As the title of this comprehensive boxset of their 1970s recordings makes plain, Atomic Rooster are one of the sleeping giants of the early progressive era. For many, they’re the band that Carl Palmer left to form ELP, but that view does a grave disservice to the pioneering and exciting music they produced, particularly across their first three albums. Driven by the often demonically furious organ and piano playing of band leader Vincent Crane, Atomic Rooster combined the swagger of R&B, the muscle of hard rock and the drama of prog, and came up with a sound that was both ambitious and accessible. They even crossed over into the pop charts, having hits with the singles Devil’s Answer and Tomorrow Night. They could have been contenders, and certainly should be better remembered than they are. But as with many bands before and since, they were undone by an unsettled line-up and by trying to break America, abandoning their progressive roots and going in a heavy soul direction that ultimately pleased no one.
There was perhaps another reason too. Crane was an inventive songwriter and brilliant musician, but he was beset by mental health issues, with his songs often doubling as desperate cries for help. Friday The 13th from their debut album is a terrific slice of pumping prog pop, but its refrain of ‘Everyone’s lonely when they die’ is genuinely chilling. From the same album, the abject Banstead refers to the psychiatric hospital where Crane had been a patient, while Winter is a beautiful but haunted lament to seasonal depression. But it’s on their second album Death Walks Behind You where they go for broke and produce their classic record. The arrival of guitarist John Cann really beefs up their sound, with the fabulous title track in particular as gloomy yet golden as anything by Black Sabbath.
This is a treat for fans, but for the curious, it’s an essential introduction to one of the unsung greats of the prog underground.