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When most people think of Deep purple, they think of the pounding '70s hard rock onslaught of "Machine Head" and other albums, so influential to Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate and others in the metal genre. Yet the band did not start out playing within that style. This, their second album, would probably come as a surprise to those expecting crunchy riffs and bluesy guitar pyrotechnics from Ritchie Blackmore, or Ian Gillan's distinctive wails. What we have here is a very solid piece of folk rock, with Jon Lord's organ taking centre stage for much of the proceedings, and Rod Evans doing a much more understated and subtle vocal performance than his successor. It all fits the music beautifully, and though noone could really call this music heavy, even for 1968, it does stand as a halmark of Deep Purple's creativity, even in their more humble beginnings. I've had this album for years, but only now seem to have discovered how wonderful it really is...in fact, I can't stop listening to the damn thing. It has a very evident magical, fantastic feel to it, like the whole thing is being performed by a group of mystical bards or something. In fact, whilst listening to this last night under the heavy influence of THC, I came up for a term for this type of music, that being "wizard rock" (yes, I'm rather proud of that, so shut up.).
The magic is really evident in the first track, which is a fast (for this album) rocking number with a heavy dose of experimental wailings and ambience, in which Rod Evans exorts us to "listen...learn...read on" from the great Book of Taliesyn. The production is just odd...sort of tinny, but very very clear, with a great deal of echo and reverb slathered over everything half the time. It works, somehow, and I really appreciate how full and well defined the bass sounds when you crank the volume. "Ring That Neck" is an instrumental showcasing Jon Lord's overwhelming keyboard talent...and if you are going to argue that this guy isn't the best keyboardist in any rock/metal band, you'll be completely wrong. This is probably the heaviest track on the album, actually, because the organ sounds pretty ballsy and dirty if you know what I mean...really loud and in your face. Next, we have one of a series of covers...this one being "Kentucky Woman", done by..Neil Diamond, I believe, though I could be mistaken. The covers here aren't just covers, though....they take the original melodies and chord structures, and turn the songs into huge and powerful epics that the original artists would never have dreamed of. This one isn't too adventurous, and is probably the weakest track on here, though it's still quite excellent. Rod Evans has a pretty inoffensive voice, but it sounds quite good all the same, with its deep crooning tones calling to mind, occasionally, some pop singers of the early '50s. "Exposition/We Can Work it Out" is, of course, a cover of the Beatles tune from a scant three years earlier, and this one is really spiced up with a host of new ideas and interwoven with some melodic and lyrical ideas of Deep Purple's own. And then we have "Shield"...fucking hell, this song is just awesome. The mystical vibe of the album culminates here folks, and the album is worth owning for this track alone. "So trust in your love, and Lucy of above / And let light pass like a wheel / Don't take the chance of life's hectic dance / Kiss the strength of the shield". Oh yess, this is definitely music of a very hippy nature, but who gives a damn. The original use of percussion, the intelligent counterpoint of organ and bass, and an utterly great harmonized vocal chorus make this song a totally forgotten classic. THe almost latin styled percussion is something that Deep Purple would experiment with again on the following album, but it's more subtle here and therefore better executed to my ears. "Anthem" is a wistful song with the vocals taking centre stage for the most part. It's probably the "oldest" sounding tune here as it has an almost rock/country sound to it, and the "ooooo woooo wooooooooo" backing vocals really reinforce this...but damn me if it still doesn't sound great. Finally, "River Deep, Mountain High", definitely a cover, though I've no idea from whence the original came, is a lengthy epic that's sort of a precursor, I guess, to the "Concerto for Group and Orchestra". It's quite experimental, and features some sudden and almost random sounding string flourishes which manage to sound quite out of place, yet because this album has so successfully established an atmosphere and run with it in a remarkable way, this doesn't come across as awkward as it normally would.
So whether this album had any sort of baring or influence on the metal scene is doubtful. I was rather mislead when I actually started my Deep Purple collection with this disc. I'm not really convinced that most fans of the '70s Purple will enjoy this, but do investigate it if you have an appreciation for some of the folkier, more experimental late '60s rock bands. Jon Lord's keyboards do of course set this apart from most of the other bands of that time, and they, if anything, are a reminder of what this band would turn into in a few years. Anyway, if you don't enjoy "The Shield", you're no friend of mine.