Wednesday, April 19, 2017

album review: 'inFinite' by deep purple

Look, even despite being a longtime Deep Purple fan, I don't think anyone expected their 2013 record Now What?! to be as great as it was. 

Their first record in eight years and their first after the death of long-time keyboardist Jon Lord - it showed a band reinvigorated yet again, surging forward with the sort of progressive experimentation and flair that didn't reflect a band that had been around for over forty five years! And sure, you might be able to pass along some credit to legendary producer Bob Ezrin, but it's also hard to ignore that Deep Purple are one of the most resilient hard rock bands still working. Let's get brutally honest, you can probably count the number of rock bands who tour as extensively as Deep Purple does for as long as they have on one hand, and to see a resurgence of quality in the compositions and songwriting - long one of the areas the band has struggled on weaker albums, of which there are a fair few - was a true marvel. 

But like it or not, you can't do it forever, and there's a part of me that knew it would only be a matter of time before Deep Purple set their instruments aside, perhaps to go off on one glorious high note as hard rock legends. They had finally been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, an honor many had said they had deserved for decades, they were coming off the most critical acclaim and popular attention they had received in years if not decades, and unfortunately drummer Ian Paice had suffered a minor stroke in June of last year, which affected his right hand and fingers. And to end things off with one last ride called The Long Goodbye Tour and a record called inFinite, I had the feeling that this might just be the last record we get from Deep Purple. So enough reminiscing and nostalgia, what do we get on inFinite?

Well if I was looking for a coda to Deep Purple's career, inFinite is certainly a fine note for an exit... and in a strange way, it's probably most representative of Deep Purple's entire career and a fine note to go out on. It's a good record - not quite a great one, I certainly wouldn't put it up against Machine Head or even Now WHAT?! - but in a weird sense that works just fine for playing things a little looser and easier for their finale, a set of aged and seasoned veterans playing their encore before sauntering off into the sunset with an old-fashioned brand of rockstar swagger. Can it feel a bit corny or schmaltzy or even silly at points? Well, yeah, but if you've been through Deep Purple's back catalog, they've always had plenty of those looser, more ridiculous moments, and I don't mind a good bad joke, especially if they can deliver it with this much flair. 

And really, if you're coming to a Deep Purple record at this point of their career, I think there is something to be said in appreciating the vibe and old-school presence, even if the band will freely admit it's wearing ragged around the edges. It's telling that this album does not shred or explode with the same intensity as Deep Purple has touched in the past - oh, sure, 'Time for Bedlam' is one hell of a galloping opener, organ matching the guitar solo before playing counterpoint to it, 'Hip Boots' captures some of that mid-70s smolder I've always loved, and both 'One Night In Vegas' and 'On Top Of The World' have these sweet choppy bass rhythms I really dug, but you're not getting anything in the same territory as 'Highway Star' or even 'Hell To Pay'. This record plays at a slightly more measured pace, giving the arrangements the space to open up and take weird turns that you wouldn't otherwise expect: take 'All I Got Is You', which opens primarily anchored in sizzling organ, liquid guitar, sharper drums, and a sweet bassline - Roger Glover deserves a ton of credit for great work on this album, and it's smart that producer Bob Ezrin gives him space - that leads to a really great hard rock hook... that the band throws off like no big deal to go into a weird spacey synthline before a sweet solo before returning to the main groove, and yet they never come back to the hook! And that devil-may-care attitude fills the entire record: why not open the album with hints of chimes, heavy robotic vocal filters? Why not crank the delay up on the drums on the lumbering scuzz of 'Get Me Outta Here' against a murky psychedelic mix? Why not suddenly step out of the hedonistic debauchery of 'On Top Of The World' for a spoken-word digression with hints of pitch-shifting and weird twinkling synths? Why not go outright progressive rock with 'The Surprising', easily the best song on the album with its theremin and arranged touches before a fantastic guitar line drives off the bass simmer, before breaking into an eerie organ segment, a ridiculously potent ascending guitar progression that breaks into this beautiful liquid piano-touched swell that's the closest thing to serenity any Deep Purple record has touched... but of course, the main line comes back to drive it home! 

