Presence

presence

Album: Presence

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 31st, 1976

Highlights: Achilles Last Stand, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, Tea for One

As one of the pioneers of hard rock, Led Zeppelin were never strangers to heaviness. However, accompanying the godly blasts produced by the instruments of Page, Jones, and Bonham, there were always elements that added interesting nuances to the mighty pounding. The frequent notable influence of blues singers-songwriters brought a soulful emotional layer to the table and lent the band’s sound an irresistible sway that had been left untouched by most British groups not named The Rolling Stones. Plant’s high-pitched roars and sensual stage presence diluted some of the pure testosterone that emanated from the moments when the band went for full-blast rock and roll. And the gift Page and Jones had to, respectively, play the acoustic guitar and all sorts of keyboards let Led Zeppelin stretch past hard rock with some success and frequency.

It is a combination that, from “Led Zeppelin” to “Physical Graffiti”, yielded wondrous results, for it allowed the band to seamlessly tackle explosive bursts of – up until then – unforeseen power like “Communication Breakdown” as well as flirts with progressive rock of the scale of “In the Light” and moving orchestral folk balladry such as “The Rain Song”. Led Zeppelin, then, far beyond being among the most consistent groups of the era, were also – quietly – one of the most versatile; a quality that often goes sadly unsung even amidst the considerable amount of compliments thrown at the quartet.

“Presence”, however, shifts that balance completely. Mostly gestated by Plant and Page while they were away from Jones and Bonham, and made during a period in which the singer (recovering from an accident) was far from being in complete health, the album is – perhaps – the closest the world would ever get to a Jimmy Page solo record until the release of 1988’s “Outrider”. From the first to the seventh song, it is an unfiltered display of hard rock acrobatics, and given its focus on electricity, its absence of mellow moments, and the fact it boasts no keyboards whatsoever and only one instance of barely audible acoustic-guitar playing, “Presence” also happens to safely qualify as the heaviest Led Zeppelin album.

It is a label that is undeniably appealing. Yet, sheer weight does not exactly automatically translate into notable quality, and it is in that aspect that “Presence” falters. Aside from the marching epic that is “Achilles Last Stand” and the slow-burning blues of “Tea for One”, which bookend the track listing, the dryness in arrangements, the similarity in pace, and the homogeneity in the guitar tones that permeate “Presence” make all of the other cuts merge into one another, an accusation that can not be made regarding any other record in the band’s discography, not even the irregular duo of “Houses of the Holy” and “In Through the Out Door”, which often stumble due to a colorfulness that “Presence” could have used. Such lack of variety undeniably hurts it, but the main culprit in this particular case has got to be the songwriting.

Where Page and Plant had once gelled into an entity that operated in perfect synergy, “Presence” shows the pair having trouble to join their parts into a cohesive unit. Jimmy’s guitar parts, by all means the backbones of the tunes, offer the usual technical prowess that is accentuated by overdubs deployed with the taste and care of a maestro. They are, however, more complex than those of any other Led Zeppelin album, featuring a horde of licks and phrases that do not allow them to stand in place for too long. If on one hand that is a trait that keeps the instrumental portion of “Presence” playful, interesting, and dynamic inside the tight confines in which it operates, it is also an architecture that puts a considerable degree of pressure on Plant to come up with melodies that are not only good, but also suiting to the guitar fireworks of Page. The singer, sadly, does not pull off any of those tasks.

Fortunately, the failures are not simultaneous. The individual melodies are either lackluster or at odds with the backing track, never the two at the same time; and on at least two songs, “Achilles Last Stand” and “Tea for One”, they make it unscathed to the finish line, with the caveat that the latter is a less inspired rewrite of the classic “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. It is hard to say whether Page or Plant is most at fault: the guitarist could have dialed down on the complexity without losing his usual flair; the singer could have been more inspired; or his voice, which had lost a good part of its higher range by 1976, could have left the door open for wider melodic opportunities had it retained its original greatness. But the fact of the matter is that it feels “Presence” could have benefited from tighter cooperation between the parts involved.

