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
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).
Machine, Hard Stuff, and more…
Rotterdam-based Machine mixed psych, prog and hard rock with plenty of brass on its single LP, 1970’s Machine. Singer John Caljouw had found a measure of recognition with his former band Dragonfly, but Machine tilted towards a more eccentric sound, with organ and horns featuring as strong lead instruments as much as guitars. Slinky funk and rock runs through many of Machine‘s tracks, but weightier songs, such as “Old Black Magic” and “Lonesome Tree” come with doomy metal promise. Flute, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet all feature, bringing the Nederbeat and jazz stylings of late ’60s Dutch rock. And, mixed with swirling keyboards and crunchy guitars, Machine really offers a touch of this (acid rock, soul and trippy gambols) with a dash of that (folksy melodies and a few ponderously apocalyptic steps) making for a one-off formative album in the Euro garage and underground psych scene. See also: Cosmic Dealer (Crystallization) and Mainhorse (Mainhorse).
(1972, Hard Stuff)
Following guitarist John Du Cann’s forced exit from Atomic Rooster, he formed the short-lived but tremendously gratifying London-based trio Hard Stuff with former Atomic Rooster drummer Paul Hammond, and ex-Quatermass bassist John Gustafson. Signed to Deep Purple’s label, Purple Records, Hard Stuff only made two albums, its career cut short by a car crash injuring both Du Cann and Hammond. The band’s first album, 1972’s Hard Stuff, is an unheralded triumph of tumultuous guitars and thundering percussion. Filled with blustery bluesy tunes such as “Sinister Minister” and “No Witch at All”, it buzzes and smolders like a power-station set to explode — and funked-up opener “Jay Time” is a stoner rock classic. Follow-up, 1973’s inferior Bolex Dementia, saw a reduction in brute strength in favor of proggier pursuits — which leaves Hard Stuff as the only album you really need to check out. See also: Bullet (Entrance to Hell) and Incredible Hog (Volume 1 + 4).
When it comes debating who is the most proto-metal of all, Canada’s Warpig sits high on the list. The band’s self-titled 1970 debut didn’t bring home the bacon, nor did a 1973 reissue bring any huge change in fortune. In fact, it wasn’t until Relapse Records reissued Warpig in 2006 that the band finally found wider acclaim — and Warpig definitely deserves that recognition. The band’s debut is as important to metal’s evolution as Sir Lord Baltimore’s Kingdom Come, and tracks off Warpig such as “Flaggit” and “Tough Nuts” are superlative examples of early North American metal. However, that’s not even the album’s prime virtue. Its tracks are routinely compared to acts such as Uriah Heep or Deep Purple, but it’s important to underscore that Warpigs’ hulking proto-metal predates the work it is so often compared to. The band was a leader, not a follower, and these days Warpigs’ pioneering service to metal has been rightly inscribed in the genre’s hallowed halls. See also: Thundermug (Thundermug Strikes) and Mahogany Rush (Strange Universe).
(1970, En ny tid är här…)
Swedish rock band November formed in 1969 in Stockholm and is often cited as the nation’s first true proto-metal band. There’s no doubt the band was informed by Blue Cheer and Cream on its debut, but November’s real strength lay in its infusion of Scandinavian melodies, and in its decision to sing in its native tongue. The band’s three albums, 1970’s En ny tid är här…, 1971’s 2:a November and 1972’s 6:November, were warmly received by fans throughout Europe, with the band’s Swedish lyrics serving as an exotic hook. Tracks from En ny tid är här… are joyous collisions of blues, folk, and hard rock, and they’re hipped-out, bud-friendly tunes made for volume, volume and VOLUME. For non-Swedish speakers, the notion of enjoying November may seem limited, but the band’s work is positive proof of the universal allure of primal rock ‘n’ roll. See also: Baltik (1973, Baltik) and Neon Rose (1974, A Dream of Glory and Pride).
(1971, Dirt Box)
Evidence of German band Blackwater Park’s impact on metal can be found in the album title of very the same name from Swedish progressive death metal giant Opeth. Like many of its kin at the time, Blackwater Park’s 1971 debut, Dirt Box, incorporates jazz, prog, space and garage rock, all covered in a thick layer of grime. Although the band was fronted by Englishman Richard Routledge, Dirt Box comes with that sense of ’60s/’70s exhilaration, where German musicians were freeing themselves of the nation’s legacy. Blackwater Park didn’t last long as a band, but its sole album is filled with fervent rockers. The epic romp of “Rock Song” is a real highlight, bringing all the band’s influences together into an elongated acid-rock burn flecked with ’60s mysticism. Dirt Box may not have set the charts afire on release, but its still talked about enthusiastically today, proving its long-term influence. See also: Lucifer Was (Underground and Beyond) and Epitaph (Outside the Law).
Boasting a single eponymous album from 1973, Granicus blazed briefly but incandescently. Formed by howling, Robert Page-like vocalist Woody Leffel, bassist Dale Bedford, guitarists Wayne Anderson and Al Pinelli, and drummer Joe Battaglia, the band signed to RCA Records for Granicus’s self-titled debut. The album was a commercial flop, and the band broke up soon after, but Granicus is one of US hard rock’s knockout lost treasures. It features superb songwriting, mixes blistering tracks with contemplative fare, and the 11-minute prog-metal giant “Prayer” is one of the album’s real highlights. There’s no evidence on the LP as to why Granicus failed to capture an audience, but such are the whims of public opinion. In any case, the album is much loved by its fans, and is a superb example of traces of psychedelia and arena-worthy hard rock finding perfect balance. See Also: Fraction (Moon Blood) and West, Bruce & Laing (Why Dontcha).
