Atomic Rooster – Death Walks Behind You (1971)
I have not written much on the late 1960s/early 1970s period of undifferentiated proto-metal, where already established rock bands flirted with the new heavy metal and flourishing “progressive” scenes, even though they didn’t always go all the way down either rabbit hole. Queen certainly didn’t, and neither did Atomic Rooster, albeit they shied away in a less bombastic, melodramatic fashion. As a trained pianist, I always liked this band’s keyboard (Hammond organ) heavy approach, but Death Walks Behind You, interestingly enough, improves on the band’s debut not by particularly sharpening that part, but by integrating the various members’ talents into a more powerful and coherent whole.
One reason for this, perhaps, is the proper arrival of guitarist and vocalist John Du Cann; his first appearance technically left him redubbed onto three tracks of the band’s planned debut in the USA. Prior to this, Atomic Rooster had some level of instrumental interplay from their musical heritage, but a lot of it came from that sort of overdubbing. With Du Cann in hand, a relatively support oriented bass found itself replaced with showier guitar. Even if you don’t believe my claims of improvement (It could happen! Maybe you loathe the lute), it should be apparent that this makes for showier, more pyrotechnical performances and more effectively leads bandmembers into duels. If there’s one thing I like hearing in this style of music, it’s the duels.
Regardless, Death Walks Behind You precariously balances a melodramatic streak (which has lead many a band down the prog/heavy metal path) with its blues/rock roots, as is par for how it straddles genres. Ominous descending piano leads into a big, slow power chord riff on the title track, and for a few minutes, you could easily compare your aural input to Black Sabbath. Then, the upbeat instrumental jam “VUG” introduces the lighter side of the band, and mostly takes over, with some exceptions. Atomic Rooster’s newfound ability to match darker music to their more sinister lyrics is a major step forwards, at least from this writer’s metal-loving perspective. Even if there’s still not particularly many examples of it, the skill with which this is executed makes it welcome enough.
On their later albums, it seems that Atomic Rooster gave up on the shock and horror experiments, leaving only their showy side. From a commercial stance, it doesn’t seem to have worked too well; Death Walks Behind You remains this band’s best selling album in the Anglosphere. Now, you shouldn’t place too much faith in what the charts tell you, but it sure looks and sounds like public tastes were attuned to this sort of music, at least for a few years…
Highlights: “VUG”, “Seven Lonely Streets”, “I Can’t Take No More”