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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Deep Purple

Now What?! (Special Edition CD+DVD)

Review by Larry Toering

To make it back after seven years culminating into eight for a studio album at this stage in the Deep Purple legacy was a big risk, but one I find to be smaller than the last time the name went eight years in existence without an album, which was 1976 to 1984. The difference here being this time they were on stage together as what is clearly a significant incarnation of Deep Purple for four to five nights a week for this set of eight years. After nearly twenty years since Ritchie Blackmore left and a decade since Jon Lord left, Steve Morse and Don Airey have finally nestled into with this celebrated (for good reasons) release. There are many questions to be answered concerning the outcome when that much time passes between albums. They wound up the first time with a hit album in Perfect Strangers. This time things are so much different all one can measure it by is if it lasts or quickly tanks. But the point I'm making is all the same, and that is a band that sounds as much better now than it was then from 1976, because of playing so much together. They're like giants to ants compared to what they were in 1984, if you really follow the Purple score, which I do. Vast opinions are always provided and they always differ in the extreme. But this is clearly a hard argument for the naysayers of the Purple fan canon to debunk, indeed. It's a whole different animal than any Deep Purple line-up has really ever ridden. That might be by choice or just plain growth, I don't know, and frankly I don't care. It's just not important to me if people don't like deviation from the norm, and that isn't always what it seems, anyway. The next person might not like concerts without elaborate light shows either. I mean that is about as apples and oranges as I can get in describing what that means to this, a major fan of Deep Purple for thirty years running.


It's a thrilling, thought provoking, dark, dramatic and exciting beast, full of remarkable youthful attitude and unrelenting power. I will even say that if you let it, this album will grab you by the throat and bounce you off the walls, blowing your mind to smithereens with just a few breaks here and there to soothe the hot friction-fueled flames. From the second you step into the ship Now What?!, you're in for a cinematic musical voyage. This gets Deep Purple back to the root of all of their evil and the goodness that made them what they should be known as, and that is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. And I find them to finally dip a second foot deep into prog water on this bold new release, where they might even go where no Purple one has gone before. Every member manages to break out his own territorial canon of the past and present for an effective blending that makes them all shine brighter than ever. They have always been a band that is larger than the sum of its parts, but with parts that are all well accomplished in their own right. If they ever had a sixth member since the 70s, it would have to be the magic of catalyst Bob Ezrin. Hold on tight, as this album takes you into orbit during the first two stunning tracks, and then proceeds to watch from above as it drops you on a wonderful freefall back down to earth where you land on a soft bed of sand to watch what appears to be a slow moving turtle race. And all that is before being sucked six feet under where you meet the corpse of Vincent Price.

