URIAH HEEP ~ Wake the Sleeper
A TCE exclusive with guitarist Mick Box
by Todd K. Smith
"I use the song as my alarm clock on tour." ~ Mick Box regarding Wake The Sleeper
UK magazine Classic Rock calls the new Uriah Heep disc Wake the Sleeper more “Purple than Deep Purple”. It’s an interesting comparison since both bands have been around since the late Sixties and both have risen to icon status in the world of Hard Rock. Wake the Sleeper is Uriah Heep’s 21st studio release and an outstanding return to form with aggressive riffs, soaring keyboards and a thunderous rhythm section. Bernie Shaw’s vocals are second-to-none as he brings to life lyrics that sing of computer-based mind control (Overload), kingdoms of beautiful stories (Heaven’s Rain) to an impassioned lover’s tale (Book of Lies) whose story plays out in a peddlers shop. The business of Uriah Heep has stayed relatively the same over their 40-year existence, delivering quality rock which dances on the edge of progression. Granted, their changes in personnel are almost as long as their biography, but the legendary five-piece have returned to declare that they are rising like a waking giant with a new vigor and passion.
“We want the world to know we are back in true fashion,” says Uriah Heep guitarist Mick Box as we chatted over the line from London. “The cover (created by Greek artist Ioannis) shows this Buddha goddess with the ‘fire of life’ in her hands, like she’s waking from a long slumber. We feel that way with this record. Its energy has revitalized us and renewed our spirit as a band.” Box declares the Heep had actually delivered the album to Sanctuary, their then record label, two years ago, only to watch the label giant disintegrate and the record shelved. Universal then picked up their option and delayed the release in order to give it a proper launch. “Universal is very excited about the disc,” says Box. “They’ve taken the time to do a proper release and now were looking at a sold out tour of Germany with Thin Lizzy this fall, the UK in November and some House of Blues shows in the US in January or February.”
Musically Wake the Sleeper begins like an alarm clocking going off a 6:00am. The title track opens with a roaring guitar riff, rapid-fire drums (courtesy of Russell Gilbrook replacing long-time veteran Lee Kerslake), tubular bells ringing from some distant cathedral and a full choir chanting “wake the sleeper.” The song works so well as an alarm that Box claims to use it for just that purpose. In fact if you go to the band’s website and access their merchandising page, you too can purchase an alarm clock with “Wake the Sleeper.” Says Box, “When Phil (Lanzon - keyboards) and I first wrote the song we thought it would be better at the end of the record but Mike Paxman, our producer, thought it would be better to open the record with it. In the end he was right.” Box credits Paxman, whose work with Status Quo has made him a much sought after producer, for giving the record its edge and classic, yet modern sound.
“Take a song like ‘Heaven’s Rain,’ or ‘Light of a Thousand Stars,’ they’re very ‘70s aren’t they?” asks Box. “That’s Mike capturing the spirit of classic Heep, yet giving it a very modern feel. He likes music with energy and attitude and together we were able to come to a place that we felt captures where we are today.” Uriah Heep have always been pioneers. They were one of the first to blur the line between heavy rock, prog and metal. They were first to extensively tour Russia and other Iron Curtin countries long before it was fashionable to do so. With this record they continue to push boundaries including a return to a harder direction. “Phil and I wrote the lion’s share of the songs on this one,” continues Box. “We have a good hold on where we want it to go. Phil’s been at the keys in the band longer than Ken (Hensley) and is just as much a part of the Heep sound than any of us.” It is Lanzon’s universal contribution that gives Wake the Sleeper its immense presence and retro vibe without losing its contemporary edge.
The added thump on the drums is another element to the Wake disc that Box is more than pleased with. “I thought Lee (Kerslake) was going to be in the band forever,” says Box. “I never really saw myself playing with anybody but Lee at the drum kit. He’d been there since 1971, but the road was getting hard for him especially the last few years. We’re not young anymore. He was developing some health issues and need some time off. I looked at the intense schedule ahead and we sat down together. He knew he needed to attend to his own life to get healthy so it was a mutual decision. Russell (Gilbrook) happened to be the last guy we auditioned and he came in and just blew our minds. He had all the songs down and just kicked it in right from the start.” Gilbrook’s heavy-handed drumming can be felt in the barnstormer “Overload,” the chugging “Ghost of the Ocean” and the majestic “War Child.”
Box is very humble about his contributions to the disc even though his guitar is the primary focal point and muscle behind the opus. “Yes, the guitars are more heavy and straight forward,” he says. “I wanted to make a real rock record again and that comes through in every song even the mid-tempo ones like ‘What Kind of God,’ the melodic ‘Tears of the World’ and ‘Angels Walk with You.’ Again Mike (Paxman) was such an inspiration to work with. He insisted on getting in a studio where we could all play as a band like the old days where we all met up in one room worked out the songs. That really made a difference. And he used his ears I know that sounds so simple, but when he heard a take he really liked, that was it no endless overdubs. At the end of my solos my guitar makes a little screech - he insisted on keeping it in and not fading it out. We didn’t use any synthesizers just Phil’s keyboards and kept it to two guitar parts.” Box insists they did most of the songwriting in preproduction two weeks prior to entering the studio and recorded the whole thing in approximately two months.
After several times trough Wake the Sleeper, it’s obvious the range of songs are coming from the pen of real world travelers. Most of the past ten years Uriah Heep have spent touring Eastern Europe, and remote areas like Siberia and North Korea. Their distant travels have given them perspective on changing cultures and people. “It’s not easy to play such remote areas,” says Box. “Rule number one is to get paid before you leave. Ha! But really we do it for the fans. We’ve been playing Easter Europe for so long now we are part of their culture. They bring their whole families to our shows. We did five weeks through Siberia on a train and that is no romantic voyage. No one got hurt but Bernie got bit by a rat or something one night. For some of these fans they might never see us again. So to look in their faces and hear them sing the songs - even when they don’t know English is a real inspiration. Taking the music to the people, that’s what we love to do.”
Website: Uriah Heep