Editor’s Note: Please stay tuned for parts two and three of this series next Monday and Tuesday.
As the late ‘60s bled into the early ‘70s, the Age of Aquarius was under attack from cantankerous and extremely loud sonic forces. The bubbly psychedelia and sweet-tempered music that had fueled hippie hearts and minds was being assailed by steelier and more squalid rock, and many of those rough-necked, hairy harbingers of menace would inspire heavy metal’s ascendence.
Debate about who was the first proto-metal artist is an endless circle of argument and counter-argument. You can reach back to the 1950s and find heavy metal’s origins in Willie Johnson’s blues, and Link Wray’s guitar rumbles. Step forward a decade, and heavy metal’s dawning is to be found on Cream’s 1967 album, Disraeli Gears. Iron Butterfly’s 1968 album, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, is an unquestionable proto-metal classic; but then, Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum album from the same year is a propulsive a metal-in-the-making triumph too.
Ultimately, you can throw everyone who was amplifying their sound and vision in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s into the gene pool that evolved into heavy metal. The heavy rock superstars of that period, those who inspired and nurtured metal’s burgeoning years, are well known: Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Hawkwind, Vanilla Fudge, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Montrose, Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Status Quo, Mountain, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Öyster Cult, Atomic Rooster, Budgie etc, etc and etc. Those artists, and many more, are rightly credited for their contributions to heavy metal. However, there are innumerable more obscure or unheralded groups that fortified the heavy metal machine too, and many are infinitely more interesting than their more famous brethren.
A plethora of less visible artists is celebrated by collectors and fans of heavy rock and metal, and while those bands never sold anywhere near the number of albums that Black Sabbath, Deep Purple or kin did, they’re recognized as being equally important to heavy metal’s family tree.
Legions of underground musical legends litter the heavy rock graveyard, and the list below surveys a horde of those rowdy rockers. All the bands covered reflect the Age of Aquarius rotting, with their twisted psychedelia or progressive rock, doom-laden or whirlwind riffing, or dissonant arrangements; and you can hear their echo throughout heavy metal’s many sub-genres today.
Some bands will no doubt be familiar and some, I hope, will be entirely new to your ears. Additional, and just as electrifying, ‘see also’ bands are listed here too, and while this list only touches upon the hard rocking scenes around the globe in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the aim here is to provide a primer to spark a proto-metal bonfire burning in your heart—or, if it’s already raging, to simply heap more fuel atop the inferno.
Speed, Glue & Shinki’s 1971 album, Eve, is a feast of searing and often crooked heavy blues. The trio formed in 1970 and featured guitarist Shinki Chen (Japan’s answer to Jimi Hendrix), bassist Masayoshi Kabe, and Filipino singer and drummer Joey Smith. Kabe had been an enthusiastic glue-sniffer in his youth, and Smith was a keen consumer of amphetamines, hence the band’s name. The group only produced one album, Eve; low sales and Kabe and Shinki taking an immense dislike to Smith’s personal habits scuttled the group’s career quickly. Various bootlegs and editions of Eve have been released, but the original album will serve you well. It’s 35 minutes of tweaked-out and eccentric heavy blues, and for those seeking more skewed Japanese psych ‘n’ roll, see Julian Cope’s magnificent book Japrocksampler for exhibits galore. See also: Blues Creation (Demon & Eleven Children), and anything by Les Rallizes Dénudés.
(1972, Captain Beyond)
Captain Beyond formed in 1972 with ex-Deep Purple singer Rod Evans joining ex-Johnny Winter drummer Bobby Caldwell, and ex-Iron Butterfly members Larry Rheinhart (guitars) and Lee Dorman (bass). With a line-up like that it’s hard to see how the band could fail, and for a couple of years Captain Beyond orbited stardom, but it never landed. The band’s self-titled 1972 debut is one of heavy rock’s best. Combining jazz, folk, prog, and hard-edged cosmic rock, each track on Captain Beyond tumbles into the next, and Rheinhart, Dorman and Caldwell’s playing is innovative and sophisticated. Serpentine instrumental passages match the band’s desire to explore, and Evans’ rock-god voice leads listeners into curious lyrical realms. Evans decamped after 1973’s less interesting Sufficiently Breathless was released, and the magic was gone. Still, Captain Beyond remains, and it’s a timeless piece of astronomical rock, with imaginative riffing, fluctuating time signatures, and far out thematic concepts set to dazzle. See also: Captain Beyond (Live in Texas – October 6, 1973), Horse (Horse), and Jericho (Jericho).
(1972, Heavy Cruiser)
Canadian rock luminary Neil Merryweather took members from Californian blues rock band Mama Lion into the studio and, somewhat accidentally, recorded two great albums as Heavy Cruiser. The band’s Heavy Cruiser and Lucky Dog albums were gatherings of ideas more than albums of firm intent, but the session engineers and the band were impressed with the eight-track demos and improvised tunes (and management got a sniff of success) so the songs were duly bound in jacket covers. The band’s eponymous 1972 debut was a heavy, psyched-out guitar and organ duel—with in-studio jams and distortion-soaked covers making up an exuberant and buoyant LP. While contractual obligations caused the band members’ names to go unlisted on both Lucky Dog and Heavy Cruiser, word soon got out about both LPs’ commitment to fuzzing things up, and rolling with the result—and thus, Heavy Cruiser finds itself in the pantheon of obscure collectable rockers. See also: Space Rangers (Space Rangers and Ktryptonite).
Nothing sets the heart of a vintage rock fan fluttering more than stumbling on an obscure and enjoyable private press release. Case in point, Wildfire’s sole album, 1970’s Smokin. The band of Randy Love (guitar and vocals), Danny Jamison (bass guitar and lead vocals), and Donny Martin (drums) called Austin, Texas home for some of the year and Southern California home for the rest during its late ‘60s to early ‘70s lifetime. Famed for its use of Quilter Amplifiers set to 11, Wildfire recorded part of its debut in California at the Beach Boys studio, and fuzz, fuzz and more fuzz defined Smokin‘s character. The LP was originally crafted as a demo to shop to labels, but the bulk of its minuscule run ended up being sold in head shops in California. Demo it may be, but Smokin is, well, fully smokin’. The 10-minute-plus “Quicksand” features heavy tweaks and turns aplenty, and “Stars in the Sky” is all rumbling, fizzing and hissing hard rock imbued with an appropriate sinsemilla stench. Re-released and re-mastered in 2006, Smokin is perfect for those disposed to ‘inhale, hold and cough’ tunes. See also: Yesterday’s Children (Yesterday’s Children) and Pax (May God and Your Will Land You and Your Soul Miles Away).
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