Alright, so “The Magician’s Birthday” is only half an LP-side of fantasy concept album, but if you put all the fantasy-tinged songs on The Magician’s Birthday (1972) album together with those on the other Uriah Heep release of the same year (Demons and Wizards), and use a bit of imaginative glue, you can stick together a good solid fantasy concept album right there. Not to mention the fact that you’ll end up with not one but two Roger Dean covers!
(I did say I’d be cheating a bit).
“The Magician’s Birthday”, based on a story by keyboardist/songwriter Ken Hensley, is a 10-minute prog opera about the weird and wonderful birthday party of a good magician, interrupted when an evil sorcerer arrives, demanding a duel. It’s got whimsy (an extended kazoo solo), grandeur (those transplendent harmony vocals on the outro), and good old fashioned hard rock (with an extended drum & guitar “fight sequence” in the middle). Compared to the otherworldiness of Jon Anderson’s Olias, and the epic fantasy of Mandalaband’s Wendor, this is more like a sumptuously-illustrated fairy tale, something by Lord Dunsany or a particularly optimistic Clark Ashton Smith, perhaps.
And it’s optimism that’s the overriding note. There’s genuine hopefulness in Uriah Heep’s fantasy, as exemplified by “The Wizard” (from Demons and Wizards), a storyteller’s anthem (pipping Yes’s “Wonderful Stories” to the winning post, in my opinion), that manages to be both nostalgic for the never-never, and upliftingly positive. The moody “Tales” (from The Magician’s Birthday), is another song about storytelling, but with a darker tint, being told from the point of view of a group of immortals to whom man’s struggles are “just another tale”.
And Heep often use fantasy to address dark moods, but almost always with the sun shining through at the end (quite literally, in “Sunrise”). The good-versus-evil magical battle comes up again on Demons and Wizards’ “The Spell”, while the fantasy-tinged “Circle of Hands” (from the same album) is about watchfulness for an enemy who once sought to murder the dawn itself.
Heep manage to tell their stories in tightly-structured rock songs, always melodic (Hensley’s slide guitar often provides a beautiful addition to many of the songs), and lush (layered organ and harmony vocals), not to mention peppered with a liberal sense of fun (add to that kazoo solo the whistling kettle on “The Wizard”), which keeps the prog-wolves of dullness and overindulgence well at bay. The lyrics, often the most embarrassing part of any fantasy album, are also not only poetic but meaningful in a wider sense than the story they’re telling, which may be why Heep had so much commercial success while peddling fantasy tunes like these.