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The Best Proto-Metal Albums From Heavy Metal’s Rowdiest Progenitors

Legions of underground musical legends litter the heavy rock graveyard, and the list below surveys a horde of those rowdy proto-metal rockers.

Night Sun – Mournin’ (1972)

In Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the crossover between Krautrock, hard rock, and progressive rock was frequently blurred, each genre adding and subtracting from the other, resulting in a raft of engaging albums. While Night Sun is infinitely more hard rock than Krautrock, their one and only album, 1972’s Mournin’, was recorded by pre-eminent Krautrock producer Conny Plank. That’s not Mournin‘s only distinction, of course, because it’s a free-for-all organ, guitar, and percussive melee.

Comparisons to Lucifer’s Friend ring true, but Night Sun were looser and more manic and abrasive. Heavy, demented tunes mixed space rock with acid-laden, terrestrial excursions, all combining for a studio-tweaked sprint through forbidding hard prog. Mournin’ is a berserker rock extravaganza, and Night Sun back their cult reputation with some genuine bohemian genius. See also: Euclid (Heavy Equipment) and German Oak (German Oak).

Tractor – Tractor (1972)

Tractor - Tractor

Late great UK radio legend John Peel championed many a worthy band, and British duo Tractor released one of their best albums on the famed DJ’s own Dandelion record label. Formed in the mid-1960s by Jim Milne (guitars/vocals) and Steve Clayton (drums/percussion), they originally went by the name the Way We Live. Tractor recorded their little-heard debut, 1971’s A Candle for Judith, under the same name in a brisk 48 hours. Peel, inspired by his rural homestead, suggested a new name, and Tractor were born.

Returning with their self-titled 1972 album, Tractor tilled the fields of acid folk and freak rock with a fittingly bucolic bent. However, what Tractor is truly celebrated for is tracks such as “All Ends Up”, “Hope in Favour”, and “Little Girl in Yellow”. Those songs saw distorting chainsaw guitars and walloping percussion mix with multi-tracked bulldozing noise, where pastoral harmonies and melodic vocals were engulfed by wicked psychedelia, taking the tunes into another realm of heaviness altogether. See also: Aardvark (Aardvark), Aunt Mary (Loaded) and Armaggedon (Ger) (Armaggedon).

Bolder Damn – Mourning (1972)

Bolder Damn - Mourning

If you think taking a single day to record an album reeks of self-indulgence, then Floridian hard rock band Bolder Damn are just for you. The group knocked their debut (and sole) album out in four hours. Released on a tiny run of 200 copies, Mourning includes the 15-minute-plus lurch of “Dead Meat”, a proto-downer metal classic whose title proved prophetic given that Bolder Damn’s fire was soon extinguished as members were called up by the draft. Elsewhere, you’ll find MC5 tussling with Alice Cooper (as Black Sabbath and the Stooges look on gleefully) with wah-wah wailing and abundant underground discord being fervently discharged.

Connoisseurs of obscure doomy rock and disagreeable boogie will find a lot to enjoy on Mourning. It’s raw, ragged, and fittingly jeopardy-laden, and with nary an overdub in sight, those four hours Bolder Damn spent in the studio resulted in a cult LP of hard rock thrills and psychedelic sub-garage spills. See also: Frijid Pink (Frijid Pink), the Rugbys (Hot Cargo), and Stone Garden (Stone Garden).

Gun – Gun (1968)

Gun - Gun

Late 1960s UK trio Gun found Top Ten favor with “The Devil’s Gun” from their 1968 self-titled debut. However, as is often the case with the vintage rock crowd, the members found the most fame elsewhere. Following Gun’s split after 1969’s less interesting Gunsight LP, bassist Paul Gurvitz and guitarist Adrian Gurvitz played with Ginger Baker in the Baker Gurvitz Army, but their success elsewhere doesn’t diminish Gun’s proto-metal credentials.

Gun sits right on the edge of shadowy pysch tumbling into disagreeable rock, and it’s all the better for its schizoid approach. The 11-minute wig-out of “Take Off” sees Gun taking a psychedelic and psychopathic approach, and while the record has plenty of quirkiness to lighten its tone when Gun is barreling down the hard rock path, there are plenty of weighty footfalls for fans of proto-metal to appreciate. Also of note is Gun‘s delightfully ghoulish cover, which was the first cover art from iconic artist Roger Dean. See also: Bohemian Vendetta (Bohemian Vendetta), Strange (Strange Flavour), and Three Man Army (1971, A Third of a Lifetime).

Steel Mill – Green Eyed God (1972)

Steel Mill - Green Eyed God

Apparently, timing is everything, and it’s all about location, location, location. Unfortunately, UK progressive rockers Steel Mill were a victim of both. Timing wise, their debut, Green Eyed God was released in Germany in 1972, but it wasn’t released in the UK till 1975, and by that time the band had split. Location was also a problem. Their mixing of genres didn’t sit comfortably in any one place, and Steel Mill would have been forgotten if not for UK label Rise Above remastering and reissuing Green Eyed God in 2010.

The album blends Jethro Tull’s whimsicalness with Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer’s ponderous blues, and a dash of jazzier flickers too. Saxophone, flute, and keyboards brought eccentric Eastern tones into wonderfully heavy prog romps, and you have to wonder what Steel Mill could have achieved if Green Eyed God had seen a fuller release in 1972 because they had no issue with traveling to extremely dark places. See also: Cosmos Family (An Old Castle of Transylvania), Dark (Round the Edges), and Possessed (Exploration).