The film portion is an EPK / DVD with twenty minutes of “In Conversation,” which also contains a radio edit of one of the tracks, and two live audio tracks, as well. They sound great, but have me stumped about their actual source. In fact, one of them sounds as if it might be assembled from two different performances to my ears. Out of everything there is to say concerning this title, this bonus disc is probably one of the least reasons to go out of your way for an alternate edition, which also comes in a standard CD and, SHM CD, and Limited Edition vinyl. So, there is a lot to choose from with these formats.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
A Simple Song
One thing I expected was an intro something like this, somewhere on the album, with Ian Gillan featured this way. It turns out for me it's the perfect place for it, because it has a dreamy factor to it. It is a sublime intro which follows at the end with a similar outro. In between there is a fairly brief jam which hints at what's to come, but doesn't go too far in showing it, almost like a long album intro, or a tease. But it ends with the feel that something special is going to happen, and it's not a bad opener at all because of how this all sets up the journey, if you will. This plays like the vehicle for said journey, which could very well be the end of Deep Purple's long ride, but sounds more like the beginning of a new one. And after hearing this first number, not only is there a super-cosmic vibe already setting in, Bob Ezrin's direction skills seem to be immediately present, as well as his production mastery, and its freshness alone is breathtaking. I don't know exactly what this is all about, but it seems to have something to do with losing simplicity, and perhaps also getting it back somewhere along the way. This is a very abstract number that gets the Purple blood boiling rapidly for what's to come.
Weirdistan
Now the ride takes off furiously into “wonderland” as Ian Gillan puts it in his casual delivery on a supreme piece of music. And what a majestically mind boggling little slice of coolness this is! I'm never bothered by double-tracked vocals, I just accept them. It's not like guitarists don't ever double track any of their lines. This radically impressive track sounds to be about being in two worlds and colliding with good results rather than bad, and how splendid it can apparently be from no matter what view. Of course this is always subjective, but insight so far hints enough at that. A huge bass groove is provided throughout, with a dirty underlying spooky touch to it, around an otherwise crystal clear backing track. This provides a monstrous atmosphere that is both catchy and menacing at the same time, and where Purple seem to finally find a perfect balance through several attempts at this eastern scaled approach. It begins to take on a very theatrical spin during the unison keyboard and guitar solo section, which is simply one of the remarkable showstopping points of the album, and it's only the second track. The two soloists come at each other in what sounds like being in orbit watching a couple of composers fighting it out in a distant galaxy, slamming one another back and forth like space ghosts. It’s just as thrilling and visually imaginable as it gets. This is actually that dramatically exciting, wild and freaky, right down to the last “beautiful” ringing bell and bass chord. Don Airey's moog soloing is most impressive here, but the guitar attack equally fires back. This is absolutely otherworldly. It doesn't get any better!
Out Of Hand
What to think of this at first I didn't know, other than hints of everything from the heaviness of Zeppelin and Sabbath to lush orchestral Purple passages. That was about it the first listen, but then it grew a bit, but it still somehow doesn't manage to be one of my top picks on the disc. Maybe I'm being a little premature or just plain picky, but there is a slight repetitiveness that weighs it too far along the standard structure patch for me. This is something I'm glad to say the album is light on, though. Like it or not this is awesome, with a fat sound that finally showcases every note of a Deep Purple song evenly, so you can hear everyone equally. The last time this was achieved was likely in the 80s, maybe even the 70s depending on one’s tastes in terms of production. It makes a difference when it's this good, and that can be denied and even debated as “over-production,” but I wouldn't participate when it is what this is. There’s no use trying to beat those odds whether you like it or not. Ian Gillan gives a great stab at some well balanced vocals, and the whole thing rocks massively hard. Some of the parts that save it for me are a couple of repeated sections that remind me of Trevor Rabin's string spinning wizardry, and the gigantic riff, which certainly is a jumbo piece of pie. The intro from Don Airey is a killer chiller, as well. A great rocker all in all, this just not my favorite. Of course, that would be a tough call to make, anyway. This just doesn't spark my ears as much as it could.
Hell to Pay
After hearing the radio edit single for weeks before the album version, I knew it was a traditional hard rock number, done in classic Purple respects. But I didn't know what was waiting for me when I heard over a minute longer, which includes an entire organ solo section. Of course this is likely to be anyone's reaction, but for those who haven't heard both, you will be delighted. I'm only actually enjoying this one a little more than the previous track because it's their classic rock and metal-ish values I'm not huge on, but this is Deep Purple we're talking about. I think on its own, this stands out better than some of the rest, which to my liking, all play much better together as an album than as selected tracks. It generously edges the previous track but doesn't fit on the album nearly as well. They should both make great live numbers, though, with Steve Morse in particular coming on like a demon, shining more here than in most other solo spots on the disc. Being as that is, Don Airey gets a little more spotlight throughout the disc. This is tough as nails no matter how it fits into the set on record or the stage.
