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Deep Purple
Now What?! Mick Middles , June 4th, 2013 07:14

I was 15 when I first saw Deep Purple. This was 1971, at Belle Vue King's Hall, Manchester. It was my first experience of a live concert and proved suitably thrilling. Three rows in, I felt absorbed by the eerie silence that immediately preceded the band's arrival onstage. The thrilling blackness punctuated by the little red lights of the WEM speakers. Then – POW – band exploded into 'Speed King'. Quite a punk moment, ironically enough, and one that would always sit alongside the sheer white explosion of the Pistols, five years later.

That is always how I have liked to think of Deep Purple. Back in the conservative context of '71, the classic line up of Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head and Made in Japan seemed every bit as important as their gargantuan peers, Zeps and Sabs et al.

And yet Deep Purple always suffered in latter-day comparisons. Perhaps it was the nature of a band that actually went on to greater global glory in fluctuating line-ups of later years? Perhaps it was the sheer fact that those later line-ups would contain egos, talents and large enough to muddy the general waters? But when I think of Deep Purple, I cannot visualise Glenn Hughes or David Coverdale. I see Gillan unleashing a banshee scream stage-front. I see moody enigmatic Ritchie Blackmore unleashing lightening chops to the rear. I see Roger Glover pumping away in perfect sync with the thunderous pounding of Ian Paice. And I see Jon Lord spinning keyboard delight into the crowd. I see a rock & roll band.

What once seemed utterly at ease in its contemporary setting, now seems positively anarchic. My god, those wild keyboards? No producer or studio would, I am sad to say, allow such freedom these days, no matter how many derivative Purple-ite bands arrive smiling within the pages of Classic Rock)

All this is precisely the point of Now What?! Technically the band's 19th studio album although it is the first time in decades that they have openly sought to "capture the spirit of '71 and fuse it with the production qualities of today". A slight juxtaposition there, although one listen in and you can't fail to be warmed by the roots that so obviously curl back to those halcyon days. Not that, given time, this will sit levelly with 'Machine Head' of In Rock. Such a beast would be truly miraculous. But there is enough here to separate the Purps from other bands pushing through silvered years. 45 years on and they can still cause a tingle.

Of course, this cannot be the classic line-up. The album is dedicated to the memory of Jon Lord although the skills of keyboardist Don Airey seem to cast Lord's presence throughout this album. In addition the band continues to contend with the enigmatic hole left by the belligerent Blackmore. However, guitarist Steve Morse might attack his instrument in a different way, but his 20 years with 'Purple has seen him build a comparable platform. But with Gillan, Glover and Paice still firmly in place, it is as close as it is possible to get.

You can tell this from three seconds onto the opening 'A Simple Song'. Morse and Paice trade gentle opening chimes, leading you to the heart of a song that sets up residence in the rear of your head. This could be partly due to the extraordinary production of Bob Ezrin, a man who seems capable of evoking the ancient through the medium of the new. Could anyone be so perfect for this album and there is no doubt that, sonically, this is occupying unique territory.

Thankfully, there is a little essential oddness going on. The funky 'Weirdistan' – framed around Glover's heart-troubling basslines and the keyboard heavy 'Out Of Hand', which surprisingly evokes early E.L.P- in a good way – both serve to pull the album away from the sharks of ageing mundanity. It is odd to think of men deep into their 60s still capable of taking such risks. Would the die-hards travel with them? I sense so and I, for one, prefer this loose concept to the sheeny perfection of, say, 'Perfect Strangers'.

Naturally, there are moments of essential rock out. 'Hell To Pay' will cause much stomping in the aisles during their Autumn UK tour without unduly stretching musical boundaries and 'Body Line' , as the title suggests, abounds in pre-PC ethos. It is, in effect, about little more than a song about ogling. If you can forgive that, then Now What?! will provide enough spirit and verve to throw a steely gauntlet to the legions of tattooed young pretenders amassing at the door. Will it fade as the months pass by? Despite a disappointing final three songs, I genuinely believe not. This is far more than mere continuum. It is a record made by old men for precisely the right reasons. It reaches back through the years and glimpses the brilliance that created a legend.