A few months or even nearly a year ago, I dedicated an article to proto and traditional heavy metal. Usually, when I do an article it is out of a desire to understand and process a style and sound. My interest in early heavy metal, however, has only grown and since then has become one of my favorite styles. I adore early heavy metal. In fact, I love this style so much, it is getting another and more involved article. This time I have invited friends.
In the mid 60’s, heavy metal formed out of a primordial mixture of blues rock, heavy psych, and progressive rock. Heavy metal came to be with the waning of the 60’s counterculture combined with growing pessimism and a desire for exploration. It is easy to think of the much publicized Manson murders as heavy metal’s dark impetus. It is my belief, however, that psychedelic rock’s descent into darkness would have happened regardless. With any style there is a need to explore. Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix all pointed their music in one direction. The bands of the mid 60’s loved loud music and their audience loved it even more. It was only a matter of time before things became real and took a turn towards interesting darkness. Eventually bands would push and claw their way over an invisible mountain only to find a tenebrous valley below. It was a land of milk, honey, and dopesmoke. Through this haze of distortion and adventure, some of the greatest albums were made — and eventually forgotten.
Black Sabbath is usually pinpointed as the start of heavy metal. Though there were ripples before hand, Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut has been immortalized as the first true heavy metal record. It was one of the first to stabilize the style and sound which would provide guidance for further records. While Sabbath is certainly important, the time period of the late 60’s/early 70’s were full of equally heavy and forward thinking records. In the shadow of Black Sabbath’s debut exists a universe of amazing music. The late 60’s and early 70’s were full of energy, imagination, and fuzzed out atmospheres. I hope you brought your turntable because things are about to get wild.
The early days of heavy metal were not relegated to any sound or specific style. It was a frontier town where any band willing to push their sound was accepted in some unnamed community. There were no genres or relegations for underground and mainstream. If it fit, it stuck. I adore the freedom and the naïve optimism wielded by bands who were unassuming to the sound they created. It was all heavy and that seemed to be the only fact which mattered. Anger and frustration, wonder and fear, they were all sent pummeling through speakers at increasing sonic levels. It was the thunder of the gods which captivated the time period.
I fucking love this sound and for this article I have enlisted the help of two online colleagues. Both of the guest writers come from Reddit’s r/metal subgenre, with one of them as a moderator for the community. I would like to thank deathofthesun and Zeaglefiend for offering their perspective on something that has increasingly become vital to my existence. If it was not for this community, I would have not found so many great bands. For this, I am in debt with only this article and a ride in an airbrushed van as gratitude.
A few months or even nearly a year ago I made a playlist of early heavy metal records. Today I offer you an updated playlist with 2 days worth of early heavy metal. I can not think of a greater way to spend your weekend or even the beginning of your week. Play on brothers. Play on. Today you enter into this chapel of proto-metal and tomorrow you shall exit members in a dark congregation. Play on.
Iron Claw – Iron Claw (1970)
For some strange reason I wanted to find a really heavy record which pre-dated Sabbath’s debut. It could have been by months or even days but I wanted to see history in a more complicated way than I’ve heard initially proposed. I still haven’t found it. I think deathofthesun may have found it. Iron Claw is close but not quite early enough. In fact, this group of Scottish kids seemed to be directly influenced by early Zeppelin and Sabbath shows. Alright mostly Sabbath. In fact, the early demos from Iron Claw appear to be direct knock offs of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Regardless, Iron Claw’s collected work from 1970 to 1974, despite copyright infringment, is incredibly sophisticated for the time period. The moment “Skullcrusher” appears everything you once thought about early heavy metal disappears. Too bad it sat under rubble for all these years.
This self titled compilation chronicles the band’s existence in demos beginning from the very heavy and fuzzed out beginning in to the more even yet focused years of 1973. I really enjoy the early demos. They are my new morning music to accompany my coffee. Though Iron Claw is transparent in their blind Sabbath worship, everything the band does comes with a feeling of genuine excitement. No one can take this away from them. The rest of the compilation chronicles a band working their sound through various styles. It is somewhat sad to hear all of the work and effort which would eventually lead to a forgotten existence. Fear not brothers, I know a few people who will hear your tales.