Body Line
Ian Paice struts his stuff in a slanted manner to go with Steve Morse who chimes in with an angular blues snarl. Both of them are hitting with a fierce effort to sound antagonized in a fairly jazzy atmosphere. At this point you're not only thought-provoked, but are moving with no resistance. The cymbals here come out of the woodwork for me and immediately erase the entire drum mix of the last two albums. Also worth mentioning, besides the fact that Paice seems to just own this track, is that the drum mix across the board is silky smooth for once. I can’t remember the last time that was true. It’s an awesome performance, but still somehow humble and understated. It's in the mix, I'm satisfied it is. This is another track where Ian Gillan's vocals are clearly test-worthy in the area of tonal qualities, and once again Bob Ezrin evenly laminates them in the arrangement as they go high and low with it. The chorus is reminiscent of a couple of less memorable tracks from their last album, sort of blended together, but it bounces along better than the two put together. This is not only fun, but it rocks hard with yet another monstrous biting guitar riff of colossal proportions that can't be dismissed. I've heard talk of this being the albums “weakest link,” or even “filler,” to which I respond there is no such thing. It’s all killer, but take your pick of less spectacular moments, most albums have some of them. If that's true at all concerning this, then I guess I still get off big time on what is considered to be the worst of the lot.
Above And Beyond
This is where it might get personal for the die-hard fan. This is where it gets very proggy, and radically interesting either way. Of course there is a reason for this, and that is because of how Jon Lord's passing affected the group on the day this was recorded. This is one of two tracks in which they pay particular homage to the co-founder. I happen to love what to me is a big progressive rock wrinkle for them in the studio with this backing track being drenched heavily in organ and vocal choral textures, more so than being guitar driven or even Purple sounding for that matter. This is where Don Airey finds himself on his own, of course with what are still great touches from Steve Morse, but he doesn't dominate, instead he takes a casual but beautifully effective solo in the fade. Back to Airey, what a cool vibe he weaves with an almost waltzing pace of pure class. It's all either a throw away backdrop to what can't be denied as an inspired vocal of dare I say “vintage” proportions from Ian Gillan, or one of the stronger tracks on the disc, as its spiritual counter theme comes to the surface. This is also the part where transition seems to be firmly a grip, and what has been known as Deep Purple mkVIII since 2002 has finally found their studio feet and are now in full stretch mode. However withstanding the subject matter on this gem it's not surprising it got to me in every way that I either accept what mkII puritans would call a “rubbish” attempt at prog, or this is totally brilliant and naturally falls where it does! I'm open to the latter, obviously; I've tried the former, time and again. This is a battle I gladly win every time for myself, regardless of the facts, because the departure stuff suits my interest every said time. I find this to be a bone chilling moment here. It produces absolute shivers and oozes endless class!
Blood from a Stone
This is where I will refrain from describing exactly what I think one of the tracks are about, as it's a mega-bombastic blues number with some very delicate textures from Don Airey on Wurlitzer that make it very interesting and add a Doors vibe to it. The mood here is very dark, very real and very serious. But Ian Gillan gives it a delicate touch to match the effect of the keys. It's a slow languid blues with bridge sections that come to huge breaks, beyond that of the average band, no matter how young or old. The energy delivered at those points is the exact polar opposite in which the quiet parts are blended. The vocal chorus over them is once again vintage Ian Gillan in terms of tone, dynamics and yes, range. He harks back to his Glory Road album days at the very least on this. Things heat up and cool off all over this amazing track, which is where I'd say the album would peak, if it flowed that way. But instead it gains momentum. The subject matter might be personal, as it sounds to be, so I'll just say everyone comes together here fantastically, in ways I didn't think were even possible. Steve Morse in particular is on gobs of fire with some of his best work on the disc! It tends to remind me in places of something like Frank Sinatra meets heavy metal. It’s definitely a highlight of the entire showing for me.
Uncommon Man
But wait, here comes another prog stamp in which they could have a new direction forming altogether. They really do get magnificently creative with this, as they start off with a guitar improvisation not far removed from ones in their live set. This sets up what is a surprising sound to me, even though I know Don Aiery likes Keith Emerson. Here he really comes completely alive, and brings with him an homage to both Jon Lord (this being the second reference), and “Fanfare For The Common Man”. There is a lot going on here, whether you like the precise freshness, or the slight revisiting that may or may not be detected, this is killer. It might not be new, but it's new for them. “The Beast in the room” is the first mention of Lord, which is of course his Hammond Organ. Then it proceeds to go through phases of togetherness with him, by another sublime vocal delivery. This prog factor, particularly ELP/Yes/Asia sounding can be one fans annoyance, and the next fans pot of gold. Well, of course it's my pot of gold, and I would take this to the grave with me as a legitimate Deep Purple classic, and a cornerstone one at that, even if this is their last record. By this point in the disc, if it doesn't sound prog in both direction and a small amount of strongly varied entries such as this one, then it's a case of “to each their own” to me, rather than a matter of musical taste or hard headed categorical insistence. I happily accept this direction, should it last.
