Thursday, November 19, 2009

November 19: Deep Purple, "Machine Head"

Artist: Deep Purple
Album: Machine Head
Year: 1972
Label: EMI

Within the so-called "holy trinity" of English heavy metal, one obviously finds the basis for nearly everything that has ever come from the genre, or any of the smaller sub-genres. While the first who parts of this trinity, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, certainly receive their fair share of credit for their part in creating the sound, it is the third band that often falls by the wayside. Responsible for some of the greatest music ever, as well as one of the most truly iconic guitar riffs in history, there is simply no way to have a proper discussion about the foundations of heavy metal without mentioning one of the most important pioneers, Deep Purple. A band which has had eight significant lineups, the power and spirit behind the music has remained a constant for more than forty years. Whether they are being covered by a countless array of bands, or the "holy" riff from "Smoke On The Water" is being featured as a central part of one of the largest pop culture phenomena in history (can you say, "Beavis?"), the overall impact of Deep Purple is absolutely unquestionable. While their more recent musical contributions are amazingly consistent for a band that has been playing as long as they have, it is their early albums that feature the band at their apex, as well as displaying the early forms that would shape the sound of heavy metal. By far their finest work, as well as an album that is equal to any of the early metal records, it is Deep Purple's 1972 release, Machine Head, that stands today as one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Truth be told, it is almost impossible to discuss Machine Head without spending a great deal of time discussing the albums' most famous single, "Smoke On The Water." From the lyrics to the truly iconic core riff, there are few songs of the genre that can be compared in even the most remote sense. First off, Richie Blackmore's riff that opens the song and repeats throughout is is absolutely amazing, that is has become almost cliché over the years, and it is one of the riffs that even non-heavy metal fans know at first note. Walk into any guitar store anywhere on the planet, and chances are, it won't be long before someone breaks out the riff, even if they don't own a Deep Purple record. Then of course, there are the infamous, TRUE lyrics and the equally iconic chorus. "Smoke On The Water" recalls the events of December 1971, when the band traveled to Montreux, Switzerland to record the album that would become Machine Head. The night before the band was set to record, Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention were playing a gig in the attached casino, and mid-set, someone in the crowd fired a flare gun into the ceiling of the venue. This resulted in the ENTIRE casino burning down, destroying all of The Mothers' equipment, as well as the adjacent recording space that was to be used by Deep Purple. The title of the song is a direct reference to bassist Roger Glover's memory of the smoke from the fire spreading out over Lake Geneva. There are countless other small references within the lyrics to actual events and people from the fire, and the song remains one of the greatest stories ever captured in music.

While Deep Purple has had many musical lineups, it is the grouping found on Machine Head that represents the finest single lineup in the bands' history. The powerful guitar playing of band founder Richie Blackmore is unquestionably one of the most important pieces of the formation of the heavy metal style. Not only with his volume, but the style and mood that he conveys through his playing solidify Blackmore as one of the true legends of heavy metal. Proving to be equally as talented as Toni Iommi, Blackmore perfectly understood how to fuse the free spirit of the psychedelic movement with the more powerful, more aggressive sound that would become heavy metal. Filling in throughout the album and creating brilliant textures is keyboard and organ player extraordinaire, Jon Lord. It is often Lord's contributions that give the songs on Machine Head their psychedelic nature, and his playing is unquestionably one of the most important aspects of the bands' overall sound. When it comes to giving the music of Deep Purple its menacing, darker mood, it all comes down to the bass playing of Roger Glover. As one of the two members to play in every lineup of the band, it is clearly his contributions that give Deep Purple much of their signature sound. The other band member in every lineup, and completing the core of the bands' sound is the other half of the rhythm section, drumming master, Ian Paice. Setting the bar for heavy metal drumming, and developing much of the style that is used to this day, Paice is clearly one of the most innovative and overall talented drummers of his generation. Throughout Machine Head, the band members move as a single unit, and the force and sound they bring has rarely been equaled anywhere else in recorded music.

If one looks at the long career and details therein of vocalist Ian Gillan, it is hard to find many vocalists who have had similar influence on their particular genre. Whether it was his work with Deep Purple, or the fact that he spend a year as lead vocalist for Black Sabbath (post-Ronnie James Dio, pre-Glenn Hughes), one cannot deny the importance of Gillan. With his absolutely perfect voice, and the spirit and energy he brings to every song, Ian Gillan is unquestionably one of the greatest rock frontmen in history. Able to find the perfect balance between the "storyteller" and the "rocker," everything that makes Gillan such a fantastic vocalist can be found on the title track of Machine Head. The song "Machine Head" is equally as brilliant as "Smoke On The Water," and the vocal performance Gillan presents is as much Steppenwolf as it is Zeppelin, and the song has been covered countless times over the years. With it's signature organ solo in the center of the song, it is one of the most perfect psychedelic-metal songs in history, and truly transcends all barriers of musical taste. Whether it is the fact that it is used in countless video games, found in many commercials, or even satirized in The Simpsons (episode 213), the song is absolutely as iconic and important as any other, and its overall impact can still be felt to this day.

When one looks at the entire history of recorded music, there are very few bands that have had as long and influential a career as Deep Purple. Having recorded for more than forty years, their catalog has served as the blueprint for the heavy metal sound, and many of their songs are still in heavy radio rotation to this day. Responsible for "Smoke On The Water," which one can easily argue as one of the most important and truly iconic songs ever written, it is often strange that Deep Purple seem to constantly occupy the "third" spot behind Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. "Smoke On The Water" is easily the most well known song off of Machine Head, yet the truth of the matter is, every song on the album is just as fantastic, and more to the point, every song shapes the wide range of diversity that one can achieve whilst staying within the confines of the heavy metal style. Featuring legendary musicians like Richie Blackmore and Roger Glover, Deep Purple's lineup for Machine Head was easily the best of any incarnation of the band, and it therefore comes as little surprise that the album is unquestionably their finest work. The vocals of Ian Gillan are nothing short of legendary, and the way in which he approaches each song stand as a testament as to why he is one of the most important singers in music history. Without a band note anywhere in the forty minute runtime, Deep Purple's 1972 release, Machine Head, is a true rock classic, and one simply cannot picture modern hard rock/heavy metal without the influence of the album.

Standout tracks: "Highway Star," "Smoke On The Water," and "Space Truckin'."

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