URIAH HEEP — Salisbury (review)

URIAH HEEP — Salisbury album cover Album · 1971 · Hard Rock Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
URIAH HEEP didn’t waste any time after releasing their debut “…Very ‘Eavy…Very ‘Umble” in mid-1970 to little fanfare. The band found that the musicians’ chemistry allowed them to progress quickly which allowed them to release not only one but two albums the following year in 1971 of which this album SALISBURY was the first to be released in February. After a debut album more geared towards hard rock with subtle progressive elements, on the second album the songwriting duties were much more in the hands of keyboardist Ken Hensley whereas the debut was more democratic with guitarist Mick Box and lead singer David Byron contributing a substantial amount of the material. The result of this is that SALISBURY was much more of a progressive rock album than a straight forward hard rock album per se. While the tracks and title would remain the same, this album had two different album covers for the UK and North America. The UK version dons the famous army tank shrouded in an orange mist whereas the American counterpart displayed a demonic corpse of some kind with a dark red backdrop.

While the opening track “Bird of Prey” launched the now standard heavy rock guitar driven formula of the debut (and was even chosen to replace the UK version’s “Lucy Blues” on the fourth track on that album), this album quickly drifts off into more keyboard driven rock that culminates in the grande finale 16-minute title track that featured a 24-piece orchestra filled complete with brass and woodwind sections. But make no mistake, SALISBURY contains hefty doses of heavy power chord guitar bombast, sizzling solos, dynamic bass and drum rhythm sections and the soaring operatic vocals of David Byron which made the band stand out from the pack immediately. While the rock elements hadn’t disappeared, they had been infiltrated by many other musical styles. Perhaps none so blatantly apparent than the folk-styled “Lady In Black” which narrates the story of a man encountering a goddess who consoles him after the turmoil of a major war. The single became a huge hit in Germany upon its re-release in 1977.

SALISBURY was a major step-up in every way from the debut without jettisoning the bluesy hard rock which provided the canvas to paint upon. While considered progressive rock, the easily accessible heavy rock melodic approach remains intact and the prog complexities don’t result from jarring inconsistencies with the melodic flow but rather stem from complimentary constructs which allow greater dynamics, more sophisticated songwriting and greater space to improvise clever technical aspects around. The album is also perfectly paced as it allows the hard rock to provide the main emphasis but is punctuated by the softer acoustic guitar and spaced out psychedelic moments to break the monotony. The heavy rock and softer approaches alternate up to the progressive behemoth highlight that closes the album, namely the 16 minute title track that took URIAH HEEP into a whole other level of heavy rock sophistication that no other of the day had even come close to approaching.

This period in the band’s history proved to be the most experimental and nothing showcases this ambition than the title track which swallowed up more than half of the album’s running time. While based in the same melodic hard rock of the rest of the album, the track turned into an extended progressive jam session that was complimented by John Fiddy’s outlandish arrangements for a 22-piece brass and woodwind section which allowed flutes and choirs to augment Byron’s vocals into a major production. Add to that some extraordinary organ and guitar solos and the track easily goes down as URIAH HEEP’s most ambitious piece of their half century career, a feat they would never tackle again as they settled into the more streamlined hard rock sounds that would launch their success on the album “Demons and Wizards.” Unfortunately for the band at this point this album was a little too far ahead of its time for hard rock listeners but has resonated strongly for the prog crowds ever since.

Of the two albums released in 1971, this one and the following “Look At Yourself,” this one has the upper edge for its bold statements that are utterly unique in not only the band’s canon but for the era in which it was produced. To me this is the type of sound that the early Mark I version of Deep Purple was trying to capture but didn’t quite have the chemistry to pull it off. With URIAH HEEP, all the band members were in sync with the direction of the band’s musical development and crafted one of the most demanding albums of their career with an utterly unique hybridization of heavier blues rock fused with the more sophisticated approaches of progressive rock. For many this was deemed unfocused and while it’s true that many disciplines of music are required to understand this, i personally find this to be a rather flawless album. The diverse elements that are strewn out are by far its strength not its weakness. If you only care for the simpler hard rock approach, there are countless other albums to explore however if you crave something existing in its own world and is the perfect embodiment of hard rock, blues, classical and prog then look no further. This is an excellent example of that little corner of unbridled experimentation.
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