IRON BUTTERFLY – ” Unconscious Power: An Anthology 1967-1971 ” Box Set

Posted: January 27, 2021 in Classic Albums, MUSIC
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Truth in advertising: Iron Butterfly’s first album was titled Heavy.  The 1968 Atco Records release introduced the band’s dense sound fusing hard rock and psychedelia with a set of original songs plus a reimagining of Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman.”  While three-fifths of the band left after that debut, Heavy nonetheless began Iron Butterfly on a journey encompassing four studio LPs, one-off tracks, and live sets through 1971.  Now, that journey has been lavishly chronicled on a recent box set from Cherry Red’s Esoteric Recordings imprint.  The 7-CD Unconscious Power: An Anthology 1967-1971 brings together has all of the pioneering band’s original albums plus bonus tracks and rare mixes to offer a full immersion into Iron Butterfly’s heavy world.

The San Diego band was formed in 1966 by Doug Ingle (vocals/organ), Jack Pinney (drums), Greg Willis (bass), and Danny Weis (guitar) with Darryl DeLoach (vocals) joining soon after.  But the personnel shifts had only just begun; within months, Jerry Penrod replaced Willis.  Pinney left to return to school with Bruce Morse and then Ron Bushy stepping in for him.  The Ingle/Bushy/Weis/Penrod/DeLoach made a powerful noise at venues such as The Whisky A-Go Go and was signed by Atlantic Records to its Atco subsidiary.

Heavy, on CD 1 here, is presented in both its mono and stereo mixes in an expanded edition also including a single recorded in 1967 but not released until 1970 in Europe: “Don’t Look Down on Me” b/w an early version of the album’s “Possession.”  The closing “Iron Butterfly Theme,” a brisk, instrumental mini-suite, best encapsulated the group’s ambitions.  But those ambitions didn’t have time to flower as Weis, Penrod, and DeLoach all opted to move on near the end of 1967.  (Penrod and Weis went on to join Rhinoceros, also recently anthologized by Esoteric.)  Enter guitarist Rick Davis (a.k.a. Erik Brann) and drummer-turned-bassist Lee Dorman.

The new four-piece unit recorded the band’s signature song and album, 1968’s In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida.  While the title was a misheard version of “In the Garden of Eden,” there was no mistaking the thunderous epic’s success. Clocking in at seventeen minutes, the Doug Ingle composition took up the entire second side of the original LP which reached No. 4 on the Top LPs chart and became one of the best-selling albums of the era.  The apotheosis of psych-rock excess and heaviness, “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” provided a showcase for the band members’ virtuosity (including a three-minute drum solo from Bushy) and was charged with electricity and immediacy.  Bushy recalls in the liner notes here that “we listened to [the playback] and we were blown away.  All we did was re-record Doug’s scratch vocals and overdub the guitar solo, and we were done.”  The single version made it to No. 30 on the Hot 100; in the years since its release, the LP has been certified 4x Platinum in the United States.  CD 2 of the new box has the stereo album plus the single versions of “Vida” and “Iron Butterfly Theme.”

How to follow up such a momentous release?  Iron Butterfly released Ball in 1969, and the album actually bested its predecessor’s performance on the Top LPs survey, reaching a No. 3 berth.  Whereas Ingle had written all of In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida other than one track (Brann and Dorman’s “Termination”), Ball was a more well-rounded group effort.  Ingle’s four solo compositions were bolstered by one collaboration with Bushy (“In the Time of Our Lives”), one full-band effort (“Soul Experience”), one with Brann and Bushy (“Real Fright”) and another with Dorman (“In the Crowds”) while the solo Brann penned the closing “Belda Beast.”  The additional compositional voices led Iron Butterfly’s sound to mature, and the overall album was more melodic than fans might have expected.  It didn’t have much singles success, though, with the grooving, cosmic “Soul Experience” going to No. 75 and the much darker “In the Time of Our Lives” only making No. 96.  Four single sides are added to the album for the presentation here.

