Before we dive into the record, let us take a moment to just bask in the glory of that album art. The cover is important: It’s that first impression; the welcome banner that adorns the musical journey within any album. In this case, it carbon-dates Kryptonite, the 1975 effort by progressive/hard rock act Neil Merryweather & The Space Rangers. It’s an album that simply radiates with ionized particles whose half-life extends well beyond the seventies and into today – and not just in the vibrant technicolor hues on the cover. However, a quick glance alone across the approximately 12.375″ x 12.375″ cardboard adornment of the jacket reflects very much on the roots of inspiration found across the landscapes of its time.
As the sixties closed out, the human perspective had expanded: “We’ve gone to space, we’ve put a man on the moon, we have the Plymouth Superbird – what on Earth could possibly be next?” The natural inclination, of course, was to look away from Earth. Mankind’s fascination with the cosmos had never been more acute, and imaginations ran wild of what lay beyond the stars. After all, it had not quite been 66 years between the Wright Brothers’ first flight at the dunes of Kitty Hawk and Armstrong’s first step from the Eagle onto lunar soil. A very small gap of time in the grand scheme – technology was expanding exponentially, and mankind began to reassess the scope of its potential. On the other side of coin, the Manson family effectively drove a stake through the heart of the hippie movement, which by that time was already collapsing under the crushing weight of its own idealism. A sense of disparity and discontentment and hopelessness crept into the picture. The death of hope in Free Love left an imaginatively encouraged (and, cough, “psychedelically awakened”) generation to deal with the darker side of reality. Some faced it head on – Black Sabbath, for example, dove headfirst into the soot-covered landscapes of industrialized England and embraced a bleak outlook. Others, such as Rainbow, took to a brighter perspective, rocking over lush fantasy tales of far-away worlds. One common thread, however, that pierces its way through the landscape of heavy ’70s rock ‘n’ roll? Escapism.
Pop culture reflected the sentiments of the ’70s in a prismatic time capsule – not only were the ripples from the disintegration of the mind-expanding psychedelic ’60s bleeding into rock music, but in pop art as well. The Silver Age of comic books were in full swing, and creators that were once weaving tales of fighting Evil at a terrestrial level were more and more reaching to the cosmos for sources of conflict, taking the spotlight away from the gravitational pull of earthly problems. While Kryptonite cover artist Don Rico’s work is most known in the peaks of the Golden Age of comic books, the album art in question simply radiates with the cosmic Silver Age: This is where comics saw the greatest leaps and bounds in terms of complex, interwoven stories, rich character development, and meticulous universe-building that could rival that of the greatest fantasy writers of the time. It took the readers, as well as (I assume) the creators away from, to say the least, the drawn-out bloodletting of the Vietnam War, upsettingly exorbitant petroleum prices, Richard Nixon, and the crumbling utopian veil that shrouded the coming of such travesties beneath a veneer of hope. Instead, the peak of 70’s rock pushed the imagination further into somewhere unknown and exciting, fascinating and imaginative, full of wonder and promise, and, of course, escape.
The track-by-track analysis is oft frowned upon, yet some albums just have a flow that begs to be followed if any semblance of justice is to be done towards its craft. It’s what makes an album band stand out from a singles band. One can hear Pink Floyd on the radio for their entire life, yet one never truly experiences Pink Floyd until one hears Dark Side Of The Moon, or The Wall, or (if one is truly about their wits) Meddle on vinyl from beginning to end, preferably in a darkened, hazy room lit with (at most) two or three candles and maybe a lava lamp. It’s that prolonged, immersive experience that provides the greatest of escapisms, and, coupled with the strength of the individual songwriting, justifies a deeper look into the journey that is Neil Merryweather’s Kryptonite.
The album kicks off with a warm applause and a LAZER-synth build. It could very well be taken from a live performance, and honestly it is the perfect way to open the record. It just starts with this undeniable energy, feeling like the band is just jamming and feeding off one another in the studio. Considering the album was cut in a mere three days, it’s no wonder it has that sense of freshness and immediacy from beginning to end. The first riff is forward and driving with just the right amount of fuzz. The rhythm guitar is overwhelmingly warm and organic, sounding so much like proper hot tubes on an overdriven amp that it’s hard not to smell the odor of the glass as it burns away the dust of a musty beer-soaked pub. The lead department, lively and exciting, plays off the rhythm in a very Thin Lizzy style: It’s simply bursting out with improvised licks at the end of each phrase, bubbling over with animated excitement. It makes every line of the soulful, yet playful vocal performance of Merryweather fresh and invigorated. The drums sound real and alive, again that organic feel comes not only from the recording (Fenriz ain’t lying when he claims the ’70s had the best drum production) but the lively groove of the playing. Littering ghost notes and fluid, creative fills across the percussive space only add to that live feel hinted at with the opening salvo of applause. The dynamics are crucial: The hands know when to be loud, they know when to be soft. Subtle cymbal chimes and syncopated snare work craft a liquid spine for the rest of the band to play off of for the duration of Kryptonite.