All is not lost, though. Even if, many times, threatening to be average, the album is never truly bad. Page, Jones, and Bonham are masterful as usual, and although Led Zeppelin records have historically thrived on the quality of their sound, the band’s instrumentalists were never captured quite as vividly as they were in “Presence”, which merges a straightforwardness that nearly speaks to the ethos of garage rock with all the high-budget gloss and studio trickery that Page loved to employ. The balance between bass, drums, and guitars is impeccable, with all instruments sounding absolutely huge and clear without ever overpowering one another; as such, the proficiency of those three guys with their respective tools of work could not possibly have been made more evident.

Furthermore, in spite of how the songwriting quality is the lowest of any Led Zeppelin album, “Presence” does hide a trio of gems: “Achilles Last Stand” is, clocking in at ten minutes, the band’s best epic track, offering historical performances by Page and – especially – Bonham; “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is a thrilling stop-and-start tune that boasts a wicked harmonica solo; and “Tea for One”, though not exactly fresh, brings about the much-needed sexy blues sway that is sadly missing from the rest of the work. Inserted within a catalog that includes monsters of the height of “Led Zeppelin IV” and “Physical Graffiti”, it is easy – and fair – to see “Presence” as a minor work, one in which the natural cracks of creative exhaustion following relentless writing and touring were starting to appear very blatantly; and that comparison risks leading many to label it as a downright bad album. “Presence”, however, is enjoyable, for although the Page and Plant magic of other releases was not so strong anymore, it was still carrying enough force to uncover a few notable moments. And with players like Jones and Bonham to back it up, even the lesser products of that match become worthwhile to a degree.

In Through The Out Door

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Album: In Through the Out Door

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: August 15th, 1979

Highlights: In the Evening, Fool in the Rain, I’m Gonna Crawl

Albums that are produced by fractured groups do not always necessarily suffer from such a context, as rock history has plenty of examples of records made amongst turmoil – such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” – that, nevertheless, found greatness amidst personal chaos. Sadly, “In Through the Out Door”, by the giants of Led Zeppelin, is not one of those positive instances. Famously, as the work that would turn out to be band’s final release due to the unexpected death of drummer John Bonham just one year later was being put together, the English hard rockers were broken into two camps.

While bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant were clean and fully committed to the project, despite the fact the latter was suffering from the recent loss of his young son, guitarist and main songwriter Jimmy Page as well as Bonham himself were struggling with substance abuse. As such, it is easy to attribute much of the surprising irregularity of “In Through the Out Door” to that state of affairs, because with Page – their main creative force – failing to be his usual productive self, it fell on the shoulders of Jones and Plant to guide much of the album in composition and arrangement, with the pair getting full writing credits in two of the record’s seven cuts and with the bassist – previously a rare sight as a songwriter – having his name, alongside those of Page and Plant, attached to the other five tunes.

The shift in the gravitational center of Led Zeppelin’s creative process can be heard clearly, because where the group’s first seven records featured Page’s guitar as their leading instrument, in “In Through the Out Door” it is the synthesizer of Jones that takes the spotlight. With the exception of the excellent “Fool in the Rain” and the passable “Hot Dog”, a tongue-in-cheek jab at rockabilly which at least turns out better than the band’s shots at reggae (“D’yer Mak’er”) and funk (“The Crunge”) seen in “Houses of the Holy”, the tool that was used as the immaculate backing to inventive exercises on hard rock suddenly gets to carry songs all the way to the finish line. And, unfortunately, it reveals it is not totally up to that task.

Nowhere is that notion clearer than in the ten-minute “Carouselambra”, where the band tries to create yet another lengthy track of epic size and magnitude, in the vein of classics such as “In My Time of Dying” and “Achilles Last Stand”, only for it to become dull before the conclusion of its first ninety seconds due to the lack of inspiration of its synthesized hook and the clunky, almost non-existent, melody of Plant’s vocals. Surely, along the trip, it tries to – in an almost progressive fashion – shift in tone and go through distinct phases, but the more it contorts itself the more awkward it gets and the more blatant its problems become.

