Okay, let’s get the Iron Elephant in the room out of the way first. When you think of Iron Butterfly, what springs to mind. Apart from those who would say ‘Nothing, who are they? And why are you asking me these things?’, it’s fair to say that 90% of the remainder would come up with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the 1968 era-defining 17-minute monster, title track to their second album, target of a famous Simpsons spoof and owner of one of the earliest infamous drum solos. Well, don’t worry, it’s here. In fact, it’s here five times, counting live versions and a single edit, but we’ll come to that. Let’s start at the beginning, as there’s a lot more of interest here to discover.
The wonderfully-named Iron Butterfly (the name representing the light and heavy sides of the band’s music) first emerged in 1966, recording their first album, Heavy, the following year. The core of future Butterfly line-ups, Doug Ingle (keyboards, vocals) and Ron Bushy (drums) were joined for this album by Danny Weis (guitar), Jerry Penrod (bass) and vocalist/tambourine basher Danny DeLoach. The album is very much of its time, with a sound which sounds absurdly unlike its title now, but which would have seemed passably heavy when released. The band’s sound is dated yet oddly compelling throughout, driven by the almost impossibly distorted lead guitar of Weis and Ingle’s omnipresent keyboards, and they do contrive to make even the weakest material here sound at worst enjoyable. Truth be told, there are only two lasting classics here – the opening menace of Possession, and the quite terrifying onslaught of instrumental closer Iron Butterfly Theme, which is arguably an even greater legacy than Gadda-Da-Vida. Over the course of five minutes or so, the track ostensibly evokes the three stages of a butterfly’s life-death cycle, but it sounds much more ominous than that (although perhaps not for the butterfly). It’s like an early distillation of all of that horror film soundtrack music conjured up in the ’70s by the likes of Goblin, with swirling, swooping, crushing organ and guitar joined by other-worldly wordless vocals looming at you out of the mix. At the end, there is a semi-hidden ‘morse code’ sequence, which spells out the words ‘We Love You’. Which would seem suitably ‘groovy’, were it not for the fact that you’re probably traumatised by this time. In fairness, there are a few other reasonable songs throughout the album, such as the title track of this collection, Unconscious Power, the anti-war You Can’t Win and the almost charming Fields Of Sun, but it is probably true to say that throughout their career the Irons (which nobody ever called them) were far stronger as a band than as composers, yet oddly they never did cover versions, unlike the similar Vanilla Fudge.
By the time the album emerged in January of 1968, the line-up on the record were no more, as Ingle and Bushy were joined by Erik Brann on guitar and Lee Dorman on bass, completing what is regarded as the quintessential Butterfly incarnation. Only five months later, in June, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida appeared, and it still manages to surprise. The chief reason for that surprise is that the title track, taking up the whole of the second side, still stands up as a remarkably coherent listen. One approaches it with some caution, fully expecting a bloated, dated and desperately overstretched piece of indulgence, but while it arguably IS all of those things, it somehow transcends them and keeps you on the hook from that still-powerful lumbering riff to its reprise at the end of the journey. The individual solos are excellent, and even the drum solo doesn’t catastrophically overstay its welcome. The title, of course, came from Ingle famously drunkenly slurring the intended name ‘In The Garden Of Eden’ to Bushy, who misheard it, but with only two short verses repeated at the beginning and end, the words really don’t matter here. It was bizarrely edited down to a three-minute single version, missing the point of everything which made it great in the first place, and that particular pointless edit is here for you to skip over. Seriously, don’t even bother once. And the same with the single edit of Iron Butterfly Theme, also here. Of course, there was another side to the album, which constantly gets overlooked, in a similar vein to the second sides of, say, Tarkus and 2112. In this case there isn’t too much to miss, however – there are good moments among the five short tracks, such as the propulsive Are You Happy? and My Mirage, written about a friend of Ingle’s who had been run over and killed. Elsewhere it’s slim pickings though, with Flowers And Beads in particular being a suitably ‘hippy-friendly’ title grafted onto a particularly sappy love song. Still, the band were set, and their name forever immortalised.
