[Demons And Wizards] has the classic Roger Dean cover artwork on the front, with a slight variation on the back featuring a different band logo. Once again, every detail is crystal clear, right down to the wizard’s (real) butterfly wings.
You remember picture disc vinyl when it first made an appearance, around the turn of the ’80s or so? It was a cool gimmick for sure, but the execution left much to be desired. The picture would be printed on a cardboard disc which was then encased within two transparent halves of the disc joined together, making the image indistinct, the sound demonstrably worse than regular vinyl, and the whole thing feeling as if it was about an inch thick. Well, in the years since vinyl has been, if not away, then certainly hibernating, the technology has massively improved, making the picture disc option a much more practical reality now that a resurgence of the medium is seemingly upon us in most welcome style. Case in point, these vintage Uriah Heep albums, reissued in picture discs featuring, in a couple of cases at least, some new artwork not around on original release. And they look stunning, with every single detail pin-sharp in focus.
First up is the 1970 debut, Very ‘Eavy … Very ‘Umble. Admittedly still a little formative, this is still an album which holds up pretty well today. The opening track Gypsy is, of course, a Heep classic, and has been played at virtually every show the band have played for the last 50 years. Deservedly so, as well, because the combination of Mick Box’s steamhammer-heavy riff with David Byron’s dramatic vocals is still enough to stop you in your tracks. The instrumental section is itself superb, and makes the song into much more than it otherwise would be. There isn’t anything else quite so immediate and outstanding on the album, but dig a little deeper and there are gems to be found. The excellent closer Wake Up (Set Your Sights) is the most prog rock-flavoured piece on the record, but the second most heralded track is almost certainly the band’s version of the heart-rending anti-war tale Come Away Melinda – also recorded around the same time by the early UFO, these are both to these ears the definitive renditions of the song which dates back to the early 1960s. Other highlights on the second side of the album are the all-but-forgotten and sadly underrated I’ll Keep On Trying and Paul Newton’s hard rocking Dreammare. The only weak point comes with the rather pedestrian Lucy Blues which closes the first side; replaced by an early version of Bird Of Prey on the US version of the album, this is nevertheless the original UK tracklisting – despite the cover boasting the presence of Bird Of Prey, which is certainly nowhere to be seen!
Straight away it is clear that the sound problems associated with picture discs of decades past are no more, as this is vibrant and rich in tone. The art on the disc has the classic front cover on one side of it (the hideous cobwebbed face being in fact David Byron, caught by Box surprising him with a blast from a ‘cobweb spray’!) The other side has the clasped hands from the album’s rear cover (belonging to the studio tea boy, getting his moment of glory), but it is the front which gets the attention, as the detail is such that every single cobweb strand is visible in glorious high definition. It’s a lovely artefact for sure – coming, as do all of these discs, in a clear plastic sleeve to show off the artwork, with a strip down the side carrying track listing and some notes.
1971’s Salisbury represented a massive step forward from the debut, and still holds up as an exceptional album today. With the prolific Ken Hensley (who joined during the recording of the first album) now a full part of the writing team, things have moved on significantly in a compositional sense. Again, this is the UK version of the album, and so opens with the classic Bird Of Prey (a later recording than that on the US debut), rather than containing the track Simon The Bullet Freak, which replaced the former on the US Salisbury. The heavy Time To Kill and the beautiful anti-war meditation of The Park are both very strong tracks, but the first side ends with Hensley’s timeless Lady In Black, still a popular live piece (and communal sing-along) today. Musically simple, it is nevertheless brilliantly infectious, and Hensley, who sings this one in place of Byron, delivers his own powerful words perfectly. Side Two opens with the direct hard rocker High Priestess before going into the hugely impressive fifteen-minute title track, a grand prog rock production with orchestral accompaniment. Containing an astonishingly fluid and well-constructed guitar solo by Box, the piece remains one of the finest the band ever recorded, and surely the most ambitious, and is scandalously overlooked. The disc this time has the eye-catching UK cover with the tank shrouded in orange smoke, and again is a very effective disc design. The reverse this time carries the black and white shot of a tank going over the edge of a trench which graced the inner gatefold of the original cover.
Third album Look At Yourself isn’t present here, but must be coming later, as the following year’s Demons And Wizards is listed on its cover as ‘#4 in this picture disc series’. Moving on to Demons, there can be few Heep fans, even of a casual nature, who don’t know this album, as it is regularly cited as their crowning achievement (my personal vote goes to Sweet Freedom by a nose, but they are certainly one and two). For any casual listener wanting to know what all the fuss is about, this one is as good a place to start as any, and can be recommended without reservation. The disc marks the recorded debut of new rhythm section Gary Thain and Lee Kerslake, and it is almost wall-to-wall classics. From the opening, quite low key, The Wizard, through the anthemic Easy Livin’, the epic Circle Of Hands and the other ‘semi-title track’ Rainbow Demon, Heep touchstones abound. One of the crowning moments, however, comes with the lengthy closing two-parter Paradise / The Spell, which is another beautifully arranged proggy epic, and a stunning way to finish. The only slight dip is with All My Life, though this is a short track and it really doesn’t hurt proceedings. The disc here has the classic Roger Dean cover artwork on the front, with a slight variation on the back featuring a different band logo. Once again, every detail is crystal clear, right down to the wizard’s (real) butterfly wings. Many will find it the cream of this crop.
Finally, from later in 1972 – only a few months after Demons in fact – we get the similarly Roger Dean-illustrated The Magician’s Birthday. Another fine set, it nevertheless could have been even better had crippling recording deadlines not hampered proceedings, as the album was originally planned by Ken Hensley as a concept piece revolving around a short story he was writing. This had to be abandoned as it was still unfinished, and material earmarked for it, such as the title track, Tales, Echoes In The Dark and more, were added to by unrelated material like the live favourite Sweet Lorraine and the somewhat disposable Spider Woman. Even without its full potential, this is a remarkable album considering its astonishingly quick creation, and contains some of vocalist David Byron’s finest moments in the massively grandiose opener Sunrise and his achingly melancholy delivery of the exquisite ballad Rain. The picture disc here is a real treat – not only do we get the classic front cover, but on the reverse we get a new, reimagined version of the artwork by Dean. It is perhaps the best looking of the discs here, though the creepy vibrancy of the debut takes some beating!
I have to confess that I am unsure whether these releases are the same picture discs which appeared in the lavish box set Every Day Rocks, as the information supplied is unclear – they do look very similar, but even if they are, it certainly represents a welcome way to get hold of them without having to spring for that complete and extremely luxury item. Uriah Heep are to my mind easily one of the most underrated bands to have come out of the UK, particularly in their exceptional first run of albums, and these are landmark recordings in whatever format you choose – they just happen to look extremely nice in this particular one! Collectors’ items, for sure.