Uriah Heep - Wonderworld (1974) Oct 12, 2011 23:26:11 GMT -5
Post by Erik Rupp on Oct 12, 2011 23:26:11 GMT -5
If you have an interest in Uriah Heep and you're wondering which of their classic 70's albums to buy first, this one ain't it.
Sometimes a band just pushes on and forces an album. Or sometimes they're pushed - by management, by their record company, or often by both.
In the 70's it was common for bands to put out albums every nine months. Sometimes every six months. It gets harder and harder to come up with top notch material when put in that situation. It's remarkable how so many bands actually put out decent material five or six studio albums in to their recording careers.
Uriah Heep put out Sweet Freedom in September of 1973. It was one of their biggest hits thanks to the FM Rock staple, "Stealin." So what does their album producer and record company owner/president Gerry Bron do? He rushes them right off the tour to support Sweet Freedom and into the studio to quickly record the follow up while the iron was hot.
Too quickly. Much too quickly.
The band was pretty burned out at this point. There was inner turmoil on top of that. Keyboard/rhythm guitar player Ken Hensley had, with Bron's help, taken over the band for the most part. While the rest of the band (guitarist Mick Box, singer David Byron, bassist Gary Thain, and drummer Lee Kerslake) appreciated Hensley's talent, they also wanted to be able to contribute more than one or two songs to each of their albums themselves. Add to all of that Byron and Thain's spiraling drug and alcohol addictions and you had a recipe for disaster.
And that's pretty much what Wonderworld was, musically.
There isn't a single song on Wonderworld that stands out as a highlight of their career. Even on lesser albums like Innocent Victim or Return To Fantasy there were good songs to be found - as good as just about anything in their catalog. Not so on Wonderworld. This was an album where the songs were obviously forced. There just wasn't any real inspriation in the band's songwriting. The songs were just kind of... there. Just laying there.
Had Bron been smart he would have recognized that their songs were half-assed and told them to take a few weeks off before getting back together to write again. He didn't. Instead he plowed forward intent on having new, "Product," out on the shelves within just a couple months.
And product is just what the public got. Not art, not good Rock and Roll, not even decent Rock and Roll. Just product.
Opening with the title track, the album sounds incredibly dated today - but that's not always a bad thing. In this case, though, it is. The synthesizer sounds used in the intro (and middle section) are much like the Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade soundtrack, and the rest of the song sounds like any generic Easy Rock song of the day. It's not horrible - hell, it isn't even bad, really, it's just mediocre. Opening an album with a track like this is musical suicide.
The next cut, "Sucidal Man," would have been a better opening cut as it actually has a pulse. What it doesn't have, however is a great riff or vocal melodies worthy of albums like Look At Yourself and Demons and Wizards. This is second tier Heep, but, unfortunately, it's one of the two or three best songs on the album. It does rock fairly hard, but it lacks a real spark.
"The Shadows and the Wind," after a minute long intro, turns into Heep channeling The Monkees or The Partridge Family. It bops, it bounces, and it's almost memorable. Again, it's not a bad song, but nowhere near as good as what they had done just nine months earlier. And it doesn't really fit the Heep sound all that well, either. (It's not horribly far removed, but it is a bit outside what people would have expected from them.)
Then there's, "So Tired," a high energy rocker that is highly derivative of at least one of their previous songs (the riff in the verse, anyway). That wouldn't be so bad if the chorus hook wasn't so awful. Even in 1974 the chorus would have been considered a bit cheesy. It hasn't aged well. This is a great example of a song being forced. It doesn't sound the least bit organic. Hell, even the lyrics admit that they're forcing the songs on the album! "I'm so tired, and I'm so uninspired." Yes. Indeed they were (and the fact that the entire band is credited with writing this song is a testament to how out of good ideas they really were).
"The Easy Road," is, again, not a bad song for what it is. It is a piano driven ballad with symphonic backing. It's just not very good. This is one of those Ken Hensley songs where his self-indulgence was only exceeded by the indulgence given to him by producer Gerry Bron. Perhaps this song played into Bron's delusion of actually being a top producer as it gave him a chance to record a song with an orchestra. Who knows? The bottom line with this one is simply more mediocrity. And a good rule of thumb for a Rock band to use is this - if your mellower tracks aren't flat out great, drop them. Don't put a mediocre (or worse) mellow track on a Rock album. It's a momentum killer.
