3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
No, I'm not obsessed with Ritchie Blackmore, it just seems that way. There's been some overhauling of Blackmore's Night and Deep Purple's catalogues of late, and it just so happens Ritchie's the guy plucking the stings on most of the albums.
EMI has reissued 1974's "Stormbringer," the last album to feature Blackmore as a purple people eater for nearly ten years. (Blackmore reenlisted in a reconstituted version of Deep Purple Mark II featuring his nemesis, singer Ian Gillan, in 1984. His unresolved power struggle with Gillan caused Blackmore to leave the group permanently in 1993.) "Stormbinger" was a significant step forward for the band, which began to dance away from Blackmore's heavy metal mantle toward an R&B flavored sound favored by the group's frontmen, David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes.
Wait a minute...Did he just say David Coverdale? Yes, there was a time Coverdale's bluesy vocals could actually move people, a time when he wasn't considered a wavy-maned screeching narcissist beating his chest in some of the cheesiest MTV videos ever screened. Yes, before Coverdale went Spinal Tap, he was Deep Purple's salvation.
Coverdale and bassist/singer Glenn Hughes joined the band in 1973, following the "resignation" (ouster) of bassist Roger Glover and shrieking vocalist Ian Gillan. Ironically, Glover and Gillan had joined the band in 1969 as replacements for lead singer Rod Evans and bassist Nicky Simper. Evans and Simper had just completed work on Deep Purple's self-titled third album when they were pink slipped by the band's management -- unaware that the rest of the group had secretly been rehearsing with Glover and Gillan. After four tumultuous albums with the self-centered Gillan, Blackmore gave the band an "it's him or me" ultimatum. By this time, founding members Ian Paice (drums) and Jon Lord (keyboards) weren't exactly enamored of the posturing Gillan either, so they voted to jettison him and tossed Glover on the wood pile for good measure.
Given Coverdale's anonymity and Hughes' amateur status, "Burn" (3 ½ out of 5 stars) was a commendable first step, as menacing as Spooky Tooth's material -- and Purple was blessed with a better guitar player. "You Fool No One" sported an incendiary, inspired riff by Blackmore, a whip-snap arrangement and frenzied dueting by Coverdale and Hughes; Blackmore's jabbing riff and Coverdale and Hughes' desperate leads carried "Sail Away," and John Lord's Hammond blanketed "Might Just Take Your Life" with heavy metal soul.
But there were thunderclouds on the horizon when the band convened for "Stormbringer"... Giddy and supremely confident from "Burn's" success, Coverdale and Hughes let it be known they wanted to filtrate Deep Purple's music with funk. Blackmore protested mightily, but with the fallout from his nasty public feud with Ian Gillan still fresh in the public eye, Ritchie pouted instead, although he did tell the press he didn't want to play "shoeshine music." Blackmore's comment was as PC as the New York Post depicting President Obama as a chimp. Hughes in particular was deeply hurt by Blackmore's brusqueness because he was close friends with many black musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and Herbie Hancock. One album in, and he and Blackmore were already on the outs.
"Stormbringer" does have its share of dark clouds. Out of the nine original cuts, three, the title track, "Lady Double Dealer" and "High Ball Shooter" harken back to the speed freak days of Gillan. It's no coincidence that Blackmore's playing is more self assured on the three metal mistakes, but Coverdale and Hughes sound as if they're spouting every trick from the book of rock singing 101. The title track contains Blackmore's best solo on the album. He's knife-like, inspired. Hughes' middle eight triple-tracked vocal in "Lady Double Dealer" is notable, but Coverdale has yet to master the fast-talkin' heavy metal frontman approach - he sounds out of breath, and who ever suggested the reverb on his vocal should have been dealt out of the proceedings. "High Ball Shooter" is the most derivative of the three weakest songs. Jon Lord (who laid down one of the classic keyboard solos of all time on the group's biggest hit, "Hush") pushes his Hammond to a frenzied pace, but the worn-out approach shows that Coverdale and Hughes were right in dropping the metal persona in favor of R & B; they were sometimes as uncomfortable pushing straightforward rock as Blackmore was at trying his hand at being the guitarist for the Funk Brothers.
The rest of the tunes on "Stormbringer" are a collection of sweet slammin' soul and brawny ballads. Coverdale coos and slithers his way through "LoveDon't Mean a Thing" as if he was Mae West asking a sailor to come up and see her some time: "If I work hard everyday for my money, and if I work my fingers down to the bone, that ain't funny. Now if I see something I can't buy, I put a dollar down, then try, try, try to get my money." Hughes takes the middle part, his voice shooting into the vocal stratosphere usually occupied by his mentor, Steve Wonder.
"Holy Man" is solo Hughes hitting vocal nirvana. He makes his tonsils vibrate with passion, reaching notes that by all rights should have punctured producer Martin Birch's ear drums. With Blackmore a reluctant participant, Lord takes the first solo on synthesizer, cutting a wide swatch of resonance before Blackmore's short burst that slides alongside of the melody.
"Hold On" was Blackmore's backbreaker. Okay, he officially quit the group because of ideological differences: the fact is Ritchie had no soul. I'm not talking about his prickly public personality. The man simply had no sense of R &B. His attempted solo is forced, amateurish, and has as much soul as whitefish, but the rest of the band is very much into what sounds like a tribute to Motown. Hughes controls the tempo with a muddy beat, Lord lays down a Brian Auger-ish hep cat electric piano passage, and Coverdale roars, hoots and hollers like there's no holding him back.
