New Tricks Revisited: Deep Purple’s “Purpendicular” (reissue; HNE, 2014)

Album review by Neil Hobkirk

Purpendicular opens with a sound unfamiliar from previous Deep Purple albums: a buzzing, harmonics-drunk note frenzy lasting just a few bars but signifying the sense of novelty and freshness that irradiates the whole album. The man behind this agitated bee swarm was the English rock band’s new guitarist, a soft-spoken Ohio-born virtuoso who’d co-founded sui generis instrumental outfit Dixie Dregs and whose imaginative chops and sunny vibe would rescue Purple from the tar pits of arena rock redundancy. Thus reanimated by the same polystylistic spirit that drove the Dregs—an exuberant fusion of country, bluegrass, southern rock, jazz and baroque styles—Deep Purple issued their most innovative record to date.

That was in 1996. As of February 2015, the band has released four further studio albums—Abandon (1998); Bananas (2003); Rapture of the Deep (2005); and NOW What?! (2013)—and Steve Morse is now a twenty-year veteran. Recording for Purpendicular began twenty years ago this month; the band plans to record album number twenty this year. And coincidentally, just yesterday The Highway Star website posted news of an album of all-original material by Purple-endorsed tribute group Purpendicular. tHis is the tHing (2015) boasts appearances by Morse and current bandmates Roger Glover, Ian Paice and Don Airey. Ideally tHis will equal the outstanding all-originals disc by tribute rivals Demon’s Eye, The Stranger Within (2011), which featured singer Doogie White from Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Purple band Rainbow.

Protective of Blackmore’s role as guitarslinger for the “classic” Mark II lineup (the only other guitarist to record as part of Deep Purple was the brilliant but drug-addled Tommy Bolin on Mk IV’s Come Taste the Band from 1975), many fans dismiss Morse’s emphasis on guitar harmonics, lightning-fast arpeggios and overall technical precision as too clinical for a group identified with sturdy British blues-rooted rock. But from their 1968 debut album Shades of Deep Purple on, a “progressive” strain has usually been traceable in the band’s sound, owing much to the compositional ambitions and Hammond organ innovations of master keyboardist Jon Lord. And Morse’s contribution consists as much of expressive breadth as of technical reach, affording an expanded spectrum of light and shade.

With the addition of Steve Morse, the band’s collective demeanour has relaxed and brightened, a difference you can see and hear. Just compare filmed concert footage from the Blackmore (Mks I-III) and Morse (Mks VII & VIII) eras. In dress and behaviour, Ritchie appears ever the Man in Black, his darksome onstage persona matching the cavalier abandon of his playing. The Dark One helped invent hard rock guitar technique in the 1970s, but in 1993 his prickly temperament reportedly helped speed the third and final demise of the “classic” lineup. (Joe Satriani replaced Blackmore for the remainder of that year’s tour, adding a brief Mk VI chapter to the Purple story.) Cut to videos from the Morse era and you’ll see a very different band. In place of Blackmore’s sternly aggressive approach and the evident stress and strain between him and his bandmates, witness Morse’s infectious delight in music-making and the others’ obvious relaxedness. These guys are all smiles.

Purpendicular was recently reissued by UK-based HNE Recordings, hard rock and heavy metal arm of the Cherry Red Records group. Like other HNE reissues, the CD comes smartly packaged and accompanied by decent liner notes by veteran rock scribe Malcolm Dome. The digipack and booklet retain the distinctive cover image from the original BMG release: a matchstick bent at a ninety-degree angle. Less lucky, the printed side of the disc is dominated by the label’s logo, a headphones-wearing skull (“HNE” acronymizes “Hear No Evil”). As for the music itself, it’s every bit as sunlit and varied as the state of Florida, where the album was recorded in Orlando and the Dixie Dregs formed at University of Miami.

“Now for something completely different,” warns Smilin’ Steve’s zigzagging buzzsaw intro, but things grow rapidly stranger still—at least to the Purple fan hearing this disc for the first time in 1996. In place of stock hard rock stories of wine, women and song, Purpendicular files reports on frustration and bliss, floats dreams of transcendence, and scripts scenes for TV western actors and bullheaded workingmen. The album’s lyrics were penned, I believe, by singer Ian Gillan—all songs are credited to all five band members—and opener “Vavoom: Ted the Mechanic” recounts his conversation in a strip club with the titular ordinary bloke. Over drummer Ian Paice’s chugging backbeat, reinforced by Roger Glover’s pliant bass and Lord’s percussive Hammond, Gillan sing-speaks an account of a closed world view. “[B]ig as a truck / Fast as a door,” Ted’s the kind of self-aggrandizer who’s got it all figured out: “And the beauty of it was / That he was right.” In every chorus, when the stripper “goes Vavoom” and makes the mechanic “wiggle in [his] chair,” the music rises to a raucous climax. Ted, of course, talks on.

Gillan’s casual anecdotalism here finds a precedent in Purple’s “Mitzee Dupree” from The House of Blue Light (1987), where he related a rambling conversation with a stripper aboard a plane. But further specimens pop up in Purpendicular. “Rosa’s Cantina” is a watering hole song with a western desert setting. After the tune opens quietly with organ chords and damped guitar strings, the redoubtable Paice-Glover rhythm team kick in propulsively, keeping things to a jaunty saunter. Between verses, Gillan wails on harmonica atop Glover’s popping bass. The greasy Hammond solo looks way ahead to Jon Lord Blues Project Live (2011), recorded a year before the organist’s untimely passing. The equally catchy “Hey Cisco” retains the western setting. After a faint, distant entry from across the desert, that rhythm team is suddenly in your face, driving the song at a furious gallop while Gillan proposes a final adventure for the Cisco Kid and sidekick Pancho. The TV gunslingers have hung up their weapons, but Pancho urges his boss to “ride out one more time.” The playing is correspondingly urgent, with Lord and Morse interacting closely. They duel excitingly as they would many times live, then Morse breaks out an excoriating solo over his comrades’ frantic accompaniment. Lord’s follow-up solo maintains the headlong momentum.

