After releasing a trio of mildly successful albums, with even their eponymous third album almost entirely ignored by critics due in no small part to the record label’s (Tetragrammaton) lackluster promotional strategies, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord (keyboardist) and Ritchie Blackmore finally decided their band was in serious need of a new style and direction. After discussing this idea with drummer Ian Paice, the decision was ultimately made, and vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper were subsequently replaced by the young duo of Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, resulting in what is today known as the English band’s most successful line-up: Mark II. But it still took quite a while for Deep Purple to come up with their singular, hard-rocking sound which, at that time, would be typically referred to as heavy rock. Their live album Concerto for Group and Orchestra, in which the outfit — mostly as a favor to bring Lord’s longing and dream into reality — collaborated with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, brought some solid promotional kick that enabled them to record their next album, the certified-gold Deep Purple in Rock. Their follow-up to that achievement, 1971’s Fireball was thought almost too experimental and progressive, and despite its very onerous recording process, couldn’t quite please fans and critics as much in the way the group expected. And so, with that particular lesson learned, Deep Purple began composing new material, this time with more ease and less cerebral calculation, a work of passionate spontaneity which, after approximately three weeks’ work, was released in March 1972. The final product turned out to be the band’s most seminal album: Machine Head.
From the start of the record, it’s easy to hear how Purple clearly took a more direct, confident approach to the writing process. Without completely stripping their sound of the earlier bluesy, psychedelic-ish leanings, classical music inspiration, and structurally complex compositions, Machine Head demonstrates how perfectly the heavy rock quintet is able to mingle these various influences and mine previous experiences in the creation of much deeper aural and thematic layers. The bombastic intro of the record’s opening song, “Highway Star,” leaves no doubt that the work to follow was destined to become an all-time record. Utilizing a compositional strategy of layering, the dense, adrenaline-pumping initial track’s instrumentation stacks element upon element, with Gillan occasionally hitting wildly high-pitched notes with his screams. But what most readily and clearly distinguishes Deep Purple from their British hard rock contemporaries — most notably, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath — can be found in the depth and dimension that Lord’s Hammond organ mastery brings, especially during his Bach-esque solo, which eventually fuses with Blackmore’s expressive but speedy guitarwork — specifically, in his Mozartian arpeggios — all of which easily casts “Highway Star” as the ultimate, freewheeling car tune.
Later, in megahit “Smoke on the Water” (track 5), which narrates the real incident in Montreux, Switzerland where a fan mistakenly fired a flare into the ceiling of a casino during a Frank Zappa performance and set the whole place on fire (the band was initially supposed to record their album there), Deep Purple evinces how their simple yet concise formal approach on Machine Head helps turn notably personal, lyric-driven content into a work of rock legacy. Indeed, “Smoke on the Water” is a testament to Blackmore’s skill and peculiar genius, delivering one of the most recognizable and catchy riffs in the history of rock and metal music — in only a few notes, the track leaves the kind of captivating, enduring impression of something like the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, all while Lord, Glover, and Paice flavor the song with little pockets of vibrancy.
Perhaps because of the massive cultural cachet of “Highway Star” and “Smoke on the Water,” Machine Head‘s other compositions have been overshadowed to varying degrees, but the reality is the quintet perfects even the most ostensibly straightforward sonic expressions across the album’s length, demonstrating a chemistry to be envied. Take “Pictures from Home”: from the moment Paice’s drum intro sets things off, the track forms itself into a shape that is reflective of the entire Machine Head experience — kinetic, energetic, fast, and joyful in its precise musicality. With “Pictures of Home,” each member takes a turn to unleash ambitious ideas, both in individual moments and in service of the harmonious whole. Another fine example of the Mark II lineup’s natural rapport can be best found in semi-instrumental track “Lazy,” which is mainly realized as an improvisational, uplifting jam of jazz, blues, and rock. This particular style is also seen in two cuts that could be regarded as less visceral but no less delightful, “Maybe I’m a Leo” and “Never Before,” both of which have a more casual moodiness and generally funkier rhythms than the rest of Machine Head — the former especially sounds closer to a groovier riff on Zeppelin or Sabbath song than a Purple song.
But with “Space Truckin’” closing out the record — Blackmore stubbornly refused to include the slower, melancholic confessional “When a Blind Man Cries” in the album’s original edition) — Deep Purple saves what is one of their heaviest songs for last. Indeed, the closer is a true oddball track, where not only are Gillan’s poetic lyrics vividly inspired by the then-fashionable, fantastical concepts of the Space Age (“Well, we had a lot of luck on Venus / We always had a ball on Mars / We’re meeting all the groovy people / We’ve rocked the Milky Way so far / We danced around with Borealis We’re space truckin’ round the stars”), but the music’s almost frenetic character mirrors the various, even contrasting emotions therein: it’s palpably dark and then ecstatically flippant, both heavy and upbeat, powerful and brisk. Such distinctive, eccentric qualities are typical of Machine Head — which very recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — as a whole, resulting in a record whose enduring, influential scope justifies its regard as a magisterial, proto-metal magnum opus.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.