"You Can't Do It Right (With the One You Love)" is Purple at its funkiest. Blackmore manages to imitate a scratch guitar riff, Lord wafts out a cool cat synth swipe, and drummer Ian Paice is all over his hi-hat, generating a dance pace that would test the Temptations. But it's the groove twins, Coverdale and Hughes, who generate the vocal highlights tussling lines back and forth like Sam and Dave fighting for the mike. This may not be Deep Purple in its truest sense, but its right... and I bet you'll love it.
The last two cuts find Blackmore more at ease. "Gypsy" is a throwback to the heavier rock/R & B style of the songs on "Burn," and "Soldier of Fortune" backtracks to the emotive style of the group's first and best lead singer, Rod Evans. Coverdale and Hughes share the vocal on "Gypsy," their voices straining with desperation and sincerity; Blackmore lays down a languid slide guitar lick as Hughes bass gurgles underneath and Paice doubles and triples up on his runs across the tom-toms.
"Soldier of Fortune" is the type of song unheard of in the Purple canon since the days of Deep Purple Mark I, when the group experimented with covers of "Kentucky Woman," "River Deep, Mountain High" and "Help." (It would have in fact, been perfect for Rod Evans' deep, dramatic timbre.) Coverdale, who wrote the tune with Blackmore, sings this one solo with emotion and conviction, his voice cresting against Lord's Mellotron: "But I feel I'm growing older, and the songs that I have sung, echo in the distance, like the sound of a windmill going round. I guess I'll always be...a soldier of fortune." Play this alongside Spirit's war-weary "Soldier" (from "Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicous") and you'll hear shells whistling through the air and the report of guns in the background as you absorb the claustrophobic lifestyle of troops languishing on the battlefield. If Blackmore's name wasn't going to appear on a Deep Purple album again for nearly a decade, "Soldier of Fortune" was a surprising and memorable coda.
Following the release of "Stormbirnger," Ritchie Blackmore packed up his guitar case and formed Rainbow, which specialized in heinous heavy metal hackery for which he alone was accountable. Deep Purple recruited renegade guitarist Tommy Bolin, who'd replaced Joe Walsh in the James Gang and had earned his rep for his futuristic fretboard acrobatics on Billy Cobham's "Spectrum" album. Deep Purple Mark IV was born.
If Blackmore was lightning quick, then Bolin was an SST who could play rings around his predecessor. The problem was Bolin was also a severe heroin addict who was mentally unprepared to step into glaring footlights of superstardom. When he could play, Bolin attacked his guitar with confidence, as evidenced by his work on his lone Deep Purple studio album, "Come Taste the Band," (3 out of 5 stars), which returned the group to its heavier roots while nurturing its funky side. The closing number, "You Keep On Moving" was a sinister, lurking track with Coverdale and Hughes lung-busting like poltergeists spitting into a gale on the deck of the Flying Dutchman. Hughes' bony run down his bass strings at the song's end was as chilling as watching a condemned man drop through the trap door of a gallows. Get the picture? "You Keep On Moving" was a dark jolt of fear, Mark IV's finest moment. "I Need Love" jerked and boogied like a Sly Stone track, with Bolin frantically fighting his strings. "Lady Luck" was its bouncing twin, with Paice smashing his high hat and Bolin coaxing his strings until they sang. In "Love Child" Bolin administered a thick, plodding set of catchy chords reminiscent of Chicago's "South California Purples" while Coverdale's voice reached thunderous proportions. Another highlight is the Hughes driven "This Time Around." Hughes' vocal is misty, vacuum sealed, surrounded by Jon Lord's dizzying keyboards. The piece dovetails into the instrumental "Owed to G,' a muscular showcase for Bolin's piercing, flashy riffs and Paice's stop on a dime drumming.
Mark IV toured behind "Come Taste the Band," but as Paice observed: "Tommy could be an absolute genius, but that happened one show in twenty. If Tommy got his hit and it was good, and he slept well and the sound was right, and his equipment didn't break and the audience was nice, and the sun shone between 1pm and 2 pm, then yeah, he could be great. But chances of that happening on a regular basis were very remote. It could go from the sublime to the absolute worst end of ridiculous." (Want proof? Tap into YouTube and type in "You Keep On Movin'" by Deep Purple. You'll see Hughes and Coverdale preening like spoiled rock gods, while a shy Bolin loiters in the background. The only thing that's worse is Hughes' singing. By now he was partying too much with Bolin. Heroin and high notes definitely don't mix!)
After the Storm...Bonus Tracks
"Stormbringer's" second CD, produced with the cooperation of Glenn Hughes, features remixes of "Holy Man," "You Can't Do It Right (With the One You Love)," "Love Don't Mean A Thing," and "Hold On," plus an instrumental version of "High Ball Shooter." With "High Ball Shooter's" knuckleheaded lyrics removed, the track stomps along. The second disc also contains the quadraphonic 4.1 mixed used when the album was released in the U.S. in 1975. Vocals came at you from all directions, and on this album at least, that's not a bad thing.
"Stormbringer" may not have Rod Evans at the mike or be a stone metal classic like "Machine Head," but it delivers with its own well balanced blend of rock and soul. This is one storm you'll like being in.