When it comes to outrageous album covers, this would have to be one of the weirdest throughout the annals of Australian Rock. A gatefold cover where we see some kind of Skeletor-like creature standing atop an erupting volcano while holding what looks like an enormous molten dick over his head. And is that lava flowing out at the base supposed to resemble a woman’s buttocks? Talk about audacious. And I thought Emerson, Lake and Palmer had some pretty strange album art.
Though back in the early ‘70s crazy album covers were all the rage, and the crazier the better (just think Zappa). And before the advent of the CD, where nowadays one has to get out a magnifying glass just to read the liner notes, LP covers were a statement, not only to grab the music lover’s attention, but also something to hold and gaze upon as the record was playing. In other words, one wasn’t simply listening to the music, but actually physically bonding with it as well, which perhaps explains why vinyl has made such a comeback in recent years, and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.
Buffalo released their follow-up to Dead Forever in 1973, and while their debut had sold well, and the band were signed to the prestigious Vertigo label (the same label as Black Sabbath), the group members themselves were having serious doubts as to whether they wanted to continue. The lack of regular gigs was one major factor in particular, and since they weren’t exactly what one would call a pop band, meant that their music didn’t receive the kind of airplay afforded to many other artists at the time.
Not only was Volcanic Rock an appropriate album title, it is also regarded as the first ‘stoner rock’ album released by an all Aussie group. It is also the record which rejuvenated their careers and turned them into a popular live attraction. Now if you like your Sabbath, Leaf Hound and Sir Lord Baltimore, then roll a spliff, pour yourself a drink, sit back and immerse yourself in the heavy pulsating sounds that are about to erupt from out your stereo.
Opener “Sunrise (Come My Way)” is all frantic riffs, grinding rhythms, and frenzied drumming. Dave Tice sounds like a cross between Bon Scott and Ian Gillan, while John Baxter’s guitar has Tony Iommi stamped all over it. When certain people regarded the blues as Devil’s music, imagine what they would have made of this?
Things slow down with “Freedom”, where the term ‘stoner rock’ is about as apt as it gets. One aspect I like about early heavy metal is that no matter how ‘heavy’ it got, much of it was still rooted in the tradition of blues-rock. These blokes loved their Budgie as much as Muddy Waters, and on “Freedom” they prove this from the very first moment right to the very end. This song has it all; plenty of slow burning riffs, a prehistoric rhythm section, and a singer who knew how to get a few things off his chest in true caveman style.
“Till My Death” swings with hard-rock abandon, and is a confirmation of the band’s musical versatility, like Willie Dixon and Deep Purple rolled into one dirty and filthy bluesy mass of organic molecules. And even though the main riff had been done a hundred times before by a hundred different bands, it takes a certain talent to make work and still sound fresh, as Buffalo manage to do here.
On “The Prophet” they get all Old Testament, where Moses preaches from a rock and roll spiritualist perspective, coming down from the mountain to deliver the tablets to the people so as to really turn them on in the process. At one point Tice sings “I am the man to set you free” as if to prove my point. Things get all laid back and jammy on “Pound of Flesh”, an instrumental which finds Baxter playing his guitar in late night smoke and scotch-whisky mode, while the rest of the group just sit back and play in pocket behind him. And just when you think that the tune could go on for a few more minutes, suddenly we’re back into heavy-metal land, with the evidently Deep Purple/Black Sabbath inspired “Shylock” (these guys must have been really into their bible), and which finds the band raging at full machine gun capacity. Baxter especially shines on this one, as does Tice, who extemporises like a three pack a day Ian Gillan. The song was popular among the crowds whenever they performed it live, and I’m not surprised. After many years of conservative rule in Australia, young people had a lot to get out of their system by the early ‘70s.
Volcanic Rock is more than just a historical and cultural artifact of the time in which it was made. It was a statement, although not exactly one the rest of the world was eager to listen to. No matter. What’s important, ultimately, is Buffalo’s unique contribution to the annals of Australian rock. A significant, if somewhat forgotten chapter.