While it may not always be seen as favourably as some of 1970’s heavyweight hard rock discs, ‘Very ’Eavy Very ’Umble’ marked a more than credible beginning for British rockers Uriah Heep. While the release never troubled the UK album chart, its mix of blues, rock and occasional psychedelic leanings met with a devoted group of music fans. Having found an audience, it would have been easy for Mick Box and his merry band of musicians to knock out a near carbon copy for their second release, but the album that eventually emerged in February 1971 couldn’t have been any more different.
‘Salisbury’ (released just eight months after the debut), draws from a much broader musical palette than before. Maybe this was due to the band still attempting to find their niche and taking advantage of the freedom to experiment; maybe Box already had a grander plan. Whatever the reasoning, ‘Salisbury’ is nothing like its predecessor. A couple of tracks appear to cling onto a hard rock blueprint but, on the whole, the album takes on a more pompous presence, creating music that takes in jazz, prog and classical influences along the way. Numbering only six tracks – with the title cut taking up the lion’s share of the second side – it is the bravest moments of musical experimentation that ultimately leave the strongest impression.
With the album’s opening cut ‘Bird of Prey’ clinging onto some obvious hard rock tropes, fans of ‘Very ’Eavy’ are given an easy entry point, since the simple riff appears to be a match for ‘Gypsy’ in its (then) uncompromising delivery. With a solid sound, guitarist Mick Box hammers his way through a chunky hard rock riff in the left speaker channel, while in the right, vocalist David Byron wails in falsetto rather unnecessarily. This contrast in styles seems a little ridiculous, but somehow – through talent or sheer ballsiness – Heep make it work very effectively. The mid section captures the band in a more upbeat mood, stepping up a gear for a reasonable solo, but ‘Bird of Prey’ leaves it’s best feature for last… Almost sounding like a different song entirely, a riff akin to a lightweight Tony Iommi cast-off takes centre stage for the big finale; intercut with various falsetto oohs and ahs, once again, it doesn’t shy away from pomp rock ridicule, but like most of Heep’s yin/yang experimentation, they pull this off magnificently. While the guitar riff is memorable (and the vocal too, though perhaps for the wrong reasons), it is, in fact, keyboard player Ken Hensley who offers the best elements during this coda. He adds swathes of Hammond organ in a Jon Lord style, filling most of the space effortlesstly, adding a bluesy colouring to otherwise fairly monolithic tones. This combination of hard rock seriousness and pompous theatrical edge is classic early Heep and, as such, provides the perfect continuation from their debut.
Nothing from ‘Very ’Umble’ prepares the listener for the track which immediately follows, however, since Heep go for a musical polar opposite on second number ‘The Park’. Byron sings in falsetto – in a fashion that appears more extreme than any previous Heep tracks – while Hensley lays down a blanket of organ chords. The rhythm section, at first are given very little to do, since anything intricate is also handled by Hensley accompanying those relatively weighty chords with tinkling harsichord sounds. After two minutes, you may find yourselves wishing more would happen, and the selection of wordless harmony vocals which ensues (again in falsetto) is unlikely to win you over if you’ve struggled this far; nor is the wailing verse which follows, even though the counter-vocals are far more interesting. ‘The Park’ is hard going, but has one redeeming feature: for about a minute, before the final verse, the band embarks on a jazz interlude! For the brief duration that Byron manages to keep his mouth shut, Mick Box sounds terrific as he works through a clean toned and jazzy guitar solo, which, although fitting to Heep’s world of bombastic rock, owes more to Blue Note legend Grant Green than anything else. During this interlude, Box shows a rarely heard side to his playing, while bassist Paul Newton offers an equally complex melody. As enjoyable as it is, it is worth struggling through the rest of the song to hear. It certainly deserves to be longer; in fact, it should have been worked into a stand-alone piece.
As if to counterbalance the potential silliness within ‘Bird of Prey’ and the jazzy experimentation of ‘The Park’, ‘Time To Live’ offers some straight up, no messing 70s rock. While Heep’s experimental side is appealing, there’s always time for something more accessible and familiar, and this slab of meaty 70s rock represents the closest Heep get to actually being Deep Purple. Box and Henley are on fire, attacking mid paced riffing, but unusually, Byron is a touch more restrained. That’s not to say he doesn’t go for a full on rock performance, but there’s much less squealing here; a surprising move considering he could’ve spent four minutes unleashing his inner Ian Gillan. Given the straight up nature of the piece, ‘Time To Live’ isn’t ‘Salisbury’s most interesting tune, but has lost none of its impact over the years. ‘Lady In Black’ lightens the mood considerably and shifts into acoustic mode, as Heep take a rare excursion into something nearing folk rock territory. With a simple chord pattern and restrained vocals (provided by the multi-talented Ken Hensley), this tune is almost Lindisfarne-esque in its approach, something strengthened through the use of tight harmonies. In honesty, it’s not very Uriah Heep-esque at all, but since this album has already moved through moods of hard rock, pomp and even jazz fusion noodling, any pre-conceived idea of “Heep-esque” goes out of the window. It seems that, in this fledgeling state, the band weren’t sure themselves themselves, or at least refused to be pigeonholed.
