While many critics and hardcore fans have debated the merits of Ball, the truth is that it served as a solid follow-up to their one mega hit.
It was the middle of January. The year was 1969. In the same week, two brand new hard rock vinyls wound up hitting the shelves: Iron Butterfly's third album, Ball, and the debut disc of some new group called Led Zeppelin.
Most people forget that Led Zeppelin were not immediate mainstream hits right out the gate, and that the band would refine and expand their sound in the years to come. For Iron Butterfly, Ball marked a very significant change. For the core trio of Doug Ingle, Lee Dorman, and Ron Bushy, it was important to shake things up, because while their aptly-titled 1968 debut Heavy was all but ignored by both critics and radio, their follow-up, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, launched them into the rock radio stratosphere, that title track's immortal keyboard line helping epitomize an entire generation of stoner-friendly psychedelic rock. Although the short radio edit of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is what turned into a Top 40 hit, the album version grew a far more notorious reputation, taking up the LP's entire flip-side while lasting 17 minutes. (That runtime is still a bit shy of the Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" released a year earlier, but let's be honest: the Underground were never designed for chart success in the first place.) Iron Butterfly's sophomore LP vaulted into Billboard's top five, the title song became a live staple (their 1970 Live set again featured the track taking up the entire B-side, this time lasting a whole 19 minutes), and thanks to The Simpsons, it has become a one-hit wonder that has endured for decades down the line.
Yet even while they were being swept up in the song's success, the group realized that it was soon becoming the thing that they were most known for, the eternal curse of One Hit Wonderdom being that your one hit is not only all that people know you for, but also all that people care about, outside of your hardcore fans. Thus, Ball was created as an extreme counterweight to the growing legacy of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", here trading in their single epic track for a series of short, tight tunes, much like their debut album. Again retaining the talents of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida producer Jim Hilton, the band's keyboard-heavy sound remained in effect, but here presented in a much more digestible context. (Additionally, per Bill Kopp's remarkably even-handed liner notes, this marks the only time in the group's history the same lineup made two albums in a row, the band taking on no less than 50 different personnel shuffles in the years that followed)
Unlike their remarkably bland and by-the-numbers debut, however, Ball feels more like a band that has found a creative identity for themselves, and although Ingle's lyrics don't really add too much beyond what Darryl DeLoach accomplished with Heavy (he left shortly after that disc's release), the group feels tighter in their playing and songwriting. The chemistry is a bit more pronounced and playful; check out how Ingle's keyboard closely follows Bushy's drum beats during the opening of "Her Favourite Style". Yet while Ball is more musically consistent than their previous albums, their songs, especially when played straight through, lack a great deal of sonic distinction from each other; the band plays with the same textural palette throughout, offering little variation.
Although opener "In the Time of Our Lives" really plays the hard rock angle up as much as it can (and has a verse that feels like the soundtrack to a groovy horror flick, much in the same way B-side number "Filled with Fear" does), that opening salvo ultimately comes off as a misnomer. The rest of Ball carries on a groovy vibe that borders on straight-up pop at times: "Soul Experience" sounds like a more artistically confident update of Strawberry Alarm Clock's entire output. From there, "Lonely Boy" finds the group in pure balladeer mode, featuring a loverman vocal take from Ingle that's so over-the-top it sometimes borders on cartoony. "In the Crowds" and "It Must Be Love" just play straight down that hippie-driven brand of MOR pop-rock, with the group offering pleasant melodies but little lasting substance. Even the lower-case psychedelic overtones of "Belda-Beast" fails to generate any magic of its own; the song captures a great vibe but fails to turn that into anything approaching a memorable song.
Part of the problem might be that due to the group's expanding musical confidence, they didn't feel the need to adhere to traditional song structures. Each track builds out and flows in a suite-like formation, but although they come across some fascinating detours, they don't rope in those grooves as much as use them as a jumping off point for whatever their next idea is. Ultimately, this makes Ball more of a meandering album than an enjoyable one, existing more for appreciation than it does for pure visceral enjoyment.
Two rarities are tacked on to the end of this re-release (the meandering "I Can't Help But Deceive You, Little Girl" and the charming slide guitar-punctuated "To Be Alone"), but, as some collectors will note, these are the exact same bonus add-ons from the 1999 Collector's Choice reissue of the same disc. The difference between these two? A notable separation in sound quality. The Collector's Choice take sounded like a straight-from-tapes transfer; by contrast, this edition here has much more breathing room and a clearer separation of the elements, with the drums and guitars occupying their own distinct place in the mixes. Best of all, however, is how the overdubbed group vocals play this time around: the haunting chants on "In the Time of Our Lives" stand out especially well.
While many critics and hardcore fans have debated the merits of Ball, the truth is that it served as a solid follow-up to their one mega hit, a pretty good album that entertains but fails to bring anything as era-defining as, ya know, that one song of theirs. It's a credible psychedelic curiosity, and although its pleasures are modest, they remain pleasures nonetheless.