Jerusalem, Dies Irae and more…
Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan took UK hefty rocker Jerusalem under his wing, co-managing the band and producing its 1972, self-titled debut. Jerusalem features some pile-driving New Wave of British Heavy Metal riffing, and in that sense, it’s an album ahead of its time. Elsewhere, well, with Gillan as overlord, Deep Purple certainly appears — albeit in a less grandiose form. In fact, if you’d call Jerusalem anything, ‘unaffected’ suits well. Jerusalem is hard rock meeting proto-metal in a drunken pub-car-park brawl. There’s bravado to be found, for sure — and some grim riffing and grungy headbangin’ doom — but the album doesn’t bluff. Jerusalem gigged around Europe with Sabbath, Purple and Heep, but nothing happened for the band, and it duly split (two members moving on to form Pussy). Jerusalem may have left only a single album in its wake, but it left a heap of musical ideas that would be capitalized on by others in the decades to come. See also: Pussy (Invasion), Warhorse (Warhorse) and Armageddon (Armageddon).
There’s no doubting the Devil’s role in inspiring the bands on this list. Combine that with a devotion to ingesting hallucinogens — and roll it all up in Kraut, hard, blues and prog — and you get German band Dies Irae. First, the only LP from the band, engineered by the esteemed Cony Plank, brought a little controversy upon release. Some radio stations refused to play any of First‘s tracks due to their occult and narcotic advocations, and while First might seem quaint compared to the Satanic championing these days, songs such as “Lucifer”, “Harmagedon Dragonlove”, and the fittingly titled “Trip” bring plenty of wicked swagger and drugged-out stagger. The bulk of First is a murky pitch into psychedelic and melodic blues, with harmonica jams meeting echoing space rock, and everything sinking into marshlands of acid-drenched feverishness. Think of a fusion of Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Ash Ra Tempel gobbling benzodiazepines on the come down from an exospheric high and you’re getting close. See also: Hairy Chapter (Eyes/Can’t Get Through), My Solid Ground (My Solid Ground) and Módulo 1000 (Não Fale com Paredes).
(1972, Dead Forever, 1973, Volcanic Rock)
Australian band Buffalo released a handful of barnstorming albums in the ’70s, but its first two, 1972’s Dead Forever and 1973’s Volcanic Rock, are the real antipodean hard rock treasures. The band proved hugely influential on Australia’s boisterous pub rock scene, even if Buffalo found more success in Europe than it ever did at home. You’d be hard pressed to pick between Dead Forever or Volcanic Rock as the band’s finest work. Both albums feature unhinged and unhygienic hard rock, but “Sunrise (Come My Way)” from Volcanic Rock was as close as the band got to a hit, and it’s a perfect example of Buffalo’s insalubrious rock bound to a strident melodic march. Buffalo’s first two albums set a template that Australian bands like Rose Tattoo would exploit to much chart success, but for a few short years, you didn’t get much burlier Down Under than Buffalo’s stampeding rock. See also: Coloured Balls (1973, Ball Power) and Human Instinct (1970, Stoned Guitar).
Celtic Frost and Krokus are Switzerland’s most famous metal exports, and hirsute ’70s four-piece Toad laid the groundwork for both bands. Toad was formed by the bassist and drummer from Krautrock marvel Brainticket (see 1971’s madcap Cottonwoodhill), but instead of following the Krautrock trail, Toad hopped onto the hard rock highway. The band’s virtuoso guitarist ‘Vic’ Vergeat routinely played the guitar with his teeth like the Hendrix disciple he was, and although Toad was never very successful outside Switzerland, it still managed to rope in Martin Birch to engineer and mix its first two albums, 1971’s Toad and 1972’s Tomorrow Blue. Toad featured the band’s hit “Stay” — three minutes of swampy blues meeting steel-shard riffing — and while Toad had a little further Swiss success, by the mid-’70s the band was on the downhill slide. Still, while the band faded into obscurity, it jammed like a red-hot power-trio on its last day on earth — see 1972’s Open Fire: Live in Basel 1972 for bootlegged fireworks. See Also: Jamul (Jamul) and Road (Road).
It’s stretching the limit to call Cactus obscure, but you’d be surprised how few people have heard its first album. It was formed by Vanilla Fudge’s rhythm section (bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice), and Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart were initially expected to join too, but ex-Amboy Duke singer Rusty Day and guitarist Jim McCarty came on board instead. The band recorded its self-titled debut in 1970 (a few lukewarm releases followed) and Cactus is an outright sweltering shred-fest. Day howls along to McCarty’s ultra-electrified boogie on blistering versions of “Parchman Farm” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover,” and “Oleo” and “Feel So Good” feature abundant jamming, soloing, and howling harp. All up, Cactus is 40 minutes of preeminent hard-hard rock that’s well worth visiting, if you’ve not been there before. See also: Atlee (Flying Ahead) and White Witch (White Witch).