable larynx to one of the strongest tracks here, the simply titled Romance. Some of the experiments are more successful than others, with the more introspective material coming across most strongly, while others such as the upbeat, country-influenced Walk Away are more lightweight by comparison. The best track here by some way, to these ears, is the remarkable Come To Me, with Ken spinning a heartfelt tale of doomed lovers who come back together to rediscover their failed romance. There is a beautiful slide guitar solo by Ken – a rarity on this album – and lines such as ‘I’ll hold you in my arms, until the end of all your pain’ could easily break the heart of someone, for example, caring for a loved one through serious illness or hardship. Music which can touch the soul in that way is rare, and this song is reason to own this record on its own. This album could easily appeal to a whole new demographic.

The next album on display is Live Tales, from 2013, a recording of a Hensley solo show which sees him totally unaccompanied, and switching effortlessly between acoustic guitar and piano. There are large swathes of Heep interpretations here, from the obvious Wise Man, The Wizard and Lady In Black through to surprises such as Tales and a startlingly effective July Morning, but also a number of solo pieces scattered throughout. Come To Me makes another appearance here, and weaves the same throat-tightening spell as its studio counterpart, despite the obvious lack of the guitar solo. Perhaps the reason these pieces almost all work so well is because, as Ken himself explains, he is performing them as originally written and presented to the band, and so are the way they were originally envisioned rather than being rock songs stripped back to fit an ‘unplugged’ format. In many ways the best moments here are the songs he performs at the piano, as it demonstrates to those of us so used to that mighty Hammond Organ sound just what an accomplished pianist he actually is. It’s a charming record, and one which conjures up the warm feeling of what must have been a very intimate and emotional evening.

Album three here takes up the next two discs, being a double live album recorded with Ken’s Live Fire band, simply entitled Live!! (with optional exclamation marks). Also released in 2013. it’s another Heep-heavy set, and the greatest compliment one could pay is that this tight and powerful band give the classic ‘mothership’ a real run for their money. The likes of Look At Yourself and a splendid July Morning are exemplary, as is the nice addition of the timeless Circle Of Hands, which rolls back the years to those heady days of 1972 effortlessly. There is also a scattering of solo and Live Fire material, and if there is a criticism to be levelled at the album, oddly enough it would be that there is not more of this. The one-two punch of Blood On The Highway and the remarkable The Last Dance is astonishing, with the opening pair of Set Me Free (From Yesterday) and The Curse, from the excellent Faster album similarly impressive. As good as the Heep material is, it may well be that some people may pass on this record because they don’t feel they need more live renditions of those songs, and the original material is easily good enough to support a much higher proportion of the set. Then again, people coming to the shows will of course want to hear that older stuff, so it’s always a fine line to walk!

That matter of original material is certainly solved by the final album here, the third Live Fire studio album Trouble, and it is an absolute cracker and no mistake! Written by Ken at a time when he was going through some personal issues, and almost writing himself through it in a way, the ten songs here barely have a weak moment among them. The opening three songs in particular – Ready To Die, Trouble and It – are as fine an opening 20 minutes or so to an album that you could care to find. Ready To Die and It (the latter getting my vote for the best of the best here) touch on Ken’s own spirituality in a beautifully understated way, while Trouble goes entirely the other way with some hilarious lyrics about the protagonist who simply cannot avoid trouble however he tries (‘Nowhere left for me to hide, nowhere left to run / I can’t even end it all ‘cos someone stole my gun’ being one choice couplet). The band – here reduced to a quartet in a line-up change since the live album, with Roberto Tiranti coming in and handling both bass and lead vocals – show themselves to be a lean, mean riffing machine, so tight you could barely put a cigarette paper between them. Ken dedicates this album, poignantly, to his four bandmates in the ‘classic’ Heep line-up, Mick Box, Lee Kerslake and the sadly missed David Byron and Gary Thain, and when the final track The Longest Night talks about ‘Playing songs for some friends of mine’, it’s hard not to feel just a little choked up. It’s a superb closing track, and another example of Ken’s often overlooked ability to stay perfectly balanced on the knife edge which is just this side of over-sentimentality. It’s a rare talent, and one which that song and Come To Me illustrate to the proverbial tee.

Added to the music, the booklet provided with this set is a great bonus, including as it does the original artwork and sleeve-notes to all four of the albums, including the lyrics and Ken’s accompanying comments on the songs contained in both of the studio albums. This would be the perfect way to illustrate to someone who may be unaware of ‘what happened to Ken Hensley’, showing as it does how he has managed to keep juggling all of the separate parts of his career, paying tribute to his past while still bringing out high quality new material and even going out as a solo singer-songwriter when the muse takes him. It is a position which could be envied by many of his peers, and with good reason. Check it out for yourself, it’s worth your while. The ‘Eavy and the ‘Umble…