Listeners hoping for a little more rock before the album’s big finale are given an absolute cracker in ‘High Priestess’. Arguably ‘Salisbury’s best tune (although infrequently remembered in comparison to the likes of ‘Bird of Prey’) this piece of hard rock comes with moments of twin lead guitar and the usual falsetto vocals, but listen a little more closely and you’ll discover a slightly different slant. There’s a slightly glammy edge, not far removed from something you may have found nestled on an Andy Scott penned b-side for the Sweet. You may not feel that’s worth noting – there was a lot of glam about in the seventies after all – but ‘High Priestess’ predates the glam rock boom by a couple of years. While some had written Heep off as Purple wannabes, this proves they also had the ability to be trend setters, although few would have realised it at the time. Although not a lengthy tune, the band pack a lot into its three and a half minutes, from ringing guitars, proggy slide guitar work, hard rock twin leads, a storming vocal topped by falsetto parts drenched in reverb, a busy bass line and a tight drum part (courtesy of Keith Baker, making his only recordings with Heep on this LP). It may never grace compilations, but simply put, ‘High Priestess’ is one of the Byron era Heep’s most enjoyable offerings.
Clocking in at over sixteen minutes, the title track explores the then briefly popular phenomenon of classical music within the rock world. Heep fill the lengthy piece with their best efforts and yet, it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Perhaps this is to do with orchestral rock reaching saturation point by 1970 with two Deep Purple works and Pink Floyd’s ‘Atom Heart Mother’ begging for listeners’ attentions, since ‘Salisbury’s shortcomings have nothing especially to do with any of the musicians involved – as evidenced elsewhere, they’re all great players. The issue comes from it having the unfortunate effect of highlighting that neither Box nor Hensley are as durable in the “serious” composition department as either Ritchie Blackmore or Jon Lord. Comparing ‘Salisbury’ to Purple’s own ‘April’ (1969) and ‘Concerto for Group & Orchestra’ (1970), ‘Salisbury’ smacks of trying far, far too hard and still coming up a little short. Looking at its best elements, however, there’s still a lot enjoyment to be had: The brass takes on a gargantuan presence, making its presence felt from the outset, presenting a similar kind of force as The Ides of March’s then recent hit ‘Vehicle’ and the woodwinds have a pleasingly wistful air which seems to compliment Byron’s more thoughtful vocals. More than its nearest Deep Purple equivalents, however, this is chiefly about the rock band. Bassist Paul Newton fills the piece with fantastic lines – his best performance during his brief Heep tenure – and he sounds especially good when taking on a jazz oriented jam against Box’s busy guitar work. Hensley is superb on the organ throughout, and during the rockier climax Box shines on a few slightly bluesy leads. ‘Salisbury’s brave and adventurous sixteen minutes might not reach the heights of some orchestral rock pieces, but it’s certainly worth losing yourself in once in a while. It certainly ends the album in a completely different place to where it began…and gives absolutely no clue as to where the band will go on their follow up.
While often excellent from a musical standpoint, like many Uriah Heep albums, the artwork appears rather less fortunate. Housed in a sleeve featuring a tank – the UK’s Salisbury plain having a strong connection with army training – the artwork is as unsubtle as some the orchestral/progressive rock contained within the album’s title cut. This is something which the US market totally missed, when the album was repackaged in a red sleeve which replaced all things militaristic with a crude drawing of something akin to a mummified body with a flower for a head… This was possibly changed due to sensitivities regarding the ongoing Viet Nam War, but if not, Christ alone knows why the US got such an appalling replacement. Who gave the thumbs up to this replacement art? Maybe Mercury Records (the band’s then US label) wanted to see if they could out-do the awfulness of ‘Very ’Eavy’s ugly artwork… [The sleeve was not the only major change for the US release: the excellent ‘Bird of Prey’ was omitted, and replaced with ‘Simon The Bullet Freak’, a track not included on the UK release until the 25th anniversary expanded reissue].
While ‘Salisbury’ contains plenty of moments beloved by fans, is it certainly not an album for first time Uriah Heep listeners. Aside from ‘Bird of Prey’ and ‘Time To Live’, the tracks often take a while to sink in. Its unrestrained approach to absorbing influences and styles can be frustrating, but equally brilliant, but that’s why – for those willing to accept all of its idiosyncrasies and falsetto vocals – the album often seems worthy of returning to time and again, no matter how many years pass. Heep would go on to record much more focused works – the prog obsessed ‘Demons & Wizards’, theatrical ‘Return To Fantasy’ and straight hard rock of ‘Into The Wild’ each show a different and equally brilliant side to an ever evolving band – but few albums seem as carefree or purely adventurous as ‘Salisbury’. Even viewed as a flawed experiment, the era rarely threw up anything so…boundless. Long may it continue to entertain fans and bewilder the band’s critics.
June-November 2012/February 2021