If you’re in a band and you’re going to name a song “Star Rider,” you’d damn well better be bringing the sauce – not only should it be great, but it should stand out as a highlight of the album. Neil Merryweather and his fearless Space Rangers understand this concept well, delivering one of the heaviest trips to be found on Kryptonite in but the second track, (You guessed it!) “Star Rider.” The synth takes an early prominent role: Cosmic organs wail behind the slow, Sabbath-heavy riff that builds… before dropping into an even heavier head-nodding abyss of a groove, littered with glistening cymbal work and lead guitar that just can’t cool off. Meanwhile, a second layer of synth flavor shoots warbling comets across the soundscape for further mind-bending psychedelia. When the guitar solo reaches for the stratosphere and, subsequently, the ionosphere, the maximum gravitational pull of the rhythm provides a stark contrast to the highs, hitting an absolutely nasty groove shaded with those liquid, bendy synths. The vocals ooze with conviction and provide points of climax, such as the moment when Neil croons out:
The future’s my food for the taking
And I’ve just not the heart
For breaking my stride
I’m enjoyyyyyyyyyin’ the riiiiiiiiiiiiiide
It hits home. Not only is this line delivered in the absolute musical peak of the song, but it punctuates the aforementioned attitude of the 1970s with a glorious streak of exclamation points. While this may be the peak climax of the song, “Star Rider” is full of crescendos – it’s one of those tunes that just gets better and better as it unfolds, reaping unfathomable rewards on repeat listens that reveal all the magic happening at once. Note those tom fills at the end – there are so many brilliant stars across the soundscape to appreciate!
“Always Be You” digs deep into the blues roots, hitting the feel-good rock ‘n’ blues vibes of the likes of Led Zeppelin. Even Merryweather’s crooning leans towards a Robert Plant bent on this song – yet it never feels as though the Space Rangers are content to simply copy the legends of the time. While comparisons can be made to their contemporaries, it feels as though the band are drawing from the same well of inspiration to interpret their own vision of boundary-pushing rock ‘n’ roll rather than simply aping on what had been a proven formula for the time. While the blues side certainly is recognizable in the following track, “Give It Everything We Got,” the funk side is something Zeppelin could never dream of pulling off at this level. Perhaps informed by his work with Rick James, Merryweather welds a perfect blend between funk, soul, rock, and psychedelia on this track. The all-out jam at the end highlights the talent in which he chooses to surround himself with: Everyone from the drums to the keys to the guitars and Merryweather’s own bass playing get a highlight at the conclusion of the track that serves as a mission statement for the band. While 1974’s Space Rangers (with essentially the same lineup, and also getting a reissue courtesy of the fine folks at Regain Records) hinted at the band’s capabilities, Kryptonite truly is the band giving everything they’ve got, and it’s showing even before the record reaches its midpoint.
The B-side of the record wiggles in with “The Groove.” While “Star Rider” had every right to be a highlight amongst an album of highlights, “The Groove” really hits that magical culmination of influence and familiarity that makes Kryptonite so special. The additional piano work provided by Jim Taylor gives the song the spirit of Elton John, while Neil is simultaneously channeling the likes of Freddy Mercury in the vocal melodies. The central guitar lick hits bottleneck slides that could only bring to mind the golden era of the Allman Brothers Band (R.I.P. Duane**). It’s the primary example of the culmination of late ’60s and early ’70s rock magic coming together in Kryptonite. Despite the criminal lack of notoriety of this album, when the aliens land and ask what the hell we were doing musically in the 1970s, “The Groove” better damn well be at the top of the list. This may seem like hyperbole, but fucking listen to the damn thing – it’s a perfect peak to the ’70s rock mentality.
The bouncier feel of the opener returns with “Real Life Love.” While the lyrical content certainly hits a heartbroken, bluesy feel, the attitude of the music explodes with a peppy, uplifting feel of new beginnings. That Allman Brothers swagger is still there in the licks, and the bass still finds a sassy way in which to rear its head in the tune. The drums hit an almost AC/DC driving energy, especially in the tom-riddled fills that throw weight behind the blues riffs that dominate the song. The jam near the conclusion continues the immediacy of the record and enhances that live, three-days-in-the-studio off-the-cuffness fueled by immediacy and interplay between the members of The Space Rangers. The production does an immaculate job of separating the moving parts into interlocking gears, throwing the synths and guitar licks left and right across the soundscape; It truly feels like the music is being played live betwixt each ear and just adds to the life in the record.
It’s funny – if you ask Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath was arguably never a “heavy metal” band. They simply played the slow, ominous blues riffs louder and heavier than most. This aspect of the ’70s is found at the core of the verse of “You Know Where I’d Rather Be.” While the abrupt chorus change hits the more uplifting Zeppelin or Zappa feel, the core of the song is in the dragging weight of core blues. The LAZER-synths and melting guitar strums keep the track in the outer space realms of the album, but, at its riff-driven core, the song is blues rock at its finest. The seamless interplay between styles further strengthens the argument for Neil Merryweather & The Space Rangers as a pinnacle ’70s rock ensemble, hurdling blues, rock, and psycheldia across the cosmos like a solar slingshot. The album’s closer, “Let Us Be The Dawn,” hints at the likes of Pink Floyd or the (criminally lesser known) works of California rock group Spirit in its quest for sonic creativity in the name of escapism. It’s a slow, reflective piece that feels like a controlled breath of air, bringing the listener down from the trip they’ve just witnessed.
Kryptonite hits, and it hits hard. Every bit of what made the 1970s an exciting time for not just rock ‘n’ roll, but art in general can be found if one digs deep enough into its treasures. To recap, it hits the best of Thin Lizzy, Queen, Captain Beyond, Elton John, Frank Zappa, The Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin, Spirit, Pink Floyd, and Black Sabbath without sounding too much like their contemporaries. For those who can’t get enough, it is highly recommended that you check out the group’s debut effort, Space Rangers, also available through reissue by the fine folks at Regain Records. But Kryptonite is The One™ when it comes to capturing the greatness of not only an under-appreciated band from the 1970s, but a pinnacle of the era and a credit to rock ‘n’ roll in its entirety.
*While Canada has yet to put a man on the moon, they are certainly working on it. They’ve been too busy taking rock to the next level since the 1970s – why Rush ’em?
**Please wear a helmet.