WARHORSE – Warhorse

Between 1967 and 1969, the original Deep Purple released a trio of excellent albums. Those records mixed elements of 60s pop with rock guitar, experimented with psychedelia, and even explored avenues of orchestral rock. The huge proto-metal work of the band’s next incarnation – makers of the classics ‘Black Night’, ‘Smoke On The Water’ and ‘Highway Star’ – has long overshadowed the earlier Purple outings, but tracks like ‘Shield’ and ‘Chasing Shadows’ provided a massive showcase for Ritchie Blackmore’s distinctive guitar work and things to come, whilst the epic ‘April’ proved this was a band with bigger ideas than most, and their ability for making other peoples’ material their own was almost as impressive.

There was so much to love about Deep Purple MK I, but their time was short. With Blackmore deciding to move on and explore different musical avenues, vocalist Rod Evans and bassist Nick Simper were ousted. Evans surfaced as the vocalist with psych rockers Captain Beyond, but Simper’s next move was far more interesting. Not only were Warhorse musically superior to Captain Beyond, but the new band’s approach to hard edged riffs occasionally mirrored those being explored within the heavier second incarnation of his former band around the same time.

The short lived Warhorse released two LPs on the Vertigo label. 1970’s ‘Warhorse’ and 1971’s ‘Red Sea’; albums alike in force and bombast, but albums that were different enough from each other to display an obvious sense of progression within a rock scene that appeared to be changing almost weekly. The band will always be remembered for two things: for being a vastly underrated offshoot of the Deep Purple family tree, and for being a band in which a pre-fame Rick Wakeman had briefly been a member. But, as their debut more than demonstrates, they had the potential and the power to be a great band in their own right.

The opening of ‘Vulture Blood’ – the first sounds the record buying public would hear from the new band – makes no secret of having roots within Deep Purple when a droning organ provides a slow fade in, before a crashing rhythm and overdriven guitar almost appear to ape the very aggressive intro to ‘Speed King’. From there, Warhorse forge a little more of their own identity with the track’s main riffs adopting a seriously funky groove. Guitarist Ged Peck is in the driving seat throughout, sharing a riff that almost appears to prefigure the southern rock sounds of Molly Hatchet, whilst an echo drenched Ashley Holt adds a vocal that’s almost as much a forebear of those American sounds with its gruff style. Any relative melody Holt actually attempts to muster is often derailed by moments of screaming, however, and its fair to say he’s not in the same league as Ian Gillan, or even Toe Fat’s Cliff Bennett. Nor is he totally a man out of his depth; his really unsubtle approach is a good fit for the track – and Warhorse in general. It’s during the track’s instrumental moments where the magic really happens, however, and a swirling organ solo which peps the hard rock with an almost neo-classical flair shows a welcome grandeur, and Peck’s moments of lead guitar are pointed enough to pierce through a sometimes chaotic wall of sound.

In a change of mood, ‘No Chance’ opens with a slow, almost militaristic beat, and if it weren’t clear enough on the opener, drummer Mac Poole has a very smart, jazz inflected style, whilst being capable of delivering the kind of welly this band really needs. The arrival of a bigger melody shares a strong blend of ominous organ drones and blues guitar, both of which weave a blanket of sound that creates a low key backdrop, over which Holt shares an impressive croon. Despite showing off an untrained tone that sometimes favours volume over everything, his presence is pleasingly rich when sharing a mood that Simper has clearly purloined from Deep Purple’s ‘Lalena’ and tweaked accordingly. This would already form the basis of a great track, but Warhorse’s penchant for grandiosity means there’s time here for a dog-leg into busier sounds, whilst a rattling drum and chorale vocal leads everything into a massive climax where Simper’s bass locks into the drum part, first beefing up the rhythm, and then moving into a great rock groove where Peck does his best to recreate the trademark Blackmore tones of ’69. If you want to hear the early Warhorse at something close to their best, then this more than fits the bill.