When the follow-up album, 1969’s Ball, appeared (see what they did there with the Butterfly Ball idea), expectation was high that they would produce another wild side-long extravaganza, but wisely they avoided that creative cul-de-sac by producing a nine-track album of bite-size songs which still contained enough variety and ideas to make it their strongest album to date. Opener In The Time Of Our Lives ramped up the creepy fear-factor again a la the Theme, as did Real Fright and Filled With Fear, though the best track here is arguably the closing, and oddly titled, Belda-Beast. Unusually sung by its composer Erik Brann (rather than usual vocalist Ingle), his Jim Morrison-esque vocals combined with the very Manzarek-sounding keyboards combine to make the song seem like somewhat of an affectionate Doors homage, topped off by some searing guitar work from Brann. Elsewhere that instrumental magnificence – mainly from the unsung Brann – elevates weak songs such as It Must Be Love and Her Favourite Style to excellent tracks in themselves. There is only one true flop on the record, in the shape of Ingle’s hopelessly limp soul ballad Lonely Boy, on which he exaggerates his occasional vibrato vocal effect to such a degree that he sounds as if he is getting strangled in the studio. Which, in truth, would be an acceptable response to the song. Other than that, Ball is a very strong album which is often undervalued in the shadow of its predecessor.
After the Ball album, Brann sadly left the band, though there was one more album featuring the classic four-piece in the shape of the Iron Butterfly Live album, though it is something of a disappointment. It is almost a carbon copy of the Vida format, with five short tracks on the first side (drawn from all three albums), and the behemoth on the second side. In truth, nothing here really improves on the studio version (except possibly You Can’t Win), and Vida itself is disjointed and lacks the magic of the original. Don’t give up on the live material though, as we shall see very shortly.
Following Brann’s departure, the band elected to bring in two guitarists to replace him, in the shape of Mike Pinera and Larry Reinhardt, for 1970’s ambitious Metamorphosis (you just knew they’d use that particular bit of butterfly wordplay, didn’t you?). Overall, it is probably the best studio album the band ever recorded, containing some superb material in such great songs as Soldier In Our Town (another war-themed piece), Stone Believer, the freewheeling Easy Rider (Let The Wind Pay The Way) and the ahead-of-its-time ecological subject matter of the stunning Slower Than Guns. This was the point where the band’s songwriting muse began catching up with their instrumental chops, and it makes a big difference. The really divisive track came in the shape of the 14-minute Butterfly Bleu. Shaping up to be a real, definitive epic, the track ticks all of the boxes for the first five or six minutes, before devolving into a mid-section full of aimless tinkling and rudimentary talk-box effects. Just as you are wondering whether further torture is worth it, it returns to the main song to round off the track very strongly. Frustratingly, it is essentially a great seven or eight minute track with a great pile of ‘seemed-cool-at-the-time’ dumped into the middle of it. Now that the software exists, edit it. The album will be a little shorter but undeniably better for it.
That was almost it, as the band split midway through 1971, but there is still a sizeable treat left in store here, in the shape of the two-disc Live At The Fillmore East. Released as a limited run in 2011, but here getting a full release for the first time, the two discs contain the almost-complete shows that the band played on 26 and 27 April 1968 – two shows each night, third on the bill behind Traffic and Blue Cheer. One might expect this to be of iffy quality to say the least, but on the contrary it is a revelation. Not only is the sound quality absolutely crystal clear and vibrant, especially for the time, but the band sound altogether more energised and powerful than the 1969 Live album. Okay, two songs are repeated four times, but one is Iron Butterfly Theme, which is even heavier live, and you won’t get tired of it. The other is the rather weedy So-Lo from Heavy, for some reason, but it isn’t bad. Elsewhere there are two versions of Vida, both of which are better than the other live rendition, with the one from the 27th arguably superior to the album version. Note that this was two months before the album was released. There is plenty from the first album – mostly improved – including one rendition of Possession, and the two stabs at the second album’s Are You Happy are both better than the studio version. It’s an absolute gem of a recording, and the unexpected delight of the whole collection – and even includes the stage announcements with the crowd being told they are really lucky as next week Mr Jimi Hendrix will be there – giving it a beautiful time-capsule feel.
The collection isn’t quite complete, as it does not include the two albums that a revamped Ingle-less Butterfly made in the mid-’70s, with Brann and Bushy at the helm. They weren’t remarkable, though would have been of interest, but one imagines licensing would have precluded this as those two albums came out on a different label (MCA as it happens, though you have to say that Crysalis really missed a marketing trick there). Overall though, as a complete look at the major phase of the Iron Butterfly story, this simply can’t be beaten, as the presentation is marvellous. Removing the cardbaord outer case reveals a second, inner box, holding replicas of the original album covers – even with the original gatefolds for Ball and Metamorphosis. Also included is a handsome 66-page hard-spine booklet (closer to ‘book’ to be honest), giving you all the facts you could want plus a host of tremendous period photos and memorabilia. Oh, and a poster as well. And original mono mixes of Heavy and Live, if that’s your thing. Iron Butterfly weren’t perfect, and had their frustratingly patchy moments for sure, but they deserve to be remembered for more than that one song. With this superb set, they are. And then some!