It never seemed likely that Deep Purple would exist for this long, let alone as a creative force. Trying to trace the various members of the band is rather akin to drawing a particularly comprehensive map of the London Underground system from memory and it is a challenge I simply don’t feel like undertaking for the sake of this review, suffice it to say that this is the band’s eighth incarnation and that in listening to ‘Now what?!’ you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were taking in a new act. With nineteen albums released under the Deep Purple name (and, depending on whom you ask at least three of those are bona fide classics) the band really have nothing left to prove, and yet here, in the shadow of John Lord’s passing, the band come storming out with one of their finest releases in years. Quite simply they sound fitter, leaner and hungrier than they have any right to and ‘now what?!’ is arguably the band’s finest, most consistently brilliant release since ‘burn’ (don’t worry I’ll brace myself for the hate mail now for making such a radical claim). This is, in no way, intended as a put down of the band’s more recent material – ‘Purpendicular’ (Richard Whitely-aping pun title aside) was a particularly storming release with the track ‘sometimes I feel like screaming’ a particular favourite, but what the new album has to offer is a summation, not only of Deep Purple’s illustrious career, but also a sign that the band have kept a weather eye on modern trends and absorbed a few new touches to boot. Oh, and it rocks with a fire that will surprise even hardened Purple fans.
On paper at least Bob Ezrin did not seem right for purple. The man who tried to get David Gilmour to rap (oh the humanity!), allowed Kiss to get mind-blowingly self-indulgent and, lest we forget quite why he’s a household name, worked on some of the greatest albums of all time (‘the wall’, ‘the fragile’ – albeit only in the sequencing department – ‘school’s out’ and many more) just seemed to be too staid for Purple. Kevin Shirley, now that would have made sense, but Bob Ezrin? As it turns out, the choice of Ezrin to oversee the new album was a masterstroke. Listening to ‘Now What?!’, even though it rages hard, you can also here the near progressive ambition that has been aroused in the band with one track in particular coming on like Iron Maiden on ‘life after death’, and Ezrin captures it all perfectly, imbuing Steve Morse’s guitar with a beautiful clarity that allows the talented guitarist to shine on a number of solo-heavy numbers.
For this review we’re reviewing the vinyl edition (a double LP in a gatefold cover and with a bonus track rounding out side four) and aside from the fact that the first LP is not as satisfactorily pressed as the second, it is indisputably the best format upon which to appreciate the new music – no skipping, no horrible digital copy, just gently crackling vinyl from start to finish adding to the character of the record. Side A opens with ‘A simple song’, which begins quietly in a vein not dissimilar to Iron Maiden, Steve Morse’s creamy guitar work suggesting a dreamy, progressive number, a thought further reinforced by Ian Gillan’s rich, deep voice intoning “time it does not matter. But time is all we have to think about…” before the band suddenly launch into the main riff, a searing beast that takes no prisoners even as Don Airey lets loose with his crazed keyboard work. This is not the work of a band working towards retirement, this is the vital, adrenalin charged work of a group of musicians still very much in love with their art, and it’s a massive electric jolt to hear the band sound this good. ‘Weirdistan’ also has a progressive edge but, rather more surprisingly, it sounds like a cross between David Bowie (thanks to a cleverly multi-tracked vocal) and Black Country Communion, and as the mysterious strings swirl across the mix you’ll feel shivers run up your spine. It’s a brilliant song. ‘Out of hand’, meanwhile, strikes a darker tone with its throbbing bass and violin stabs giving way to a monstrous riff that has spiritual ties to led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. Even now, after multiple listens, it’s hard to get rid of the goose bumps raised by the power of Ian Gillan’s vocal, Steve Morse’s crushing guitar grooves or Ian Paice’s rock solid percussion, and there’s no question at all that this is a very good album indeed.
