The sixth studio album of their career, and the third by their much celebrated Mk2 line up, Deep Purple were very much in the ascendant when they set out to record Machine Head. While there had certainly been distractions in the form of a major line up change and Jon Lord’s much celebrated Concerto for Group and Orchestra, with 1970’s Deep Purple in Rock album, the Mk2 line up’s debut, Deep Purple had made a concerted effort to establish themselves as one of the leading lights of the hard rock / heavy metal scene and had pretty much knocked the ball out of the park. 1971’s Fireball maybe didn’t match the lofty expectation placed upon it, but it had still done well due to the sheer momentum the band had gained, however the pressure was on to release an album that equalled, if not exceeded Deep Purple in Rock.
Opening with “Highway Star”, a number which finds all five members of the band firing an all cylinders and one that effectively became a prototype for the excesses of hair metal a decade later. Every element of the song is excessive, from Ritchie Blackmore’s over-clocked fretwork, to Jon Lord’s relentless organ bashing, the thunderous rhythm pounded out by Ian Paice and Roger Glover, and of course, Ian Gillan’s unholy scream. The thing is, it’s a song that all the more glorious for its total abandonment of subtlety. This is the sound of an established band going out of the way to prove that they had no intention of trading on past glories.
For all that “Highway Star” is an exhilarating opener, Machine Head struggles to maintain such energy levels over the next couple of tunes, and it isn’t until the lighter weight and more poppy “Never Before” that the album regains momentum. With an obvious chorus and less cluttered arrangement, it’s a song which reminds the listener that, prior to becoming some of the hairiest rockers on the planet, Deep Purple had started out as pop-rockers, and in many ways it was still a part of their DNA, no matter how much it had been reduced. “Never Before” is a surprisingly effective way of ending the first half of Machine Head, before the listener got up to flip over the original vinyl.
One of the subtle shifts caused by the shift from vinyl to CD over three decades ago, was the reduced importance of the song that opens the second half of an album. On vinyl, it grabbed the attention of the listener as it was the first track on the second side of the album, whereas on CD, it’s just another track, which inevitably lessens it’s impact on the listener. With Machine Head on CD, you no longer get the rush of expectation for that riff after you’ve dropped the needle into the groove. The riff that opens “Smoke on the Water” is as much a part of heavy metal DNA as long hair, leather and head banging, resulting in it being both iconic and a cliché simultaneously. Even music fans that couldn’t name it as a Deep Purple tune, can link the riff with the title. For Deep Purple fans, it is either viewed as their crowning achievement, or a tune which annoyingly overshadows the rest of their output.
Following a tune as monolithic as “Smoke on the Water” is no easy task, however Deep Purple neatly sidestep this problem by opening “Lazy” with an extended organ workout by Jon Lord. Lord’s keyboard work is the primary element that set Deep Purple apart from the majority of hairy hard rockers in the 70s, as he matched Blackmore’s stunt guitar work note for note and their combined musicianship was the foundation of their dynamic sound. If you’re a keyboard player in a rock band and you have a love of the hammond organ sound, chances are you’ve been influenced by Jon Lord at some point. “Lazy” itself is a rather flimsy song, but the lengthy keyboard intro makes it stand out.
The album closes with “Space Truckin’”, a suitably energetic closer which balances “Highway Star” beautifully. If it’s one thing that Machine Head has over Deep Purple in Rock, it’s the fact it has an absolutely killer closing track, sealing once and for all Deep Purple’s reputation as one of the iconic rock bands of the early 70s.