Saturday, 2 June 2012

Machine Head - Deep Purple - album review

I prefer to avoid the endless and tiresome debates about what constitutes "heavy metal", "heavy rock", and "hard rock", as these pigeon-holes invariably demean the talent and imagination of the artists involved.

What is difficult to dispute, however, is that some individual albums, pointed the way forward, set trends, or simply served as a definitive example of their creators' oeuvre.  One of these is Deep Purple's 1972 release, Machine Head.

Machine Head may or may not have contained as many heady peaks and seminal moments as earlier Purple LPs, but it is their most cohesive and fully-realised statement.  Several factors contributed to this, including the circumstances under which it was recorded.  The consistent quality and variety of the material were also instrumental.

My one misgiving about the album is its sound, which is what could be best described as an acquired taste. To me, the rhythm section, and in particular Ian Paice's drums, is not captured with as much crispness and clarity as on other Deep Purple recordings.  This may have been partly because of the experimentation being undertaken with keyboard and guitar sounds, partly because of the conditions of the recording sessions, and partly intentional.  At times the sound has quite a stifling, claustrophobic feel to it, for my ears at least, but the quality of the songs and the musicianship ultimately prevail.

The album commences with one of the group's signature tunes, "Highway Star".  This was a shrewd choice as the opener, because it amply showcases the talents of Blackmore, Lord and Gillan, and contains some irresistible hooks. A memorable song, despite its enigmatic lyrical content.

After the thrills of "Highway Star", we come back to earth with the "meat and potatoes" heavy rock of "Maybe I'm A Leo", which is partially redeemed by some pleasant vocal harmonies, and effective guitar and keyboard solos.

One of the high points of the whole album, and Purple's catalogue, follows - "Pictures of Home". A relentless rhythm and riff drive the track, which features some of Blackmore's most memorable guitar parts. There is even a Roger Glover bass solo towards the end of proceedings!

"Never Before" was unsuccessful when released as a single, but is something of a hidden gem here. Many twists and turns occur, from the funky introduction, to the quintessentially Purplesque verses, and the more introspective middle section, which is followed by a guitar solo. An enjoyable and well-crafted rock song.

What can be said about "Smoke On the Water" that has not already been said a million times before?  Has familiarity dulled the impact and punch of that legendary riff?  The pedestrian verses in particular do not really live up to the aura created by that riff, and the harmonies in the chorus come as a relief. Strangely, I now find the guitar solo to be the most memorable feature of this song.

The largely instrumental "Lazy" has a more freewheeling, spontaneous spirit about it, with bluesy and jazzy elements in there. This all made it ideally suited for the concert setting, but this studio rendition is a creditable and gritty effort. It could have sounded self-indulgent, but its jaunty vibe, and the clever arrangement, ensure that this is not the case. Harmonica is also featured; unusual for Deep Purple!

The closing track on the original album, "Space Truckin'", possesses the same swagger as "Highway Star", and also bears similarities instrumentally, by virtue of its organ-intensiveness.  The lyrics may represent a departure for Deep Purple, but there is little doubting the overall effect.

The 25th anniversary edition contains the ethereal and reflective "When A Blind Man Cries", which stands out from the flamboyance of the other songs. This song is also a reminder of Ian Gillan's often forgotten vocal versatility. In some respects (the organ and guitar) the number is reminiscent of Pink Floyd.

So there we have it, Machine Head.  Deep Purple's previous work, and some of that which followed, was very influential on the rock music of the ensuing decades, especially in the USA, but Machine Head in many ways defined them, and an era of rock music.

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