Side B opens up with a song that many Purple fans may well have already heard, ‘hell to pay’, which pokes fun at the grandiosity of youth and the rebels who never fully know what they are supposed to be rebelling against via a fast-paced and, dare I say, funky slab of rock that not only allows Steve Morse to lighten up on the power chords but which also provides plenty of room for Don Airey’s acrobatic keyboard manoeuvres to shine even while the band throw in a tongue-in-cheek gang-chant chorus. ‘Bodyline’ sees Gillan possessed by the priapic spirit of David Coverdale as the band get seriously funky, Ian Paice and Roger Glover laying down a lascivious rhythm track that you can imagine has Ian strutting across the stage like a peacock on heat as he disappears in a haze of mind-clogging hormones. ‘Above and beyond’, in contrast, recalls ‘Foxtrot’-era Genesis with its prominent keyboards, off-kilter rhythms and more relaxed feel. It is a strong, progressive number that sees Ian Gillan explore a more folky side to his vocals than hitherto expressed, and it highlights just how prepared Deep Purple are to experiment with their sound on this record.
Side C (pressed, oddly, on heavier vinyl than the first platter) opens with ‘blood from a stone’, a woozy, late-night number with tremolo-soaked guitar and organ washes that suddenly explodes into life for a chorus designed to inspire heart-attacks in the unwary. Here you can hear Deep Purple riffing on the bands they have, themselves, influenced over the years (listen to this, for example, and then listen to Opeth ‘live at the Roundhouse’ or ‘Heritage’ and you’ll hear the Purple influence loud and clear), whilst the solo Steve Morse delivers at the songs conclusion is spell-binding, recalling David Gilmour’s fluid work and even a nod to ‘the wall’ with Don Airey’s wild organ stabs bringing the main track surging back in at the end. Staying in the progressive vein, ‘uncommon man’ is a gently rippling piece of music that showcases proudly the wonderful musical abilities of the various members, particularly Steve and Don who work in close partnership for the song’s elegiac introduction, whilst Ian’s assertion that “It’s good to be king. Standing together again’ could well sum up the band’s experience of recording this album. ‘Apres vous’ opens with a rumble of organ and then kicks into some seriously progressive riffing, once again suggesting Deep Purple have been ingesting all manner of classic bands from vintage Genesis to Queen whilst putting together the songs for this album, although most surprisingly is the lengthy instrumental jam which sounds like a cross between Deep Purple and Massive Attack thanks to its synth drums and trip-hop feel backing immense fret work from Morse.
Side D features the final two songs of the album (‘all the time in the world’ and ‘Vincent Price’) as well as a bonus track ‘it’ll be me’. Of these ‘all the time in the world’ is a laid-back and breezy rocker that sees Ian shining on vocals on a perfect slab of sunny, road-rock that implies a certain level of contentedness has crept in, whilst ‘Vincent Price’ is a gloriously over the top tribute to the master of horror (possessed of one of the greatest voices ever gifted an actor) and boasts the immortal line “I want seven screaming virgins on a sacrificial altar.” It’s a camp, riff-heavy piece of fun that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Alice Cooper album, and it nicely closes the album if you have the standard edition. The bonus track which sees the album draw to a close (just in time for you to put it on again), is a swinging number that has a vital groove all of its own, referencing the blues with its chunky guitar and familiar chord progressions, and it’s worth spending the extra to get a copy of the album with the track included.
There are those who have simply not bothered with recent Deep Purple albums and there are those who have argued that the band must surely be creatively spent after so many years of rock ‘n’ roll, line-up changes and internal strife. To those people I would simply say take a chance and listen to this album. It is as invigorating, as life-affirming and as memorable as Deep Purple have ever been. There’s no point in trying to compare this relief to the shock and awe of ‘Machine Head’, ‘In rock’ or ‘Burn’, so why bother? Those albums are timeless classics that will still be revered in decades to come, but that doesn’t detract from the overall excellence of ‘now what?!’ an album which never once patronises the listener or sees the band resting on their not inconsiderable laurels. Here you will find white hot rock, blistering progressive and even funky touches all delivered with the style, panache and skill of a band who are working, not for financial gain or fame, but simply for the thrill of playing music which connects with a vast body of listeners on a primal level. This is a heavy, exciting rock album that proudly bears the Deep Purple name and it is a work of which the creators should be justly proud. Bob Ezrin’s production is perfect throughout, capturing the essence of the band, and the songs are truly brilliant. ‘Now What?!’ is a gem and you’d be a fool to miss it.