Primitive Origins: Randy Holden’s “Population II”

Primitive Origins is a column where we’ll look back at proto-metal and early metal that deserves a bit of your battered eardrum’s attention. We’re keeping it loose and easy here: there’s no strict guidelines other than it’s gotta be old, it helps if it’s obscure, and it’s gotta rock out surprisingly hard for its context. Pscyh-ed out proto-metal from the late ’60s? Of course. Early attempts at doom metal from the ’70s? Hell yeah. Underground Soviet metal from the early ’80s? Sure. Bring it on. Bring it all on.

What do you do if you play on half of early proto-metal band Blue Cheer’s third album and then move on? If you’re guitarist Randy Holden, you go and—in 1969—quietly record one of the heaviest proto-metal albums that existed up until that point. Today, we’re going to look back on that album, the oddly titled Population II, released in 1970. What we’re about to see is one of the great joys of this column: incredibly heavy material written and recorded decades ago, stuff that easily gives Sabbath a run for their money, but has flown more or less under the radar.

Get ready for this one: shit’s about to get heavy. And let’s remember this for context: Sabbath’s debut was recorded on October 16, 1969. Although I can’t pinpoint the exact month, Population II was apparently recorded in “late 1969,” meaning it could have been recorded before Sabbath’s debut. (And if your heart literally skipped a beat like mine did while typing that, welcome, you’re reading the right column.) (Update: we contacted Holden to get the skinny, and he says he actually thinks it was recorded in 1970, but before Sabbath’s debut was released.)

The aptly named “Guitar Song” starts off this album, and indeed Holden is playing the hell out of his guitar here; love how things start off threatening to be rote blues rock but get far heavier, huge proto-metal crashing and bashing, elbowing up against heavy acid rock and meandering, sure, blues rock. But blues rock is normally pretty rough; Holden makes it interesting, and heavy, enough to be thoroughly enjoyable here. Great opener.

Next up is “Fruit and Iceburgs,” the title serving as a helpful reminder that everyone was just stoned out of their fucking minds in 1970, and the main riff, once it finally wanders over, showcasing a fantastic predilection toward proto-doom—and, again, let’s remember that this was recorded in 1969. When the band (which is actually just Holden and drummer Chris Lockheed) get quiet, it’s with a fantastic deft, foreboding touch; this song right here is Sabbath material, an alarming prospect considering how unheard this is. A fantastic proto-metal find, easily one of the heaviest riffs out there at this point in time. (Note that the similarly titled “Fruit and Icebergs” appeared on the Blue Cheer record Holden was on; this is a re-recording and re-imagining of that tune, heavied up quite a bit, although the Blue Cheer version is worth a headbang or two.)

“Between Time” is a sort of proto-punk/Kinks blast, the song not even hitting two minutes, a fun energy burst with good songwriting smarts and an irresistible upbeat sound. Good counterpoint to “Fruit and Iceburgs,” and it doesn’t come across disjointed at all, rather, just two sides of one talented musical personality.

Side A closes with “Fruit and Iceburgs (Conclusion),” which actually rules because, yes, bring that proto-doom riff back, please. This short instrumental closes off the first half of this album in style, and also with a huge reminder that this is serious proto-metal material here. I can’t overemphasize the heaviness of these riffs. This sounds more Crowbar than Captain Beyond, and this was recorded IN THE SIXTIES.

“Blue My Mind” kicks off side B with some serious riff action, although it leans less proto-doom than it does huge arena rock good times, slightly southern, totally killer. This song is just an orgy of riffs, every single one of them fantastic. I think there’s vocals but I just can’t stop tuning completely into the amazing guitar work, Holden tossing off golden riff after golden riff as if it ain’t no thing.

The 10-minute “Keeper of My Flame” ends the album off; admittedly, it takes a little while to get to where it’s going. But it’s not meandering or too stoned—thankfully, as that is, as you can imagine, often a problem with proto-metal albums. “Keeper of My Flame” is a pretty huge rocker, and then… then, at 7:05, Holden takes it up a notch, bringing back the huge, lumbering doom visited earlier for an extremely heavy grand finale. This is heavier than proto-doom; this is proto-sludge. Turn this riff up loud: this is Eyehategod, recorded in 1969. What an ending. Incredible.

Randy Holden’s Population II – The Decibel breakdown:

Do I need to be stoned to listen to this?: Definitely not.

Heaviness factor: Easily one of the heaviest we’ve featured to date in this column.

Obscura Triviuma: Holden played in proto-metal pioneers Blue Cheer on their third album, New! Improved!, which came out the same year he recorded Population II.

Other albums: Yes, lots, both solo and with other bands.

Related bands: Blue Cheer, Sons of Adam, The Fender IV, Touch of Heaven, Lucifer.

Alright, fine, if you must: Don’t do it; listen to this one totally sober and let the riffs get you wasted.