While the origins of hard rock and heavy metal are varied and nuanced, there are three British bands perched right at the confluence of all these various streams, and they loom quite large. Led Zeppelin, scourge of Rolling Stone has the most notoriety and direct influence on straight up rock, while Black Sabbath firmly put their stamp on the underworld nightmares that inform most of metal’s vocabulary. Deep Purple is the other giant, and their influence is no less special. Because Purple is often treated by music historians the way American Veteran’s Day parade organizers treat survivors of the Korean War, I feel I should spend a little more time with this band than I have the previous entries.
Deep Purple had been around for a few years, recording since 1968. They underwent a massive overhaul in sound and approach after guitarist Ritchie Blackmore heard what Jimmy Page was doing with Led Zeppelin, and in 1970 spit out Deep Purple In Rock. Clocking in at 43:30, it was a sonic assault years ahead of its time. Blackmore and keyboardist Jon Lord coaxed bizarre, distorted cries out of their instruments before the rise of synthesizers, and Ian Paice fires off drum beats faster than a belt-fed machine gun.
What Deep Purple brings to the table here is a starting kit for nearly every heavy metal band from the 80s. It is Ian Gillan’s-not Robert Plant’s-falsetto that launched a thousand air raid siren imitators, and Ritchie Blackmore raised the bar for guitar performances in ways that are difficult to express in a review this size. Jeff Beck was an innovator, but was lost in his own instrumental experiments as opposed to writing album-oriented rock music. Jimmy Page was a genius with rhythm and unorthodox tunings, and understood recording like no one else. But he was also a sloppy lead player, rarely bothering to work a solo out before he committed it to analogue. Tony Iommi was equally genius when it came to crafting riffs, but was content to stay in the pocket with his blues-lick solos for the remainder of the 70s. Brian May had a tone unlike anything anyone had ever heard, but he was playing fairly orthodox runs. Eric Clapton’s balls had fallen off. What was Ritchie doing? Inventing shred. He was the first rock guitarist to introduce Aeolian minor to his lead work, resulting in guitar solos full of classically rooted scale work and taking rock music off the established blues reservation. His lead work was faster, cleaner, more imaginative, and more full-throttle than anyone else on the block. Blackmore’s gleeful, unrepentant abuse of the fretboard opened the door for later guitarists like Uli John Roth, Michael Schenker, Randy Rhoads, and Yngwie Malmsteen. That’s a thing right there.
The main thing holding In Rock back is the production. The wet cardboard box sound hampered Purple (specifically Blackmore’s tone) for years, and they were never able to find that formula that let Zeppelin blow up speakers. Despite this ever-apparent flaw, the tunes here are hewn of iron. Purple isn’t explosive like Zeppelin or heavy like Sabbath, but they are hard. Jon Lord and Blackmore grant a fantastical prog feel to the material, but there is also a raw, unrestrained savagery on display, recalling early 60s garage rock. Speed King opens the album up with a bang, featuring fluid, torrential scale work by Blackmore and Lord while Gillan dredges up his best Little Richard impression. Flight of the Rat shows off how much faster Purple was than their contemporaries, ignoring the fun, off-the-beat playing Page and Iommi employed in favor of sheer velocity. Hard Loving Man drives this point further home, sounding like a blueprint for what Judas Priest (often credited with introducing speed to metal) was doing nearly a decade later. There aren’t too many haymakers on this album; Purple has instead elected to throw a staccato series of hard, stiff jabs that sting long after they dissipate.
The big bopper and aforemention sparse haymaker here is the grandiose and epic (The damn thing is over ten minutes long and ends the first side of the original vinyl release) Child in Time. The spooky ethereal chiaroscuro effects Page and Iommi played with are present, lending gravitas and pathos to Lord’s keys while Gillan wails almost religiously. The tension continues to build until the three and a half minute mark when Ritchie takes over to demonstrate why he was the most badass gunslinger on his side of the Atlantic in the early 70s. Seriously folks, this is one you have to hear.
Verdict: Deep Purple took a sharpened edge to the rock scene with this album, and it kicks ass in ways you can’t understand. They would go on to craft more well-known, better polished pieces before breaking up, but they never stormed the top of the mountain quite like this again. 5 out of 5 stars.
The album cover may seem a bit ridiculous, until you consider the inherent absurdity of the actual Mount Rushmore.