Sunday, 29 June 2014

Uriah Heep's 'Outsider' - Album Review

Despite being contemporaries, Uriah Heep are never usually mentioned in the same breath as Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. In my opinion though, Uriah Heep are just as important to the development of the hard rock and heavy metal genres as those other three bands, and made big vocal harmonies and big keyboards popular. Over the years, Uriah Heep have covered most elements of rock and metal and their discography is pretty consistent considering how many people have been in the band since forming in 1969. Founding member and guitarist Mick Box is the only original member left in the band, and has been for many years, but he always surrounds himself with excellent musicians that help to further the band's legacy. Frontman Bernie Shaw and keyboardist Phil Lanzon have both been in the band for a long time now, nearly thirty years as they both joined in 1986. These three men are the backbone of the modern Heep sound. Mixing Shaw's strong vocals, Box's wah-drenched guitar and Lanzon's powerful hammond organ has found the band continued success and brings the sound from the band's classic early 1970s era into a new age. Relative newcomer, drummer Russell Gilbrook, helps to add a harder edge to Heep's sound. He joined the band in 2007 and the two albums he has played on have probably been the heaviest the band have produced. Both 2008's Wake the Sleeper and 2011's Into the Wild are excellent albums, and have helped bring Heep back into the spotlight after a ten year gap of recording new material. Outsider is the band's latest album and it follows the same hard-hitting format of the previous couple. There are no ballads this time around, and the album rocks hard as a result. There is nothing new here, but if you have enjoyed Heep albums past, then Outsider will surely please you. Unfortunately though, there is a little sadness surrounding this album as it is the first since 1985's Equator not to feature long-time bassist Trevor Bolder (Equator was the start of his second tenure with the band - he was also a member from 1976 to 1981) who passed away last year. His replacement, Davey Rimmer (Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction) does an excellent job replicating his fluid style however, and locks in well with Gilbrook to form a tight rhythm section.

As soon as the opening number Speed of Sound starts we hear the rumbling of hammond organ. If this is not a sign that this album is going to rock, then I do not know what is! Organ is all over this song, and envelops all of Box's muscular guitar work. Shaw's vocals drive the song and his natural melody is infectious - especially in the chorus where he harmonised by the organ and some of the trademark Heep backing vocals. Lanzon gets to shine with some big organ melodies towards the end of the song and some big vocal stabs recall the band's earliest work. One Minute opens with some gentle piano, which is a fairly uncommon instrument for the band, and Shaw sings nicely over it. This is really the only 'quiet' moment on a very hard rocking album, but it does not last long as the rest of the band join in and turn the one into another signature Heep rocker. Rimmer's bassline is very distinctive throughout the verses and the choruses are secretly anthemic. Box gets a short solo spot to use his wah pedal but it is the overall groove of this song that stands out. The next couple of numbers are a little heavier. The Law has a really strong riff from Box who manages to dominate the song despite some competition from Lanzon's hammond. The chorus has an excellent rhythm, helped by some almost galloped bass sections from Rimmer with Shaw following them with his vocal lines. The Outsider follows in a similar vein and Gilbrook makes his presence felt with some tight double-bass drumming. It is a fast track with some excellent guitar/keyboard interplay and a chorus complete with plenty of those famous vocal harmonies. It is a very catchy song that is sure to go down well live if the band decide to include it in their set. These last couple of songs really encapsulate what Uriah Heep is about at the moment, and recall their previous couple of albums. Rock the Foundation is another groovy mid-paced rock song with plenty of lush keyboards and prominent bass playing. The chorus is probably the biggest and most melodic on the album so far. It borders on the silly, but it stays just the right side of the line and makes for a feel-good sing-a-long song. The next highlight is the upbeat rhomp Looking at You which is simple but really enjoyable. It makes good use of the band's trademark vocal harmonies. Probably only the Eagles mastered harmony vocals better than the Heep, and Lanzon's organ solo is very good.

Can't Take That Away is another excellent song. The verse has a great swing feel to it and the chorus really rocks as Lanzon's hammond accentuates Shaw's vocals perfectly. Looking at recent setlists, the band have decided to play this one live and I can see why. It also gives Box a chance to flex his muscles and his guitar solo on this song really is very good. It is pretty fast, but still retains plenty of melody. He might not be the most inventive guitarist out there, but he definitely has a recognisable style and write great songs! Jessie is slightly more laid back, but it still rocks! The chorus is almost perfect with huge harmonies and melodic lead vocals from Shaw. It is the sort of song that Heep have made a career out of and Box probably writes in his sleep. There are better songs here, but as I said the chorus is excellent and the song is a nice, tight rocker. Kiss the Rainbow is up next and it is another hammond-led piece that has a rather old-school vibe to it. Again, it is slightly more laid back which lends itself to that slightly early 1970s sound. Again, the song is built from the bottom up, with Rimmer and Gilbrook laying a solid, tight foundation with Lanzon's flourishes adding the colour and extra melodies. The second half of the song has lots of good guitar playing from Box with a short solo that then extends under the rest of the repeated choruses. It adds another layer to the already big sound and adds extra melody to Shaw's vocals. The final song on the album, Say Goodbye, is another fairly standard Heep song but it has a really nice guitar riff from Box that dominates the arrangement and reappears often throughout. The start of this song however is Lanzon, who plays his hammond like it is going out of fashion. The solo is excellent and brings us back to a time when keyboards were cool, and even expected! It is a slightly odd way to end the album, as the song is short and fairly basic, but by doing so the album rocks until the very end and does not miss a beat. When the dust settles, Outsider will probably not be held is quite as high regard as Wake the Sleeper or Into the Wild - but it is still a worthy entry into the Heep back catalogue. Heep have been doing for so long now, that is amazing that they can still produce albums this strong without sounding stale. They are not doing anything new, but then nobody expects them to do so. They have already had one groundbreaking era, they are not going to have another! I will enjoy Heep albums as long as they keep making them.

The album was released on 9th June 2014 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for One Minute.

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