Ken Hensley: ‘The Bronze Years’ and ‘…Other Mysteries’

  James R. Turner on two recent boxes from Uriah Heep’s Ken Hensley, out now from Cherry Red.

From Uriah Heep’s formation in 1969 to 1980, multi-instrumental and songwriter Ken Hensley was the band’s driving force, writing some of their biggest numbers and his distinctive Hammond organ being an integral part of the sound, as well as outlasting three vocalists!

These two boxes showcase Hensley’s musical skills and his songwriting ability.

Ken Hensley: ‘The Bronze Years 1973-1981’

The first box, The Bronze Years (the label owned by Gerry Bron, sister to Eleanor Bron) features his first three solo albums – Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf, Eager to Please and Free Spirit – as well as, instead of sleeve notes an hour-long DVD interview with Ken discussing the albums in detail.

My little niggle with the first box is the fact that it feels a little flimsy with the packaging. I can understand the cost (and indeed environmental imperative) for the record label to produce the replica album sleeves in cardboard it is the lack of sleeve notes which annoys me.

When you’re collecting these albums and hoping to get the full story, in 2020 any half decent re-issue worth its name should have sleeve notes, and for those of us who are hopelessly myopic, the tiny quarter sized writing on what is, in effect reproduced album sleeves, does make it hard to read.

Two of these albums were released in tandem with Ken’s membership of Uriah Heep, whilst Free Spirit is his first album released post-Heep.

Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf (a true ‘70s Rock Album Title if ever there was one) was released in 1973 whilst Heep were going strong.

Despite the fact Ken had been a recording artist since 1968 with The Gods and Toe Fat, this was his first release under his own name – according to then-Heep bassist Gary Thain (Heep got through bassists like Spinal Tap got through drummers): “Ken’s first solo venture is based on an overflow of material that he expressed a desire to record.”

Stylistically the material on here is a lot closer to the first three Heep albums, with that mix of folk, blues and rock that reached its pinnacle on albums like Salisbury.

From Time to Time is a classic folk rocker in a similar vein to Lady in Black, with a wonderfully discreet keyboard accompaniment that adds so much.

With fellow Heep members Gary Thain on bass and Lee Kerslake on drums and Dave Paul also providing bass, the rest of the musical heavy lifting is done by Hensley, and his laid-back piano playing drives the folky King Without a Throne.

When you look at the albums that Heep were producing by this point (both Demons And Wizards and The Magician’s Birthday in 1972, and Sweet Freedom in 1973) they had moved further away from the style of material Ken had written here, so it seemed obvious (just like Peter Hammill did with Fools Mate) to record these songs as a solo album.

It also features Ken’s version of the Heep piano-led ballad, the haunting Rain, which echoes down Ken’s career, being a staple of the live sets (reviewed later in the second boxed set).

As primarily keyboard player in Heep it’s good to hear on this album Ken’s guitar work unshackled and riffing away on Proud Words (another bluesy number, reminiscent of the sound Wishbone Ash were honing at the time) and the closest the album comes to having a title track.

Fortune meanwhile, with its chord and piano sequence, sounds very much like it could have fitted into Salisbury, in fact it’s interesting to wonder how these songs would have sounded had they been recorded by Heep, and would it have altered their direction.

This is a really great debut solo album and is a far more laidback, blues/folk-focused sound instead of the heavier prog sound Heep were working towards.

Reflective songs like Go Down or the almost gospel-tinged Cold Autumn Sunday provides the counterpoint to the heavier elements, and the album as a whole stands up to scrutiny today and is well worth a listen, as the quality of the musicianship and material on here is sublime.

1975’s Eager to Please sees Ken joined by former Heep bassist Mark Clarke and drummer Bugs Pemberton, a line up which adds stability to the album as I always find the same personnel adds coherence and continuity to the songs.

The only difference between this and the previous album, is that Mark Clarke writes or co-writes two of the tracks on here: Stargazer with co-writer Bottomley [no first name given], and In the Morning.

Eager to Please opens with the title track, some sublime slide guitar work from Ken and a great rocking beat, reminiscent of the more direct, back to rock approach Heep had been working on, although with the bluesier nature of this track and bar-room piano, as Ken effectively duets with himself, it wouldn’t have suited the Heep dynamic.

That is an important factor to consider when looking at solo artists’ work recorded when they were part of a successful group. If it sounds just like the band they are in, then I think there is not much point in making it solo. These however are close enough to Heep to have Ken’s recognisable songwriting DNA all over them, but far enough removed to be something new and original.

The Clarke/Bottomley track Stargazer continues in the rocky vein (and bears no relation to the Rainbow track of the same name, released in 1976) and its big band brass section that comes in effectively half way through brings the arrangements of Salisbury to mind.

The instantly recognisable pedal steel guitar of B.J Cole introduces the Harrison-esque Secret.

One thing I’ve not really mentioned is Ken’s vocals. He is superb vocalist as well as being a multi-talented songwriter and musician, and whilst I enjoy early Heep, I find Ken’s vocals far more pleasing that the OTT approach taken by David Byron.

