Most people, outside dyed-in-the-wool Uriah Heep fans, probably won’t even be aware that Heep keyboard man Ken Hensley had a solo career running concurrently with his tenure in the band – but so he did, as this new collection of the albums he recorded for the Bronze label between 1973 and 1981 proves. And not only that, it also proves that there is a lot of extremely worthy material spread across these discs, much of which could easily have graced Heep albums themselves (and, in the case of one track, actually did).
The first album here, 1973’s wonderfully titled Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf, is the strongest disc in the collection. The two original sides of the album each opened with a heavy Heep-prog number in the shape of Side Two’s Fortune and the stunning opener When Evening Comes, each of which could have been magnificent in the hands of the band – although When Evening Comes in particular is masterful here. Most of the rest of the album follows a slightly mellower tone, with the acoustic sound of Heep songs such as Lady In Black certainly prominent. Most of the tracks on the album are strong, to be honest, but another real standout is the penultimate mini-epic Cold Autumn Sunday, which showcases just how strong Hensley’s voice really was (many forget that he sang Look At Yourself and Lady In Black among others, so similar was his tone to David Byron’s). Providing support on the album are the then-current Heep rhythm section, drummer Lee Kerslake and underrated bass virtuoso Gary Thain, which certainly does no harm! It is notable that the album contains a reworking of the track Rain which appeared on the Magician’s Birthday album, with Hensley here arranging it as he originally wanted it with the band, and it is a fascinating alternate take.
Two years later a follow up, Eager To Please, appeared. Straight away, with the stark line-drawings on the cover, it looked as if it was going to be a stripped-down album, but that isn’t entirely the case. Certainly there are more straight rock tracks, and a less lush sound overall, but right from the off things are bang on course with the title track showcasing some of the excellent slide guitar which Hensley contributed to Heep classics such as Circle Of Hands. Indeed, it is easy to forget just how much guitar Hensley played with the band, especially in a live setting, and this only reiterates his versatility. There are a few weaker tracks, but highlights such as Stargazer (not that one!), Through The Eyes Of A Child and the absolutely lovely closer How Shall I Know make this another essential listen for Heep fans.
The next album, Free Spirit, did not appear until 1981, by which point Hensley had left Heep after the band imploded following 1980’s disappointing Conquest album, and perhaps as a result of him wishing to establish his own identity it is the album of the three which sounds least like the ‘mothership’. It opens excellently with Inside The Mystery and the uber-catchy New York, and Side Two opener Brown Eyed Boy is a pretty nifty rocker, but overall some of the magic is just missing, as a slightly more generic hard rock sound snakes through the album, with closer New Routine the worst offender. When the ballads do appear they don’t quite have that fairydust. The cover photo shows Hensley photographed looking absolutely freezing clad in fur-lined leather jacket, and bearing a striking resemblance to Smokie’s Chris Norman, I might add! With, bizarrely, what appears to be a shoe in mid air.
Altogether though, a lot of great music here, with each album having its share of gems. A special note should be made of a couple of elements of the packaging as well: firstly, the usual ‘booklet with new essay’ has been jettisoned in favour of a DVD which has Hensley being interviewed extensively about each of the albums only this year. At twenty minutes apiece that’s a lot of chat and, while it is probably something to watch only once, that is also probably generally true of the booklet essays, which are read once. There is also a poster with the credits for each album, but the thing which delighted me most is that the mini-album sleeve for Proud Words actually reproduces the complete original gatefold – a marvellous touch, as the vinyl album was always a thing of beauty with its elegant wraparound ‘books’ image and groovily psychedelic inner. It’s a small thing, but it makes such a difference to reproduce a gatefold in miniature in this way that one can only hope it will be repeated.
I could finish this off by saying it’s ‘a Heep of Hensley’, or ‘a (Mick) Box of Hensley’ but I wouldn’t do that. No, not me. What I will say is that this is a box full of cracking music from a gifted and too easily forgotten musician and songwriter, and as so commands your attention. If you like yourself a bit of Heep, get hold of this. You won’t regret it, it’s a lovely collection, lovingly compiled. What else could you ask?