Ian Gillan’s storytelling turns phantasmagorically disjointed in “Somebody Stole My Guitar,” which ultimately recalls the theft of a six-string from a car while its owner slept off a hangover in Memphis. But to get to this point—the point—the singer first free-associates his way through another watering hole scene, where a portrait of Johnny Ringo the cowboy outlaw cohabits with half-remembered rumours about an “old silver miner / Name of Hard Rock Pete” while the waitress talks and pours tequila. As Gillan clambers over clouds of boozy uncertainty to reach his story, Paice keeps an even keel on cowbell and Lord summons true grit from the organ. Given the lyrics’ constant leapfrogging, it’s fair to equate instrument theft with Ritchie Blackmore’s abrupt departure from the band. “The banjo player took a hike / What’s that song / I used to like,” sings Gillan suddenly when wrapping up “Ted the Mechanic.” Many know Gillan’s penchant for branding guitarists “banjo players,” and everyone knows “Smoke on the Water,” a Blackmore-era song whose (in)famous riff has surely grown tiresome for Deep Purple themselves.

Besides feats of wonky tale-telling, Purple turn in tender moments. With its hushed acoustic guitar intro, “Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming” dwells on a time of frustrated isolation, challenging it with outbursts fuelled by monster organ and gnarled wordplay: “Heaven wouldn’t be so high I know / If times gone by hadn’t been so low.” Back on electric, Steve threads the lyrical main melody through the tune’s verses, his tone needle-sharp. The relaxed, mid-tempo “Loosen My Strings,” where Morse alternates bright jangles with dirty power chords, leans on ludic, ass-backwards verbiage. “Wake up in the morning / Get into bed,” the song opens. Reclining serenely on a bed of Celtic rhythm, “The Aviator” envisages freedom from mundane routine. Implied pipe and drum textures buoy the tune’s easygoing lope while instrumental layers steadily pile up. “A Touch Away” sounds more carefree still. Gillan’s words revel in rustic sense impressions limned by Morse’s countrified string bending and Lord’s fairground-hued Hammond. A delicate weave of organ, synth and piano pictures fresh air, blue sky and bright sun.

Purple being Purple, the album also brings harder-driving moments. But this being Purpendicular, the tunes don’t always develop straightforwardly. Starting bizarrely, “Soon Forgotten” seems to arrive upside down from another planet, with an initial set of huge overdriven organ chords yielding to a stabbed-out sequence of broadly divergent guitar notes. Wrenching menace from cryptic lyrics—“Did you know / the warriors of the flat earth / Have become the tyrants of the globe”—a multitracked maniacal Gillan chants more than sings. And the Hammond resembles a clownish calliope more than its usual serious-toned self. Purpendicular in fact explores a greater diversity of organ settings than previous Deep Purple discs.

“Cascades: I’m Not Your Lover Now” rocks fairly straightforwardly. After a funereal organ intro over muttered marriage vows, the piece plunges headlong into gleeful celebration of disentanglement: “What can I do / About the rain that falls on you? / I’m not your lover now.” Glover’s bass proves busily propulsive while Lord and Morse double each other’s breakneck virtuosity. “A Castle Full of Rascals” too opens gloomily before hurtling into an outraged indictment of corporate greed, bringing Gillan’s most literal lyrics. Bone-crunching guitar chords hammer home the moral indignation, and Paice flaunts his avowed Gene Krupa influence. This is big, big band drumming that threatens to propel bandmates off the stand. “The Purpendicular Waltz” cleaves more closely to the album’s right-angled methodology, unfolding in herky-jerky style and showcasing abundant harmonica and more calliope-toned Hammond. And notice the sound of Paice’s kit. On this closing track, as throughout the album, his drums glory in their natural timbre. Beautifully recorded, they resonate as drums should, unlike the Hollywood gunshots customary in hard rock.

Purpendicular as a whole sounds superb. It doesn’t seem to have been remastered for this reissue, but it sounded this great in the first place. Departing from the fat, congealed textures of 1970s Mk II recordings and the equally thick but glossy surface of the Mk II 80s comeback Perfect Strangers (1984), textures on Purpendicular are comparatively transparent. The varied arrangements and formidable instrumental technique register faithfully. Lead guitar lines ring brightly, and the often multi-tracked vocals convey several Gillans clearly, projecting a mischievous spectral presence. Likewise captured with warm crystal clarity, Morse’s power chords emerge colossal and crunchy, Lord’s Hammond comes on strong and vibrant, and Glover’s basslines spring from your speakers taut and forthright.

Produced by the band themselves, this album’s their best-sounding. The recent NOW What?! was groomed by superproducer Bob Ezrin and shows his micromanagerial handprint, feeling a tad contrived next to Purpendicular. Bananas and Rapture of the Deep, produced and engineered by Michael Bradford, are musically exciting but suffer from coarsely caught vocals and a brittle top end. It’s only on their Purpendicular follow-up, 1998’s band-produced Abandon—their last record before keyboardist Don Airey took over from Jon Lord—that Deep Purple have sounded this good since.

Purpendicular captures the sound of a band reinventing itself, a spontaneous process catalyzed by their conscious decision to enlist an utterly different guitar stylist. To my ears the album was already purfect; HNE’s addition of Japanese bonus track “Don’t Hold Your Breath” brings a needless element of filler. But you be the judge. Feed this disc to your sound system, then feast your ears on the spectacle of established artists hungrily discovering new tricks.

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