The Deep Purple musical family story is full of controversy and events upon which many of their followers have differing opinions. Ian Gillan and Roger Glover arriving whilst Nick Simper and Rod Evans were still on board and the subsequent departure of them both some four years later. Hiring an unknown David Coverdale. Continuing with Tommy Bolin when Ritchie Blackmore left. The Rod Evans fake Purple episode. Gillan joining Black Sabbath. Coverdale going all hair metal. The reformation. Gillan getting the sack. Joe Lynn Turner. The band continuing after Jon Lord left. These are but a few and the list is close to endless. But nothing has sparked more conversation, more differing opinion or more extreme reaction than Ritchie Blackmore forming Blackmore’s Night and re-inventing himself as the Lord and Master of Renaissance folk rock music.
By the mid nineties Blackmore was tired of the whole rock scene. The Purple reformation hadn’t exactly set the world alight despite the quality of first couple of albums. Eventually he had tired of it and jumped ship somewhat dramatically mid tour. The re-emergence as Rainbow, with a totally new line up, hadn’t come as a total surprise even if the energy and power of it had. The “Stranger In Us All” album being far closer to Dio era Rainbow than the pop rock Turner version which many of us expected. Even that though failed to inspire Blackmore and before long the foundations for Blackmore’s Night were being carefully laid. It is not difficult to imagine Candice and Ritchie sitting in their home gently crafting the songs as much for their own pleasure and entertainment as for their first album as the moonlight shone and the candlelight flickered.
Of course as word spread about Blackmore’s new project there were plenty of disbelieving cries, suggestions he had lost the plot wandering around in a silly pointed hat, and opinion that it would be a one off thing he needed to get out of his system. It might even turn out like that cello album he’d been promising us for years and never even materialise.
Then on one Friday evening in the late spring of 1997 I answered the telephone and a familiar voice on the other end of the phone said “You aren’t going to believe this but I’ve got something for you …..”. Subsequently a dinner date was hastily planned for the next evening and over a glass of rather good claret I was eventually presented with a package containing a Japanese pressing of a new album by ….. yes you’ve guessed it Blackmore’s Night.
Now I have to be honest here and admit that I wasn’t exactly sure this was the direction I wanted my favourite rock guitarist to go in so I was more than a little concerned when I put it on as I really hadn’t got much of a clue what to expect. But it was what he wanted to play so surely that was better than contractual obligation going through the motions stuff.
The title track gets things under way and right from the outset it is clear that Blackmore here is playing with a new found enthusiasm and is enjoying exploring a new style. Yet at the same time he is integrating the techniques and skills from his rock background and blending it all together with the art of a true craftsman. The oriental sounding introduction of the opener for example would sit easily on a Dio era Rainbow track. In fact throughout the album there is a little run here or fill or tone change there that reminds of Purple or Rainbow but it never intrudes on the freshness and feel of the mood created by Night’s hauntingly sweet vocals, lyrics and melodies. Make no mistake the singers contribution here is every bit as important and full of quality as Gillan, Coverdale, Dio or Turner had been in Blackmore’s previous bands. Blackmore accepts nothing less than perfection and you can be certain that his personal relationship with Night would have had no bearing. If he hadn’t have thought she was his musical equal he would have got someone else in to do it. This is no happy family benefit album. That is not the Blackmore way so get any ideas of that out of your head straight away.
After ‘Shadow of the Moon’ has built into a nice mid paced folk rock track full of great guitar a fanfare heralds the beginning of ‘The Clock Ticks On’. Based on a traditional peice by Tielman Susato and featuring one of Night’s best melodies and some great medieval sounding instrumentation it has long been a favourite of Blackmore’s Night fans.
‘Be Mine Tonight’ could almost be a Turner era Rainbow track based on the introduction but once the vocal begins it is pure English folk. Blackmore’s excellent acoustic solo and the overall arrangement of the song stop it from getting too twee but it is not in the same league as the opening two tracks or indeed the two that follow.
The first of those ‘Play Minstrel Play’ was developed by Blackmore and Night from a traditional Pierre Attaingnant song and was probably the track that garnered the most attention at the time as it is a pure Renaissance meets rock track and features long time Blackmore friend Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull on flute. The following ‘Ocean Gypsy’ is also of particular interest as despite there being a number of tracks that were developed from traditional songs on the album it is one of only two out and out covers on the album. Originally written and recorded by UK progressive rock act Renaissance in the early seventies it fits perfectly as a Blackmore’s Night track and once again makes great use of Blackmore’s skills on the acoustic as well as Night’s ethereal phrasing.
The first of the instrumental tracks ‘Minstrell Hall’ is a recorded example of Blackmore playing for Blackmore and is a pure audible delight for fans of his playing style. It is instantly recognisable as Blackmore right from the very first note. ‘Magical World’ is another Pierre Attaingnant mid tempo folk track which lacks the majesty of some of the other tracks but still has a more than pleasing melody and some very fresh crisp sounding guitar from Blackmore.
‘Writing On The Wall’ meanwhile is a mixed bag of styles that really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Based on a Tchaikovsky piece it starts off more like a Jacques Brel composed Scott Walker track before it suddenly bursts into life with what is best described as a disco drum beat behind a very poppy vocal. Meanwhile whilst all this is going on Blackmore decides it is time for some vintage 1978 Rainbow rock guitar. A strange mixture but one which ends up working reasonably well.
The second Tielman Susato peice ‘Renaissance Fayre’ does exactly what it says on the tin and bounces along good humouredly painting a picture of summer fayres, twirling maidens and gentlemanly acts of goodness. The shortest track on the album is ‘Memmingen’ which is basically another instrumental but this time with the added bonus of a haunting female choir of ‘aahs’ deep in the mix.
‘No Second Chance’ is probably the closest to rock in composition terms and also features the rockiest guitar on the album. It could easily pass for Turner era Rainbow with a male vocal. However that doesn’t mean that it is in any way out of place. The longest of the instrumental tracks ‘Mond Tanz’ takes the mood straight back to the sixteenth century and the hand claps throughout give it a nice authentic feel.
One of the candidates for track of the album, and my personal favourite, is undoubtedly ‘Spirit of the Sea’. Blackmore plays some typically superb guitar but is still upstaged by Night’s magnificently ethereal vocal which actually manages to send a shiver down your spine in places. ‘Greensleeves’ is an apt if unoriginal choice and is pleasant enough without setting the world on fire. In fairness to it it probably suffers from following the wonderful ‘Spirit of the Sea’.
The album closes on a rather curious note with ‘Wish You Were Here’. Another beautiful almost sweet mid paced ballad it sounds as though it is an original Blackmore’s Night track or had been written specifically for them. It was, however, written by and originally recorded by Swedish novelty act Rednex who had a worldwide hit with ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ in 1994. Despite its slightly strange provenance it does fit Blackmore’s Night perfectly. The mid seventies Rainbowesque guitar solo that Blackmore plays as the track fades out is also a perfect touch. I like to think of it as Blackmore’s way of saying “I can still play this stuff …. I just don’t want to ..” and it is not difficult to imagine the smile on his face as he contemplates the bewilderment of some of his rock fans at his new direction.
Now fifteen years later as I am trying to record my thoughts about as much of my old music as I can before the opportunity to do so disappears altogether it is difficult to believe I ever had those initial doubts. Over time each and every one of the tracks on this album has left its musical print deep inside my heart mind and soul. This album is as important in the making of the legend that is Ritchie Blackmore as Deep Purple In Rock, Made In Japan, Burn, or Rainbow Rising and anyone that tells you otherwise is talking out of their silly pointed hat !
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM May 2012.