Deep ?urp!e

Deep Purple - Now What?! chart action

Unlike, say, Black Sabbath (who have faced different sorts of challenges), since their 1980’s reformation Deep Purple have kept going as a creative force, keeping their core line-up pretty much intact, or, at least, allowing it to evolve in a way that has ensured stability and continuity.

I made my peace a long time ago with the Steve Morse and, more recently, Morse/Airey line-ups. Indeed, for me, the Purpendicular album (1996) was an extraordinary creative rebirth which has had me on tenterhooks in anticipation of each new release since.

Deep Purple - Now What?! album coverWhile there’s not been a bad album with Steve Morse in the band, 2013’s Now What?! is probably the strongest since the aforementioned Purpendicular. It is undoubtedly their most experimental and progressive album for quite some time – certainly since Purpendicular and probably since Fireball (1971). It has a looser, fresher feel, as producer Bob Ezrin encouraged the band to jam, have fun and just play. Sometimes in the past, the band seems to have felt constrained by what they take to be popular notions of what ‘Deep Purple’ stand for and what they should sound like. In contrast, most fans I know (admittedly a very small subset) would agree that what made Deep Purple great was their desire to be exciting, to follow their instincts, to experiment, and to push at musical boundaries. For those of us who feel like that, Now What?! is a very, very pleasing album.

So, what of the songs? The quiet and beautifully sung opening to  ‘A Simple Song’ doesn’t so much lull you into a false sense of security as set the tone for the unpredictable nature of what follows. I hear hints of ‘Black and White’ (from the House of Blue Light album) in the melody – possibly and playfully deliberate given Gillan’s use of the phrase in the lyrics.

The next two tracks pick up the baton and drive us deeply into the album. ‘Weirdistan’ has an understated eastern-flavoured riff and features a wonderful spacey keyboard solo from Don Airey. (“Oh yes, it’s beautiful”!) ‘Out of Hand’ has an atmospheric opening, with Airey’s prodding keys yielding to a trademark big riff, more eastern stylings and a stand out Morse solo.

First single ‘Hell to Pay’ initially appears to be standard fare until we’re treated to some sublime guitar/keyboard soloing and interplay that has always been a feature of Deep Purple (whether we’re talking Blackmore and Lord, Lord and Morse, or Morse and Airey) and that no one, but no one,  has ever done better. Of course, it’s all wonderfully underpinned by Glover and Paice. This is some band!

‘Bodyline’ has a funky opening and rolls along nicely. But surely I’m not the only listener disappointed that lyrically it turns out to be a vehicle for an oversexed Ian Gillan to indulge his whims again. I was hoping for a song about cricket and past Ashes intrigue!

Deep Purple - Above and Beyond coverAs good as it’s been up to this point, the heart of the album is the run of three tracks spanning the ever so proggy ‘Above and Beyond’, the cool and sometimes laid back ‘Blood from a Stone’, and ‘Uncommon Man’. The latter features a wonderful extended guitar-led prelude with orchestral arrangements (a fanfare?) before Paice’s drums usher the band effortlessly into the verse. Again, there aren’t many bands who could, who would, write something like this. (The Enid, perhaps?)

‘Après Vous’ is a more standard rocker, which picks up the pace before settling into a nice bass groove and featuring yet more cool Morse/Airey interplay. “C’mon man. Fill your boots,” sings Gillan, with thoughts of “another life, another world.” His ‘Woman from Tokyo’, and other women from other places, clearly still make him sing.

‘All the Time in the World’ is a gentle and touching ballad – the kind this incarnation of Purple do so well (think ‘Clearly Quite Absurd’ from the Rapture of the Deep album). Morse’s solo is sublime. He can shred with the best of them, but when he wants to go for the heart he just reaches right in there and grabs you. Gillan recycles and adapts a lyric from Purpendicular‘s ‘Soon Forgotten’: “Sometimes, on a good day, I sit and think. Sometimes I just sit.”

The closing track on the standard version, ‘Vincent Price’, is loads of fun, featuring a church organ, a crash of thunder, an operatic intro, a mock-horror riff, multi-tracked vocal effects and a lyrical run-through of every horror film cliché Gillan can summon. “It feels so good to be afraid,” he sings, “Vincent Price is back again.” The video is a lot of fun too – haunted castles, wax-work dummies, roaming monsters and a pole-dancing nun! Really! Don’t take it too seriously but check it out:

Vincent Price promo shot

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=BEWYRRaxFhU

As you can see from the picture at the top of this piece, the album charted all over Europe, reaching number 1 in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Norway, and entering the top 10 or top 20 in numerous other countries. (I don’t wish to pitch Black Sabbath and Deep Purple against each other, but there was a feeling in some quarters that while Sabbath worked hard to rediscover their mojo – turning in a decent album, 13,  which incredibly achieved number 1 chart success in the UK and the USA – Purple were, with Ezrin’s help, able to give free expression to theirs, raising the creative bar a notch or two in the process.)

It must be very gratifying for the band, and, indeed, for long-term fans and supporters, that the album has been so well received. The music deserves it, but it’s also been better promoted than previous albums. It even got the band an interview appearance on Jools Holland’s BBC television show (Tuesday 14 May 2013). At their age as well. Who do they think they are?!

The success of the album was tinged with sadness, of course, given the passing of former keyboard player Jon Lord. While the whole album is dedicated to Jon, the track ‘Above and Beyond’, is a poignant and more direct tribute. It includes the following beautiful lyric …

Souls, having touched, are forever entwined

Now What?! is a fitting tribute both to the memory of Jon Lord and to the musical legacy that he and his Deep Purple bandmates have bequeathed to us. Highly recommended!

Deep Purple promo poster

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2 Comments

  1. Michael, wonderfully done again. I identify with this a lot. Now What?! was my #1 album of 2013. I’m so pleased for the band, and for myself, that they pulled together and made such a focused album. I’ve been a Deep Purple fan a long time and I never stopped liking them. I thought Abandon was a little dip in an otherwise pretty steady stream of good albums.

    Also: “Indeed, for me, the Purpendicular album (1996) was an extraordinary creative rebirth which has had me on tenterhooks in anticipation of each new release since.” Yes, same here. As I said I never stopped liking them but when they came out with that live album in ’94 (Come Hell or High Water) I had lost interest a bit. I didn’t think it was too strong and then Blackmore quit and I certainly had my doubts about Steve Morse. Purpendicular won me over all but immediately, and then I saw them that November in Toronto and it was a great experience. I’m pleased to say that I got to see Jon Lord on stage rocking the Hammond. What a sight he was.

    Reply
  2. Think I shall give it a whirl when I get home. Nothing in recent years of theirs has really grabbed my attention.

    Reply

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