Apres Vous
This went under the working title of “Big Riff” and I can see why, although there are some riffs on the album that might even be bigger, or have more spark than this one. It's a magnificent track with a lot of glitz and glamor, and gust and glory factors. This is a real cerebral tune that comes along with another astonishing burst of fresh air when you'd expect any album to start diving deep by now. I can even see this on albums of the past, such as The House Of Blue Light. That is almost like a testament to Now What's Purple legitimacy and then some. It showcases killer vocals. Of course, the album is chock full of those, but it's one of two parts worth mentioning on this particular track. The mix is evenly balanced but seemingly one of the harder songs to keep up with Ian Gillan on in the studio. I'm sure Bob Ezrin had fun, but likely found it a challenge to mix not only the vocals but the keyboards, as well. On this track what stands out highest in the mix though, is Steve Morse, with loud bursts of guitar in the duel with Don Airey. That’s the other part of the song I like. With almost a Queen influence. I love the vibe on this track and probably always will. It reminds me of “Dragon Attack” in the mid-section background.
All the Time in the World
Slowing down a bit here, in fact way down, this eases right into an almost pop heavy number with a nicely paced groove to it. This makes me think of everything from vacationing to just kicking back and decompressing for a few minutes while the disc winds down. I find it to still help the progressive factor of the whole album, as I'm a big fan of AOR / prog. This fits that tag more so than a pop ballad which can be found on the last two albums. I like the steel pedal guitar touch, but it's by no means a country tune. This might have radio airplay potential: as I write this, this album is soaring way up European charts. This song is rather different, but I must say it's excellent, no matter what you call it. But if any of them are at all out of place on the album, this would be one of them for me, as it almost manages to interfere somehow with the running order this late in the set. But once again, the variety and stark difference this tune makes, keeps it all the more progressive. In fact this is somehow incredibly hard not to like, once it grows on you.In fact, I must add that it does carry a fairly bright spotlight on the disc when Steve Morse comes alive in the melodic guitar solo. This appears to be about a slow race involving reptiles in its apparent description.Perhaps Morse pulls through and wins the stretch symbolically via his solo.This is very imaginative, and very soothing.
Vincent Price
To those fans not in the know, Ian Gillan and Roger Glover knew and worked on stage with the iconic occult figure Vincent Price in the 70s. This is where things get all the more interesting, indeed. For one: an album almost always loses steam somewhere toward the end, if you listen all the way through them you will notice this is a common fact. But here they defy this to the max, and when a band even shows signs of attempting it, I take note. Perhaps it is because this was the first track they recorded, that it simply doesn't seem like it would be the last track on the album. I love the idea myself. And two: from nowhere, Don Airey pulls some very theatrical twists out of his top hat on this. Now, you might say these things are nothing new, even for Don Airey, but for Deep Purple, once again they are. But this time they really put it all into a conceptual perspective, with a bit of “Phantom Of The Opera” at the intro, just a couple of bars to hint at the spooky vibes. Then Airey whips out movie soundtrack patches that certainly have never entered the Purple house before. It all comes together with a mighty guitar mid section from Steve Morse, which features some gritty playing. One might think of Queen here again, but not Purple. But that is a good thing for me, as you can tell. I'd say all's fresh that ends fresh, whether stepping lightly into this dream not knowing what to expect, or waking up from a musically directed monster movie nightmare. This treat might even turn a zombie crazed hipster's head or two. At the end of the disc, eight years is a long time to wait, but they pulled it off and then some. This album rocks hard to the last drop of Purple blood!
It'll Be Me
This is a bonus track that I'm glad didn't make the album proper. Of course, that is only because it would've brought down the prog vibes considerably. It's an old rock 'n roll cover tune by a number of artists (take your pick), most notably Jerry Lee Lewis. Of course this kind of thing seems to always suit Ian Gillan's voice, but something tells me they left the tape rolling while having some fun in Nashville, rather than intending this for an album cut at all. That is just a hunch, but a rather obviously good guess. As mentioned, Ian Gillan shines here, as usual, but the guitar and organ solos are hot as well. This is essentially old stuff guys their age should be playing, but they pull both off with ease, and this just goes to prove that much.

 

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