Well, it would be if the album had any real momentum, which at that point Wonderworld didn't.
Not that they don't try to pick things up with, "Something Or Nothing," a middling track that rocks a little and has a, "Easy Livin'," kind of beat, only lighter and a little slower. It bops and bounces along with at least some energy. The problem with the song is that it still sounds like a harder edged Partridge Family song as much as it does a Uriah Heep song. It's not bad. It's not great. It's just moderately good - the kind of thing that would earn a C+ grade.
"I Won't Mind," is another decent, but unspectacular song. Its slow, plodding beat is matched by a slow, but halfway heavy riff and some decent vocal melodies. This is the kind of song that would sound fairly good in between a couple faster, more energetic songs. As a song it's a little better than it's predecessor, so that's the good news. The bad news is that 7 songs into the album Heep still hasn't come up with a true top notch song (something they would completely fail to do on the album). It does feature some decent lead playing from Mick Box, though. He was almost always underutilized (especially as a songwriter) during the band's classic years.
The next song, "We Got We," divided Heep fans from the day the album came out. It's bizarre combination of late 60's/early 70's pop harmony vocals (with a hint of psychedelia) and Stevie Wonder style funky keyboard part made this an unwelcomed addition to the Heep catalog by many fans in the 70's. It just sounds weird on a Uriah Heep album, and that says a lot as Uriah Heep is a band that was known for having a wide range of styles back then.
Then, finally, classic Uriah Heep shows up on Wonderworld in the form of, "Dreams." It's nowhere near as good as the classic Heep songs on albums such as Look At Yourself or Demons and Wizards, but the style fits. This is a song that likely would have been rejected by Gerry Bron when making those albums, but when it came time to make Wonderworld ideas were, apparenly, running thin. This comes across as an attempt to ape their own sound. Heep trying to be Heep rather than just writing great songs. "Dreams," would fall under the category of songs proving that the band was forcing the songs when they just needed more time. Bron takes most of the blame for that.
As producer he should have recognized that they just didn't have, "It," when they were hustled into the writing sessions for Wonderworld. The ideas weren't flowing the way they had in the past, and forcing them to come up with songs when the creative well was running dry was a very bad idea.
Ironically, the bonus tracks from the CD reissues show that Bron made other mistakes with Wonderworld.
"What Can I Do," is better than most of the songs that actually made it on to the album, but it was held back as a B-Side for one of the singles. It's a good mid tempo Classic Rock song that sounds like a slightly more mainstream version of classic Heep. It may not be a great song, but it is pretty darned good and should have been included on the album in place of something like, "We Got We."
On the other hand, "Love, Hate, and Fear," is utter crap. Awful. This is the kind of thing you'd expect a songwriter on drugs to come up with. It's also the kind of thing you'd expect a producer to reject out of hand and refuse to put to tape. Bron did record it, but to his credit this one didn't even make it as a single B-Side. This one is brutally bad. So bad that it makes you wonder why the other Heep guys agreed to record it as this was a Hensley solo composition.
Then, from the, "Why wasn't this one on the album," category comes, "Stone's Throw." A fairly catchy acoustic guitar driven song that would have sounded good on Led Zeppelin III. This would have been good in place of one of the mellow tracks on the album as it sounds more like what a 70's Rock band would have done than the more Adult Contemporary leanings of, "The Easy Road."
Ultimately, there was plenty of blame to go around for the mistake that was Wonderworld. Gerry Bron gets most of the blame, but the band's management and even the band themselves have to share in the blame. The songs just weren't there. Everyone should have recognized that. The brakes should have been applied and more time given to make sure that they could follow up one of their biggest hit albums with a worthy successor.
Wonderworld isn't horribly bad, it's just not really any good, either. It's a mediocre album with some truly uninspired songs. The next album, Return To Fantasy, would be a slight improvement, but that wouldn't last as the classic line-up was running out of steam. It would take a new singer (John Lawton) and a new bass player (Trevor Bolder) to give the band a creative spark for the Firefly album, and even then that spark would be fleeting.
But the decline of the classic era starts here with Wonderworld.