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Deep Purple are often lumbered with the musical albatross that is 'they're famous for, err, Smoke on the Water' a guitar riff revered and loathed in equal measure. But as is often the case with such simplistic tags leads to the majority of a band's most interesting work being overlooked, and casting an eye over their extensive back catalogue, it's safe to say that there's more to Deep Purple than that one song, or even the album that it's on. 'Now What?!' is the nineteenth album from the band, which has seen them have nearly as many lineup changes since their formation than Chelsea FC has managers in the last two years.
As is often the case when listening to a new album from a well-established band, I approach it with a sense of trepidation rather than excitement as it is a fairly safe bet that despite all the press releases and bias reviews claiming it to be 'their best album since (insert name of last good album here)', it'll be at best a bit OK, and at worst an embarrassment. Thankfully, and surprisingly, this offering from Deep Purple is surprisingly strong.
Opening with the atmospheric, haunting and emotive chords of 'Simple Song', it's clear that the band have might just be onto something. It then lurches into full on Deep Purple mode, all powerful melodic lines from singer Ian Gillan, who is in unbelievably fine voice given that he's not too far off reaching his 70th birthday. And while it is a strong song, there are the first hints that there is something slightly amiss. Since the death of keyboard wizard Jon Lord, and the dim-memory of neo-classical guitar prodigy Ritchie Blackmore, the band lost two key components in their distinctive sound. Between them, they stamped an authority and sound on their records that lifted them from the slightly naff late 60s psychedlic pop group that they started out as, and into a grand and somewhat bombastic marriage of heavy metal and classical forms and themes. Now, with their replacements Don Airey and Steve Morse as long-established members, it is hard not to conclude that their brief is to fill those shoes as closely as possible. With legendary Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin at the helm, Deep Purple have recaptured their 'classic' sound that dominated their best albums of the 70s, but have they recaptured their form?
On second track 'Weirdistan', the trademark hammond organ sound of Jon Lord is clearly audible, and Steve Morse tries his best to inject a classical trademark, but I can't help but feel that it's all a bit calculated. 'Out of Hand' also sounds like Deep Purple of old, with chunky riffs in interesting modes, with Ian Gillan sounding genuinely irate and again is the star of the show. 'Hell to Pay' is embarrassing though, with an unashamed 80s cock-rock chorus that should have left on the cutting room floor, along with the rest of the track. As with most new releases, it is a victim of the CD age and could do with being shaved down from its 60+ minutes to a more compact length with more punch. 'Machine Head' was less than 40 minutes long and all the better for it.
'Bodyline' and 'Above and Beyond' aren't much better either, and could quite easily have been ditched without detriment, with the latter sounding just a bit too much like the quiet bits of AC/DC's 'For Those About to Rock'. Things pick up though - 'Blood from a Stone' is a slow burning piece that takes its time to flare up and die away, and smoulder again. 'Uncommon Man' is an instrumental dedicated to former member Jon Lord, and it does border on Queen-flavoured cheese, its classical runs and haunting quality that build up into a Yes-like meltdown would no doubt have earned his approval. 'Apres Vous' could easily fit onto 'In Rock' in terms of both sound and fiery performance.
Given that the members of this band are grizzled old birds than spring chickens, it's a remarkably strong album. It does seem that they are paying homage to their own legacy at times, but with song building this solid, it's not really much of a complaint. It's definitely better than their last offering 'Rapture of the Deep', which apart from the title track really was underwhelming. Shame that this album has a naff title and sleeve though.