I’m as surprised as you. Well, maybe not so surprised: it’s a late Friday night, I’m already a few whiskeys in, and listening to the great HiFi Dream Machine. It was inevitable Uriah Heep was going to come back up. A few months back I picked up from my local record shop the final entry in the band’s trilogy of great records from 1971-1972 The Magician’s Birthday, so what better time than now to complete my Heep triumvirate? Follow me down the rabbit hole as I go track by track, drinking more whiskey than I ought and reveling in the sounds of the 70s. Who’s with me?
Album #5 kicks off with “Sunrise” and the good news is we’re sticking with the Demons and Wizards lineup, which means the great Gary Thain on bass. He was one of my favorite things about the previous album and hearing his tasty playing here makes everything a little bit bet better. It’s a killer opener, heavy and martial in its attack. David Byron is completely on point in the vocal department, giving a majesty to keyboardist/primary songwriter Ken Hensley’s track. From there we go to the good ol’ boy rock and roll of “Spider Woman” and for a full band composition it’s…okay. The song is plenty fun, but it definitely sits in the fun rock and roll corner of Heep’s universe, sitting alongside songs like “All My Life” or “Tears in My Eyes”. It’s over before you know it, but it’s fun while it lasted.
“Blind Eye” brings us back to the Hensley tracks (like before he dominates most of the songwriting on Magician’s Birthday) and the acoustic guitars that open the song are a nice touch, as are Byron’s harmonized vocals. Speaking of harmonizing, Mick Box has some nice harmonized leads here, and if the song doesn’t maybe have the same fire of their other hits, I really like the way it moves between an almost light folk feel coupled with an acoustic gallop that – if you were put some serious distortion on and up the tempo – would certainly recall some Iron Maiden. “Echoes in the Dark” shows why I think Gary Thain brings so much to the band – the song is a darker, moody piece and you can hear how Thain maneuvers his bass around Hensley and Box’s riffs to convey a serpentine menace to the track. When we get to the choir vocals backing Byron up during the chorus I’m hooked on this being an early favorite. The side closes with “Rain” and some piano which, if I’m being honest, is the first real dud of The Magician’s Birthday. I get the need for some kind of ballad to get radio play and to act as a breather between the heavier tracks, but there’s nothing about “Rain” that feels like there’s any weight.
Switching over to Side 2 at least brings some energy back, with “Sweet Lorraine” hitting that wah pedal with a fury. Everyone sounds great despite the faint whiff of good time classic rock left over from the late 60s (it’s also once again a group collaboration, this time sans Hensley), but it’s salvaged for me by Thain’s bass work and Hensley’s dedication to injecting some fun synth sounds throughout the song. We haven’t talked about Lee Kerslake yet, but that’s mainly because he’s as he always is: steadfast and professional, super solid in the drummer seat and attuned to what’s precisely needed at any moment. It’s not flashy, but it serves what it needs to, which for me is what I want out of ~90% of my drummers.
“Tales” features pedal steel from Brian Cole of Cochise, and it adds another color to Heep’s work. If you’re going to do a slower, more sedate song, this is how you do it. None of the saccharine found in “Rain” is present here, and as the penultimate track to the album serves its purpose admirably.
And then we come to “The Magician’s Birthday” which at over 10 minutes serves as both the closer and the obligatory epic of the piece. Would you be shocked if I told you it rocked? The tone varies a bit more, with kazoos and a jaunty mood that gives the “prog” aspect of the song a more dramatic flair than previous epics, but honestly stuff like this is kind of what we come for, right? Don’t we live for that weird break about three and half minutes in when things start to crash and get a little more weird than we would expect? Thankfully that’s also where Kerslake and Box really shine, soloing like mad and injecting some much needed hard rock theatrics into the song and the album as a whole. This extended section is by far the most part of both the song and The Magician’s Birthday in total; there’s an element of chaos and abandon that showcases why you should never write off Uriah Heep as merely a classic rock band. These guys could rock like demons, and demonstrated as such time and again.
If I’m being honest, I was prepared to come in and state that The Magician’s Birthday was my least favorite of the three albums covered here so far. But the truth is always a bit more prickly; yeah there are probably more moments here I’m not a fan of than on both Look At Yourself and Demons and Wizards, but the truth works both ways: when things work, as they do on “Echoes in the Dark” and the title track, they’re as good if not better than the previous albums.
In the end why do I even need to come to a ranked conclusion? Let them all rock, and let me reap the myriad benefits from it. Long hail Uriah Heep.