With all the news being made about Deep Purple’s newest album, what may have not generally hit the stands yet is the fact that one member of the band has, as usual, been pulling double duty.
Occasional nuggets of news from Don Airey’s camp have suggested that he’s working on another solo album! (He himself confirmed this when he was asked last October). While there is a possibility that it has been delayed by COVID-19, I still hope that Airey will be coming out with some new music soon. Today, in honor of this remarkable musician’s solo career, here’s a ranking of his six solo efforts so far.
To clarify, all six of these albums are ones I’m incredibly fond of. This is all just personal opinion, and I invite anyone regardless of their level of familiarity with Airey to investigate these for themselves.
#6: One of A Kind
The strength of Don Airey’s solo albums overall is clear if an album as good as this one is at the bottom of the list. Upon first listening to it when it first came out, I loved it. The songs are all great fun and full of energy.
Why is it at the bottom, then? For me, it’s just not quite as memorable as some of the work I ranked higher. That’s not to say that it isn’t still a high-quality album. As usual with Airey’s work, it ranges from fun, poppy numbers to harder-hitting rock songs. There’s even a melancholy number which might be a tribute to Airey’s old friend Gary Moore. All in all, a solid endeavor!
Favorite Tracks: “Victim of Pain”, “Remember to Call”, “Stay the Night”
#5: Keyed Up
Another one that, while great, just isn’t as memorable as the ones put above overall. That’s not to say that it’s not without its moments, however. The final song on the album even features the last recording by Gary Moore, who had begun working on the song but had left it unfinished at the time of his untimely death. Airey completed it and turned it into a loving tribute.
Fittingly, the album also begins with a tribute, this to a then-still living artist. Airey’s seamless combination of Dave Brubeck’s original “Blue Rondo” and Keith Emerson’s famous update cements his status as a keyboard god in his own right. As a musician familiar with the difficulty of time switches, I have yet to get over my awe at his easy ability to switch between time signatures. I’ve done a longer discussion on these three great keyboardists’ interplay on this song here.
The album even features a take on the old Rainbow number “Difficult to Cure”. If I may say so, this is the superior version, with a much harder edge and more virtuosity than the increasingly pop-oriented Rainbow circa 1981.
Favorite Track: “Blue Rondo a La Turk”
#4: All Out
All Out is a stand-out example of Airey’s sparkle and shine, not to mention the way he can put fire behind every note. It is a lot like Keyed Up, both in content and tone. I prefer it a little bit due to the slightly more eclectic mix of songs. The original songs are a bit more memorable and the covers are a little more unusual. Take “Estancia”, for instance, which is a cover of a different portion of the same ballet that Keith Emerson would also cover in his solo career.
It also features such original pieces as “Tobruk” and “Right Arm Overture”, both of which are simply masterful. The latter is especially interesting from a historical perspective, but I’ll have to get to that later!
Favorite tracks: “Right Arm Overture”, “Estancia”
#3: A Light in the Sky
Released twenty years after Airey’s previous solo album, A Light in the Sky is all things Airey–equal parts musical refinement and uncontainable energy, with a truly incredible variance in styles.
The uniting concept of this album, a trip through space and time past planets we know and galaxies not visible to the naked eye, is an absolute delight. This album also features a lot of different kinds of keyboards, showing Airey’s versatility incredibly well. Perhaps this album will inspire its listeners to pick up the hobby that inspired Airey himself to make this album: stargazing.
Favorite Tracks: “Sombrero M104”, “Lost in the End of Time”
#2: K2: Tales of Triumph and Tragedy
The first of Don Airey’s solo albums is steeped in glorious 80s style. In another’s hands, this might have resulted in too much cheese for this album to have been taken seriously. Under Airey’s direction, though, it just rocks. If anything, it works well to temper the tragedy of the events relayed within this concept album about the 1986 disaster on earth’s second-tallest mountain.
Despite some of the massively different stylistic and tonal shifts within this album, not to mention the rotating cast of characters, Airey holds it together to create a coherent story about the highs and lows of mountain climbing, the dangers within, and the implications it leaves about our humanity despite the risks. Despite the horrors that may await us, there is something majestic about risk-taking, and it can be heard within the music clearly. From a textual standpoint, despite being Airey’s first effort, this is still the album with the most profundity. As with any great work of art, I don’t doubt there will be debates about it for a long, long time.
Favorite Tracks: “Overture”, “Sea of Dreams”, “Julie if You Leave Me”
#1: Going Home
There’s something really special about this album. The black sheep of the Airey album family as the sole jazz entry in an otherwise hard rock/metal/prog catalogue is incredibly fine from start to finish. Airey has always had a chance to incorporate jazz into his playing; his father, who was also his first music teacher, was a huge fan of Fats Waller. Airey’s first major band, meanwhile, was the jazz fusion outfit Colosseum II.
What is particularly special about this album is the remarkable amount of love woven into the music. Airey has a gift with his instruments, always able to draw out a lot of feeling, and it’s especially tangible here. There is love for everything: Don’s home town Sunderland, Bill Evans, Steinway pianos, and his eldest grandson Kyle most notable. The whole album is suffused with a warm glow that makes it a joy to listen to. As much as I love Don Airey’s rock output, I can hardly wait for a followup to this beautiful album.
Favorite Tracks: Honestly? The whole thing.
What is your favorite of Don Airey’s solo albums? Make sure to let me know in the comments!
- Edit on 2020-09-14: Updated to reflect the release of Whoosh! Optimized for new site.