Deep Purple always seem to be the third wheel in the “(un)Holy Trinity of British [first wave] Heavy Metal”. Certainly if we are to judge by influence on the genre today, there’s no touching Sabbath, but if we go back in time to pre-British New Wave of Heavy Metal, Zeppelin was the band. I think that undersells Purple’s role somewhat, as we can trace most metal genres to one of the three bands:
- black metal, doom metal, sludge metal, etc and the fascination with death to Sabbath;
- folk metal, world music-influenced metal, funk metal, thrash metal etc and the fascination with fantasy novels to Zep;
- and hair metal, progressive metal and “neo-classical” metal etc and the careless lyrics of all “party metal” bands to Purple.
So Purple are important.
But even though they are important, they still don’t seem to hold up as well as the other two.
Taking the three albums presumed to best represent the bands – that is Paranoid, Four Symbols and Machine Head – Machine Head pales in comparison to the other two. This despite the fact that Purple were arguably way more talented, at least instrumentally:
- Blackmore is definitely a greater technical player than Page or Iomi,
- I bet Lord could out play JPJ on the keys in some kind of cutting contest,
- Gillan could out-sing Plant easily and Ozzy isn’t even in that conversation
- I will concede that JPJ wins the bass war
- and Bonham wins the drums war, through sheer will if nothing else.
So what’s the problem?
The problem can be best summed up by “taste”: Zepplin had an infinitely better producer in Page; he left in mistakes for example. Zeppelin wrote (and stole) better songs. Sabbath created their own unique aesthetic that elevated mood over chops and arguably also wrote better songs. Purple’s songs are pretty bad.
That lack of taste is quite visible on Machine Head and also, I would argue, on In Rock: Gillan goes absolutely crazy on “Child in Time”. But the lack of taste leads to some incredible moments. Blackmore’s solo on the aforementioned “Child in Time” might be his best and it is one of the greatest rock guitar solos I have ever heard. It’s fucking incredible.
The point is that Purple are too over-the-top to really hold up today. But we shouldn’t measure an album released in 1970 by 2012 standards.
And I think a careful reconsideration of In Rock actually sees it as better than the supposedly seminal Machine Head. For one thing, this was a complete about-face on Purple’s part. They were one of the pioneering prog rock bands before they went metal – with the emphasis often more on “rock” than most other prog bands. This about-face has to be seen as something incredibly risky, I think. After all, they had just released their most proggy album ever, the Concerto for Group and Orchestra, only six months earlier. And that was recorded by the new lineup that here convinces us they are actually a metal band after covering Richard Strauss only a few years earlier.
As I alluded, the chops are on full display here and that is one of the redeeming things. Though there are definitely weak songs on this record, I think on the whole that they aren’t necessarily weaker than Machine Head. And that’s why I think this is better. In Rock was first and a brave change of direction. And it is indeed one of the seminal albums of early heavy metal, even if it can’t quite reach the heights of Zeppelin III and Paranoid – both released months after this . That reminds us early in the genre’s development this was released: Sabbath had just debuted on LP in February. Zeppelin had been around for only a little while. So really, this is one of the key beginnings of metal. And we should acknowledge that.