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Plain and Fancy

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Iron Butterfly - Scorching Beauty / Sun and Steel (1974-75 us, classic rock with some glam dives)

Several things occur to me as I keep listening to Scorching Beauty. First, I wonder at the careful and loving craftsmanship of the record. Just nine songs on here, and none are that long: a couple do develop into feeble jams, but for the most part, the length is adequate. The production is not brilliant, but decent: the sound is very cozy and homely, as if the band is playing right here in your living-room. No arena connotations here, and no 'band-from-Hell' connotations either: just good old plain rock'n'roll with loud, but not overloud guitars and nice touches of organs and synths throughout.

Second, Erik Braunn suddenly displays an amazing singing voice - on the more loud rockers he tries a bit too hard to scream his head off, but on the ballads and the 'quieter' numbers in general he sings in a weird croon, almost reminding me of Bryan Ferry. No, no, 'tis not a joke: I could have sworn that Braunn drew a lot of inspiration from none other than Roxy Music. If you don't believe me, grab this album and start it from track number six, 'Searchin' Circles': a terrific moody rocker driven by Erik's powerful riffage and Reitzes' majestic organ riff, and above it comes Mr Braunn's passionate, trebley vocal delivery that manages to encompass a lonely man's desperate feelings almost perfectly. And the bleating on the chorus - 'In circll-l-l-l-es! In circ-l-l-l-l-l-es!' - is great fun, too.

Third, it has often been said that Scorching Beauty has nothing to do with the former Ingle-led Iron Butterfly, but it ain't right. Some of the songs on here are, in fact, quite hippiesque: '1975 Overture' and 'People Of The World' are just the kind of universalist idealistic anthems you'd expect from a late Sixties record. Here, though, they are 'updated' for the Seventies, and in a nice way, too: 'Overture' opens with an Eastern-flavoured lovely synth melody and Bushy's martial drum rhythms, and 'People Of The World' starts as a typical Seventies grumbly rocker before subsiding into a groovy sing-along anthem with the silly, but charmingly naive refrain ('making each day a little bit better - all together, all together') that keeps repeating over and over a la 'Hey Jude' coda.

Fourth, these guys really know how to rock: 'Hard Miseree' rolls along like a shiny roller coaster, with Erik playing as fast as he can (which isn't really that fast, but it totally suits me, at least) and blazing his way through with some impressive off-the-wall solos. And 'Am I Down' has perhaps the catchiest vocal melody on the record, with Erik once again delivering that weird croon of his. The only misstep is the fake 'hysteria' at the end of the track, but nothing offensive about that, either; it's just that Mr Braunn is not a very convincing nor gifted screamer.

Erik's second and last try. Historically speaking, Sun And Steel is nowhere near as interesting as Beauty. The hippie elements are growing more and more feeble (no sing-along anthems on here), and Erik's Roxy Music influences are also on the way out, only peaking towards the very end of the record. On the other hand, the songwriting is clearly improved - every single one of the tracks on here has at least something to offer to you. The guitars are louder and brawnier, the solos are more 'cathartic', and the riffage is more evident. Oh, and the ballads are more heartfelt. Have I missed anything?

The main bulk of the songs on here are gritty rockers (with a couple ballads to soften the impression), sandwiched in between two 'soulful epics' - the title track and 'Scorching Beauty', which for some unclear reason didn't make it onto the previous album itself. These 'soulful epics' don't seem to have any significant or memorable melody, but hey, that's a usual thing with soulful epics. Soulful epics should grab you not with their structure or melody, but with the energy level and the passion and the heat. And believe me, there's enough passion and heat in both. 'Sun And Steel' builds up towards a pretty impressive climax, with Eric giving his best David Bowie (Bryan Ferry? James Brown? Who cares?) impersonation and playing lots of delicious licks, while the stately organ rules in the background.

Oh, by the way, they've replaced the keyboardist with a certain Bill DeMartines, but that didn't make a lot of difference. As for 'Scorching Beauty', it's arguably the best song off both of the albums. Erik manages to squeeze out a soothing, attractive and at the same time heavily distorted tone out of his guitar and pairs it with the Ferry-ish croon; to this, add thick layers of organ, orchestration and occasional tinkling pianos, and a furious, heartfelt vocal delivery, and here's a recipee for a minor masterpiece. As much as I'm not a fan of the 'heavy soul' genre, I have to admit the band worked some mini-wonders on here. Funny how they didn't bother to release the song immediately, on Beauty itself; did they really deem it inferior to dreck like 'Before You Go'?