Tender ballad Through the Eyes of a Child has stood the test of time – testament to which is its inclusion on Live Tales in the following boxed set.

Take and Take is a powerful soulful piece with guitar underpinned by that glorious Hammond sound and a dual piano line. Ken makes the most of his musical armoury here, with some great guitar work and harmony vocals with Clarke.

There is a lot to enjoy here, from the folky Longer Shadows, to the funky, sax-driven In the Morning (contributed by Clarke) offering another great slide guitar solo from Hensley, and the original album ends of the powerful rocking ballad How Shall I Know, with superb orchestration that helps it build to the musical climax.

With bonus track Who Will Sing for You, this is definitely a fine follow-up, and sees Ken settling down far more comfortably with the idea of a solo artist identity away from Uriah Heep, one which he would embrace fully on his next album.

1981’s Free Spirit is Ken’s first after leaving Uriah Heep and is quite a funky and driving album. With the album title you get the impression he was making a statement about leaving Uriah Heep. Ken is the driving force musically on here playing most of the instruments. His clout ensured he had guest musicians of the calibre of Deep Purples Ian Paice on Brown Eyed Boy, The Who’s Kenney Jones on Telephone and former Heep colleague Trevor Bolder on bass.

From the opening groove of Inside the Mystery, the songs on here are incredibly upbeat and there’s a wonderful mix of the old and the new on When, where his classic Hammond sound and distinctive guitar work is joined by some shimmering synth and a beautiful fade-out chorus.

In fact, there are some powerful songs on here, from the wonderfully bluesy No More, with its heartfelt tale of betrayal and some fantastic guitar work, in fact Ken’s guitar work throughout is superb, and showcases his multi-instrumental skills.

With the powerhouse of Ian Paice and former Heep bassist Mark Clarke providing the groove on Brown Eyed Boy, Ken pulls out a fantastic rocking classic that could have dropped off any of the late 70’s Heep albums, and shows the direction Ken was writing in at that time.

He even channels the spirit of acts like Graham Parker and the Rumour or Nick Lowe on the well-observed Telephone, which has an absolute killer boogie riff, and is another example of the different styles Ken could write and perform in.

This is a well-rounded and recorded collection of quality tracks, and I think this is his most versatile  and entertaining album of the three in this collection.

The extra disc, an hour-long DVD of Ken talking about these three albums with journalist Malcolm Dome, reveals interesting facts about the albums, like how the title for the debut was purely because Ken wanted to record the songs and put them out there, so they didn’t end up Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf. Malcolm Dome is an engaging interviewer and Ken talks candidly, answering Malcolm’s questions in a lot of depth.

What is interesting is hearing him talking about how he pulls other influences into his writing and stepping away from the Heep pigeonhole.

With his work with Uriah Heep and his solo career, Ken seems to get overlooked to some extent by the ‘70s revisionists, and sitting here watching him in conversation, he’s engaging, entertaining, honest and is excellent at articulating his point of view, as well as being seriously honest. If you get the chance, sit down and watch this DVD – it’s an interesting and enlightening documentary.

Ken is a fascinating interviewee, and this interview format works far better than I thought it would do – I know there’s plenty of people out there who’ll buy boxed sets and never watch the interviews – something I am also guilty of! Give yourself an hour, sit down with a cuppa or drink of your choice (this is rock and roll after all!) and enjoy the creator of this art talking about it.

Ken Hensley: ‘The Bronze Years 1973-1981’ (HNEBOX127) is out now from HNE Recordings, part of the Cherry Red Group, RRP £19.99. Click here to order from Cherry Red Records.

Ken Hensley: ‘Tales of Live Fire and Other Mysteries’

Meanwhile the second box, Tales of Live Fire and Other Mysteries, pulls together five discs with the album Love and Other Mysteries (2012), Live Tales (2013), Ken Hensley and Live Fire Live and the studio album Trouble (2013).

Pleasingly, unlike its counterpart it has a lovely glossy booklet with copious sleeve notes from the original releases and a plethora of live pictures, and lyrics for both studio albums.

Originally released back in 2012, Tales of Love and Other Mysteries – his first studio album since 2007 – is a highly personal collection of songs about where he is now, with heartfelt lyrics, superb performances and an array of multi-talented guest vocalists like Glenn Hughes, Sarah Rope, Irene Formichiari and Ken himself, whose vocals now sounded better than ever.

Giving each song to different performers to interpret is a great move, as they breathe life into each story and take each song onto a new journey, from the opening Bleeding Heart, the wonderful This House to the heart-breaking Little Guy. Coupled with Ken’s emotive and informative sleeve notes from the original release, adding extra colour and texture to the background of the songs, this is a  mature, magnificent collection, a masterclass in song writing, and an album that rewards with each listen, and needs to be listened to throughout.

It also confirms Ken’s natural musical skills and his song writing nous. Like a fine wine Ken has matured as a performer, whilst still drawing on, and giving subtle nods to, his past.

There is a definite Yin and Yang feeling to this box set, with it being bookended with two studio albums, and then two concert performances. Live Tales differs vastly from its follow up Ken Hensley and Live Fire Live!! which make up disc 3 and 4, with Live Tales being the equivalent of an ‘Evening with’ event with Ken performing an intimate show on guitar and piano.