Lucifer Was – Underground and Beyond (1971)
This band has two things going for them. One is a flute. The other is a world ending guitar tone. Lucifer Was… was and still is a Norwegian band who began in the early 70’s. Much like Iron Claw, it is only recently that earlier material is receiving attention. Much like a darker Jethro Tull, Lucifer Was understood the balance between rock and pure abysmal abandon. When the band slowed their guitar to a crawl, time and space ceased to exist.
Underground and Beyond is another compilation of early work before the band’s reformation in the late 90’s. Lucifer Was’ second record In Anadi’s Bower is just as amazing as their early work and in fact sounds eerily similar to their 70’s style. The band’s third record Blues From Hellah is a reworking of an album began in 1982. Lucifer Was defies conventional time structures and is appearing to be timeless and eternal. This is fine with me.
Salem Mass – Burning Witch (1971)
Originally, I was going to dedicate this article to proto metal bands with an obsession in the occult. Too bad there are only like 4 or 5. My wife was also creeped out for an entire week when I found those Black Widow records. Perhaps someday. Salem Mass shares the same passion with the occult that defined a small branch of early heavy metal. Instead of Satanism or biblical terror, Salem Mass concerned themselves with the intrigue of witchcraft.
Burning Witch is more progressive than my previous two choices. At times the band plays like a midnight King Crimson or Pink Floyd converted into a dark order. There are instances of keyboard journeys and soft exploratory ballads. Most all of it is as amazing as it is interesting. Burning Witch is a record which laments the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials but never once denies a morbid fascination with the mystic powers of old.
From the scattered and rare reviews of this record, Salem Mass is chalked up to a failed experiment which attempted to fuse the budding progressive sound with dark mysticism. I disagree in the fact that it is a failure. Sure it never made it to becoming commercially viable but its oddness and unique theme combined with earnest musicianship makes it one of the strangest records of the early 70’s. Good luck finding it.
Blues Creation – Demon and Eleven Children
Japan’s least weird hard rock export of the time, Blues Creation’s second album finds the band opting for straight-up Black Sabbath worship mixed liberally in places with mind-melting psychedelia. (For the uninitiated, “Brain Buster” is a very prophetic song title for what this album holds in store.) Bookended by two massive slices of apocalyptic doom (“Atomic Bombs Away” and “Demon and Eleven Children”), the album veers between stylistic extremes, all vaguely tied together by guitarist Kazuo Takeda’s double-speed Tony Iommi theft – err, licks. The vocals and lyrics aren’t so hot, but it’s more than made up for by the ironclad strength of the music throughout the entire damn album, rather than this being yet another Leaf Hound/Lucifer’s Friend case of “one’s killer, the rest’s filler.”
Bang – Bang (1971)
At their best, Bang were a more solid, less fucked up Budgie. At their worst, they were … well, still pretty good, but in a much more laid-back vein and occasionally prone to extended lite-rock diddling. Fortunately their self-titled album lands both feet squarely in the former camp. Much darker and heavier than their shelved debut, Death of a Country, Bang unleashes mammoth riff after mammoth riff, broken up by a few well-placed gentle interludes that show not only an impressive range but also a solid grasp of dynamics … one they’d let slip through their fingers a bit on their well-meaning followup album, Mother/Bow to the King. If you’re not sold after the mammoth one-two punch of “Lions, Christians” and “The Queen,” then just give up. You’re not worthy of making it to “Future Shock” and “Redman.”
Randy Holden – Population II (1969)
When you fill an opera house with twenty Sunn amps, good things are bound to happen. (*Note – this does not apply to one-note-per-hour wizard-robed hipsterbait horseshit.) Population II stands tall as the only pre-Sabbath album that’s even in the same zip code when it comes to darkness and heft. Holden’s appearance on side two of Blue Cheer’s New! Improved! album the same year doesn’t even begin to hint at the devastation contained within his solo album, recorded as a two-piece with drummer/bassist/keyboardist Chris Lockheed. Playing the role of guitar hero to the hilt, instead of shredding faces off Holden opts for a more measured attack, using feedback and sustain to make every single note slice deep. If the opening “Guitar Song” lyric “You know I love the sound of a guitar playing” doesn’t sum up Population II in its entirety, I don’t know what does.
