THE MAGICIAN’S BIRTHDAY is a great Uriah Heep album. It’s standouts are “Sunrise” and “Sweet Lorraine”, but the other songs should not be counted out, either. The group would make one more great album, SWEET FREEDOM, before problems with bassist Gary Thain would derail them musically and commercially. Here, though, it looks as if they could go on forever.
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Although it is slightly less polished than Demons and Wizards, The Magician’s Birthday album continues in the same vein and gives more evidence of why this band continues to have a large cult following today. Keyboardist Ken Hensley tends to dominate this record more than Demons, and it is full of the moody, introspective ballads that would characterize his solo album of this time, Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf. However, there are a few lively tunes here just to keep things from getting too mellow. These include the concert standby “Sweet Lorraine” and the title track, taking a cherubic “Yellow Submarine”-like approach and highlighted by a remarkable Hendrix-like solo from Mick Box. An approach that only the most pretentious Ivy-league types could find fault with. If you have Demons and Wizards and liked it, you’ll definitely want to check this one out as well.
“The Magician’s Birthday” was the second Heep album by the classical line-up featuring Hensley, Byron, Box, Thain and Kerslake. It was also the second album with a Roger Dean cover. And moreover, it was the second album the band released in 1972.
After a long 1972 tour Uriah Heep were rushed back into the Lansdowne studios to record a follow-up to their break-through and much acclaimed album “Demons and Wizzards”.
As Hensley states in the notes, they felt that were never really given the time it took to record the album, which was originally planned to be a “complete” concept album. Though it may have been rushed it nearly matches its great predecessor. The band, and especially Hensley as a songwriter, were at the peak of their creativity and many of these songs have become classics and favourites. The extensive list of bonus-tracks clearly illustrates what a great period this was for the band. Unfortunately the hard work took its toll on some of the band-members; but that’s another story.
The first track, Hensley’s dramatic “Sunrise”, is the perfect opener, with great lead and harmony vocals.
Another highlight is the melodic rocker “Blind Eye”, driven by acoustic guitars and featuring a nice twin-guitar theme; also a Ken Hensley song.
Two songs released as single A-sides were “Spider Woman” (Europe) and “Sweet Lorraine” ( America), and where the first is a rather traditional heavy-rocker, “Sweet Lorraine” has all it takes to become a classic. Great whining riff, fine breaks and a catchy chorus. Simply one of the most memorable Heep recordings; written by Box, Byron and Thain.
As the most versatile songwriter in the band Hensley also demonstrates a talent for writing melodic ballads such as “Echoes in the Dark” and the quiet piano accompanied “Rain” with great lead vocals.
“Tales” is the closest the band get to playing folk-rock on the record; another fine recording.
Though the title track has its moments, it somehow feels too longwinded with its ten and a half minutes playing time.
Among the bonus-tracks Gary Thain’s “Crystal Ball” is a nice surprise; sad that his constitution was strong enough to take the strain of heavy touring etc.
Though not quite as consistent as “Demons and Wizzards” still one of Heep’s finest albums.
This album is one of the all time greats. Uriah Heep are a much underrated band, mainly remembered in the US for one or two hits (ie Stealin’ and Easy Livin’) and for being one of the apparent main inspirations for Spinal Tap. But during the early 70’s, they were one of the finest bands around. David Byron was one of the best rock vocalists EVER, second only to Freddie Mercury, while Mick Box cranked riffs and technically simply but effective solos. Ken Hensley played keyboards, played some of the more impressive guitar parts and also contributed a great deal of excellent songwriting to the band’s repetoire. And Gary Thain and Lee Kerslake were one of the most solid rhythm sections around, combining Thain’s melodic bass playing with Kerslake’s workmanlike drumming. Oh, and everyone sang back up vocals (lest you should wonder where the great vocal harmonies on the record came from). Every song on this record is a winner, from the opener Sunrise to the 10 minute title track finale. In between, a diverse array of tunes are encountered, from the hard rockin’ boogie of Sweet Lorraine to the ballad Rain. Even the cover artwork (by the legendary Roger Dean, who had built up a reputation for doing artwork for many bands in England over the preceding few years, and was on the verge of beginning his decades long association with progressive rock giants Yes) is brilliant. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. Gary Thain developed a serious drug problem, which led to him nearly being electrocuted onstage a few years later. He was kicked out of the band, and died of an overdose in 77. David Byron last two more albums, but was also booted from the group, for drinking too much. He went onto release a couple solo albums before dying in 1984. In 1980, Hensley left on his own accord, after disputes with John Sloman, the singer who had replaced John Lawton (who himself had replaced Byron). Without Byron’s voice, Thain’s bass, or Hensley’s songwriting (and admittedly, Hensley seemed to run out of quality material a cuople albums before he left) Heep was never the same. Rest assured, we still have the classic early 70’s albums. My only caveat is that you get the mid 90’s remaster (on Essential/Castle Recordings), which has two bonus tracks. One is a vocal track that never got finished, so it’s presented as a rather dull karoake-style instrumental. The other bonus track, Crystal Ball, which is the only song credited solely to Gary Thain as a songwriter. It’s a rough recording, with apparently just a guide vocal, but it’s a good song, one worth hearing, especially in light of Gary’s tragic demise. Oh yeah, and the infamous Melissa Mills quote actually was “If this band makes it, I’ll have to commit suicide”.
The follow-up album to “Demons and Wizards”, recorded in the same year, and while still touring constantly (a grueling pace that was to lead to problems down the road for many of the members), this album maintains the quality of its legendary predecessor.”Rain” is a beautiful ballad, delivered perfectly and subtly by the now sadly overlooked David Byron, one of the greatest singers in rock history (all of Byron’s works should be required listening for modern vocalists, he was a master of dynamics, an art that has been sadly lost in recent years). “Sweet Lorraine” is incredibly catchy ear candy, and was the radio standard from the album. “Tales”, “Blind Eye” and “Echoes In The Dark” are moody, mystical, ominous, and emotionally moving, with Byron’s vocal performance particularly shining on them as well. “Spider Woman” is a bit of a throw-away, but plenty of fun, with some excellent slide guitar work from Ken Hensley.Which leaves the album’s opening and closing tracks: “Sunrise”, the opener, was the first Heep song I ever heard, and led me to become a lifelong fan; the group’s trademark vocal harmonies have possibly never been so well displayed as on this song, which became a long-time concert opener. The title track, which closes the album, is an epic, multi-sectional tour-de-force, with an excellent, blistering, extended guitar and drum duet by Mick Box and Lee Kerslake in the middle, and some amazing vocals from both the aforementioned Mssrs. Byron and Hensley. A more than worthy successor to “Demons and Wizards”, and a must-have album for Heepsters or classic rock fans in general.Oh, and for the few obnoxious reviewers of this album who felt the need to compare it derisively to Spinal Tap for the fantasy-oriented lyrics, I have two observations:1) It was recorded in 1972, when virtually *every* British band, including the universally acknowledged gods of Heavy Metal, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, were visiting various fantasy realms lyrically on virtually every song. To continue to slag Uriah Heep for being a product of their time in that respect, especially when similar bands who were doing exactly the same thing (and were similarly villified for it at the time) are now regarded as geniuses, is just petty and mean-spirited. Personally, I find the fantasy themes charming, in a Tolkienesque way. YMMV.2) For all the deliberate silliness of their lyrics, Spinal Tap is an excellent band from a musical standpoint: Guest, McKean, and Shearer are all extremely proficient at their respective instruments, and their compositional skills are top-notch, so comparing bands to them is not quite as insulting as musically clueless would-be critics might think.