For another Steel Mill KlassiK album feature, let us turn the clock back 36 years and take a look at british rockers Uriah Heep. Already having three, gradually stronger, albums in their catalogue, Heep hit a total motherload of creativity in 1972 resulting in two of the bands most celebrated albums, Demons And Wizards (May 72) and The Magician’s Birthday (November 72).
Releasing two full-length records within a year can be seen as quite an effort in itself, but when the albums remain as some of the finest examples of hard rock, Uriah Heep’s creative thrust during the writing and recording of said albums was a formidable display of band’s capability.
Both albums justifiably deserve their classic status and would be fine cases for a KlassiK review, but as the usual comments and opinions often lift Demons And Wizards as the high point of Heep’s career, it’s more than appropriate to lift it’s overshadowed follower The Magician’s Birthday as the subject of this review. After all, even though it lacks the hit power Demons And Wizards received with “Easy Livin'” and perhaps might feel a little too much as a sequel to it’s predecessor, the album in turn further redefined the mesmerising soundscapes first truly present at Demons And Wizards and in retrospect becoming some of the most distinctive elements in the music of Uriah Heep.
Like said, The Magician’s Birthday didn’t provide an instant, time-defying hit such as “Easy Livin'” or “Lady In Black” for the band, but songs like “Sunrise” or “Rain” have since become mainstays in the band’s live set and ‘best of’ releases. However, as whole, the album is full of strength; the songs form an addictive, enchanting journey through musical landscapes thick with mystical atmosphere, well fitting to the album’s title and furthermore complimented by the distinctive cover artwork by designer Roger Dean. Like common to the LP era, the amount of the tracks on the album is relatively small, but as the full-crammed 15+ track CD’s of today well show, quantity seldom outweighs quality. And so, in the case of The Magician’s Birthday, none of the eight tracks feels out of place or could be labeled as filler material. Instead, the songs flow onwards seamlessly, providing a listening experience that doesn’t know the word ‘skip’.
As for the songs, the album can easily be divided in two sections depending of the songwriters. Back then the usual composing workload in Uriah Heep rested upon the shoulders of multi-instrumentalist and part-time singer (though most known for his skillful keyboard wizardry) Ken Hensley, leaving the number of songs without his contribution a considerable minority. The Magician’s Birthday features only two songs ‘Spider Woman’ and ‘Sweet Lorraine’ written by the other bandmembers (Mick Box g, David Byron v, Lee Kerslake dr, Gary Thain b) and form the more rocking side of the album. Of the pair ‘Spider Woman’ is a straightforward rock song lifted to flight by some nice slide guitars by Hensley. The song is a solid tune, but in the company of album’s other songs remains as the least impressive one. ‘Sweet Lorraine’ on the other hand includes some more personality and stands out as the best rocker on the album and has deservingly become a firm fan favourite. The excellent drum fills by Lee Kerslake are one of the main driving powers of the stomping track.
The true strength of The Magician’s Birthday, however, lies on the rest of the tracks. The songs form a natural succession to the mystical songs like ‘Circle Of Hands’ and ‘Rainbow Demon’ from Demons And Wizards and refine their style a little further. Ken Hensley’s songwriting summons up a very special atmosphere of mystery, equally impressive on dark, subtle moments of tranquillity and majestically rushing streams of unyielding power. David Byron’s vocals fit the concept like a glove and the way the man was able to deliver heartfelt emotion through his voice remains as one of the best in rock’n roll history. The rest of the band executes their tasks equally professionally, and with their own distinctive styles.
Although, like all good music, The Magician’s Birthday serves as a very enjoyable album to listen to wherever one pleases, I strongly recommend dimming the lights down, putting the CD on and delving into the songs in concentration. The way ‘Sunrise’ gradually escalates from it’s soft beginning into a powerful proclamative finale… how the clever acoustic structure builds ‘Blind Eye’ into an almost hypnotizing piece… or how in the midst of all mystery and magic a simple ballad ‘Rain’ shows how well a song can work with just a little piano and strong vocals. Then there are ‘Tales’ and ‘Echoes In The Dark’, that I won’t even try to describe… sufficient to say these couple of tracks display the spellbinding elements of the album in perhaps their fullest form. Magical stuff.
Of course The Magician’s Birthday’s final culmination point is the album closing title track. An epic composition such as this, with multiple parts wasn’t something completely new for Uriah Heep, as they had already introduced ‘Paradise/The Spell’ on Demons And Wizards and ‘Salisbury’ on the album of the same name a bit earlier. Although I personally favor the mentioned two tracks over ‘The Magician’s Birthday’, the title track of the album in question is usually considered as Heep’s true Magnum Opus and is indeed a formidable creation. The song carries on the esoteric atmosphere conjured by the preceding songs, but adds also a bit more variety in the forms of famous guitar/drums duel in it’s solo part as well as a confrontation of the story’s protagonists displayed in the form of a duet by Byron and Hensley. A touch of humour is also present, almost psychedelic rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ backed by Lee Kerslake playing a kazoo is something you really don’t expect to hear. All in all, the gigantic song provides a fitting end to the album, altough on numerous re-issues some more or less interesting bonus tracks are included.
The great songs on the album make The Magician’s Birthday a true hard rock gem but it’s the overall atmosphere that makes it a true masterpiece. With Demons And Wizards it serves as a testament of the strength of Uriah Heep’s most valued line-up and even though the band has since then released a number of excellent albums, marks the peak of their musical career.
2. Spider Woman
3. Blind Eye
4. Echoes In The Dark
6. Sweet Lorraine
8. The Magician’s Birthday