Now that's not saying that Deep Purple always manage to stick the landing. I do think 'Birds Of Prey' can meander a bit with the phaser touches on the guitar in the midsection which led to an ascending progression I don't think took off as well as it could, and while I get the inclusion of a cover to bookend how Deep Purple's hits started with 'Hush', I really think if they wanted to do a cover of The Doors' 'Roadhouse Blues' justice they needed to crank up the grime and intensity a fair bit more. And even despite how much I love the overall sound and vibe of this record, I'll freely admit that I'm an easy sell on this material, and that those looking for more grinding intensity or bite will find this pretty lightweight - which again, feels like the point. As much as the opening track 'Time For Bedlam' promises a certain amount of long-promised rage at the state, it's not like Deep Purple are going to get political at this point of their careers, especially when you follow it with a song like 'Hip Boots' that is literally about wading through shit. Again, I get that it's a metaphor, but if it wasn't such an obvious homage to mid-70s Deep Purple with great organ and guitar solos, I'd be a lot less forgiving. In fact, I found myself making a fair number of excuses for lyrics across this album - hell, the ugly breakup of 'All I Got Is You' careens from earnest pleas to exasperated dismissal from chorus to verse, and when you follow it with the Vegas hookup that translates into a thirty year marriage on 'One Night In Vegas', you know you're dangerously close to hoary sitcom territory, especially given Ian Gillian's swaggering sneer of a delivery. And when you follow it later with the weird digression on 'On Top Of The World', where after a hazy one-night stand/orgy on the roof of a building where he realizes he doesn't quite like heights anymore, it has the feel of a man increasingly aware of his advanced age but still convinced he can go as hard as he used to.

And hey, credit where it's due, Deep Purple is a band where the youngest current member is 62 and two are 71, the fact they've lasted this long is amazing in its own right, and for rock stars to have lasted this long is credible - and what's telling is that the group does take a bit of time for reflection. It might start off on a bitter note with 'Get Me Outta Here', but when 'The Surprising' shows both devils and angels taking our frontman on a ride towards new pastures, and 'Birds Of Prey' bringing its own apocryphal imagery in the golden city and resurrection imagery, it's clear that endings are on the mind. But for as high-concept as these can get, the two songs that feel the most grounded are arguably the simplest. The first is a song might be one of the most basic and borderline-cliche that a rock band has ever written, 'Johnny's Band', telling the rise-and-fall story of any rock group that is honest enough to show the aftermath - the older band with fewer fans and depleted coffers, but the sound is enough to draw you back. Might be cliche for any aging rock act and the composition is a little simple by Deep Purple standards, but it's the sort of song that makes sense for this sort of album. Now the second song called 'Paradise Bar' is a bonus track, one I actually got by accident when I bought the record - and yeah, I don't normally talk about bonus songs, but I have to say, this one is worth it. For one, with the big synths against the sharper groove and brighter shimmering gloss, it might as well be a cut from 80s Deep Purple like The House Of Blue Light, but it works as a sweet coda for the band to take their leave, as Ian Gillian finds himself in a bar literally in Heaven. And sure, it's silly as all hell, but I dig the small-scale approach to it in the little details - no grand theatrics, not quite the hell they were all expecting, just free drinks and old legends enjoying paradise.

In short... look, this is a victory lap for a band that I'd argue has justly earned it - but that's also all it is. The Deep Purple fan in me wants to celebrate it on that measure, but the critic knows enough to call out the parts that can feel a little slight or sloppy or ridiculous, or might not have the same weight or potency as previous records. There are some great cuts here purely for the instrumentation: 'Time For Bedlam', 'All I Got Is You', especially 'The Surprising', but if you're new to Deep Purple I can see you not being all that wowed by this, and I completely get why. Thus, for me, I'm giving it a nice 7/10 and a recommendation, but again, more for fans of the band than outsider listeners. But as one of those fans... man, it might not have been the perfect exit, but it feels like the right one, and I definitely appreciate that.

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