Step into the non-fiction section of any book store or library and you’ll discover volumes devoted to the deeds and accomplishments of people - both great and small – from the ranks of poets, prophets and politicians to scholars, soothsayers, and scoundrels; and every niche in between.
Sandwiched somewhere between the unauthorized biography of an incarcerated former child actor and a bulimic Super Model is sure to be the all too familiar tale of the fast living, hard-rocking, heavy metal dinosaur waxing nostalgic about a lifetime of over-indulgence, the rigors of a touring road warrior, and the euphoric highs and rock bottom lows in pursuit of fame and fortune. A tale too often ending in failed relationships, an implosion within the group, and the destruction of both body and soul; but on rare occasion the book can be an uplifting cathartic journey of self-discovery and reclamation. Or in the case of Ken Hensley – a retrospective sense of accomplishment.
Ken Hensley, best-known as one of the founding members of the legendary heavy metal group ‘Uriah Heep’ goes one step further by translating his life’s journey on both the printed page and his familiar medium of music with an audio autobiography “Blood On The Highway: The Ken Hensley Story – When Too Many Dreams Come True” – a companion piece to his book.
The CD is a conceptual Rock Opera in every sense of the word: a chronicle of the rise and fall of Ken Hensley as keyboardist and the prominent song writer for ‘Uriah Heep’ – his short two year stint with the group ‘Blackfoot’ – and eventually coming into his own as a solo artist and occasional gun for hire.
Hensley has a wealth of experience to draw from beginning with the 1968 blues combo ‘The Gods’ which featured two future legends Greg Lake (‘King Crimson’ and ‘Emerson Lake & Palmer’) and Mick Taylor (‘The Rolling Stones’). Hensley played and recorded with a number of groups in 1970 including ‘Herd Machine’, ‘Toe Fat’, and ‘Weed’ before settling in to man the keyboards in 1971 for the band Spice, which eventually took on the name ‘Uriah Heep’ (a character from a Charles Dickens novel).
By the time Hensley departed ‘Uriah Heep’ in 1980, prior to the release of “Conquest”, the band had long since lost the luster and status of the upper tier Metal Giants of the era. With each subsequent album after the groundbreaking concept albums “Demons And Wizards” and “The Magicians Birthday” the band faltered, failing to make any substantial dent in the charts. It’s safe to say that all but the most die-hard aficionados were even slightly aware of a Uriah Heep discography that included: “Sweet Freedom” (1973), “Wonderworld” (1974), “Return To Fantasy” (1975), “High And Mighty” (1976), “Firefly” (1977), “Innocent Victim” (1977), “Fallen Angel” (1978), and “Conquest” (1980).
Hensley expressed his mounting frustration with mediocrity and stagnation by parting company with the group he helped to establish in 1980
And as a side note I might add, he wrote much of the music during these bleak years. So some of the blame could be laid squarely in his lap.
This was a major turning point in his career - leaving the comfort zone of an established band to points unknown – as he writes, “ … from Hollywood to heartbreak”.
Two years later Hensley joined the Florida based hard-rock group, Blackfoot, where he remained with them long enough to release two albums, “Siogo” (1983) and Vertical Smiles (1984).
His departure from Blackfoot came at a time when Hensley was coming to terms with the premature death of former Uriah Heep vocalist, 38 year old David Byron who died from alcohol related complications on February 28th 1985 . It was just ten years earlier on December 8th, 1975 that Uriah Heep bassist Gary Thain died of a Heroine overdose at the age of 27.
The ‘Uriah Heep’ tune “Easy Livin’” did not seem to apply to the former members, who lived hard and died young.
After his departure from ‘Blackfoot’ Ken Hensley retreated to the studio to concentrate on further establishing his solo career.
He had already amassed an impressive collection of solo works while a member of ‘Uriah Heep’: “Proud Words On A Dusty Shelf” (1973), “Eager To Please” (1975), and “Free Spirit” (1980) ; but it was after his departure from Blackfoot that he produced a annual succession of impressive titles including: “Running Blind” (2002), “The Last Dance” (2003), “The Wizard’s Diary” (2004), “Cold Autumn Sunday” (2005), and “Inside The Mystery” (2006).
And this brings us to his latest.
“Blood On The Highway” is a collection of 12 tunes running the gamut from hard driving arena rock numbers easily associated with mid-period Heep interlaced with introspective melodic ballads. Each tune a chapter in his life.
Hensley assembles an impressive array of talent from his past to bring voice to his Rock Opera including: Glenn Hughes (“Deep Purple”, “Trapeze”), John Lawton (“Uriah Heep”, “Lucifer’s Friend”), Eve Gallagher (“Missing Link”), and Jorn Lande ( Ark , Company Of Snakes) who has been compared to David Cloverdale.
The album opens with two hard rocking numbers “This Is Just The Beginning” and “We’re On Our Way”, reflecting the zeal and enthusiasm of a new band with an eye towards the future. But soon enough the negative side of the business rears its ugly head in the bluesy number “Blood On The Highway”. And it from this point on that Hensley exposes the warts and all career choices he has made over the years. The highs are marked by great rousing arena rockers with shades of ‘Whitesnake’ which shake down the house – while the darker moments of reflection are expressed in bittersweet piano ballads.
Although the specter of ‘regret’ and nostalgia for the Golden Age rears its head ever so slightly, the tunes reflect an artist truly at peace with the ultimate path his career has taken him, as revealed in the line from the track “I Did It All” …“And if you ask me how I am today, I can turn to you in truth and say - I did it all and now at last … I’m doing fine”.
And Hensley has much to be content about.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on December 21st, 2007