And that's just two songs. Then there's the rockers. This stuff I likes. "Lightnin'" sounds a little corny when it comes to the refrain ('She was a lightning in my eyes...'; don't remember what it reminds me of, but maybe so much the better), but the main 'body' of the song, with its heavy funk and spooky little synth 'barkings' everywhere, is impressive. 'Free' takes off on a rather generic riff but transforms it into, well, something not entirely generic; I mean, the first notes are the usual stuff - a riff that's been used by thousands of heavy rock performers, but the last notes are an unexpected twist. Ah, if only I knew how to write down music... then again, not everybody knows how to read music, right? I wouldn't want to pass for a careless nonchalant snob, either.

'Scion', on the other hand, doesn't offer us anything far removed from generic, but I just like the way it flows by - powerfully and raunchily, and same goes for the Mellotron-drenched 'I'm Right I'm Wrong'. I tell you, these rockers aren't bad at all: they are just not very interesting as compared to 'Hard Miseree' or something like that. Still tons of times better than your usual Aerosmith, as the band pulls out all its tricks in desperation, with witty sound effects, synth solos, distorted violins, and loads of other things in the background which I'm just not able to notice. One could write an entire term paper around these numbers.

One could also write an entire term paper around the ballads on here. 'Beyond The Milky Way' begins as a corny bublegum piano pop ditty, then suddenly transforms into a powerful sappy ballad that lies somewhere in between Elton John and Paul McCartney. Gee, now that's clever. Maybe I just fell for the bubblegum once in my life, but I can't resist the song. Oh yeah, David Bowie also had a lot of similar stuff in his early days, so if you're going to condemn the song for 'sugarness', better think twice and at least remember that the melody is very pretty. And 'Watch The World Going By' is even better... definitely better, as nobody is going to accuse me of falling for bubblegum pop this time. In other words, it's another take on Bryan Ferry, with a tear-inducing acoustic guitar/piano melody that reminds me both of Phil Collins' 'More Fool Me' and - yep - 'Stairway To Heaven'... man, I feel like an idiot. But I can't help it.

Okay, I think I really overdid the references part in this particular review; what a downside to rock'n'roll education. It's all true, of course: there's a lot of Bowie and Ferry and Lennon and McCartney and Collins and Elton John and God knows who else here, but is there enough Iron Butterfly? Probably not. Mayhaps they just shouldn't have called the band 'Iron Butterfly', seeing as the records didn't sell anyway. On the other hand, if they hadn't dubbed themselves 'Iron Butterfly', no way I would have bought these albums or even learned of their existence. In the immortal words of George Ade, 'there is everything in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but would not cost as much during the winter months'.
Just listen to these albums, please.
by George Starostin

1.1975 Overture (Iron Butterfly) - 4:15
2.Hard Miseree (Braunn) - 3:41
3.High on a Mountain Top (Kramer) - 3:58
4.Am I Down (Braunn) - 5:19
5.People of the World (Braunn) - 3:22
6.Searchin' Circles (Braunn) - 4:35
7.Pearly Gates (Anderson, Bushy) - 3:26
8.Lonely Hearts (Braunn) - 3:12
9.Before You Go (Braunn, Reitzes) - 5:33
10.Sun and Steel (Braunn) - 4:01
11.Lightnin'  (DeMartines, Kramer) - 3:02
12.Beyond the Milky Way  (Bushy, DeMartines) - 3:38
13.Free (Braunn) - 2:40
14.Scion (Braunn) - 5:02
15.Get It Out (Braunn) - 2:53
16.I'm Right, I'm Wrong  (DeMartines, Kramer) - 5:25
17.Watch the World Goin' By (Braunn) - 2:58
18.Scorching Beauty (Braunn) - 6:45

Iron Butterfly
*Erik Braunn - Guitar, Vocals
*Ron Bushy - Drums, Vocals
*Bill DeMartines - Keyboards, Vocals
*Phil Kramer - Bass, Vocals
*Howard Reitzes - Keyboards, Vocals
Guest Musicians
*Jerry Jumonville - Horn Arrangements, Soloist
*Julia Tillman - Vocals
*Maxine Willard Waters - Vocals
*June Deniece Williams - Vocals

More Iron Butterflies
1968  Heavy (Japan SHM-CD)
1968  In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Japan SHM-CD)
1969  Ball (Japan SHM-CD)
1970  Metamorphosis (Japan SHM-CD)

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CrunchyFrog said...

hey Marios, how are you? Thanks so much for the awesome Iron Butterfly post!

Jamie (tacobueno) said...

Thanks a lot Marios - haven't heard this era of IB before - appreciate it!