Ken Hensley: Past & Present reviewed

❉ This anthology demonstrates the versatility of the prog legend’s solo career, writes Stuart Douglas.

Ken Hensley, who passed away in November 2020, is probably best known as the keyboard player and creative driving force during the glory years of heavy rock behemoths Uriah Heep. Having penned such classics prog classics as Lady in Black (from their 1971 album Salisbury, which he wrote in its entirety), and then led the band through their period of greatest commercial success in the mid-’70s, he left to go solo in 1980. By that point, however, he’d already recorded two critically acclaimed solo albums, and quickly released another, tracks from which make up the bulk of the first disc (Solo) in the new six-disc clamshell box set from Cherry Red, Past And Present (Songs In Time) 1972-2021.

Those expecting hard rocking riffing, sixteen minute songs with extensive guitar solos are likely to be disappointed by the first half of this opening disc, which mainly features quite sweet guitar balladry (to the extent that, coming to this blind, you’d be forgiven for thinking Hensley was primarily a piano-and-guitar singer-songwriter). As the track listing progresses, however, gentle, plaintive tracks like Rain and Black Hearted Lady are replaced by highlights from the Uriah Heep back catalogue (giving something of the lie to the title ‘Solo’), which is far more rocky (in fact, the closing track, Paradise Demon, sound like nothing so much as post-Elevators Roky Erikson).

Demonstrating a definite versatility, if nothing else, the following discs comprise Hensley’s first album after a religious rebirth, A Glimpse of Glory, from 1990, Running Blind from 2002, and The Last Dance from 1993, all of which will appeal more to fans of AOR than heavy rock (though listen out for some great slide guitar from Hensley on Crying, the opening track of The Last Dance).

Hensley was, apparently, a prolific songwriter, so it’s a little surprising that a decent proportion of the remaining discs consists of reworkings and live versions of older songs. Some of these are, however, improvements on the originals – When Evening Comes in particular shows just how good a song it is, by being excellent both on the Solo disc, and reworked on disc five, Cold Autumn Sunday from 2005. The last disc, Collaborations, comprises nine tracks Hensley recorded with the band Live Fire in the past decade and a final pair of recordings from his final album My Book of Answers. None of them are essential as such, but long term fans who missed out on the original releases will no doubt find something of interest.

For more casual listeners, the opening disc should be enough to get an idea if Hensley is for you. If he is, then the remaining five discs are enough to give a more than decent sampling of his post-Heep career.

❉ Ken Hensley: ‘Past & Present (Songs In Time) 1972-2021’ (HNE Recordings HNEBOX182) 6CD Clamshell Box Set was released 24 February 2023 by Cherry Red Group, RRP £30.99.

❉ 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.

 Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas

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