Helped lay the foundation for heavy metal in all its iterations.
In an interview with Ugly Things, Randy Holden recalled being physically knocked to the ground during the recording of Population II by the sound blasting out of his amplifiers (live he would use 16 200 watt Sunn amps). It’s a scenario comically reminiscent of Marty McFly, but helps illustrate just how goddamn loud Holden played (in the same interview he claims to have only lost the ability to hear an almost imperceptible high frequency, the rest of his hearing still perfectly intact). In other words, there is loud and then there is Randy Holden. The former Blue Cheer guitarist’s personal philosophy was simply, “Never turn down. Ever.” It was an unprecedented approach to rock ‘n’ roll that, through both Blue Cheer and his later work on the Population II album, officially reissued here for the first time by Riding Easy Records, helped lay the foundation for heavy metal in all its iterations.
Though released under his name, Holden contends that the album itself was the work of the group known as Population II. Appropriately, the name Population II comes from a star cluster in which heavy metals are present. And there is plenty of heavy metal (at least in its most embryonic form) present on Population II. Unfortunately, the album’s original mastering effectively flattened Holden’s vision established in the original mix, cutting out the highs and lows and leaving a muddy, mid-heavy mess. This officially sanctioned reissue (the album has been bootlegged a number of times over the years) features remastering that, according to Holden, is about as close to his original mix of the recordings as possible.
Made up of Holden and Chris Lockheed (drums/keyboards), the duo blasted slow, lumbering slabs of some of the heaviest music ever heard up to that point in time. Live, Lockheed would play drums and provide the bass lines on a keyboard simultaneously, thus requiring the music to take on a slower tempo in order to properly execute both instrumental parts. For the recording, Holden played bass to help add more depth and clarity to the songs’ sonic sludge, freeing up Lockheed to properly bash away.
The album has since gone on to legendary status and is revered as a proto-doom recording in addition to laying the massive building blocks of metal as a whole. And rightly so, at least from a stylistic standpoint. Opening track “Guitar Song” essentially sets the template for what the album has to offer, Holden’s plodding riffs and guitar noodling on full display in quintessential late-‘60s blues-based shredding in a post-Hendrix vein.
“Fruit & Icebergs” lumbers along, carried by Lockheed’s incessant toms and Holden’s multi-tracked solos, occasionally dipping into proto-Sabbath territory with the sheer heaviness of the dirge-like minor key riffs. Holden’s vocals and lyrics clearly take a backseat to the instrumental ferocity on display, with songs often descending into long, drawn-out instrumental passages that play almost suite-like with their revisitation of certain riffs and rhythms. By no means prog, Population II nonetheless bears many similar traits in the highly structured nature of the songs and their movements. Holden had stated that he wanted to be able to play everything live just as he had on the record, thus crafting each part for easy duplication.
“Between Time,” clocking in at under two minutes, is the most straight-forward rocker on the record, its chorus sounding like it’s headed into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Holden adopting a Jagger-esque sneer as the chords and melody veer dangerously close to plagiaristic territory. But it’s only a slight detour as Holden and Lockheed jump straight into “Fruit & Icebergs (Conclusion),” returning to the descending minor key riff and some truly wild guitar soloing as the track reaches its titular conclusion.
The 10-minute closer “Keeper of My Flame” is particularly heavy, the guitars slashing and burning across the track, while Holden’s bass is cranked high in the mix to further aural assault. It’s here where Holden’s reputation as a guitarist of note is on full display, his use of sustained feedback and effects functioning in a decidedly post-Hendrix mode, all in service to his bombastic noodling. The panning effect at the song’s midpoint and then used sporadically throughout the remainder is particularly mind-bending and a jarring transition from the otherwise stereo-aided onslaught on the listener. Regardless, it’s a fine showcase for all of Holden’s tricks.
Ultimately, Population II is not so much notable for the quality of the music contained therein, but rather its place as a sort of literal ground zero for heavy metal and, more specifically, doom metal. Those who like their metal heavy, leaden and slow will want to check out Population II. Otherwise, it’s one of seemingly innumerable late-‘60s/early-‘70s curios that have garnered big bucks on the collectors’ market and, upon listening, doesn’t necessarily warrant the legendary status placed upon it. It’s unquestionably heavy for its time, however, and a clear stylistic influence on future generations, it’s just too bad the music itself isn’t quite as worthy of the legend.