Monday, April 29, 2013

album review: 'now what?!' by deep purple

A bit less than a year ago, a group of artists that included Carlos Santana, Iron Maiden, The Flaming Lips, and Metallica got together to produce an album cover of the 1972 album Machine Head by Deep Purple. That same year, Deep Purple was denied a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which earned the institute a fair thrashing at the hands of Billy Corgan (of the Smashing Pumpkins), Gene Simmons (of Kiss), Geddy Lee (of Rush), Kirk Hammett (of Metallica) and Slash (of Guns 'n Roses). And really, it's not like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hasn't earned that contempt - I mean, the induction of ABBA, Madonna, and Randy Newman over Deep Purple, a band that is widely considered one of the founders of heavy metal? I mean, fucking really?

But putting aside the obvious fact the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is completely full of shit, I did begin to ponder the impact of Deep Purple on rock. I mean, even though every would-be guitarist on the planet learns 'Smoke On The Water' (often incorrectly, because Ritchie Blackmore uses an alternate tuning of 'all fourths' instead of just power chords), how much had Deep Purple really affected rock & roll? With fifteen different members over forty-five years, who could even say was the definitive Deep Purple? 

Well, if we go by the annals of history, most would say the iconic lineup of Deep Purple was the 'Mark II' lineup (Ian Gillan on vocals, Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, Roger Glover on bass, Jon Lord on keyboards, and the iconic Ian Paice (who is, incidentally, the only band member to last all forty-five years) on drums). And while David Coverdale (future Whitesnake vocalist) cut his teeth with the bad throughout the 70s, the majority of Deep Purple fans consider the Mark II lineup the best, mostly because they were responsible for the classic album Machine Head.

And make no mistake here: Machine Head is one of the best goddamn albums of all time. It is one of the very, very few albums that I'd award five stars without compunction, an album I'd consider damn near perfect and one of my personal favourites (funnily enough, it only came out a year and a half before one of my other favourite albums of all time, The Who's Quadrophenia). Not only does it contain 'Smoke On The Water', but also 'Pictures of Home' and 'Highway Star' and 'Lazy' and 'Space Truckin'', all songs that are classics of hard rock and heavy metal. It blows my mind to this day that the band chose 'Never Before' as the lead-out single ('Never Before' is a great song, but there were smarter choices), meaning it took until the spellbinding Made In Japan for Deep Purple to get their American breakthrough. 

It also meant that any album of covers was inevitably going to be compared to that classic - and it was ultimately the reason I didn't finish or post the review of Remachined (which is what they were going to title the covers album), because it would have been the drawn-out caterwauling of a rock snob. And while I will say immediately the album isn't nearly as good as Machine Head (like it or not, Chickenfoot even at their best isn't within spitting distance of Mark II Deep Purple), I can also say that damn near nothing is as good as that album. It's like trying to make a digital photocopy of the Mona Lisa - even if you manage to get every detail right (and they didn't, mostly because Carlos Santana and Ritchie Blackmore both have distinctive and different guitar styles and that's me being the most charitable), you lose something in the transition.

Now many people would think that on the strength of Machine Head alone, Deep Purple deserves a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. But I think that's an incomplete picture of the band, a band that went though eight different lineups and over four decades of albums. I mean, not even including live albums or compilations, Now What?! is their nineteenth album of material - and even as a longtime fan of Deep Purple, I can admit that there are large chunks of Deep Purple's discography that sucks. And while I would say that the band never released an absolutely worthless dud, they have made a lot of material that doesn't quite stand up well years or decades later.

Now, part of this problem is an incoherence of vision, and they've never been an act to make album statements (on that factor alone, I can imagine some critics would disqualify them). But the bigger problem is that they were never great or innovative songwriters either, preferring to concentrate their attention on intricate instrumental segments and virtuoso solos. Keep in mind that guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was a fantasy-obsessed guitar nerd known for awkward tunings and customized gear, and that former keyboardist Jon Lord was a classically trained and classically minded pianist. As an act, particularly in the late 60s and early 70s, Deep Purple were almost prog-like in their pursuit of musical excellence and complexity over lyrical craft. And it's pretty much due to the fact that they were so damn great on those instruments that I can appreciate them to this day, and this is coming from someone (as anybody who has read my reviews can attest) who holds lyrics to a high standard.

And so, as a fan, I can vouch for dozens of their songs off of multiple albums, but I'd be hard-pressed to find lyrical excellence in the band, particularly in comparison to the awe-inspiring instrumentation and vocal delivery. I wouldn't say their lyrics are bad, per se (okay, some of them are pretty goddamn bad, particularly throughout the 90s), but they certainly aren't offensive. What they also aren't, however, is all that thought-provoking or intellectual, particularly in the early years - Deep Purple is a band that tends to writes about simple rock star themes and concepts, and for the most part, they do it very well. Now there is an art to writing simple, potent pop songs - hell, most of the best songs of all time have a charming simplicity about them that only enhances their appeal - but here's where I'll note a real dichotomy with Deep Purple: for as phenomenal as they are musically, they've never really impressed me lyrically.

