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If one were to bluntly sum up the career of Budgie, one would do it in threes. There were three distinctive eras of the band, always consisting of a three-piece lineup, and each lineup produced three full studio albums before making way for the next incarnation. There was the original heavyweight proto-metal era featuring Burke Shelley, Tony Bourge and Ray Phillips. Then drummer Phillips was replaced by Steve Williams to hearken in their more diverse, divisive second era, where funk and rock elements took the fore. Finally, riff master Bourge left to make way for the less creative John Thomas and their bland synth-rock finale. Of course, bluntly summing up the band’s vital course in this way is guaranteed to leave a few avenues unexplored, particularly their masterwork In For the Kill, released between the first two eras with an intermediate lineup featuring underrated drum powerhouse Pete Boot.
By today’s rigorous standards, In For The Kill is not exactly earthshattering; many might even call it rock and roll given Bourge’s primitive guitar tone and some of the still-fit-to-boogie rhythm and blues leanings. But in ’74, when the almighty Judas Priest was still rocka rollin' and Sabbath were beginning to flex their subtle prog muscle, this was pretty tremendous. Bourge, though perpetually underrated, is arguably the greatest riff crafter of his era, second only to that ‘other Tony’ Iommi whose reign is far less disputable. [EDIT: With an ironic turn on 13 to bring the inspiration full-circle, Iommi would rip off the title track's main riff to power the middling "Live Forever".] His mixture of sinister chromatic lines and heavy blues licks, when coupled with Shelley’s super fat bass tone and Boot’s quaint yet involved rhythmic backbone, are a thing of simple beauty.
The band seem to recognize this intrinsically as In For The Kill, the fourth Budgie record, is possibly the least elaborate of its kin. There’s a bit of production experimentation, particularly with the guitar tone in certain highlights (premonitory of Rush’s mid-late 70’s work), and a certain jammy quality in some of the album’s grander moments, but mostly the band is concerned with locking into their trademark monster grooves and riding them until logical fruition. The opener/title track is a great example of this: there might be four actual riffs in here over its six minutes of playtime. But whadda buncha riffs they be: this groove is so infectiously heavy that even Eddie Van Halen had to get in on it, covering the track in ’76 (search for bootlegs, this is actually how I first heard of this song in the first place). “Crash Course in Brain Surgery” takes this to an impossible next level with an enduring thump that, believe it or not, was conceived back in ’71. You know this track because of James and Lars, but the incendiary original is still extremely worthy. The fact that these big leaguers were old-school Budgie fans should suggest that what little hype this band’s classic period generates is not being over-stated. The grandiose “Zoom Club” is also pretty ahead of its time, reminiscent of melodic and harmonic ideas that the Scorpions would utilize a few years down the road.
The album’s back half is just as diverse, but steeped more heavily in the band’s bluesy roots. “Running from my Soul” is the mandatory old-fashioned rocker that usually creeps into a given Budgie album (see: “I Ain’t No Mountain,” “Baby Please Don’t Go”), while “Hammer and Tongs” is basically a ripoff of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” Did I say ‘ripoff?’ I meant ‘reinterpretation.’ After all, Jimmy Page ripped that bit off from some forgotten bluesman himself. Budgie’s take on the formula is melodic and likable, not to mention heavier than christmas, so let’s stop pointing fingers, eh? Finally, “Living on your Own” is the best early Rush song not written by them, balancing Bourge’s irresistible melodic riffcraft with serene acoustic guitars and Burke Shelley’s most passionate vocal take of the album. Shelley has a tendency to get a little, let’s say “vocally overexerted” in the album’s balls-out rocking moments, but when he reigns it in, his erstwhile shrieky timbre becomes smooth and soulful, as in the band’s trademark random ballads.
Interestingly enough, this is also the only Budgie record without one of those. There is the acoustic number entitled “Wondering What Everyone Knows,” but it’s less a weepy love song than it is some sort of haunting, primeval incantation. All in all, a very consistent, endlessly replayable record from the Welsh power trio and, in this author’s opinion, one of the ten best metal records of the 1970’s. Though admittedly that statement says more about the dearth of bands playing it than the quality contained therein, In For The Kill should not be overlooked.
Budgie's fourth album, whilst not quite so groundbreaking as their debut or Never Turn Your Back On A Friend, sees the band continuing to be at the forefront of the early heavy metal scene. The power trio seem more confident than in previous outings, which makes the diverse range of styles they play an engaging listen. Running From My Soul, for example, is a heavy take on fairly traditional rock and roll, whilst thunderous album closer Living On Your Own is a slower, doomier, Sabbath-inspired number.
The album also includes an updated version of Crash Course in Brain Surgery, a track the group had previously released as a single - a pounding piece of proto-speed metal which particularly showcases the skills of Burke Shelley, the group's bassist and vocalist. Shelley's bass style for this album is harder and heavier than ever, at points reaching hypnotic intensities comparable to the sort of performances Lemmy was dishing out in Hawkwind at the time. On the whole, the album is further proof that Budgie do not deserve the comparative obscurity they've faded away into, but ought to join Sabbath and Judas Priest in the early metal pantheon.
Despite most of the world going ga-ga for most early heavy bands, Budgie were doomed to remain a rare bird, flittering around the outskirts and ever failing to find a solid audience to roost their weird wings on. But, as we should all know, does not mean that they weren’t producers of high metallic art, and for these ears, much of In For The Kill constitutes their finest work. See their debut was a truly thick bowl of chowder, bass-drenched and high in fuzz fiber, but the band’s sophomore and junior years were decidedly less consistent, although not without their individual charms (I mean, any album, Squawk specifically, that features a song that likens a woman’s sex appeal to being “Hot As A Docker’s Armpit” has got to be worth something, ya know?).
First off the wall of sonic black pudding that made the band’s self-titled ’71 debut so damn appealing makes a welcome return here, giving the title cut a three-dimensional feel. And wouldn’t it be just like these nuts to put a totally unexpected acoustic break right in the damn middle of an otherwise chugging metal vamp? More profoundly, the brief, almost off-handed mellow tracks that popped up like dinky mushrooms on the band’s earlier albums are done one better here by “Wondering What Everyone Knows,” a haunted and bizarre tune that further reveals the band’s depth and understanding of dynamic nuance. Oh, I guess I should point out here that the drums on this album are brought to us by the lead hands of Pete Boot, the band’s second drummer…there would be more.
The seriously doom paced “Hammer And Tongs” dominates the album’s flip side, and is a solid enough dish, but the real magic reserved for the similarly ambitious “Living On Your Own.” A standout in the band’s oeuvre, it’s not only impressive for the remarkable chemistry displayed between Borgue’s inventive guitar lines and Shelley’s sympathetic bass wielding, but also in how memorable and mature it’s structure is. This is prime Budgie: unique, skilled and timeless despite grand scale (it runs about 9 minutes in length, feels like 4 maximum!).
For those of you who have only heard rumors and suggestions as to the sounds Budgie evokes, please allow me to clarify. If you took Black Sabbath’s density, King Crimson’s peculiar song constructs, and added a dash of Rush’s overall style, you should get an idea of what’s going on here. I can’t stress enough, though, that although unsung, this band’s music is essential. If you don’t believe that they deserve a hallowed point in the foundation of metal’s great influences, you have only to understand that Metallica has covered the band twice on record (“Crash Course In Brain Surgery,” and “Breadfan”). If it’s good enough for Hetfield and company, it oughta be good enough for you, sprout.