Any narrative of the genesis of heavy metal in the late 1960s and early 1970s can be counted upon to follow a pretty well-established formula: Black Sabbath’s seminal self-titled LP will be given pride of place as the first unarguably “metal” album. References will undoubtedly be made to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple’s early albums, as well as recordings by not-quite-metal bands like Blue Cheer and Iron Butterfly. Steppenwolf will be credited with coining the term “heavy metal”. Beyond this, Cream, Uriah Heep and UFO might get a mention if they’re lucky.
These narratives all share the fact that they present the earliest days of heavy metal as if they were in the hands of a small group of bands that can be counted off on two hands. As is often the case, music criticism in the case of proto-metal is tempted to fall into the trap of crediting a few bands with something that in reality required a bubbling scene of groups to create. The reality, of course, is that, while the above bands were instrumental in laying the groundwork for what would become heavy metal (and in a couple of cases, most obviously Black Sabbath’s first few records, one band *was* several steps above the rest), they could not have done so without a wider scene that was conducive to the innovations that they were making. It is this scene – the vibrant blues-rock/hard-psychedelia scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly in the UK – which I would like to explore here.
Hard, bluesy pysch has always had the British supergroup Cream as its public face, with tracks like “Crossroads” and “Sunshine of Your Love” firmly entrenched in the popular repertoire, but beyond that, deeper digging is usually required.
Bakerloo – Bakerloo (1969)
The Bakerloo Blues Line was formed in early 1968, and quickly simplified its name to Bakerloo, an unfortunate move which seems to me a bit like the Brian Johnstone Massacre changing their name to “Brian”. Although they only existed as a band for a little over a year, they were extremely active in the UK blues-pysch scene, touring with Earth (soon to become Black Sabbath) and opening for Led Zeppelin’s first ever gig at the Marquee Club in London in late 1968. Furthermore, Bakerloo acted as a sort of feeder band for bands which would later become prominent in the scene: bassist Terry Poole and drummer Keith Baker would later play in May Blitz, and later still Baker would join Uriah Heep; guitarist David “Clem” Clempson, meanwhile, ended up in prog/jazz-rock band Colosseum.
Bakerloo’s self-titled debut (and only) album is the least obviously “metal” album that I have chosen, but it is highly representative of the sort of sludgy psychedelic blues that was being played by many bands in the late 1960s. In many ways, it isn’t far from metal: Clempson’s squealing guitar-work in “Gang Bang” and “Last Blues” is recognizably a precursor to the blitzkrieg soloing that would figure heavily in metal in later decades, as is Baker’s frenetic, pulverizing drumming. Likewise, the driving riffage on “Big Bear Ffolly” and the songs mentioned above would become a genre touchstone. The record’s most metal moment by far, though, is the monstrous 15 minute closer “Son of Moonshine”: the band really rack up the volume and the aggression here, and it blows the rest of the album, as well as pretty much everything else recorded in 1969, out of the water, from its chugging intro and its unrelentingly pulsing beat to its crashing ending, which lets the song’s pent-up energy explode in a frantic noise-fest, before bleeding out in a quieter outro.
Pretty much as soon as the album was recorded, Bakerloo split, with Clempson joining Colosseum and Poole and Baker going on to be founding members of May Blitz (about which more a bit later). The album never found any real success beyond the scene that it belonged to, but it stands today as a top-notch example of proto-metallic psychedelic blues, and acts as a nice summation of the scene (two tracks that tie it nicely into its era are the cover of Willie Dixon’s blues number “Bring It On Home”, more famously done in the same year by Led Zeppelin, and “Driving Backwards”, a jazzy version of J.S.Bach’s “Bourrée in E-Minor” which makes a nice companion piece to the version recorded by Jethro Tull on their 1969 album *Stand Up*).
May Blitz – May Blitz(1970)
May Blitz was formed out of the ashes of Bakerloo in 1969, but Terry Poole and Keith Baker left the band while it was still gigging in pubs and clubs in the UK. They were quickly replaced by bassist Reid Hudson and drummer Tony Newman, and the band went into the studio in 1970 to record their debut, self-titled album. Even before hearing the music, May Blitz seem more “metal” than Bakerloo: signed to Vertigo, they were label-mates with Black Sabbath and Lucifer’s Friend, among others, and the brutish cover art boasted by their self-titled album gives an immediately darker impression than most of the band’s peers were willing to show. (Another quality that May Blitz have that Bakerloo and many of their other peers lacked is a strong jazz sensibility and a phenomenal sense of groove – I don’t know if drummer Tony Newman ever actually played any jazz, but from his work with May Blitz it seems eminently possible).