At the same time, though, at nineteen albums into their career, the members of Deep Purple are getting up in years, and I have to admit, I was more than a little worried going into this review. The last album with the 'Mark VIII' lineup for Deep Purple was Rapture Of The Deep, which was pretty damn solid, but nothing that's going to set the world on fire. And with a worrying title like Now What?!, I was a little concerned that Deep Purple may have just given up with this album.

I was wrong. Oh dear god, I was wrong. Because not only is Now What?! by Deep Purple a return to form, but it's easily one of their best albums in decades.

I'm actually a little at a loss to describe how everything with this album works so godddamn well, mostly because a lot of it isn't directly linked to lyrical progression (although some of it definitely is, I'll come back to this). Instead, it appears that every element of the Mark VIII lineup (Don Airey on keyboards, Ian Paice on drums, Ian Gillan on vocals, Roger Glover on bass, and Steve Morse on guitar) has concentrated on delivering a sonic experience unlike anything I've heard from the band since the early 70s. 

I'm not kidding about this album sounding like a modernized version of a Deep Purple album recorded in the 70s, either. It seems like popular music - from the reggae intonation of Snoop Lion to the punk leanings of Ke$ha to even the increased presence of social commentary in acts like Brad Paisley (for better and for worse, mind you) - seems to be harkening back to that time, of which I have no problem. It definitely helps matters that Deep Purple's Now What?! is everything a return to roots should be, going back to what works but still having the courage to expand, modernize and improve one's sound. And yet it is immediately recognizable as the Deep Purple music I love, and all of the elements fit into place beautifully. 

Now, let me clear up a few points to hard-line Deep Purple fans, particularly those of the Mark II lineup. Let me start by saying that I get it. Believe me, I do. The Mark II lineup was iconic, and as a longtime fan, I don't think any guitarist will really be able to match Ritchie Blackmore's plucky, well-fingered guitar work. Same with the late Jon Lord - the man was a keyboard virtuoso, and his Hammond organ was iconic of early Deep Purple.

But goddamnit do they come really fucking close here. Don Airey's choice to move towards a more traditional organ sound definitely helps, but he shows the willingness to switch up the sound when it's necessary to support the song, and while Jon Lord's style is iconic, Don Airey shows himself admirably. And while Steve Morse is probably the element I like the least of the Mark VIII lineup, it's not disparaging of him at all, mostly because he's working his ass off and he's still inevitably going to be compared to Ritchie Blackmore, which is unfair. Morse, as it turns out, is a surprisingly solid guitarist, and while he doesn't quite have the precise control of Blackmore, very guitarists do, and Morse still does an impressive job with extremely difficult material.

And speaking of difficult material, I have to single out Roger Glover's work on bass on Now What?!. A lot of his work has been overlooked at times with Deep Purple, which I consider deeply unfair because his performance here is stellar. It's smooth and authoritative when it needs to be, funky and driven when you wouldn't expect it, and every single bass solo stands out as exceptional. I was blown out of the water by how solid and controlled the bass work was on this album, and it shows Roger Glover at his absolute best in crafting dynamic rhythms to drive the songs.

In fact, let me go deeper into this for a moment. One of the small problems that I've had with Deep Purple is that outside of the classic singles, they have very few songs that stand out in terms of a memorable hook or rhythm that really catches the ear and remains memorable. Sure, as albums, they write songs that have great instrumental solos and build phenomenal atmosphere, but they really have struggled with writing memorable, radio-ready hooks. And while there's a lot to be appreciated in the instrumental artistry of their music, it can be a bit frustrating to pull free a single song as absolutely exceptional (again, outside of the classics) because of a lack of distinctiveness. Now, to be fair, this isn't exactly a bad thing - some artists have built diehard fanbases of a lot of songs that fit a particular mold and are only distinctive to hardcore fans. But while I might say 'The Spanish Archer' and 'Call Of The Wild' and 'The Aviator' are unbelievably awesome songs, the casual fan will just shrug and say 'eh, it sounds like Deep Purple'. In other words, they'll classify it as filler because nothing immediately catches their attention. 

Yeah, it's unfair, but I get it - people listen to a lot of music, and they like to be able to tell different songs apart. They like assigning identity to music, seeing the personality behind it. Fortunately, Deep Purple solves this problem masterfully on Now What?!, because the album is bursting at the seams with both memorable hooks and interesting ideas. The band appears to have used the title of their album as a direct call-out to the audience: they've gone back to their roots, modernized their sound while still keeping it iconic and recognizable, and done more musical experimentation than they have in decades. So only one question remains: now what?!

And when I say musical experimentation here, I'm not kidding. Between the distinctive bass and keyboard solos we have several ventures and stylistic flourishes that are pulled off with aplomb and gusto. 'Weirdistan' is an adventure into psychedelia that recalls the late 60s with wry maturity, and 'All The Time In The World' feels like an adult alternative track Deep Purple appropriated and made awesome. But all of those pale in comparison to the goth rock explosion that is 'Vincent Price', a macabre song that takes the lyrical decadence of hair metal and pairs it with Steinman-esque production and a Sisters Of Mercy tight groove that knows exactly when to go fucking insane. The song comes out of goddamn nowhere and sounds absolutely nothing like anything Deep Purple has ever done before - and it's glorious, almost to the point where the album closer 'It'll Be Me' feels like a let-down for being too short and too upbeat, killing the momentum.

