Cracks were starting to appear in the foundation. Deep Purple, Mark II, was crumbling, as exhaustion from a non-stop cycle of touring and recording were beginning to take their toll. On top of that, internal tensions – mostly between guitar wizard Ritchie Blackmore and singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover – were boiling over, and yet, they somehow managed to record 1973’s rather limp and uninspired death knell Who Do We Think We Are, even though they did come out with guns blazing in the electrifying “Woman from Tokyo.” This was the end of Gillan’s association with Deep Purple, at least until 1984’s Perfect Strangers, and Mark II went out with a whimper.

That was 30 years ago. Today, with Blackmore’s time in Deep Purple a distant memory, the proto-metal legends return with their first studio album since 2005, Now What?! The punctuation is appropriately emphatic. Whether it’s an exasperated question they’re asking of themselves or a dare to anyone who thinks they can’t deliver the goods anymore, the title of their latest effort – produced by Bob Ezrin – is open to interpretation. What is clear is that, with guitarist Steve Morse having long since settled into his role as Blackmore’s successor, something Tommy Bolin initially struggled with, Deep Purple is completely comfortable in its own skin and capable of generating audacious instrumental fireworks.

Winding its way through labyrinthine musical passages and contoured soundscapes, Deep Purple’s latest is mysterious and exotic. With orchestral string flourishes vehemently slashing through the air, “Out of Hand” is a cinematic marvel reminiscent of Gillan’s recent WhoCares recordings with Tony Iommi and Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” as is the ornate “Uncommon Man,” although the ever-shifting moods and tempos make it more of a relic of ‘70s progressive-rock pomp and circumstance than anything else. The same can also be said of “Apres Vous” and “Weirdistan,” both widescreen prog epics that allow Morse and keyboardist Don Airey plenty of opportunity to stretch out and experiment with strange, alien sounds.

On the other hand, in the tradition of classic Mark II Purple, the energetic rocker “Hell to Pay” – stuck in overdrive and running hot – boasts plenty of horsepower, while the smoldering “Blood from a Stone,” with soulful vocals from Gillan, is dark and jazzy, with Airey’s keyboards falling like rain, just as Ray Manzarek’s did in The Doors’ classic “Riders on the Storm.” The bluesy ballad “All the Time in the World” is standard-issue, however, and far less intoxicating, standing in sharp contrast to the mesmerizing fury of “A Simple Song” and the colorful, lively funk grooves of “Bodyline.” Although lacking a signature track, such as “Smoke on the Water” or even “Knocking at your Back Door,” Deep Purple finds other ways to effectively capture listeners’ interest and hold it.

In fine voice, Gillan is as expressive as ever, even if he doesn’t quite have the range he used to, but it’s Airey and Morse who garner the most attention – Airey with his forceful, swirling Hammond organ dust storms that pay tribute to the dearly departed Jon Lord and Morse with his solid riffing and classy, finessed leads, the product of imagination and wonderful dexterity. Who do they think they are? Why, it’s Deep Purple … that’s who, and the reinvigorated musical interplay between these prodigious talents is remarkably exciting. If this, combined with a well-timed recent episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music” regaling us with their glorious, and oftentimes fractious, history, doesn’t get them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, nothing will.

Label: earMusic/Eagle Rock Entertainment