Deep Purple – A Fire in the Sky (box set) (Rhino)

New 3-CD box set grabs at least one track from every Purple album

Deep Purple are often lumped in with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as pioneers of heavy metal. Yet, as a brand-new, 3-disc box set, Fire in the Sky, shows, they’ve not only outlived the two other bands, they’ve also continued to put out amazing music throughout their long career. The band released a great new album, Infinite, earlier in the year and are hitting the road once again. This new set celebrates not only their longevity, but also the high quality throughout their career.

In a bold move, the set goes in reverse chronological order, beginning with “Hell to Pay,” off 2012’s Now What?!, helmed by legendary producer Bob Ezrin. By doing this, the band’s most recent material gets some much-needed exposure. For those who’ve maybe lost track of the band over the years, this may come as a surprise – Deep Purple can still bring it.

Original guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and organist Jon Lord haven’t been in the band in years, yet the group’s signature sound is still very much intact – especially on tracks like “Rapture of the Deep,” which features guitarist Steve Morse and organist Don Airey trading licks, or the psychedelic “Sun Goes Down.” Want more proof? “Vavoom: Ted the Mechanic” is funky, funny, and yet it rocks with the fury of a band of teenagers. “Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming” starts out with quiet acoustic guitars, before morphing into a midtempo rocker. Here Morse truly shows his talent, laying down tasty, melodic lines.

One of the really strange things that’s happened as the band has gotten older: singer Ian Gillan is actually sounding better. Either they’ve figured out a way for him to record that brings out the best in his voice, or he’s just getting better with age. The most recent tracks here blow away even the vocals he laid down in the Eighties.

Disc one ends with highlights of those reunion albums, featuring the band’s most famous lineup. “Perfect Strangers” is a plodding rocker with a surprisingly melodic chorus and a great, off time riff. Even better is “Knockin’ at Your Back Door.” The epic rocker still sounds fantastic and features sly lyrics by Gillan, and a slightly oft-kilter solo from Blackmore.

Even if you own everything by the band already, the set is worth picking up for the phenomenal remastering job. The earliest tracks, like their Neil Diamond cover, “Kentucky Woman,” sounded tinny on every other release. Here, it thumps, the bass is deep, and the organ roars. The cuts from their magnum opus, Machine Head, also sound tremendous – “Highway Star” sounds so big, it might eat your speakers.

The cuts from Deep Purple In Rock are phenomenal, like “Black Night.” The band rocks hard, but there is an underlying groove as well. Blackmore turns in a blistering solo and drummer Paice is all over the place. “Speed King” references a dizzying array of lines from classic songs, and then gets (gasp!) jazzy in the middle. But that gives way to a double-tracked, psychotic Blackmore solo, which more than makes up for that brief piece of pretension. This wasn’t heavy metal, but something that bordered on insanity.

By grabbing at least one song from every studio album, you get a chance to really see the band’s growth, especially during the David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes years. The ferocious “Burn” ranks as one of Blackmore’s greatest riffs, while “Might Just Take Your Life” added a soulful quality that the band had never had before. “Dealer” showed off the brief stint that Tommy Bolin had as guitarist for the band.

The early Deep Purple years had quite a few gems too, including “Hard Road (Wring That Neck),” which was the b-side to “Kentucky Woman” in the US. This was a real early showcase of the fiery talents of guitarist Blackmore, while the wah wah infused “Emaretta” was interesting, and had great Paice drum solo.

The fantastic liner notes by Malcolm Dome give you a blow by blow of every Deep Purple album, sometimes mentioning songs you wish were included here. For example, he touts Made in Japan as one of the finest live albums of all time, yet nothing is included from that double LP.

The band has already received the box set treatment on the fine Shades (1968-98), which came out in 1999, but is now out of print. Where this new set succeeds is in its lean summation of their long career. There’s no demos, outtakes or live cuts, just the highlights of all their studio output.

40 tracks covering almost 50 years, A Fire in the Sky stands as a testament to one of the greatest hard rock bands of all-time. —Tony Peters

Also available: 

There’s also a single disc version of the box (also called A Fire in the Sky), but be forewarned: the majority of the tracks here are the rare, highly-edited, single versions of the songs. Meaning, you get the 2:45 chop-up of “Woman From Tokyo,” 2:59 of “Highway Star,” and 3:39 of “Burn.” On the plus side, if you’re a diehard fan, these 45 rpm versions are crazy-hard to find. But, besides the single edit of “Smoke on the Water,” little of these edited versions actually made it to AM radio. It does serve as a nice overview of the band though. But, it leaves you wanting more.