Probably a coincidence, but Iron Butterfly beat Led Zeppelin to that heavy-light name game by at least a year. You know, the iron (or led), as ballast for the delicate flying creature (or dirigible).
The Southern California band also anticipated Led Zep’s mix of punishing riffs and ethereal wails with “Iron Butterfly Theme,” a wordless monster of a song that set an early standard for hard acid rock.
The 4 1/2-minute instrumental, recorded in 1967, demonstrates why Iron Butterfly has been called “the father of heavy metal” by Def Leppard and other headbangers. The Butterfly boys even called the album “Heavy.”
“Theme” covers the life cycle of an iron butterfly, beginning with the throbs of birth, then the exhilarating flight, then the crash-and-burn accompanied by the devils of feedback and anarchy.
Throughout, keyboardist Doug Ingle’s organ dances and duels with Danny Weis’ distorted guitar as tribal drums pound away. As a coda, Morse code announces the death of the bellowing beast … fade to black. It’s as cinematic a song as there is in rock.
Nothing quite like “Iron Butterfly Theme” had been recorded before, except, perhaps, for the sonic chaos of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” This was proto-metal, as if Pink Floyd had recorded while tripping on horse tranquilizers.
Giving the song its unshakable creepiness is Ingle’s chanting — the echo of demented monks, perhaps. A warning of medieval horrors to come. Or, at least, something from the slab at Hammer Films.
There also exists a heroic quality that summons up another movie — picture a Schwarzeneggerian warrior holding his blade high to the skies, seeking the final reward of a lightning bolt. Like in “Heavy Metal” the movie, come to think of it.
Ingle called the group’s sound an exercise in “melodic consciousness.” That path soon would lead to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” the 17-minute psychedelic slog for which the band is remembered today.
Fame came fast and faded in a few short years. The group was a victim of its musical bloat and inconsistent recordings — outplayed and outflanked by other West Coast psychedelic bands.
But for that first glorious 4 1/2 minutes, Iron Butterfly soared.