Although problematic, “In Through the Out Door” is not to be thrown away in its entirety. Certainly, there are consistent annoyances that run through it, like the lackluster guitar solos Page executes and the fact Plant’s voice is in a weird limbo between his signature wails and his solemn lower register, being unable to find any of those edges and standing – instead – on an awkward middle ground that does not seem right for any of the songs save for “Fool in the Rain”. Still, there are bright spots.

Opener “In the Evening” succeeds where “Carouselambra” fails, as its nearly seven minutes are well spent creating a song that has a psychedelic edge and displays urgent power, perhaps because – for it – Page bothered to come up with a mighty guitar riff that is worthy of the band. Meanwhile, “Fool in the Rain” is a sunny and stylistic oddity for Led Zeppelin; a playful and light song about the despair of a guy waiting for his date at the wrong place without realizing it, the tune features clever interplay the piano of Jones and the guitar of Page, and contains a samba-inspired shuffle where Bonham proves why he is constantly ranked as the best rock drummer of all time. And as a final highlight, “I’m Gonna Crawl” is a relaxed slow-paced blues that locks on a perfect balance between synthesizer and guitar to create an atmosphere of pain, tension, lust, and anguishing love.

Ultimately, what these tracks reveal is that for “In Through the Out Door” to have worked as a whole, Led Zeppelin would have had to build it via the same approach employed in their first seven works; that is, through cooperation. Page’s state of mind during the album’s recording harmed far more than the songwriting, because even his usually stellar production work feels sloppy, as the balance between the instruments and Plant’s voice feels off in pretty much all tracks, and better arrangements or a firmer sound could have done big favors to decent tunes such as the straight rock of “South Bound Saurez”, and the sweet synth-based ballad of “All My Love”, whose lyrics were written by Plant to his deceased son.

However, given the context that surrounded it, Led Zeppelin’s usual balance of forces and creative collaborations does not show up in “In Through the Out Door”. The musical shift the album proposes, whether purposely or not, is an interesting one, for if the band had continued, one can only hope they would have moved forward stylistically. Unfortunately, the fate of Bonham and the band’s admirable decision to refuse to go on without their friend turned what could have been seen as an interesting transition record that had the potential to pave the way to more masterpieces into an irregular farewell that clearly displays the band was not working together.

Houses Of The Holy

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Album: Houses of the Holy

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 28th, 1973

Highlights: The Rain Song, No Quarter, The Ocean

Following a string of four incredible albums released during a very productive three-year span that saw Led Zeppelin treading the line between blues traditions and rock explosions, “Houses of the Holy” pictures the group experimenting with new sonic grounds that would eventually culminate in the stronger “Physical Graffiti”. The record plays like the selected output of a musical laboratory, and – given its exploratory nature – ends up, unlike its predecessors, featuring both hits and misses.

“Houses of the Holy” is far from being bad. The overall package is, in fact, stellar. However, the fact it comes around as a concise eight-track effort increases the weight of the few thuds it carries. Its weaknesses, though, do not cloud the fact it is an undeniable achievement in eclecticism: each tune shows the band tackling a different style and songwriting pattern, shaping the album up as their most varied effort up to that point.

It opens up with the fast-paced hard rock of “The Song Remains the Same” and segues into “The Rain Song”, a gorgeous ballad with an orchestral mellotron that chronicles the changing seasons and compares them to human emotions; one of Plant’s finest lyrical achievements. The grand album-opening trio is completed by “Over the Hills and Far Away” a folky ballad that turns electric after a beautiful introduction. The other two magnificent cuts the album offers are its closers: the sprawling psychedelic “No Quarter”, which is powered by the merging of Jones’ keyboards and Page’s guitars; and “The Ocean”, a riff-centered tune that would be right at home in “Led Zeppelin II”.

And then there is “Dancin’ Days”, “The Crunge”, and “D’yer Mak’er”. The former is a harmless pleasant attempt at a dancier brand of rock, but the remaining duo is simply lackluster. Although they could be considered tongue-in-cheek shots at funk and reggae, respectively, they fall miles below the standard set by the rest of the album and the group’s past output. Though they do not destroy a gem, they cause a few visible dents, diminishing its value and leading it to rank in the lower half of Led Zeppelin’s catalog.

