Ken Hensley is mostly known as the legendary former keyboard player for heavyweight British hard rockers Uriah Heep (also a member of The Gods, Toe Fat,and Blackfoot), but he's also kept up a pretty busy solo career since this debut from 1973. Recorded right around the time that Heep released their classic Uriah Heep Live album, Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf avoids much of the bombast & heaviness that was associated with his main band, and showed just how clever a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Hensley really is. Playing all the keyboards, guitars, and handling the vocals, Hensley's almost one-man show was supported by two of his bandmates in Heep, drummer Lee Kerslake & bassist Gary Thain, as well as some additional bass courtesy of Dave Paul.
Opening track "When Evening Comes" is perhaps one of the most 'Heep-like' cut on the album, a song that fluctuates between heavy rock and a soft ballad, with Hensley's stinging lead guitar work cutting through some powerful vocals and lush melodies. In fact, his vocals are pretty remarkable throughout this album, not far removed from Heep vocalist David Byron, and it's intriguing to ponder just why the band didn't just have Ken sing when they sacked Byron back in 1976. The acoustic, more folk based song "From Time to Time" follows, again with Hensley's melodic vocals just dripping with emotion, and this gives way to "King Without a Throne", which has a certain Moody Blues feel to it thanks to some catchy vocal melodies and fetching piano. Heep fans will recognize the stunning "Rain", a track from the beloved The Magicians Birthday album, completely re imagined here as a vehicle for vocal & piano. "Proud Words" is more of a rock based piece, with some gritty electric guitar riffs, Hammond organ, and excellent vocal layerings. If you love some of the scorching slide guitar that Hensley contributed on occasion to Heep and certainly Toe Fat, there's a sizzling solo here for you to enjoy.
"Fortune" sees the first emergence of dreamy prog rock to the album, as alluring keyboard textures, Thain's throbbing bass, acoustic & lead electric guitar create a swirling wall of sound, eventually giving way to soul searching vocals and waves of Hammond organ. It's a great song, and probably would have also made a great Heep tune if Ken had decided to share it with the band. Folk mixed with some blues rears its head on the melodic "Black Hearted Lady", and "Go Down" sees lush acoustic picking and soaring vocals drive a mostly folk based arrangement. Hensley pulls out the piano for "Cold Winter Sunday", a hard rocking ballad that might just contain his best vocal and most hook laden melodies on the album, the chorus just irresistible to the ears. Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf closes out with the country flavored "The Last Time", permeated by pedal steel, acoustic guitar, and yearning vocals.
Though much loved by fans, Proud Words on a Dusty Shelf sadly wasn't the massive seller it probably deserved to be, and before you could blink the Uriah Heep machine was back in business with the Sweet Freedom album and tour. Hensley would release another fine solo album in 1975, titled Eager to Please, but that's a story for another day. This Esoteric reissue was remastered from the original analog tapes by Paschal Byrne, and it sounds fantastic. Included in the booklet is the full story of Hensley's career up to that point and includes complete information on the album as well as photos. It's a wonderful album that the folks at Esoteric have given a lot of care and attention to.
1) When Evening Comes
2) From Time to Time
3) King Without a Throne
5) Proud Words
7) Black Hearted Lady
8) Go Down
9) Cold Autumn Sunday
10) The Last Time