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By the time Deep Purple had added “Hush” and “Highway Star” to the rock ’n’ roll canon, they’d created a standard for driving heaviness that few bands apart from the Stooges and Sabbath would top until the days of hardcore punk. Those Deep Purple classics were crafted by a core of instrumentalists—Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord, Ian Paice, and Roger Glover—that while notoriously fractious, could summon the thrust of a thousand runaway trains. When they brought lead vocalist Ian Gillan into the fold the Purple was among the mightiest bands standing in rock’s heaviest age.
There was an unmistakable telepathy in those first incarnations of Deep Purple that enabled the band to strut, sprint, gallop, and shift gears seamlessly like a fine-tuned and dangerous machine. It’s what future incarnations of the band lacked. And while the oddly named DVD Phoenix Rising (the band would fall to pieces just months after these performances) captures a potentially mind-blowing manifestation of the band storming Japan in December 1975, this version of Deep Purple rarely catches fire in the manner of the classic Machine Head–era unit.
By 1975, the charismatic Gillan and the rock-steady Glover were gone and the multifaceted and still blossoming Tommy Bolin had replaced the fiery Blackmore. Those longing for a previously unearthed trove of Tommy Bolin genius are likely to go away a little dissatisfied with this collection. Bolin’s contributions at times seem incidental, and moments like the solo on “Highway Star”—where you’re wound up and ready to be slain—fall surprisingly flat.
It’s perhaps telling that the most engaging and impressive instrumental performances come from the longest-serving members, Paice and Lord. Paice is as thunderous and propulsive as ever on the skins—even in the absence of a collective band chemistry— and Lord regularly justifies his standing among the most savage and punishing Hammond players ever. Watching Lord at work, we’re also reminded how his elegant and powerful playing was a fantastic foil for Blackmore’s ornate-to-reckless attack.
The concert section of Phoenix Rising isn’t helped by a fairly muddy audio mix, which could account for some of the lack of spark in these performances. But the accompanying interview disc probably says more about why the Purple had begun to fray musically. The interviews chronicle a too-familiar and even tiresome litany of drug dramas and ego strife. And while there’s also cool footage from other 1975 shows and a peek at the circa-’75 Purple as a recording band, the documentary disc is often simply an answer to the “what’s wrong with this picture?” posed by the concert film.
It’s tantalizing to imagine what Deep Purple would have ultimately become if the 25-year old Bolin had found his way with Paice and Lord. Unfortunately, Phoenix Rising offers only the most fleeting glimpses of what could have been.