Heavy metal, like most styles of music, didn’t pop out of nowhere. It went through a lengthy gestation before emerging in the ’80s as a commercial force with a distinct style with set rules and conventions. Metal’s earliest purveyors—influenced by bands like Blue Cheer, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Cream, the Who, and even the Beatles—were steeped in the blues, but played it slower, heavier and louder. They sometimes experimented with odd meters, dissonance and extended song forms, but their common denominator was guitar-centric, riff-heavy, distorted and dark.
Some ’70s metal acts, like Black Sabbath, Kiss, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple filled arenas, sold millions and even scored hit singles. They were signed to major labels and made big money. But they didn’t exist in a vacuum, and for every headliner you had countless others touring as opening acts, playing clubs and recording on shoestring budgets. Those bands often had management issues, struggled with their labels, and more-often-than-not their albums ended up in the cut-out bins in record stores. But still, they had fans.
And those fans were loyal.
Some of those fans went on to become metal heroes themselves—like the members of Metallica, Iron Maiden, and many others—but they didn’t forget their roots. They cite their favorite unsung proto metal artists in interviews as primary influences, cover their songs, honor them on stage and at concerts and take pride in championing what most consider unknown or obscure bands.
In this roundup, we look at 10 proto metal albums you should know about. Some are obscure. Some were well-known but forgotten. Some became cult classics and are bigger now than they were when released.
All of them, however, are essential listening.
Few relatively unknown bands are as hyped as New York’s Sir Lord Baltimore. The legend—although probably not true—is that the term “heavy metal” was first used in a Creem magazine review of their debut, Kingdom Come. That may not be accurate, but the hype has merit. Kingdom Come rocks—just the outlandish guitar lead on the title track alone is enough to cement their place in heavy metal history.
That sentiment applies to the rest of the album as well. True, John Garner’s vocals are a littletoo theatrical—but it was 1970 and aside from Arthur Brown (of “I am the God of Hellfire” fame), who else was doing this stuff?—and the guitarist, Louis Dambra, is probably metal’s greatest unsung hero. His playing, especially on tracks like “Hell Hound” and “Pumped Up,” is outstanding. He boasts killer chops, a unique tone and delivers an awesome performance.
Sir Lord Baltimore was groomed under the watchful eyes of Mike Appel (Bruce Springsteen’s first manager); Kingdom Come was mixed by legendary engineer Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Kiss and countless others); and the band played an early gig opening for Black Sabbath at the Fillmore East in New York. But despite that pedigree and A-list access, Sir Lord Baltimore was dropped from their label in 1971—after their second release—and broke up soon after.
Heralding from Sydney, Australia is the riff-heavy, high energy, Buffalo. Their second release, Volcanic Rock, is a proto metal tour de force. Modern listeners will hear the antecedents of grunge in the album’s many heavy mid-tempo grooves, infrequent guitar solos and über-masculine vocals—a la Chris Cornell—except that Volcanic Rock came out in 1973.
Volcanic Rock is raw and unrelenting. The basic tracks were recorded live and overdubs were kept to a minimum. The songwriting is solid and straightforward, although some of the hooks—like the chorus on the album’s opener, “Sunrise (Come My Way)” and the guitar solo called, “Pound of Flesh”—sound second-rate. But that’s a minor complaint, especially when compared to epic songs like “Freedom,” “Shylock,” and singer Dave Tice’s stellar performance throughout.
Buffalo broke up in 1977—although they have had reunions—and their bassist, Peter Wells, went on to play both bass and guitar with Australian rockers, Rose Tattoo.
Budgie isn’t an obscure ’70s band, although they never attained the same level of notoriety as their contemporaries. They come from Cardiff, Wales, and had a huge influence on bands that came later—Iron Maiden, Metallica, Soundgarden and many others have covered their songs.
Never Turn Your Back on a Friend is the band’s third release and the last one to feature the original lineup. It opens with “Breadfan,” a song based around the most righteous riff ever—there’s a reason Metallica covered it—and includes other killer tracks like “You’re the Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk” and the album’s epic closer, “Parents.”
Budgie produced no-nonsense riff rock. They were a blues-based band, which was typical for their era, but they had depth and were experimental without being prog. They weren’t as dark as Black Sabbath or in the same league as Led Zeppelin, but they were legends nonetheless and their music made an enormous impact.
The obvious question Deep Purple fans often ask is, “What happened to Rod Evans?” (Evans sings on Deep Purple’s first three albums, including the hit single, “Hush”). He left the limelight over 30 years ago—he didn’t even attend his induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame—but he didn’t retire from music immediately after Purple either.
Captain Beyond is a supergroup of sorts and in addition to Evans it features drummer Bobby Caldwell (Johnny Winter and future Rick Derringer—he’s the drummer on “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo”), and Iron Butterfly alumni guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt and bassist Lee Dorman. Although signed to a major label—on the recommendation of Duane Allman—subsequent lack of label interest, a paltry number of live performances, and frequent lineup changes doomed Captain Beyond to an early demise. But that wasn’t before recording their eponymous debut, which is essential listening for fans of early metal.
Captain Beyond rocks out of the gate with the heavy, if quirky, “Dancing Madly Backwards (on a Sea of Air).” It’s a song that encapsulates the band’s musical ethos: heavy-handed blues-based riffs, odd meters (it’s in 5/4), and tight unison figures. It would be inaccurate to call them prog—although the basic ingredients of the genre are there—and prog sensibilities inform most of the album. Check out the killer, off-kilter riffs on tracks like “Mesmerization Eclipse,” “Raging River of Fear,” and “Frozen Over” to see what I mean. Most of the songs flow into each other—without breaks—and the band is tight and well-rehearsed. Their songwriting—for the most part—eschews the standard verse/chorus formula, features an advanced compositional approach and in many ways is way ahead of its time.