Musically, May Blitz is instantly arresting. From the first moments of their self-titled album, a dark, doomy atmosphere is created. Opener “Smoking the Day Away” is thick, hazy and appropriately drugged-out. The first half of the song trudges ominously, held up by Jamie Black’s doomy riff and topped off by dreamy vocal harmonies: the song isn’t “heavy” or “brutal”, but it is dark and sinister, and it isn’t hard to see parts of it, and parts of the record more generally, as a kind of prototype for what would become stoner metal. “I Don’t Know” is a more standard blues track, but the break in the middle, dominated by Black’s wailing, scraping guitar, is pretty metal. The album also has its quieter, spacier tracks – “Dreaming” and “Tomorrow May Come” eschew volume and menace for trippy repose – but the energy comes crashing back in the final two tracks: the driving “Fire Queen”, which has thrash cover potential in spades, and the sprawling “Virgin Waters”, which starts as a restrained blues but builds to a brutal metal finale which takes everything that the rest of the album has hinted at and beats it to a squealing, messy pulp.
If May Blitz’s debut only let itself be taken over by its metallic leanings in its dying moments, the band’s second (and last) album, The 2nd of May, is considerably more to the point. Opener “For Mad Men Only” boasts a fairly face-melting riff (for 1971, at least), which equals most things that Black Sabbath were doing at the time in terms of intensity and gut-crunching heaviness. A short cannonball of a track, “For Mad Men Only” sets the heavier, darker tone of the record, which is quickly reinforced by the wonderfully jazzed-up “Snakes and Ladders”, which is probably the darkest, most metal-sounding track the band ever came up with: after letting Newman and Hudson show off their jazz chops for the first half of the song, Jamie Black unleashes a squall of guitar noise that carries the song to a diabolic conclusion. The album does not let up often: “8 Mad Grim Nits” and “Honey Coloured Time” both beat the listener around a bit, admittedly the latter only it’s closing moments. The album does let itself slide to a more restrained end with the spaced-out “Just Thinking”, but by now, the point has been made.
Both May Blitz albums (sadly the band broke up shortly after recording *The 2nd of May*) combine dark, gritty atmospherics, often aggressive drumming, and occasionally truly monstrous riffing to create a sound that unarguably stands alongside that of their label-mates Black Sabbath and Lucifer’s Friend as pioneering heavy metal music. Aside from being historically important for this reason, it also represents (I believe) one of the unsung highpoints of the UK psychedelia scene, as one of the most successful and accomplished fusions of blues, jazz and psychedelia of the era, easily equal if not superior to the hugely more successful work by bands like Cream and Deep Purple.
Bulbous Creation – You Wont Remember Dying (1970)
Now for something rather different.
Bulbous Creation were a band from Missouri who recorded their only album, You Wont Remember Dying, in 1970 before disappearing off the face of the earth. What’s more, the album wasn’t actually released until 1994, when it was rescued from total obscurity by Rockadelic Records. Despite this, no-one even seems to know who the bandmembers were, so this is a real forgotten gem. Totally independent from the UK scene, this album nonetheless embodies several of the thematic and lyrical qualities that were coalescing into metal around this time.
The cover and title of the record set the stage thematically: this is a record about death and its implications, as exemplified by opener “End of the Page”. As such, this album lyrically represents a prototype for heavy metal, even if its reflections on death are very simplistic and primitive. “Satan” is similar: other than vaguely going on about Satan, the singer doesn’t offer us anything particularly developed or detailed, but at this early stage in its evolution, metal doesn’t need detail, it just needs to work out where it’s going.
The songs that don’t focus on death generally tackle pretty typical blues themes, such as “Hooked” (with its grinding proto-metal riff), which seems to deal with someone who is incarcerated for drug addiction: “there’s someone sitting in the cell next to me”, he laments, “I don’t know who it is/I just can’t see”. Even here, death returns, this time as the answer to his alienation: “oh Lord, I just wanna die!” Elsewhere, the songs plot out themes that will later become central to metal, such as “Under the Black Sun”, which sketches the apocalypse: “Beware, Sinner!” barks the singer, before declaring that “the earth wil blaze in fire”.