One album. No hits. Only five songs. A cult classic.
Armageddon is the result of two guys who wanted to play folk and two guys who wanted to play heavy metal. Keith Relf, lead singer of The Yardbirds and the original Renaissance, and Louis Cennamo, bass player for the original Renaissance and Steamhammer, joined forces, hoping to continue what they’d started in Renaissance before both got sidetracked. Instead of bringing in players with similar taste, Louis brought in the guitar player from Steamhammer, Martin Pugh, who had far more in common with Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) than Bob Dylan. Martin knew Bobby Caldwell, a drummer who had not only played with Johnny Winter, but had been in Captain Beyond, writing almost all of the music for that band’s legendary debut album.
It was a mix that shouldn’t have worked; indeed, the band barely lasted long enough to record this single album in late 1974 and a handful of shows in 1975 before falling apart, but what an album! A&M Records gave them a contract simply on the promise of the musicians involved, and Ahmet Ertegun (the “E” in A&E) was set to turn them into the next superstar band, including fancy apartments with swimming pools in Los Angeles, but the chemistry that works so well for about 42 minutes of vinyl fell apart almost as quickly as it came together, ending forever when Keith Relf was accidentally electrocuted in early 1976.
Four of the songs are built on blistering heavy riffs that Jimmy Page must’ve drooled over. Indeed, he even showed up during the recording sessions to visit Relf, his former band mate in The Yardbirds. The opening track, Buzzard, frantically changes pace multiple times, and Pugh’s guitar attack is almost unrelenting, backing off at times to allow Relf room to sing, before bludgeoning the listener again at twice the speed of the heaviest riffs of Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath). Underneath it all is Caldwell’s superb rhythmic swagger, with all the muscle of John Bonham (Zeppelin) but topped with the same jazz skills that Ian Paice (Deep Purple) exhibits. Indeed, fans of Captain Beyond will recognize his unique stylings immediately.
The next song, Silver Tightrope, is a surprisingly beautiful ballad that holds its own against the best heavy metal ballads of the 70s, such as Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven or Uriah Heep’s Circle of Hands. This is the type of song Relf and Cennamo had wanted to write, and one can easily see why, with its shimmering, delicate guitar lines and Relf’s almost ethereal vocals that allow his poetic lyrics to shine. Another highlight of this album, Relf paints pictures with every song, and this poem about dying and the afterlife is possibly his finest.
Side One ends with Paths and Planes and Future Gains. It’s the most Zeppelin-esque of all the tracks and just as heavy as Buzzard. What surprised me the most when I discovered this album was Relf’s voice. Next to all the other hard rocking 60s bands such as the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things, or the Animals, his singing always seemed too gentle to me, like he would’ve been better off singing in a pop band like the Beatles. Yet on this album, his voice has aged (he had emphysema) and had gained a rasp that fits perfectly.
Side Two starts off with Last Stand Before, a heavy blues boogie shuffle in a Foghat or Status Quo vein. It showcases Relf’s harmonica playing in an extended call-and-response with Pugh’s guitar. Then the album closes with the band’s epic Basking in the White of the Midnight Sun, a four-part tour de force that begins with a long, urgent intro of the main theme that snakes and slithers through multiple moods before settling into a slow groove in part three that builds back up into the relentless reprise, leaving the listener almost gasping for breath by the end.
Okay, I think I may have overstated my case, but of all the bands with a similar one-album output, Armageddon was the finest the 70s produced. Even today, it still holds its own against not only Zeppelin’s best, but can sit just as proudly on your shelf next to Metallica or Avenged Sevenfold. If you’ve got Amazon Prime, go here to stream the first two songs or download it for a reasonable price (although Amazon has broken up the final song into its four parts, presumably so they can charge you more $$).