4 out of 5 Stars!
Uriah’s Heep’s Wonderworld shows a highly talented band at the apex of its career that suddenly found itself in a rather precarious position…and I’m not talking about the various poses the musicians display on the album cover.
After the brilliant album Sweet Freedom, not to mention the string of other high-quality releases that preceded it, Uriah Heep had developed some major dilemmas that threatened its future, what with an endless touring schedule, endless drug addictions, endless personal hassles and tax problems, endless…well, you get it. Therefore, the band, in the midst of its growing (and endless) struggles, and in a weakened condition, battled to keep its upward momentum going and eventually released Wonderworld just prior to its talented young bassist Gary Thain succumbing to ultimately insurmountable drug-destruction.
Although Wonderworld at the time of its release received even more crap reviews from the music press than the usual (and typical) amount of crap reviews “Heeped” upon the band (misspelling and pun intended) for previous albums, it was actually a damned fine release overall, with a handful of magnificent songs that still hold power to the present day. Personally, I find the title track, with the grand and glorious introduction featuring Mick Box’s slamming power chords and Ken Hensley’s Hammond and synth melody, one of the best album-openers in Heep’s history. Indeed, “Wonderworld,” within its mere four-and-a-half minutes running time, seemed to encapsulate all the band’s finest qualities—a Heavy-Prog arrangement with alternating dynamics, a seemingly fantasy-lush atmosphere, Gary Thain’s melodic bass riffs and Lee Kerslake’s thundering percussion, inspirational lyrics, spectacular background harmonies, and a dramatic performance by lead vocalist Dave Byron. Acting as the perfect “bookended” mirror of the opening track, “Dreams” closes the album in a similar bombastic fashion, with studio wizardry adding even more lush vocal theatrics to the already haunting tune.
Sandwiched between these two breathtaking tracks, however, are songs with varying degrees of quality. Although I concede that these tunes as a whole may not be the best material the band ever recorded, the majority of them still work for me (yet I can understand why other longtime fans of the group might not appreciate several of them). For me, however, the highlights include “The Shadows and the Wind,” a slow-building tune that showcases more of Heep’s signature harmony vocals, and “I Won’t Mind,” a lengthy and pounding Blues-Rock number quite different from the type of music that made the band famous. Moreover, “We Got We,” “So Tired,” “Something or Nothing,” and “Suicidal Man” may at first seem nothing more than uninspired rehashes of material found on the previous Sweet Freedom platter, there are enough enjoyable and savory moments, enough sonic “oomph” during each song, to keep me interested. In fact, the only tune that generally leaves me cold after all these decades is the piano-driven and orchestrated “The Easy Road,” but at least it closes out Side A, therefore, it’s easy to avoid. (Sorry, but for me, Heep was all about Heavy Metal/Heavy-Prog grandeur, and light ballads just didn’t seem to fit properly within the band’s repertoire.)
Sadly, Wonderworld would be the final Uriah Heep album to include its classic (and arguably its best) lineup of musicians (with Thain soon to be replaced by the talented John Wetton), and although it may not come as close to perfection as its previous four studio offerings, I still find it preferable to many of the albums that came later in the band’s lengthy and patchy career.
One final note: I know many people utterly detest the album cover, but I find it an absolute hoot, clearly remembering how it captivated me back in 1974 while roaming the aisles of my local record store. If anything, it’s definitely unique and attention-grabbing.