Of the seventies hard-rock dinosaurs that still roam the earth, Deep Purple is one of the few with any credibility left in its crunch. The House of Blue Light — the second album by Purple's classic In Rock lineup since their return to active duty — is certainly a marked improvement over their lukewarm '84 comeback, Perfect Strangers, and, except for a couple of outright duds on side two, is as good as this band has ever been since its "Smoke on the Water" salad days.
"Bad Attitude" opens the album with five minutes of vintage Machine Head sludge — Ian Paice's thunder sticks calling the proceedings to order with a rigid goose-step beat, Ian Gillan raping his tonsils with the vigor of yesteryear. And "Mad Dog" is basically an '87-model "Highway Star," high-speed metal fortified with Jon Lord's lusty Hammondorgan sound and the brass-knuckle guitar of Ritchie Blackmore.
The band has spiked its old hammer-and-anvil sound with a little future tech here and there: "The Unwritten Law" features subtly deployed electro-hand-claps and percolating sequencer amid its clenched-fist chorus and Blackmore's loco fretwork. But it's only when Purple turns on the retro-charm full blast that The House of Blue Light really goes up in flames. "Hard Lovin' Woman" and "Dead or Alive" are both body-slam rockers in the old blitzkrieg spirit of "Speed King" and "Fireball," while Paice's sledgehammer-of-the-gods drumming and Blackmore's punch-your-lights-out chords keep "Call of the Wild," with its atypically poppy hook, from turning into neo-Boston fluff.
Fortunately, all that crash 'n' burn also obscures most of the album's lyric embarrassments. Although Gillan is hardly the Alan Alda of heavy metal, "Mitzi Dupree," a heavy-plodding blues, may be a new low in rock-star sexism ("I said what is this queen of the ping pong business/She smiled what do you think/It has no connection with China/I said oow have another drink"). But aside from the rather purple poetry, the ho-hum Armageddon stomp "Strangeways" and a notable lack throughout the album of classic Blackmore psycho-chicken-scratch soloing, The House of Blue Light is a surprisingly strong return from the tar pits. There's no "Smoke on the Water" here, but Deep Purple still has a pretty good fire going down below.