Randy Holden’s Population II has had a long, tortuous road to its most recent reissue, the ins and outs of which could probably support a full-length article if not a book. After stints in various garage rock bands including Los Angeles psych rock act The Other Half, Holden briefly joined Blue Cheer as their new guitarist in 1968. He left soon after, but was around long enough to appear on side two of the band’s third album (1969’s New! Improved!). After his departure, Holden connected with drummer and keyboardist Chris Lockheed and recorded Population II. The album was set to be released by German label Hobbit Records in 1970, but it never officially saw the light of day, leading to Holden’s departure from the music industry. Ironically, copies did manage to escape into the wild, and the album’s scarcity along with its back-story created the perfect conditions for legend and mythmaking.
Holden eventually returned to music-making in the 1990s, and with his return Population II saw various reissues, legitimate and otherwise. However, problems with labels meant that Holden was never satisfied with the final product—or, according to him, with the compensation he received. That brings us to the present day: after appearing on Noble Records owner Dillon Smith’s podcast, where he told Smith about his ongoing frustration with the album, Smith put Holden in touch with Daniel Hall of RidingEasy Records, who has reissued several “lost” albums of heavy psych and proto-metal over the years as well as releasing the acclaimed Brown Acid series. The result is a new reissue of Population II, approved by Holden, just in time for the album’s 50th anniversary.
But what about the album itself? Why is Population II so revered among collectors of hard and heavy rock from genre’s classic era? While it might be easy to dismiss most of the hype as a result of the album’s tortured background, the music itself is noteworthy in its own right. Its defining feature is its gloomy, heavy tone: often cited as the forerunner of doom metal, the album shares a lot of musical DNA with the first couple Black Sabbath LPs. Dark, minor-key riffs (heavily influenced by the blues) meet wailing vocals, blistering solos, and pounding drums. It’s heavier than almost anything else that was out there in 1970 save Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Holden’s former band Blue Cheer, and the aforementioned Sabbath. By today’s standards it’s a little tame, but given the context it’s not hard to wonder what its impact would have been had it seen a wider release.
While the actual sound of the album is ahead of its time, and the musicianship is top notch, the songs themselves are good, though not quite up to the same standard. Most of the album’s five tracks (six, if you count the reprise of “Fruit and Iceburgs,” which also appeared on New! Improved!) contain a main blues-based riff, which Holden builds the song around, adding a bridge here, a spoken-word passage there. Holden is a good vocalist, and his singing fits the material—just don’t go in expecting Robert Plant-level vocal acrobatics. There may not be much new ground broken in terms of songwriting, and a few of the tracks wear their influences on their sleeves (“Between Time,” for example, is reminiscent of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” but heavier). But as hard ‘n’ heavy time capsules, they get the job done and scratch that sinister guitar-riff itch. And that, in a nutshell, sums up Population II as an album pretty well too.
(A note/disclaimer for audiophiles: some listeners have pointed out that this reissue has been EQed in a way that boosts the low end at the expense of high frequencies, and causes distortion throughout the album. While this is by no means an audiophile recording, that choice is noticeable if you’re listening for it, though most casual listeners probably won’t notice. If you want perfect sound, you’ll have to chase down an original copy, which these days sell for several hundred dollars. If you want to support Randy, this reissue is your best bet, since the sound is comparable to most other reissues you’ll find, but this one has his full endorsement.)
Key Tracks: “Guitar Song” / “Fruit and Iceburgs” / “Blue My Mind”
Artists With Similar Fire: Black Sabbath / Blue Cheer / Wicked Lady
-Reviewed by Simon Workman