Hydra – Hydra/Land of Money/Rock the World

The history of horrible album covers has occasionally provoked some debate. Nobody ever argues with bringing up Mick Jagger’s Primitive Cool, though. You also can’t go wrong with the self-titled debut from Atlanta’s own Hydra. The album looks like the airbrush guy at the van shop got stoned and forgot to check out a library book to find a depiction of an actual hydra.

The trump card, however, is that the amateurish work was courtesy of the certified English design wizards at Hipgnosis, who were seemingly distracted in 1974 by knocking out classic images for Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was an exceptionally unfortunate misfire, since Hydra was the only act on the Capricorn label who deserved to be immortalized by master marketers of art-rock.

Wayne Bruce and Spencer Kirkpatrick had wrapped up the ’60s in an Atlanta act that flaunted their ambitions under the name Strange Brew. They continued on as Hydra after adding drummer Steve Pace and Orville Davis on bass. From there, it wasn’t hard to seem intellectual in a scene that had Charlie Daniels as a godfather to newly-minted stars like Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The band still deserves to be taken seriously in a new 2-CD set from the UK’s BGO label, which combines Hydra’s three-album death spiral with some nice remastering. It’s not giving away much to reveal that Hydra’s debut was a lot better than you’d expect from that cover. Maybe they weren’t any more visionary than Grand Funk Railroad, but Hydra is definitely worth revisiting as a bizarre curio that crams in several sounds of ’74.

Despite the song title, the band wasn’t expecting for the record to kick off with “Glitter Queen” as a gritty pop extravaganza — courtesy of the producer secretly adding horns that launch the band into glam territory. The rest of the first side is impressively frantic hard rock, with Hydra putting their own twist on two outside contributions.

Hydra was free to become more entrenched in their own weird territory with the second side. The spacey fantasy of “Warp 16” is probably what landed them some dates opening for Rush, but the tune’s matched by the corn-fed closing prog of “Miriam.” The band adds a lost Southern Rock classic with “If You Care to Survive.” There’s nothing enlightened about the band’s delivery, though.

(There’s not much insight in BGO’s liner notes for this reissue, either. The extended story of Hydra’s typical travails is mostly a clip job pieced together from former members’ interviews for various websites – padded with a ponderous detour into the influence of American blues on English rock ‘n roll. You’re also told that ZZ Top was once signed to Capricorn. To be fair, that’s more believable than knowing that Hydra and Martin Mull were once labelmates.)

1975’s Land of Money was officially a dissatisfying follow-up, but would have made for a perfectly serviceable album by Foghat or Bad Company. Unfortunately, those bands were busy that same year landing hits with, respectively, Fool for the City and Straight Shooter. That boogie fever makes Land the most unrepentantly Southern of the Hydra trilogy. Fittingly, the album art features an early take on a Buford T. Justice type – with Hipgnosis given a second chance at packaging the band, although this one would’ve made a better cover for Pink Floyd’s Animals.

 Land of Money has a crazed title track that could be a lost Outlaws tune, but the closest you’ll get to the debut’s boldness are a few tunes worthy of Styx. Things were obviously getting tough for the band when they had to once again rely on outside songwriter Will Boulware for the epic closing track of “Take Me for My Music.” Hydra should have already matured enough to have written an entire album of that kind of thing.

Davis was gone by 1977’s Rock the World. The remaining trio moved to Polydor and further from any Southern roots. They ditched recording in Macon for an Atlanta studio, but sounded like a heartland act with no reason for being on a major label. A more democratic writing process meant the entire band can take credit for the title track being the smartest song on the record – except for when “In the Willowed” shows up on the second side.

That one would count as some swampy beauty if Aerosmith hadn’t already recorded “Seasons of Wither.” Hydra probably deserved some airplay with “You’re the One” as a howlingly strong pop tune, too. That can’t stop the band’s fortunes from winding down with the simple stomping of “Diamond in the Rough.”

 Rock the World’s closing track is practically a proper goodbye until some inevitable 21st century reunions. Beaverteeth, incidentally, were already waiting in the wings as Atlanta’s next daringly ambitious major-label signing. Things didn’t work out for them, but they made two albums with covers that would look a lot better on the side of a van.

Hydra
Hydra/Land of Money/Rock the World
[BGO]