Fight Fire With Fire is an ongoing series on our site where we pit two classic genre albums against each other to definitively figure out which one is better. “But they’re both great!” you’ll say. Yes, these albums are the best of the best. But one is always better. Plus, we love these sorts of exercises, and also love watching you battle each other to the death in the comments, so how could this possibly end poorly?
Today, we’re presenting a special Primitive Origins edition of Fight Fire With Fire; Primitive Origins is where we examine proto-metal albums, and we’ve looked at both today’s contestants in detail in that column. In one corner, we’ve got Blue Cheer and their 1968 debut Vincebus Eruptum, long considered a classic of early metal, a pioneering piece of sonic extremity. In the other corner, the considerably more obscure Randy Holden and his 1970 release, Population II, a masterwork of monumentally heavy riffage.
We plowed through the blues covers (leave ’em) and the incredible production sounds (take it); we tried to figure out if the metal was intentional or accidental; we dug through layers of philosophical arguments with, well, ourselves while listening to these records over and over and over and we’ve come out with a winner. Read on to find out which of these early proto-metal gems is the better album in this battle of forward-thinkers, of bands who, perhaps unknowingly or unwittingly, were huge influencers on all kinds of extreme metal today, from doom to NOLA sludge.
Blue Cheer – Vincebus Eruptum
Considered by some—although not me—to be the first heavy metal album, Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum is an odd record once you start crunching numbers: clocking in at just under 32 minutes, the album is made up of only six songs, three of which are covers. But if there are two things I love, it’s albums that are 32 minutes long and production sounds that are crashing and bashing in the red, and, good lord, does this one check those boxes off wonderfully.
The production on Vincebus Eruptum is a thing of beauty, every sound being a bad-trip crash through distorted psych never before imagined, the end result just attacking all your good vibes, the band using audio to disorient, to annoy, basically as another instrument. Much like I can get lost in the production sounds of His Hero Is Gone’s Monuments to Thieves, I can put this record on and just immerse myself in the sounds created by the production itself. So, enormous plus there.
Now, as I noted when I wrote about this album in Primitive Origins, I hate “Summertime Blues” and no amount of bad-acid in-the-red crashing and distortion is gonna change that, although, sure, if I ever have to listen to any version of this song, it’d be this one, no doubt, I’ll give them that much. “Rock Me Baby” follows it up with a pretty miserable blues, again, the chaotic noise of the band adding a welcome bit of sonic unease to things, and I could just bask in the production sound and the cymbal smashing all day long, but the song is still pretty brutal to sit through.
Side A ends with “Doctor Please,” an original, finally, and it’s awesome. The song is eight minutes of trashed-out distortion, ugly proto-metal, sideways psych, even early doom leanings… This is a great song, super playable and enjoyable here in 2021.
“Out of Focus” is as well, a more concise four minutes of slightly southern-tinged psych and proto-metal, a song that I actually like more and more as each day passes. The originals here are cool, no doubt about it, and rock hard enough to keep me happy.
“Parchment Farm” is another cover, and it travels down blues-rock roads far too familiar, even if it does get pretty heavy during its journey, and is far more fun to listen to than blues-rock usually is. I mean, that riff that comes stumbling in at 2:33 is heavy, no doubt about it.
“Second Time Around” is an original to close things off, and it’s amazing, just total chaos, everything unhinged then back together then unhinged again, drum solo, bass solo, whatever, man, just let it happen. I love this tune, and it serves as a good, smart way to end this record, this idea of, hmm, something just happened really hanging on well after the noise fades. I can’t shake that this album is patchier than we really remember it being, but the guts Blue Cheer had to put out a record that sounded like this, and was played with this much intensity, in 1968—that’s 1968—is just endlessly awesome and gets no shortage of horns up from me.
So it will take something that has more consistency but just as much sonic chaos and beauty to it to beat out Blue Cheer today. And if anyone can do it, it’s Randy Holden.
Randy Holden – Population II
Man, is this one a whopper. Randy Holden actually played guitar for Blue Cheer, for half of their third album, before going off on his own and crafting this massive proto-metal/proto-doom solo opus. Like the other album we’re looking at today, this one only has six songs and also clocks in at 31 minutes, which seems like a fairly large coincidence, but there we have it.
Opener “Guitar Song” is awesome, incredibly heavy acid rock crushing up against proto-metal and some more stoned rambling parts, the blues influence there but not overwhelming, more like how NOLA sludge bands have blues influence but make it almost unbearably good. Love this song, killer opener. It doesn’t have as much immediate flash as Blue Cheer due to a more restrained (in other words, normal) production sound, but it’s got better riffs.
“Fruit & Iceburgs” is also killer, and gets way more Sabbath on us, this song very much proto-doom and crushingly heavy during its quiet doom parts. This has tons of value for the modern metalhead and also shows a band (well, just two dudes on this album, actually) who were more committed to crafting heavy songs, whereas Blue Cheer on Vincebus seemed more interested in creating a heavy sound through production and playing, but the sonics themselves weren’t as philosophically aligned with metal, never mind extreme metal, like this record is.
“Between Time” is a brief 1:49 of almost proto-punk bopping, the song a great lesson in powerful and economic songwriting, and it rocks. The first side ends with “Fruit & Iceburgs (Conclusion)” (hi, 1970!), just more excellent proto-doom crushing, guitar noise, rumbling and destroying. It’s under two minutes, and there’s no singing, just that killer riff, one Sabbath would die for, hammered into our brains over and over and over. Awesome.
“Blue My Mind” kicks off the two-song side B with a massive, relaxed, near-southern arena-rock shoulda-been anthem. Holden sounds positively lazy in the best of ways here, just strumming off amazing riff after amazing riff like it ain’t no thing. Another winner on an album that is actually just full of them.
Now, closer “Keeper of My Flame” is the big revelation for me. At just over 10 minutes, it takes a while to get to its jaw-dropping point, but the opening riffs are just fine, heavied up blues-rock with tons of feel and a proto-metal approach—Crowbar and Eyehategod are not totally far off for reference points, which is wild, considering what year this was recorded. But it’s the riff at 7:05 that I can’t even believe exists, Holden dropping a sound that I can confidently call proto-sludge, in 1970 (actually recorded in 1969). This is so heavy, and the fact that he had the guts to end the album with it says tons, too. An unbelievable suckerpunch of a closer on a record that just kills it through and through; Population II should be spoken of in higher regard in extreme metal circles, because this is just great riff after great riff, with the mother of them all lumbering in at the record’s end to close things with an amazingly heavy crunch.
While I applaud Blue Cheer’s willingness to explore heavier sonic terrain, Randy Holden’s Population II is both heavier musically and, the reason we’re here, better. Every one of the six songs is fantastic, there are none of the usual proto-metal faults albums from this era were usually bogged down with, and it demonstrates an incredibly ahead-of-its-time approach to crafting heavy songs. Today, Population II is our winner in this proto-metal Fight Fire With Fire, and for the rest of time it shall lumber not-so-quietly in the background, attitude like fire, sound like object, riffs like mountains.