Nestled comfortably on the never-ending touring circuit, Deep Purple has not, for many years, felt the tugging obligation to record albums filled with new songs. These days, economic realities coupled with a general lack of interest in the age of YouTube, iTunes, et al, prohibit bands of Purple’s caliber from moving much further. When they eventually cave to the idea of making new music, the motivation has little to do with hit singles and platinum records — for Deep Purple, it had more to do with reclaiming their legacy as one of the world’s greatest hard rock bands. Listening to NOW What?!, their 19th studio album and their first since 2005’s Rapture Of The Deep, you get the sense they really wanted to get it right this time.
So here it is: NOW What?! may be the best all-around Deep Purple album I’ve heard since Perfect Strangers. Maybe that’s not saying a lot since no one is calling out The Battle Rages On or Bananas as highlights in Purple’s storied recording history. But then news came that Bob Ezrin was handling the production, and it seemed like the band was really serious about making a good record. What the renowned producer has successfully done with Deep Purple is align their superb musicianship with a splash of musicality and melody, giving the songs swift hooks and wings — all while retaining certain Purple trademarks.
The opener “Simple Song” has the band getting reacquainted with a slow, meandering intro that morphs into a tuneful rocker. Gillan’s vocals are restrained without going overboard. Keyboardist Don Airey, who asserts his handiwork to a whole new level throughout NOW What?!, takes the first solo and the stage is set for a journey through Purple paradise. The exotic “Weirdistan” pushes flowery textures and subtle Middle Eastern flavorings before surrendering the break to Airey and guitarist Steve Morse. Taking nothing away from the massive contributions of either Jon Lord or Ritchie Blackmore, their respective “replacements” are key to what is good and right about Deep Purple’s existence in the teen years of the 21st century.
The adventures unravel as strings tease the rumble of “Out Of Hand,” sustaining its elegance through Gillan’s tuneful refrain, then instantly gobbled up by Roger Glover and Ian Paice’s plodding rhythm and Morse’s string pulling. “Hell To Pay” is a no-bones four-on-the-floor rumbler with a familiar Purple ring. The sensibility flows with a progressive streak on “Above And Beyond” and deep into “Uncommon Man,” an anamorphic platform for Morse, Airey and Ezrin, who adds hip horn-sounding synths to the song’s main verse. “Aprés Vous” simply lets Morse and Airey ascend the Purple ladder to even more monumental heights.
In all its earnest credibility, “All the Time In The World” is a slight letdown after the lethal dose of the other tracks and “Vincent Price” does little to help. On its own, NOW What?! is the Deep Purple album doubters, disenfranchised or dedicated to the core, have been wanting for years. Dedicated to Jon Lord and played very much in his spirit, it is cast in the Deep Purple mold without succumbing to gratuitous insatiability or goofy clichés. Most of all, it validates Deep Purple as a meaningful and creative unit with more to offer than just a nostalgic trip through the 70s. Clearly, theirs is a story still in progress.
~ Shawn Perry