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Uriah Heep - 20th Century Masters: The Millenium Collection: the Best of Uriah Heep CD (album) cover

20TH CENTURY MASTERS: THE MILLENIUM COLLECTION: THE BEST OF URIAH HEEP

Uriah Heep

Heavy Prog


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Neu!mann
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars Is it just me, or does it seem a trifle oxymoronic to include the headbangers of Uriah Heep in a retrospective CD series of greatest hit packages titled "20th Century Masters"?

All right, so that's a not entirely objective knee-jerk reaction. The band may have provided a role model for the comic relief rockers of Spinal Tap, but in their brief prime (circa 1970-1974) the Heep was something more than just a poor man's DEEP PURPLE. And their troglodyte reputation was effectively undermined by a name borrowed from classic English literature, in this case a character out of Charles Dickens.

But at this late date does the world really need another Uriah Heep compilation? Maybe not, but it's a blast from the past for someone who hasn't heard the music in more than thirty years. Even better, this single disc, 60-minute collection has its own track-to-track integrity, tracing a thirteen-song sequential arc over what diehard Heepsters agree are the band's best albums, spanning from their 1970 debut through 1973's "Sweet Freedom".

Visitors to these web pages looking for textbook Heavy Prog won't find anything too sophisticated here, just a dozen of the band's typically brisk and economic rockers. The most ambitious song in this set ("July Morning", from the 1971 LP "Look at Yourself") actually earns its length from little more than an extended coda, built on a simple riff repeated ad nauseam over a primitive Moog solo (played by guest MANFRED MANN, but uncredited in the notes for this CD).

The lyrics too are often inane (from "The Wizard": "He told me tales and he drank my wine / me and my magic man kinda feelin' fine..."). But depth and deeper meanings were never meant to be a part of the Uriah Heep experience, and at least the drug references are reasonably discreet. What else is the aforementioned Wizard except a surrogate Timothy Leary acid advocate? And in the song of the same name, "Sweet Lorraine" sounds suspiciously like a pusher: "Would you like to take this magic potion with me / on a trip to a cosmic playground far beyond?" (Cue the mind-altering synthesizer siren.)

No, it was the hard-driving music that eventually won over my natural skepticism, especially the macho bluster of organist Ken Hensley. He might not have been a Royal Academy keyboard virtuoso, but Hensley was a Hammond organ artiste without equal, maybe the best ambassador that instrument ever produced. Listen to his ferocious solo in the song "Gypsy", fueled by enough testosterone to crack a masonry wall. And then try to find its equal anywhere on the sunnier side of the symphonic Prog fence (sorry, Mr. Emerson: sometimes muscle counts more than speed or dexterity).

Now combine that sound with a guitarist (Mick Box) who knows his way around a power chord, and an old-fashioned crooner prone to emotional overkill (Dave Byron, sounding not unlike a hard rock Rudy Vallee). Then add at least one song equating the excesses of '70s rock 'n' roll stardom with spiritual salvation (the hit "Easy Livin' "), and there you have it: a certified guilty pleasure with guaranteed appeal to the unrepentant, acne-scarred adolescent rebel lurking inside even a middle-aged elitist snob like me.

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Posted Wednesday, April 30, 2008 | Review Permalink

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