Dust is a band better known for what they did after they broke up. Singer/guitarist Richie Wise went on to produce many artists including Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve Marriott’s solo work and—most significantly for metal—the first two Kiss albums. Bassist Kenny Aaronson’s next band, Stories, scored a No. 1 hit with “Brother Louie” and he also played bass for Bob Dylan, Billy Idol and many others. Drummer Marc Bell became a big part of New York’s nascent punk scene and played with Richard Hell and the Voidoids before he joined the Ramones and changed his name to Marky.
But Dust were an entity in their own right as well, although their second album, Hard Attack, is an odd addition to the metal canon. It contains a number of acoustic songs and owes an obvious debt to the Who. It isn’t riff-centric and some songs, like “Learning to Die,” contain elements of early King Crimson. But it gets heavy as well including the instrumental, “Ivory,” and the album’s bass showcase, “Suicide,” which was later covered by Red Fang.
Jeronimo: Cosmic Blues
Jeronimo is a proto metal band from Germany. They toured with Steppenwolf and shared stages with Deep Purple and Golden Earring. The also scored a European hit with their cover of the Steam classic, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”
Cosmic Blues, Jeronimo’s second release, is riff-heavy, dirty and bluesy—although the band seems to suffer from an identity crisis. In addition to heavy, guitar-centric songs like “The Key” and “Hands,” the album also includes the band’s rollicking “Na Na Hey Hey” cover as well as a faithful-to-the-original cover of “Let the Sunshine In” from the musical, Hair. But oddball excursions aside, Cosmic Blues—released in 1970—is a good example of European metal at a time when the genre was still finding its place.
It might be a stretch to call Uriah Heep’s Demons and Wizards metal, although it rocks. Hard. The album was also their breakthrough. It features “Easy Livin’,” their only Top 40 U.S. single, and—with the addition of drummer Lee Kerslake and bassist Gary Thain—was the first album to feature what many consider their classic lineup.
Demons and Wizards includes a handful of meaningful acoustic numbers, but check out tracks like “Traveller In Time,” “Poet’s Justice,” “Rainbow Demon” and the anthemic “Easy Livin’”—Uriah Heep can pound out heavy, guitar-centric riffage, too. Bassist Mark Clarke—he has a songwriting credit on Demons and Wizards—left the band to join Dio-era Rainbow and Kerslake would later play on Ozzy Osbourne’s first two solo albums.
Alkana: Welcome To My Paradise
Alkana, from San Bernardino, California, can best be described as a poor man’s Boston. Vocalist Jack Rucker—he would later sing as “Damien King” for the metal band, Warlord—sings with a pleasant vocal timbre reminiscent of ’80s-era Don Dokken. Guitarist Danney Alkana owes an obvious debt to Tom Scholz—check out the guitar leads on “California Rock ’n’ Roll Queen,” “Montezuma’s Revenge,” and “Freedom Lady”—as great examples.
Welcome To My Paradise is Alkana’s only release and it is obscure. But it is also a great example of an American band experimenting with the sounds that would later be called the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal.” Songs like “Paradise”—although the chorus is a letdown—and “Head Games” point in that direction. The guitar styles and rhythmic feel would dominate the next decade, but they were in the air, percolating, and already in American hands in the mid-1970s.
Diamond Head’s Lightning to the Nations came out in 1980. It isn’t proto metal, but part of the first wave of the new wave of British heavy metal. It is known to fans as the White Album—it was self-released without artwork, just a plain white sleeve—and would have probably remained obscure if not for the relentless advocacy of the band’s biggest fans, Metallica.
Diamond Head suffered from poor management and bad decision making. Their early output is inconsistent and by their third release their lineup was in flux, but their debut, Lightning to the Nations, is a classic. Powered by amazing songs like “Helpless,” “It’s Electric,” “The Prince,” “Am I Evil?” (extra credit: listen to “Mars: the Bringer of War,” from “The Planets” by composer Gustav Holst), and the title track, Lightning to the Nations marks the arrival of everything heavy metal is supposed to be—fast tempos, virtuoso guitar, epic songwriting and attitude. The vocal parts are sung—this is a good decade before screamo vocals became big and at a time when something like Paul Di’Anno’s raspy voice was considered an anomaly—and songs like “Helpless” hint at what would be called thrash by the end of the ’80s.
Although dual lead guitars was de rigueur for most second generation metal bands—like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest—Saxon is the only band featured here with that lineup. Saxon were at the forefront of the new wave of British heavy metal, but unlike Diamond Head, they had their act together. Their second release, Wheels of Steel, is a classic album and a testament to the era.
Wheels of Steel has all the ingredients of great metal. Lead singer Biff Byford sounds like a cross between Bon Scott and Bruce Dickinson and the album features killer tunes like “Motorcycle Man,” “Stand Up and Be Counted,” “Wheels of Steel”—although the intro sounds a lot like “Cat Scratch Fever”—“Freeway Mad,” and “Street Fighting Gang.” Their songwriting is a lot more rock ’n’ roll—think: Motorhead or AC/DC—as opposed to the gallop feel of Iron Maiden or the grandiosity of Diamond Head.
Unfortunately, what could be a perfect album is marred by a few clunkers, most notably “747 (Strangers in the Night)” (I know, it’s their biggest hit, but it would be better on a Scorpions album), and the staid and formulaic, “Suize Hold On.”