CAPTAIN BEYOND: CAPTAIN BEYOND (1972)
1) Dancing Madly Backwards (On A Sea Of Air); 2) Armworth; 3) Myopic Void; 4) Mesmerization Eclipse; 5) Raging River Of Fear; 6) Thousand Days Of Yesterdays (intro); 7) Frozen Over; 8) Thousand Days Of Yesterdays (Time Since Come And Gone); 9) I Can't Feel Nothin' (part 1); 10) As The Moon Speaks (To The Waves Of The Sea); 11) Astral Lady; 12) As The Moon Speaks (Return); 13) I Can't Feel Nothin' (part 2).
This band, and their debut album in particular, seem to have acquired somewhat of a cult status over the years — as usual, once one becomes sick and tired of all the predictable art-prog-rock masterpieces of the early 1970s, the discovery of something seemingly special under the surface is always a source of joy, and yes, you can construe Captain Beyond as a band that had something special about them if you really put your heart and mind to it.
The band's background does not look terribly auspicious: a «second-rate supergroup» assembled from past members of early Deep Purple (singer Rod Evans, whose main claim to fame was the popularity of ʽHushʼ), Iron Butterfly (bass player Lee Dorman; also guitar player Larry ʽRhinoʼ Reinhardt, who only really played with the band on one of their albums, and far from the best one at that), and Johnny Winter's band (drummer Bobby Caldwell). All of these people were known to be «okay» at their jobs, but you wouldn't want to accuse any of them of having a unique style or songwriting genius or anything. So how could they all get together and make a record that not only would not stink, but would even be capable of getting a cult following?
Essentially, by sounding like a slightly softer, slightly more «sincere» (rather than openly post-modern-cynical) version of Blue Öyster Cult. On the whole, Captain Beyond could be classified as hard rock with a psychedelic edge, relying on a combination of heavy distorted riffs, spaced-out guitar soloing, and half-macho, half-stoned vocals (to acquire which Rod Evans had to smoke triple amounts of pot and grow himself an extra pair of testicles — at least, if you compare this style with Deep Purple circa 1968) suggesting that only strong, well-endowed males with big swords and hairy chests deserve to go to psychedelic heaven (think also of Hawkwind, although Captain Beyond are more song-based than jam-based, and sound more like a tight rock band than a bizarre psychedelic orchestra).
This can theoretically be a fun suggestion if you don't take it too seriously, and, indeed, the record is quite pleasant. Side A is essentially a collection of loosely joined not-too-fast riff-rockers; Side B is technically more conceptual, with two mini-suites consisting of several short movements, but there's not that much difference in terms of atmosphere, and there are soft acoustic interludes on both sides. The band also experiments with time signatures (the rhythmic pattern on ʽDancing Madly Backwardsʼ, for instance, does suggest a bit of moonwalking), delays and echoes (ʽMyopic Voidʼ owes a heavy debt to Jimi), and occasionally tries to build up some suspense (ʽAs The Moon Speaksʼ, probably influenced by Electric Ladyland and In The Court Of The Crimson King at the same time) — in other words, spending half an hour with Captain Beyond is anything but a boring experience, and it is nice to see how those guys managed to bring out the best in each other where few people probably suspected that «best» existed in the first place.
Unfortunately, the songs do not lend themselves easily to detailed descriptions, largely because there isn't much diversity — a bit slower, a bit faster, okay — and because the riffs, while definitely «crafted» rather than just tossed off at random, are not awesome by themselves or even tremendously original. Everything is perfectly enjoyable while it's on, and there's plenty of headbang potential in numbers like ʽI Can't Feel Nothin'ʼ or ʽRaging River Of Fearʼ, but all of these elements had been well exploited before; in fact, the album looks positively archaic for 1972, because this heavy-psycho style was already present on plenty of «nuggets» from the US and UK scenes circa 1969-70 — yet, unlike Blue Öyster Cult, these guys were not smart enough to turn the whole thing onto itself and give it a smarmy, ironic, self-interpretative edge.
They were smart enough to give the songs a slightly paranoid edge: with the exception of a few starry-eyed misfires (ʽThousand Days Of Yesterdaysʼ), the album sounds like the band is permanently on the run from something, be it a «raging river of fear» or a «myopic void». This is probably the only angle from which the record could ever be loved by anyone — with enough listens, it can become a «Manifesto of the Impossibility of Escaping», which certainly goes against the common trend in that era's progressive rock. But it is still difficult for me to lock myself onto that vibe, because the ingredients aren't fully adequate to the task; and, for that matter, Rod Evans is just not that good a singer to properly convey paranoidal horror.
Ultimately, the guys from Iron Butterfly are the main winners here, supplying decent riffs, modestly energetic solos, and (sometimes) expressive bass lines (Lee Dorman is at his best on the softer numbers, most notably ʽAs The Moon Speaksʼ), and because of their honest work and the general appeal of the record, I give it a thumbs up without too many reservations. But do not really expect some unique forgotten masterpiece — I'd say this is about as good as the actual Iron Butterfly at their best (which, admittedly, happened rarely).