Erik Brann made his departure from the band after Ball, and the remaining members brought in two guitarists to replace him, Larry “El Rhino” Reinhardt and Blues Image’s Bruce Pinera.  But before another studio album was released, Atco immortalized the four-piece line up’s sets from their hometown of San Diego, with additional material recorded at a St. Louis gig.  An even longer “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” again occupied one whole side of vinyl, with the other side featuring songs familiar from all three prior albums.  Whereas In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida and Ball only had dedicated stereo mixes, a unique mono mix was made for Live.  The album was a commercial hit, hitting No. 20 on the Top LPs chart.  Both the stereo and mono mixes (the latter in its CD debut) appear on CD 4 of the box.

Iron Butterfly premiered its new line-up on Metamorphosis, initially released in August 1970.  Producer Richard Polodor helmed the album including the earthy single “Easy Rider” which peaked at No. 66 on the Hot 100.  The Steppenwolf/Three Dog Night producer urged the band in a more eclectic direction, with most of the songs written by Bushy, Dorman, and Ingle.  The musically shifting “Shady Lady” (with Bill Cooper guesting on pedal steel) and the mellow, sitar-flecked ballad “Slower than Guns” introduced the lyrics of Robert Woods Edmonson to the band.  Metamorphosis was a success, peaking at No. 16, and it’s remembered today for Pinera’s early use of a talk box on the closing “Butterfly Bleu.”  The 14-minute opus didn’t repeat the success of “Vida” but showed that the group hadn’t strayed too far from its heavy jam roots.  Yet only one studio recording followed Metamorphosis: the 1971 non-LP single “Silly Sally” which incongruously paired the band with southern soul producers Dave Crawford and Brad Shapiro.  Its funky, Memphis-style brass immediately set it apart from Iron Butterfly’s past recordings.  A fascinating curio, this rare cut has been appended to Metamorphosis.

Esoteric’s box is rounded out with a reprise of Live at the Filmore East, originally released as a limited edition on Rhino Handmade in 2011 and featuring the classic line-up of Brann, Bushy, Dorman, and Ingle.  It boasts four power-packed sets (one of which is incomplete due to technical issues on the first two songs) from the much-missed New York venue as recorded on April 26th and 27th, 1968.

Iron Butterfly called it a day after a 1971 European tour.  Brann and Bushy reformed the band three years later and went on to release two more albums under the band name in 1975 on the MCA label.  Both were released on CD in 1995 and again in 2008.  Brann, Bushy, Dorman, and Ingle reunited in 1988 for Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary celebration, but today, Bushy and Ingle are retired.  Dorman died in 2012.  (Sadly, DeLoach, Brann, Dorman, and Reinhardt are also deceased.)  Touring versions of the group have been performing since 1974 with just a couple of breaks (1985-1987, 2012-2015).  The most recent line up was led by Ron Bushy until his retirement.

Unconscious Power: An Anthology 1967-1971 is one of the most beautiful packages from Esoteric yet.  Designed by Phil Smee, it most closely resembles the label’s past Animals and Andrew Gold boxes, with a sturdy, rigid slipcase housing a box with mini-LP replicas of the original albums.  These all have spines, and Ball, Metamorphosis, and Live at the Fillmore East are in gatefolds.  Original back cover artwork has been adapted for these sleeves.  A squarebound 64-page booklet has Mike Mettler’s copious liner notes (drawing on fresh interviews with Ron Bushy and Mike Pinera) and annotation as well as a lengthy history of the band and many images such as single sleeves, promotional photos, advertisements, posters, and more.  A foldout poster tops off this definitive collection which has been remastered by Ben Wiseman from the original Atco tapes.

Whether that power was unconscious or otherwise, Iron Butterfly certainly had it.  The band even influenced a certain other foursome on Atlantic Records – once their opening act – whose name balanced the heavy and the light.  This anthology packs a mighty punch.

Iron Butterfly, Unconscious Power: An Anthology 1967-1971 (Cherry Red/Esoteric QECLEC72744, 2020)

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