But eventually we have to get to the lyrics, and while I'll be the first to admit they are not one of the many reasons to listen to this album, I'll still say they're a definite step in the right direction, particularly for an act that's been around for decades and is still making music. Too many older artists looking to keep their careers afloat (looking at you, Iggy Pop) tend to pepper their lyrics with bad pop culture references that only date the songs and make the singer all the more out-of-touch. Hell, Deep Purple wasn't immune to this problem either, which is ultimately one of the reasons the majority of their 90s and early 2000s work never stuck with me. 

Fortunately, Deep Purple makes the right decision here and brings something that you don't often see to musicians in this vein: maturity.

No, I'm not kidding, and at first, I didn't quite believe it. Maturity and age are seldom elements hard rockers wear well (I'd argue they fatally crippled the most recent Offspring album), and the reasons why are fairly simple: they stop being 'cool', or they start trying way too hard to be 'cool' or 'topical'. When this happens, they end up humiliating themselves. But thankfully, Ian Gillan remains intelligent even at the spy age of 67 (although his voice is starting to weaken, but the studio effects do a surprisingly deft job covering it) and what's more important is that he hasn't lost his sense of humour. If I will level any criticism at Ritchie Blackmore (besides the obvious ones of being a massive control freak and an asshole), it's that his music is often delivered almost humourlessly, which is a little disappointing for a hard rock act. For him, everything is serious business, and while there is a place for that sort of sincerity, it can (and did) become wearisome in all of his musical endeavours.

In contrast, Ian Gillan is looser, and as his songwriting has continued its upward progression from Rapture Of The Deep, he's more willing to have a lightness of tone. Furthermore, the man is 67, been a member in Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and has been married for decades - he has nothing left to prove. And while some singers would consider this the time to sit back and take it easy, Ian Gillan is completely capable to sling down with the best of them and sing his lungs out, which is respectable considering how much screaming he does here.

But where this maturity comes out is in the lyrics. The meter and flow still aren't effortless - Gillan's liking for large words can seem unnecessary at points - but the subject matter makes up for it in a big way. In particular are songs like 'Hell To Pay', where during the verses, Gillan criticizes punks and social revolutionaries who don't really understand the deeper underlying theories of their causes and thus can't effectively communicate them (which is far more common than you'd think, believe me). Which, come to think of it, might be one of the reasons Deep Purple went on hiatus and sat out the punk and post-punk waves. Yet it seems now that he completely understands the cause, and now he's willing to fight for it. That's some wry insight you don't typically see from an act like Deep Purple.

And this attitude, this belief that 'with maturity comes insight', is all over the album. Songs like 'All The Time In The World', 'Uncommon Man', 'Apres Vous', and 'A Simple Song' contain lyrics that are tempered with maturity and the air of a guy who's lived a long life, and even the more lustful songs like 'Body Line' and 'Above And Beyond' are more poetic than the simple hard rock 'I want to fuck you' song needs to be. And with that maturity also comes a certain degree of levity - there's a surprising dearth of angst or existential longing on this album that actually made feel rather uplifted. There are moments of grief and darkness ('Blood From A Stone' and 'Out Of Hand') but neither song darken the album significantly, and both show enough weary life experience to earn those emotions. And sure, 'Weirdistan' is ridiculously lighthearted, but it's trying to emulate hippie psychedelia, so some of those lighter feelings are to be expected.

Are they profound and as deep in the vein of Nick Cave, or do they have some grand statement about the human condition? Well, of course not - but then again, what were you expecting? As I said above, Deep Purple have never been great lyricists, but here they show some definite class, maturity, and occasional nuggets of insight, and then back it up with some of the best instrumentation of their careers. And I can't stress that last part enough - it's been a long, long time since I've praised instrumentation this much in my reviews, and more than once I was tempted to resort to Pitchfork-level histrionics in describing how fucking great they are.

Instead, let me cut to the chase: Deep Purple's Now What?! is fantastic, an album that does nearly everything right. It's a beautifully composed and excellently mixed album with solid lyrics and fucking gorgeous instrumentation. Seriously, I would recommend this album on the production, Don Airey's keyboards, and Roger Glover's bass alone - the fact that all the other elements somehow manage to fit together is mindblowing. It's one of the best albums of Deep Purple's long career, and, in case you couldn't tell by now, one of the best albums of the year thus far. I highly, highly recommend Now What?!, particularly if you're a fan of early 70s rock and the Deep Purple Mark II lineup, because it is a return to form in the best possible way. No, it's not quite as good as Machine Head, but really, if you're only a step or two down from that, you should be goddamn proud.

Welcome back, Deep Purple - I can't tell you how much I've missed you.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and in-depth review of a great album. By the way, the guitarist is Steve Morse, not Moore.