I don't like to review classic albums very much because anything that can be said about them has already been said and everybody already has an opinion anyway. Obscure bands or lesser known albums are more fun to dig up and inform the world of their existence. But today I listened to this album all the way through for the first time in maybe 9 years or so, and I found I heard it in a whole new way.
I became a fan of Deep Purple back in '84, only a couple of months before the reunion album "Perfect Strangers" was released. I loved it! But DP albums were not easy to find on cassette back then. I was lucky to find "Burn" and "Fireball" but "Stormbringer" and "Come Taste the Band" were not available. After "House of Blue Light" I lost interest for many years. Ian Gillan was gone, and then back. Then Ritchie Blackmore was gone. But in 2006 I was curious about "Rapture of the Deep" and I liked it enough to go and buy all DP's studio albums on CD. All of them!
Then for the last nine years or so, I haven't listened to any album from start to finish except for maybe "In Rock", which is still my favourite. But last night I was suddenly struck with the desire to hear "Machinehead" again and this morning in went on play.
From the start, "Highway Star" seemed to be lacking something. There was a lack of bass depth. My ear buds? The music is fast but basically very simple-sounding. The lyrics are like something a bored person would write when half drunk and just taking the piss on lyric writing. The only place I felt the song really shines and shows what the band is truly capable of is in the guitar and organ solos. Here we get a glimpse of the musical prowess of the band. But "Highway Star" is a rock classic, and for speed and Gillan's soaring screams at the start, the proto-metal element is sufficiently there.
"Maybe I'm a Leo" is strangely my favourite track. It has this funky drop down groove and the music is full, rich in bass, and sounds wonderful. The guitar solo comes in with style and smoothness. The 30th anniversary reissue includes a disc of remixes with alternate guitar solos and the solos for this song and "Smoke on the Water" just don't have the same articulation and style. They are just lead guitar solos. On the originally released version, Blackmore goes for style and feel rather than technical skill or speed and it just works! Jon Lord's organ sound on his lead part is not really a favourite of mine but he makes it work for a simple but appropriate bluesy solo. Ian Paice still has his chops, putting in fills and doing great stuff on the drums. This would slowly disappear from his drumming with Deep Purple and be almost absent for many years.
"Pictures of Home" is one of three songs the band wrote about their experience recording in a closed down hotel (closed for the season) at Lake Geneva. It opens with a drum intro and features solos by Blackmore, Lord, and Roger Glover (bass) as well!
The original side one closes with "Never Before". It has another funky groove to the intro. It's here where I began to really notice how the band was playing their music. Everybody has a part and each part seems independent in that each musician has his own riff or rhythm bit to do. But they of course put all their parts together to make the songs. This is what I was missing on "Highway Star". Now the band are like different components of a machine all moving in their own functional space but all responsible for making the machine work smoothly. It's not rhythm guitar, organ, and bass all playing the same thing to a 4/4 beat. This is prog style composition. And the remarkable thing is that Deep Purple, on "Machine Head" for sure, are playing heavy rock with blues and funk and classically-influenced solos, composed with prog thinking and coming all together in songs that became radio hits and fan favourites. I've been listening to an awful lot of proto-metal and prog from the 1969-1974 period (I don't mean the music is awful) and I think I can finally appreciate just what a feat Deep Purple accomplished with this album. When David Coverdale joined the band, he said in an interview that he had played with great musicians before but this was a whole knew level. I'm starting to appreciate that.
"Smoke on the Water", everyone knows the riff, everyone knows the story in the lyrics. But what about the riff during the verses and chorus? Again, each musician has got his own thing going on. It's not as simple as one might first think. The guitar solo is really so well laid out, especially how it wraps up as the lead riff returns. The organ solo is left until the end and Paice puts in some tasty drum work as the song slowly fades out. The band never intended for this to be a single. They had high hopes for "Never Before". But the audience told them that this song was the ticket! On YouTube I saw a video of songs Deep Purple allegedly ripped off and the "Smoke" riff apparently already existed in some jazz piece, but in another interview, Blackmore said he got the idea by reversing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony intro notes. Whatever the case, the "Smoke" riff along with "Satisfaction" by the Stones have been recognized as the two most well-known riffs in rock history. Elementary school students in Japan who haven't the first clue about anything other than The Beatles (and only if their parents like them) know the "Smoke" riff. Like Beethoven, Blackmore's riff may just live on for centuries.
"Lazy" is a clever piece with a classical organ intro that slides into a grumbling blues. The whole instrumental first half of the song has the band putting out so many moves shifting between straight ahead blues and blues-based rock. The song itself is alright and Gillan brings back his scream vocals. It wraps up like a blues club act.
The album closer "Space Truckin'" is where the band probably reach their most metal point. There's this awesome groove where the drum beat and the guitar/organ notes alternate and it gives the song a terrific charged feeling. Gillan goes full force at the end and the blues-based heavy riff is really a peak point on the album.
The 30th anniversary edition includes "When a Blind Man Cries" and is the third song about the Swiss experience. Though it wouldn't have really had an appropriate spot on the album, it makes a great bonus track. Gillan is so smooth and Blackmore's guitar solo is full of emotion.
I was originally disappointed with this album, way back in 1984 when I first got it, because it didn't rock out with that same wrecking ball assault attack that "In Rock" did. This album is smoother, cooler, groovier, and more mature. It's very cleverly composed songs and music. It's not heavy as in metal very much and it's not prog like their first three albums were more like. It is a classic album for a very good reason, though. It's some damn fine music!