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Mention of 'The Big Four' in a music context immediately throws up contemplations of the thrash scene's chief protagonists - Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax - largely due to the 21st century branding of such to promote their 2010 joint festival appearances. However, the classic rock/metal scene always had its own 'Big Four', and one that was established long before said thrash quartet. Namely, this comprised of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep. With three of these acts still very much active (despite Sabbath currently winding down to retirement on their widely touted farewell shows) and the popularity of all enduring over the years, it's no surprise there's been a steady flow of retrospective, re-packaged re-issues from each of the bands, to tide over their respective fanbases in-between releasing new material. Uriah Heep are no exception, and the latest product to arrive is a very nice looking, glossy box set, 'The Classic Rock Years'.

I believe the majority, if not all, of the contents of this set have previously been available in one form or another, although, to quote guitarist Mick Box from the inside cover of the generously-sized, accompanying booklet, it "includes some recordings which are truly special and unique within the Uriah Heep discography." I guess that will prove to be a subjective judgement that'll vary between each and every discerning and casual fan of the band, but the 3 CDs and 3 DVDs that reside within the box are, indubitably, full of live Heep goodness... despite a degree of overlap between the CD and DVD content, and repetition between setlists.

The focus of the set is, what the band themselves currently regard (after all, they chose the title) as their 'Classic Rock Years', and the lineup that would remain intact from 1986 until 2007, at which point drummer Lee Kerslake was forced to part company with his bandmates due to ill health, and the sad passing of bassist Trevor Bolder in 2013. Completing Uriah Heep's personnel during said period (and still current members) were the aforementioned Box, keys man Phil Lanzon, and vocalist Bernie Shaw.

Personally, I'd recommend beginning your experience of 'The Classic Rock Years' with a viewing of the documentary, 'Sailing the Sea of Light', on the sixth and final disc in the set. Aside from a bonus Sofia show from 1999, the main feature on the DVD is the nearly hour long, originally "made for TV" programme, and this offers up a diachrony of the band from the period in question. Why's this a good starting point? I think it helps create some kind of context for the rest of the box's contents. And, hosted by the late, legendary radio DJ and journalist, Tommy Vance, who guides the viewer through a self-professed re-vitalising era for the band, from 1987 to 2001, his authoritative knowledge and evident love of Uriah Heep makes it an engaging watch. As do the extensive interviews with the band members themselves, who chat away with 100% sincerity, and not even a small hint of rock star bullshit. Briefly touching on the lows and (mainly) highs of each album recorded during the period and concomitant live activities, it's an invaluable, first-hand insight from the musicians. Of particular interest is their assertion that they were the very first rock band to take their live show to Moscow, despite similar claims from other acts over the years. There's even some intriguing footage from the Moscow show where the members of Heep mingle with the crowd in the arena, under the onlooking, close presence of some steely looking Russian soldiers, one of whom eventually realises the lack of threat and is glimpsed reluctantly shaking Shaw's hand (after the singer's persistence!)

Of the CDs, disc one is 2000's 'Acoustically Driven' and, as expected, features a "not entirely unplugged" acoustic set; disc two, 'The Magician's Birthday Party', originally released in 2002, has the audio from a 7th December 2001 show from London's famous Shepherd's Bush Empire; while disc three, 'Between Two Worlds, Feat. Osibisa', is their release of another Shepherd's Bush concert, this time from 2004. 'The Magician's Birthday Party' DVD (disc four) features the visual accompaniment to the 7th December 2001 Shepherd's Bush gig, and songs have been edited together with brief random montages of press conference footage, a signing session, rehearsals etc. Disc five, another DVD, houses two shows - one from the States, imaginatively titled 'Live in the USA', filmed across two nights in 2002, and is intercut with backstage/interview snippets; and 'Between Two Worlds, Feat. Osibisa', which is more or less the same set from the same show as featured on disc three.

The audio-visual nature of the material varies in quality, but that's to be expected, I guess. And there are no HD presentations/restorations of any visual elements, so it's SD all the way... which is kind of apt in one sense, particularly when considering Box's assertion during the documentary, years ago, that the band wanted to eschew digital recording techniques as much as they possibly could, to preserve the essence of their analogue sound. So, years later, the SD over HD presentations are probably not just a budget decision, but also in line with the band's wishes.

With Uriah Heep still going strong, this box set provides a neat nostalgic reminder and snapshot of their early twenty first century live activities. And, with the inclusion of the 'Sailing the Sea of Light' documentary on disc six, those who want to discover more about the band post-1986 can indulge themselves in this sincere and, at times, fascinating film. However, with a degree of repetition between each of the live sets presented here, I guess only hardcore Heep enthusiasts will want to indulge in the entire set, as the casual listener might not welcome the overwhelming sense of déjà vu between each of the discs.
Store for Music
Box Set
Review by Mark Holmes
24th June 2016
DISC ONE: Acoustically Driven (CD)
DISC TWO: The Magician's Birthday Party (CD)
DISC THREE: Between Two Worlds (CD)
DISC FOUR: The Magician's Birthday Party (DVD)
DISC FIVE: Live in the USA/Between Two Worlds (DVD)
DISC SIX: Sailing the Sea of Light - Documentary & Live in Sofia (DVD)
"With Uriah Heep still going strong, this box set provides a neat nostalgic reminder and snapshot of their early twenty first century live activities."