Deep Purple keep the creative fires burning on what turns out to be their best album in two decades.
As nice as it would be to be paid royalties forever, thanks to the massive popularity of a small handful of songs, being a classic rock icon does have its drawbacks, especially for those artists who are unwilling to rest on their laurels. If you go see a concert by an aging, well-known rock band, when they play their famous songs, the crowd is excited, but when the inevitable, momentum-crushing phrase of, "We'd like to play something from our new album," comes up, the folks either sit down and talk or split for the washrooms. Such is the case with Deep Purple, who describe their conundrum in eloquent, dryly funny fashion on "MTV", from their umpteenth studio album, Rapture of the Deep. Although the hard rock vets continue to work doggedly, putting out records every couple years, they have to deal with the same inane questions time and again ("You musta made a million/ The night that Frank Zappa caught on fire/ Could you tell us all about it?"), and despite getting the odd bone thrown to them by interviewers ("We can speak about [2003 album] Bananas for one second"), they're often stuck doing the same old promo shtick ("While you're talking/ Could you do some more of these here ID's?"). Of course, the band is grateful that "Smoke on the Water" and "Highway Star" continue to air on classic rock radio, but as you hear the band sing semi-sarcastically, "I love you really/ Classic Rock Radio," their frustration is clear, as they're busy putting out their best music in some 20 years, and few people care.
No, Deep Purple are no longer sporting the Mark Two lineup of singer Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Organist John Lord, and drummer Ian Paice (said lineup haven't been together since 1989), but if you saw the band tearing through their brief set at Toronto's otherwise woeful Live 8 concert, blowing has-beens Motley Crue and never-weres A Simple Plan off the stage, you wouldn't know it. With former Kansas/Dixie Dregs guitarist Steve Morse doing an ace Blackmore imitation (sans the attitude), and veteran journeyman keyboardist Don Airey filling in ably for the retired Lord, it was clear the new members have breathed new life into the band (now at Mark Eight, for those keeping score at home). The lineup's second album, impressively, sounds just as exuberant; so much so, in fact, that it's the band's best album since the hugely successful 1984 reunion album Perfect Strangers.
Rapture of the Deep has the quintet sticking to the tried-and-true Deep Purple formula, and nobody pulls off that trademark combination of grooving rhythms, Hammond organ, and sinewy like these guys, a fact driven home on the excellent first four tracks. Opening with an organ solo huge and grandiose enough to make us forget John Lord left the band three years ago, "Money Talks" is built around Glover's lithe bassline, duplicated effortlessly by Morse and Airey, as Gillan wryly spins a cautionary tale about the lure of wealth, poking fun at himself in the process. While "Girls Like That" has an odd intro and an even stranger, poppy chorus (do we really want to hear these old granddads still singing about leering at girls?), it still has that unmistakable Deep Purple swing, Airey taking center stage during a first-rate solo breakdown. "Wrong Man", on the other hand, sounds huge, those unmistakable, crunching, distorted organ chords chugging away, as Gillan delivers a powerful, ageless vocal performance, proving once again why he's one of the most resilient rock singers of all time. And who needs Blackmore, when you've got Morse letting loose the serpentine riffs on the cryptic mini-epic "Rapture of the Deep"? "Wrong Man" might be the instant grabber, but the title track revisits the band's more progressive moments from the past, and it's done so well, we end up wishing they did more of that on the record.
The rest of the album cruises along confidently, pausing for a token ballad that sounds decent, albeit unnecessary ("Clearly Quite Absurd"), and highlighted by Morse's riffs on the heavy blues rocker "Back to Back" and the spry "MTV", but thankfully, the band returns to similar adventurous sounds as the ambitious title track on "Before Time Began", in fact, topping the earlier song with a decidedly moody, darkly beautiful performance that gradually builds in momentum before taking off two and a half minutes in, as the band heads into that heady, progressive territory again.
If there's one big problem with the album, it's in Michael Bradford's production, which has the notoriously formidable rhythm section of Glover and Paice sounding surprisingly limp. We all know how muscular the duo can sound, but here, the recording lacks punch. The beats by the venerable Paice especially sound too soft, the garage rock production not doing the man justice whatsoever. We need the drums on a Deep Purple album to sound huge, and Bradford's mix is less than satisfactory.
However, the songwriting and individual performances on Rapture of the Deep are good enough to make up for the pedestrian recording Classic rock radio might ignore this CD, but that's no reason for savvy audiences to do the same. If you find yourself at a Deep Purple concert in the near future, when you hear the collective sigh by the audience when the band pulls out the new material, sit tight and give the music some attention. You might be pleasantly surprised.