Led Zeppelin III

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Album: Led Zeppelin III

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: October 5th, 1970

Highlights: Immigrant Song, Celebration Day, Since I’ve Been Loving You, Gallows Pole

By the time “Led Zeppelin III” came around, Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham had spent the entire length of their first two records building their reputation as a blues rock band. From the black men who had roamed towns around the Mississippi river with nothing but old guitars strapped to their backs, the band had done plenty of borrowing, stealing, and reconstructing in order to bring blues to a new audience, who had never – in many cases – heard of names such as Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Willie Dixon.

Led Zeppelin had built tunes that stomped around like mighty elephants, they had explored male sexuality to such an extreme height that the term cock rock had to be coined in order to better identify the brand of hard rock they were unleashing upon the world, and they represented the loudest and heaviest spectrum of rock music at a time Black Sabbath’s arrival on the scene still lay in the future. That’s why it was so utterly surprising (to the point that the rock press, unable to comprehend what they were witnessing, slammed the album) that when the final months of 1970 came around, Led Zeppelin pulled out their acoustic instruments and went folk.

Going folk may, in fact, be an exaggeration and an oversimplified qualification of “Led Zeppelin III”. However, to a band that had only dabbled in unplugged balladry a handful of times, a record in which most of the songs are guided by acoustic strums feels almost like a revolution. That is not to say “Led Zeppelin III” is soft.

“Immigrant Song”, led by the legendary Valkyrie cry of Robert Plant, sails forward with such unstoppable fearlessness and might that it recalls the viking armada its lyrics refer to; “Celebration Day” is a rocket that, after warming up its engines, is launched into the atmosphere around the twenty-five second mark, when Bonham’s drums come in; the quiet “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is the sexiest, tensest, and greatest blues rock song ever penned, thanks to how Page insinuates sexual tension with an orgasmic guitar performance and Plant personifies love-related psychological weariness over a thick groove laid down by Jones and Bonham; and “Out on the Tiles” carries a riff that repeatedly rises high before using the acquired altitude to smack down hard on listeners’ brains.

Sill, even though Led Zeppelin remains capable of rocking hard and despite the heavyweights the record presents, which are all nicely packed into its first side, “Led Zeppelin III” is undeniably defined by its six folk tracks. In these, Plant and Page touch upon candid innocence and sweetness; two qualities not very closely associated with the group up to that point. Punctual acoustic tunes had existed in previous Led Zeppelin works, but they had been either unfulfilling (“Thank You”) or grounded on bitterness (“Your Time Is Gonna Come”). Here, however, not only are they mostly very well-written from a musical and lyrical perspective, but they also break new thematic ground due to vulnerabilities on display.

Moreover, these are acoustic tracks that come in a myriad of flavors: “Friends” achieves grandeur thanks to Jones’ orchestration work, “Gallows Pole” is the rearrangement of a traditional folk song that begins with one gentle guitar and slowly builds up in speed and instrumental layers until it reaches a frantic ending, “Tangerine” uses a majestic almost medieval melody and a twelve-string guitar to talk about a childhood love, the simple pastoral strum of “That’s the Way” is reproduced by an army of string instruments (including a dulcimer and a mandolin), and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” recreates a joyful walk through the countryside as it is propelled by a steady drum beat and cheery hand claps.

The sole dud that comes out of “Led Zeppelin III”, and the sole reason it cannot be considered a perfect album, comes in the shape of its most experimental take on folk music: the infamous closer “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. Although it is the acoustic cut most closely associated with blues, a genre with which the band was well familiar, its irregular structure, made of parts that do not belong together, and the weird, almost psychedelic, effects applied to Plant’s vocals and Page’s slide guitar amount to a lackluster song.

With or without that minor stumble, “Led Zeppelin III” is the sound a band that refused to dig itself into a deceivingly comfortable corner that would have ended up serving as an inescapable trap in the long run. It is the opening of new sonic spaces and the expansion of a deck of tricks that would yield future artistic achievements such as “Led Zeppelin IV” and “Physical Graffiti”. Though not entirely understood at the time of its release, “Led Zeppelin III” was a major turning point for the group, and one that happened for the better.

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