Opting for a more standard post-psych/prog-ish feel, ‘Burning’ gives the whole band a great workout on a funk derived groove which, again, certainly wouldn’t have felt out of place on the Deep Purple LP from ’69, but Simper actually gets to share even more bass here as he lays a fluid melody beneath the track’s chopping rhythms. It’s one of the album’s superior numbers from a musical perspective, but Holt’s shoutier tendencies are definitely at odds with some of the more sophisticated bass-led melodies, and a wordless hook seems to share bombast purely for the sake of it. Nevertheless, the good very much outweighs the bad here: Frank Wilson fills the middle of the number with a keyboard solo that’s almost the equal of a Jon Lord offering from a similar time, and Peck retorts with a fabulously bluesy lead break that’s busy on the frets and certainly not shy of a whammy bar. The fact that Simper is still beavering away when these musicians are soloing further demonstrates how much musical confidence this still new band had. Cranking the volume, the extended coda of this track is every bit the equal to anything else from the Vertigo catalogue at that time – Sabbath aside. It’s more focused than Head Machine, and less derivative than Uriah Heep. It’s one of those moments that really sticks out, and more than suggests that with a better vocalist, Warhorse could have gone on to become one of the era’s true giants.

With a driving rock rhythm, ‘St. Louis’ tips the hat to the grubbier rock of Steppenwolf by beefing up the old Easybeats number. The very 60s pop edge to the chorus and world of handclaps doesn’t really fit the mood of the rest of this debut, but it shows how well the band could handle simpler arrangements. And for those concerned about this veering to much towards garage pop, a fuzzed out lead guitar break and busy organ solo are on hand to redress some of the balance. Stretching out to almost nine minutes, ‘Solitude’ explores the moodier side of the Warhorse canon with a slow burning intro sounding like something inspired from one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western themes, allowing for some fine piano work to take centre stage, before experimenting with a couple of guitar passages that sound like a blues band pre-empting Mike Oldfield. By the time everything settles, the downbeat mood and loud vocal revisits a similar feel to the earlier ‘No Chance’, but with Ged sharing a heavily reverbed blues tone between an affronting vocal, the end result is very different. As with a couple of the other tracks here, the music is amazing; dark, gloomy, almost theatrical, but Holt’s booming presence will be make or break for some listeners. That said, it’s worth hearing for Peck and Wilson in full flow.

Taking a doomier turn, the riffs that power the intro of ‘Woman of The Devil’ are more of a Sabbath persuasion, in tempo and mood, if not tone. Always more interested in a bluesy power than pure doom, of course, Warhorse aren’t able to keep up the pretence, and soon revert to a blend of blues and funk that sounds like an amped up version of Purple MK I for the remainder, but this isn’t ever a bad thing, since it allows Peck plenty of opportunity to wheel out his best (sub)-Blackmore tones, and for Mac to drop into a really great groove. The sheer tightness of the rhythm section is everything here, and it provides the perfect backdrop for the album’s best solos from Wilson and Peck. With the whole band on fire – it even suits Holt’s raw tones perfectly – it’s a pity there wasn’t room enough in the seven minute jam for a bass solo from Nick, but settling for what potential fans are given, it’s easily the album’s finest offering.

If the roots of Deep Purple hadn’t been obvious enough on some of these tracks, then the opening of ‘Ritual’ would certainly pay homage in the most unsubtle way. Played on guitar rather than organ, its opening riff is only a slight variation on ‘Wring That Neck’, the instrumental tour de force which had been at the heart of those early Purple shows. From there, the track’s main groove still clings to a hard edged rhythm and blues groove that would have suited the Purps, but quickly finds its feet with something less heavy. The organ stabs are hard, but more of the R&B variety than prog rock, and as the track progresses, Peck’s lead guitar work takes on a pleasing sixties fuzz within a very busy style. He’s occasionally outshone by the swirly keys, but as with the best moments of ‘Woman of The Devil’ and ‘Burning’, his talent is more than evident.

In just seven epic numbers, back in 1970, this slab of vinyl introduced the band in style. The material had a grandiosity befitting their hard edged sound, yet still managed to present enough variety to suggest they would be more than a one trick pony. Even heard decades on, the sheer force of ‘Vulture Blood’, ‘Woman of The Devil’ and ‘Burning’ remain testament to their potential, making this debut worthy of a place in any self-respecting collection of 70s rock discs. In some ways, ‘Red Sea’ is more interesting, perhaps even a little slicker, but in terms of capturing a raw energy, this flawed debut is hard to beat.

[‘Warhorse’ was reissued as part ‘Warhorse: The Recordings 1970-72’ by Cherry Red Records in 2024. The 2CD set also featured the band’s second album ‘Red Sea’, along with a selection of live tracks and demos from the archives. Buy the CD here.]

February 2024