When David Byron left Uriah Heep in 1976, the band’s fans figured he’d be irreplaceable. His dynamic vocal range was an important part of the Heep sound, after all. The band found a replacement in ex-Lucifer’s Friend vocalist John Lawton and to everyone’s surprise, the resulting album – 1977’s ‘Firefly’ – was not only enjoyable, but a big improvement over the workmanlike approach which dominated most of 1976’s ‘High & Mighty’. This was an achievement considering the band had lost a key member, but pretty amazing since they also had a new bass player in tow. ‘Firefly’ also marks the first appearance in Uriah Heep for Trevor Bolder (best known for his work as bassist with David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars).
The opening number ‘The Hanging Tree’ has been described in the past as heavy. The passing decades have weakened its impact a little; with the changes in fashion over the years, this number isn’t heavy any more – perhaps “moody” better sums up its general feel. It’s a mid-paced stomper, dominated by pulsing keyboards during the verses, which become washes of synths during the chorus. The synths are important here – in a sense, they represent looking forward. The classic Hammond sound often associated with Ken Hensley really doesn’t have much place on ‘Firefly’. As an opening statement from the new Heep, it’s hard to find fault.
‘Do You Know’ is a more fun rock ‘n’ roll style workout. Lawton’s voice is more restrained and his cool, hard rock lead vocal is balanced by excellent, pompy harmony vocals from the other band members. The balance Hensley’s pumping Hammond and Mick Box’s energetic guitar chops present the precise reason why Heep are so often compared to Deep Purple. While Lawton is no match for the grade-A screamer Ian Gillan, he takes the track and hammers his vocal for all it’s worth. Not essential Heep by any stretch, but a great rocker. ‘Who Needs Me’ follows a similar musical path; the circumstances in which it was written are interesting: allegedly, their record label boss had rejected everything the band had offered that wasn’t written by Ken Hensley and drummer Lee Kerslake wrote the song in protest. If this story has any truth, why was Hensley in such strong favour…especially when Heep included other strong writers? Although musically throwaway, the track features a great drum shuffle from Kerslake and a very strong vocal performance from Lawton (sounding very much like Head East’s John Schlitt). During the title cut, he uses both his bluesy voice and higher-pitched rock tones to great effect – as such, he proves to be a more than decent choice for replacing David Byron.
The bluesy ‘Rollin’ On’ is ‘Firefly’s strongest cut and all band members offer impressive performances. The interaction between Kerslake’s measured drumming and Hensley’s keyboards provide the real musical muscle and, musically, it has a similar vibe to Whitesnake’s strongest material from a similar period. The slow mid-section showcases some very assured guitar work from Mick Box, but despite his best efforts, it’s still John Lawton’s vocal which steals the show. Lawton isn’t perfect though, as proven by the album’s lead single, ‘Wise Man’. Although a relatively accessible number, perhaps it wasn’t the best choice for single as the vocal melody is slightly grating and during the closing moments, Lawton over-stretches himself to levels which make it hard to listen to. He was proving a point, though – one which showed Uriah Heep’s new mouthpiece was no slouch. However, Lawton’s best moments on ‘Firefly’ are his more restrained performances.
Bringing things to a close, the epic title cut begins with a huge wash of synths. Over the keys, Lawton delivers an impassioned – yet really horribly sickly – vocal that sounds better suited to the stage than a rock band. Even the addition of a backing vocal does little to improve things. If you can make it past what feels like an eternity of such horribleness, things are better once Mick Box and the rest of the band appear. Box’s lead work has a great style, but as before he doesn’t ever achieve the same level of brilliance as Trevor Bolder. Clearly a few years backing the legendary David Bowie pushed him into the realms of almost unmatchable brilliance. As the band rock out, they offer a style that’s (again) easily comparable to US late 70s pomp-rockers Head East – a style that ought to be hugely enjoyable for those who like their rock with a seventies bent. The great rock seems relatively fleeting though, since before long Box and co make a swift retreat, leaving Hensley and Lawton to return to their over-theatrical nastiness.
The remastered/expanded version of ‘Firefly’ includes a couple of bonus cuts – a single edit of ‘Wise Man’ which is completely inessential, and a genuine out-take, ‘Far Better Way’, which should have made the cut first time around. Stretching across almost six minutes, ‘Far Better Way’ begins with a darkness in mood, as Hensley’s keys tinkle in a very understated way, with Lawton’s softer vocal seeming a perfect fit, while Boulder’s bass work is solid and structured and very high in the mix. His huge presence shows no signs of diminishing once the band crash into something rather rockier, as he pounds his instrument in a lead fashion. Things then drop from straight rock to an almost seventies funk to accompany a synth solo that’s a very acquired taste, one which was slightly out of step with the punk creeping through the year, but still enjoyed by thousands of album buyers. If the sounds of Hensley’s keys – here sounding like the theme to a 70s ‘Schools & Colleges’ programme – turn you off, focus on Trevor Bolder; he’s still there, absolutely determined to outdo his newly-found band mates. For the closing section once Lawton starts screaming, it’s much harder to focus on Trev, but at least the screaming only spans the last verse. Honestly, as one of the best things to date from these sessions, it’s a travesty that ‘Far Better Way’ wasn’t considered worthy of inclusion on the original 1977 LP. Perversely, it’s about a hundred times better than the title track!
For an album which could have been difficult, with ‘Firefly’, Uriah Heep make a major change in personnel seem like an easy thing to cope with – and since the end result – on the whole – is so strong, maybe a big shake-up was what was needed to get the blood pumping again? If you’ve never moved on from 1972’s ‘Demons and Wizards’, there’s enough first-rate material here to prove that there’s far more to Uriah Heep than mere wailing and Tolkein-esque prog rock theatrics.
[Trevor Bolder 1950-2013]
February 2010/August 2011/May 2013