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Some bands take a while to fulfill their promises, as I'm sure you all know. I mean, you don't have to go further than Judas Priest or Deep Purple to find some conclusive evidence that the first album may not always be as groundbreaking as we would like it to be. Sometimes things need time to mature. The Finnish underground legend Oz took their first collective steps to stardom (well, sort of) in rather unauspicious terms with "Heavy Metal Heroes" - an LP that sounds even more pale and unsusbstantial compared with the sheer energy of its sucessor, the immensely enjoyable "Fire in the Brain".
They were a pretty different band of course. Kari Elo (G) and Tauno Vajavaara (B) are competent enough, but both seem to be far away from home in a heavy metal essemble, if you know what I mean. Come on, just take a look at the original front cover and you'll see some seriously non-metallic looks there. They never sound heavy, their contributions never bring any real dynamics to the table, and their lack of enthusiasm is contagious for all the wrong reasons. Pekka Mark (D) keep the beat and not much else, and Eero Hamalainen (or The Oz, his slightly ridiculous stage persona at the time) makes no perceivable effort to liven up such cheerless instrumentation, singing like he's in a boring job and it's only Wednesday afternoon. It was probably a career-saving decision that the latter two became Mark Ruffneck and Ape DiMartini and decided to start things over almost from scratch, as I seriously doubt Oz would ever raise any eyebrows without reinventing themselves as they did.
As for the songs, I think opening track "Hey You" gives a credible warning on what's to come. It's not exactly bad, but how are you supposed to feel electrified when the riffs are played with no heaviness, the singer just mutter the lyrics with zero passion, and the supposedly sing-along chorus is as exhilarating as spending 45 minutes stuck in a traffic jam? It's a particularly frustrating state of affairs, because it's clear for all to hear that the song could fare way better if played with just a little more enthusiasm. You can easily identify NWOBHM as an influence for early Oz, but it's nothing like Raven or Iron Maiden, being way more akin to the hard rocking side of that spectrum - and not a very rapturous one on emulating that, readers take note. A similar verdict can be applied to tunes such as "Capricorn Man", "Second Hand Lady", "Rather Knight", "In the Chains" and so on. There's not a single track that would stick out as particularly bad, but there's no redeeming songs around here either: all we have is a 33-minute ride through tepid, uninteresting semi-metal mediocrity.
That all said, please don't choose this record as an introduction to Oz, as you'll probably dismiss it straight away and risk missing out on at least one excellent album ("Fire in the Brain") and another pretty decent one ("III Warning") by doing so. You wouldn't reccommend anyone to get familiar with Judas Priest by listening to "Rocka Rolla", right? "Heavy Metal Heroes" is one for completists, for those who already love these Finnish maniacs for what they did best and are curious to learn more.
Oz and Anvil started on the same foot despite being far from neighbors. Both are originally named for a band member (vocalist Eero Hamalainen liked to be called The Oz, meanwhile Lips morphed into Anvil). More importantly, both bands’ original sound is a fairly balmy, pallid recipe written primarily in a commercial language with large helpings of hard rock complimenting/detracting from the metal over/undertones (depending on your point of tolerance). Both are direct descendants of ‘70s rock, so what are you going to do?
Bottom line: Heavy Metal Heroes sounds nearly nothing like Fire in the Brain. Thankfully Hamalainen's neglected pipes didn’t stick around for their sophomore offering, an aggressive piece of vinyl that probably would’ve come off as colorless and moth-eaten if he didn't rename himself Ape de Martini with vocals to match. With the exception of “Fortune”, even FITB’s more sober tracks are heavier and more exhilarating than 90% of the debut…friendly songs with a penchant for civility and hugginess sometimes underscored by mushy backing vocals.
The 10% on the daring edge consists of one track, “Saturday Night”, side two’s punchy kicker, a tune with enough energy to warrant special mention in light of the rest of the tepid lp. The others…“Hey You”, “Rather Knight", “Capricorn Man”, “Second Hand Lady”, and especially sappy “Runnin’ the Line” all seem to share the same third rate, bad bar band sound where the crowd is looking around despairingly in the hopes the next track is a cover tune they know. Is the date to blame? Not really. I think the lite, unsubstantial sound and image is really what they wanted, and ignorance to more lively bands around them isn’t an issue. Not for nothing, the smiling guitarist on the cover’s right is wearing an orange leisure jacket, and even Anvil wasn’t this powerless.
What this lp does have going for it, at least the original Krak! version and perhaps the Tyfon one as well, is that it’s a scarce piece for collectors. The Wave edition isn’t half as hard to find with an album cover as eventful as the album itself. As far as heroics go, Heavy Metal Heroes is right up there with Stilt Man, Paste Pot Pete, and The Ringer.