Dust – Dust (1971)

Dust - Dust

New York trio Dust’s two albums are widely regarded as proto-metal classics, but the members are equally famous for their work following the band’s split. Drummer Marc Bell went on to play with Richard Hell & The Voidoids, then changed his surname to Ramone to play with another group of miscreants. Bassist Kenny Aaronson played with everyone from Stories to Bob Dylan to Billy Idol, and singer/guitarist Richie Wise and Dust’s lyricist and manager Kenny Kerner went on to produce KISS’s first few albums.

Dust’s self-titled debut for Kama Sutra Records in 1971 is a rip-roaring riot straight from a Bowery dive bar, and it’s recognized as being one of US metal’s pivotal early works. Grease-dripping hard rock and slide guitar, sleazy bruisers, and psych meltdowns all feature on Dust with the steel-tipped boot of metal prodding all. Follow-up, 1972’s Hard Attack, wasn’t as metallic, but get them both, and you’ve got timeless (and pioneering) hooligan metal on your hands. See also: Head Over Heels (Head Over Heels) and Power of Zeus (The Gospel According to Zeus).

The C.A. Quintet – Trip Thru Hell (1968)

The C.A. Quintet - Trip Thru Hell

You quickly realize in your early days of vintage heavy rock fandom that many of the best bands only made a single album before disappearing. Generally, that’s for the best (no need to spoil the broth), but in the case of the C.A. Quintet, it’s definitely for the best. The insanity of 1968’s Trip Thru Hell isn’t something you’d ever be able to repeat. While the Minneapolis-based band’s debut is, nominally, a psychedelic record, if Jim Morrison had followed through with what he proposed in “The End”, then the resulting psychological collapse would probably sound a lot like Trip Thru Hell.

The album scurries around in a world of fairground horror keyboards with psychotic variations in mood. It’s a deep lysergic-dripping dive into wah-wah distortions, non compos mentis rock, and tweaked-out vocals and percussion. Lead vocalist and lyricist Ken Erwin must have had something exceedingly troubling on his mind when he sculpted this Technicolor hybrid of (frankly) fucked-up glee and gloom. The perfect freak-out and freaked-out headphones album. See also: Pink Fairies (Neverneverland) and JPT Scare Band (Sleeping Sickness).

Lucifer’s Friend – Lucifer’s Friend (1971)

Lucifer's Friend - Lucifer's Friend

German group Lucifer’s Friend were fronted by English singer John Lawton, who would go on to sing with more widely known UK prog-metal crew Uriah Heep for a time. Not surprisingly, Lucifer’s Friend had quite a lot in common with Uriah Heep, along with a little early Deep Purple thrown in for good measure. Similarly, Lucifer’s Friend were an early participant in melding prog rock with rigorous rock riffing (courtesy of firebrand guitarist Peter Hesslien), and the group’s 1971 self-titled debut is a cult classic of organ-heavy jams and belting hard rock.

Lucifer’s Friend moved into jazzier fields for subsequent releases, but Lucifer’s Friend stands as a fine example of heavy metal finding its feet. It’s a powerful document of thundering prog with grim lyrics and aggressive guitar evoking all the appropriate Dark Lord vibes. A genuine lost treasure, and well worth seeking out immediately. See also: Asterix (Asterix), Toe Fate (Toe Fate), and The Gods (Genesis).

Leaf Hound – Growers of Mushroom (1971)

Leaf Hound - Growers of Mushroom

UK heavy blues and acid-fired rocker Leaf Hound recorded their 1971 debut, Growers of Mushroom, in a single day. The LP was originally released by the German label Telefunken, and the band toured Europe to promote the release, but by the time the record was re-released in the UK in late 1971, Leaf Hound were dust in the wind, vocalist Peter French having exited for Atomic Rooster. Although a much-revised line-up recorded a new album in 2007, the original Leaf Hound had a very brief reign, and Growers of Mushroom was its only (now highly collectible) release.

Leaf Hound mixed Led Zeppelin’s stomp with Cream’s groove, getting a lot dirtier and scrappier in the process. Virtuosity comes second to vivacity on Growers of Mushroom, but the album is a certified classic, and a cowbell-crusher like “Freelance Friend” turned up to 11 is pure, loose-nut rock ‘n’ roll joie de vivre. See also: Tear Gas (Tear Gas) and Ancient Grease (Women and Children First).

Les Variations – Nador (1970)

Les Variations - Nador

French rock band Les Variations had a number of firsts in their career. They were the first French rock group to tour the US, sign with a US record label, and find chart success in the US. They roamed across genres: hard rhythm blues in their early years, a fusion of North African and hard rock (reflecting some of the band members’ Moroccan heritage) in the latter. Les Variations found fame with 1973’s Moroccan Roll, but it’s 1969’s lesser-known Nador that you want to listen to. Blatant worship of Led Zeppelin and the Who appears on Nador, but its lack of originality is made up for in raw enthusiasm and Euro panache. The record is a stripped-back, ceaselessly entertaining jaunt, walking the line between bluesy psych and sizzling hard rock about to launch into space-rock wig-outs. See also: Chico Magnetic Band (Chico Magnetic Band) and Alice (Alice).

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published over several weeks beginning on 26 June 2013.