Proto-metal in Captain Beyond

One of the most compelling arguments regarding metal music is the question of metal’s birth.  Black Sabbath is commonly referred to as the first heavy metal band, though not without the argument for the inclusion of other late 60s/early 70s bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Cheer, and even the likes of Cream and Jimi Hendrix.  The basis of the advocacy for these latter musicians is that the elements of metal can be found in their music — Hendrix’s exemplary use of guitar distortion, heavy riffs in Led Zeppelin’s music, etc.  Though there are many who make claim that these groups deserve to be classified as “heavy metal,” it is typically maintained that they contributed greatly to the rise of the genre without meeting the pure definition of metal (at least, not in the same manner as Black Sabbath).  Hence, these early contributors are often segmented out as “proto-metal,” playing a mix of hard rock and heavy blues that precipitated the forthcoming genre and influenced the future generations of pure metal bands.

I was recently introduced by a friend of mine to one such proto-metal group: Captain Beyond.  The band had a strong rock pedigree — the original members included singer Ron Evans (the original singer of Deep Purple), guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt and bassist Lee Dorman (both of Iron Butterfly), and drummer Bobby Caldwell (formerly with Johnny Winter).  The album that my friend sent me was their 1972 self-titled debut album, Captain Beyond.  On top of being a consistently strong effort full of interesting riffs and excellent performances, the album is striking in its inclusion of many elements that would become common in metal music.  And unlike many of the other proto-metal bands whose works seem to influence only the first generation of metal bands, Captain Beyond anticipates later developments in metal.

The most obvious such element is the dominance of the minor key throughout Captain Beyond.  Most of the riffs are in minor, particularly in the traditional modes of Aeolian (e.g. natural minor), pentatonic minor, and the so-called “blues” scale.  The use of the blues scale is noteworthy in that it contains the tritone above the root note (which can be called either a flat-5 or sharp-4 scale degree, depending on the context); the highly dissonant tritone interval is, of course, one of the trademarks of the metal sound.  In the song “Frozen Over,” they use the “blues” scale with a strong emphasis on that tritone, creating a distinctly metal feel as opposed to a more “bluesy” sound to which the scale is most often assigned.

The music throughout the album also features a heavy dose of prominent riffs in five- or seven-beat subdivisions.  For example, the songs “Dancing Madly Backwards (On a Sea of Air)” and “Thousand Days of Yesterdays” open with riffs in  five-beat phrase lengths, and the songs “Mesmerization Eclipse” and “Thousand Days of Yesterdays (Time Since Come and Gone) begin with riffs in seven-beat phrase lengths.  These riffs are interwoven with more typical duple meters, which create sudden shifts in the metric feel of the song.  The significant usage of five- and seven-beat riffs foreshadows the rise of odd and irregular meters in later genres of metal, especially the thrash metal movement in the 80s and the progressive death metal subgenre that has proliferated in the 90s and 00s.

The “Dancing Madly Backwards” suite (which also includes tracks entitled “Armworth” and “Myopic Void”) contains a rhythmic element that has since become a cliche in metal.  At the 1:41 mark in the track “Dancing Madly Backwards” begins a riff in 4/4 and E minor, which is composed of pedal notes on the low E string interwoven with power chords on E, F#, and G.  The power chords create tonic accents (i.e. accents created by higher pitches), and the arrangement of the power chord-created accents outlines a pattern of three eighth-note subdivisions.  This three-note subdivision clashes with the expected beat pattern of the 4/4 meter, resulting in a temporary syncopation.  However, the three-note pattern is abandoned by the second measure, and the remaining rhythms restore the sync with the 4/4 meter.

Variations of this riff occur in the “Armworth” (0:00) and “Myopic Void” (0:24) tracks; in both cases, a similar rhythmic pattern is used.

This use of a series of three eighth-note patterns within a 4/4 context has since become common practice in metal.  For example, Iron Maiden’s song “2 Minutes to Midnight” opens with such a pattern, and the main riff in Metallica’s “Creeping Death” also features a similar rhythm.  In each of these cases, the riff involves a low pedal note with interspersed power chords outlining an initial three-note subdivision.  The 4/4 meter is momentarily challenged by these three-note patterns, yet the meter is re-established by the end of the riffs.  In this manner, the riffs maintain a straightforward duple meter while creating interest with internal syncopation.

The fact that “2 Minutes to Midnight” and “Creeping Death” were released a decade after Captain Beyond indicates not only how deeply metal’s roots go but also how much proto-metal bands like Captain Beyond have contributed to metal’s foundation.  Truly, the music from Captain Beyond is right on the cusp; if the gain on the guitar distortion was higher and the tempos were a little faster, the music would probably be accepted as straight-up heavy metal without argument.  As it is, Captain Beyond serves as a compelling reminder that metal’s ancestry goes far beyond the usual suspects of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.