This is a real ‘best of’ performance, as Ken gets the audience to sing along, chats inbetween the songs and gives some beautifully pared back versions of solo work like Through the Eyes of a Child and Free Me.

What’s even more interesting is the difference in performance of the Uriah Heep classics, songs like The Wizard, Wise Man, July Morning and the absolute belter Lady in Black, stripped back from their sometimes overblown, bombastic arrangements and OTT vocals (hey, it was the ‘70s after all). Ken even indulges the audience in a singalong!

In fact, stripped away from its intense OTT performance on record and David Byron’s theatrical vocal gymnastics in the fade out, July Morning solo and acoustic sounds better than the version originally released on Look at Yourself.

For fans of Heep and Ken, this is a fascinating live album, showing a different facet to some of his well-known songs, and as a format reminds us why MTV Unplugged has such a massive impact on music culture. Taking well known songs and paring them right back, does not take anything away from them; instead, this intimate style makes you feel you were there, and this is a lovely, warm album.

Now the Yang, Ken Hensley and Live Fire Live!! is the exact opposite – this is the full-on heavy blues side of Ken Hensley and his band Live Fire. This takes the original in your face steamroller of sound that was early Heep, and brings it smack up to date.

Recorded during their 2012 tour of Germany and Switzerland, this captures Live Fire in fine form. A powerful five piece with Ken on keyboards, guitars and vocals, joined by the mighty vocals of Eriikur Hauksson, Tom Arne Fossheim on drums, Ken Ingwerson, guitar and vocals, and Sid Ringsby on bass and vocals.

This is a double disc set designed to delight Heep fans, chock full of pure Heep rockers including an epic version of July Morning, with far better vocals than the original version whilst the band have a massive instrumental run-out with Kens’ keyboards and Ingwerson’s guitar duelling and riffing off each other as the band build and build up. For an idea as how prog this live album is, its version of Stealin’ takes six minutes before the vocals kick in!

The crowd sing along on the superb version of Lady in Black, whilst the three encores of Rain, Gypsy and Love Machine showcase a band who are on absolute fire.

The way that Ken’s Hammond sound swirls and tumbles throughout the songs is a joy to behold (and Ken is amongst that holy trio of Hammond masters, the others of course Jon Lord and Keith Emerson) and the sound of that Hammond intro to the ever-so-slightly cliched, but incredible, track Gypsy, which kicked off side one of Uriah Heep’s debut album, still sends a kick of adrenaline to the head, and does all sorts of things to the emotions, which any good record should.

This is a fab setlist with a good mix of rockers and slower numbers to balance the set out, and the band are on absolute fire. You can tell that they are as tight as a Yorkshire farmer, and Ken sounds like he’s having a ball, as do the crowd.

This is how you do live albums.

The final disc in this set is the studio album from 2013, Trouble. The line-up changed ever so slightly with Roberto Tiranti joining on bass and lead vocals replacing both Sid Ringsby and Eirikur Hauksson.

As with the live album, the band are a musical tour de force, opening with the stirring statement of intent Ready to Die, where Ken trades his Hammond licks with Ingwersons guitar to open the album in style.

Ken’s song writing chops are to the fore again, drawing from his personal experiences on songs like I Wanna Go Back, which is Ken’s rocking homage to touring the former Soviet Bloc countries, where he and Heep are still well received, and the superb Dangerous Desires, which references life experience Ken has had.

The title track, the absolutely brilliant Trouble, with that Hammond organ sound (one of my favourite musical sounds is the Hammond organ running through a song) and the band are absolutely superb throughout this track, as the bass and drums work well together.

The new blood of Tiranti on vocal fits straight into the band, and the way they weave and work together shows that on this album Ken found the right band to work with these songs.

Coming a year after Love and Other Mysteries, Trouble is an album that reflects the heavier side of Ken’s song writing, and in Live Fire, Ken found the right musical conduit to bring the best out of these songs.

He might have been around and recording for over 40 years when this set was released, but he has lost none of his ability and musical skill, and this is another great addition to a long catalogue of cracking tunes.

Ken Hensley: ‘Tales of Live Fire and Other Mysteries’ (HNEBOX134) is out now from HNE Recordings, part of the Cherry Red Group, RRP £21.99. Click here to order from Cherry Red Records.

 

As a collection of albums, both these packages pull together some superb performances from Ken Hensley and the talented performers he chose to work with on all these projects. They are absolutely worth the value for money for what you get included. The music is top notch, the performances are superb, and I hope this goes a long way towards recognising Ken as a superb musician and song writer in his own right away from the long shadow that Uriah Heep casts. If you get a chance, both the Gods’ albums, reissued on Cherry Red sister label Esoteric* are also worth your hard-earned. Originally formed in 1965, The Gods sounded like an embryonic version of where Ken Hensley led Uriah Heep in the 1970s. What would be nice are a couple of similarly themed boxes covering the years 1981-2012 please, HNE!


 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.

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