Thursday, September 19, 2013

Houses of the Holy (1973)

When I look back at Led Zeppelin's first five albums, I have a subconscious tendency to split them into two groups. I, II, and IV are the straightforward blues/rock albums (and also the better ones, in my opinion), and III and V (a.k.a. Houses of the Holy) are the more experimental ones, where Zep gets loose and plays around a bit with genres. It's appropriate that the band should take a little bit of a detour after that powerhouse of a fourth album, because, really, how do you follow that up? But they must have learned something, because in my opinion, HotH sounds a lot better than III, and even the band's off-the-wall genre experiments come off sounding a little bit tighter (even radio friendly) here than they did the last time the band really branched out. As an album, it's not fully as compelling as Zep's best, but it has a nice coherent atmosphere to it, and I have to say that I really enjoy it, for what it is.

The first track finds Jimmy Page back to his old habit of recycling musical ideas from his Yardbirds days. The riff from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor (which also featured an early application of Page's violin bow trick that would feature as a prominent element in Zep's version of Dazed and Confused) gets a facelift here in THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME, a rather compelling and upbeat track. The guitar tricks are more rhythmic than lead-y here, almost suggesting more of a Pete Townshend kind of approach, but are impressive nonetheless. As a result, it's a different kind of track for Led Zeppelin, but it works really well. Plant's vocals have some strange effect going on that you might find distracting, but that's really the only criticism I can come up with for this song.

THE RAIN SONG is a gentle ballad that proves to be one of the prettiest songs in Zep's catalog. It's soft and atmospheric, but it builds up enough fanfare to assert itself. And somehow, it manages to be a lot more interesting than the band's previous feel-good ballad, Zep II's Thank You. The acoustic chords sound just beautiful here, and are backed up by a terrific orchestral arrangement. I think that I probably didn't like this song much at first listen, just because it doesn't rock, and it's not bluesy. But I took the time to actually learn to play some of it on guitar once, and I've been in love with it ever since. It's only too bad it's in such an unusual tuning, otherwise I'd have made a point to play it more often.

OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY is a special kind of beast in that it manages to be - simultaneously - a good acoustic and electric song. I've known songs that go from acoustic to electric (or vice versa), and there are songs that try to meld both acoustic and electric parts, but this is pretty much a perfect example, because either part could probably stand on its own, yet they work so well together. The acoustic part is very pretty, and the electric part's got lots of oomph, which is just the way it should be. Ultimately, I am an electric guy. I can, absolutely, appreciate the prettiness of acoustic pieces, and I love to listen to them now and then. But at the end of the day, it's the electric powerhouses that make me wanna get out of bed the next morning. Which is probably the only reason I've never appreciated this song more than I have, and why, despite listening to it and being able to clearly recognize how amazing it is, it still doesn't wow me as much as my favorite Zep tracks. But damn if it's not a great song.

I think that, in my experience on Zeppelin fan forums in the past, THE CRUNGE is tied with III's Hats Off To Harper as being the most maligned and least appreciated track in Zep's catalog. Which is a shame. I'm not saying that either one is that fantastic, but they're not even competing for the worst tracks Zep's recorded. I mean, like, even D'yer Mak'er from this very album moves me less than The Crunge. Anyway, I used to have a classic rock tribute band named after The Crunge, so that tells you where I stand. It's not that I think it's an amazing song - really, it's not that great. And it's pretty much the band's interpretation of James Brown's brand of funk (think "Sex Machine"). So it's not terribly original, and it doesn't have the innovation that Zep's treatments of the blues usually do, but, it's got a pretty decent groove, and the whole thing with Robert calling out for the bridge at the end (also in imitation of James Brown - although responding to himself is pure Robert, as far as I know), cheesy though it may be, I've always thought was pretty fun. I mean, I never understood what a bridge was, in music, until I heard this song. So it's educational, too. :p

DANCING DAYS works quite well. It's upbeat, and like much of the music on this album, it demonstrates Led Zeppelin's lighter touch to rock. Truth be told, I like their heavier songs better, but if it was all they ever recorded, they'd be like some latter days heavy metal band whose songs all sound exactly the same. And that's not very interesting. The main riff is actually very fun to play. I wouldn't say this is a song that's gonna leave an impression on you (although results always vary), but it's much easier to groove to than, say, Zep III's Celebration Day.

I suppose that D'YER MAK'ER (the title of which, as mysterious as it seems at first glance, should be common knowledge by now) is Zep's imitation of reggae music (allegedly with some doo wop thrown in). Although to be honest, I don't have a lot of experience with reggae music. What I do know is that I don't like it as much as rock and blues (and even funk), and D'yer Mak'er - although as a song, it's probably much more successful (and certainly more radio friendly, history dictates) than III's genre experiments - is one of my least favorite tracks on this album, in the long run. Not that I hate it, per se, but the general sound of it doesn't really click with me.

NO QUARTER, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. What Since I've Been Loving You was to Led Zeppelin III, No Quarter is to Houses of the Holy - the unlikely diamond in the rough, the underrated song (not unappreciated among Zep fans, but certainly not as popular or radio friendly as their hits) that justifies the existence of an otherwise below-top-notch album, which I actually rate as one of my all time favorite songs in all of Led Zeppelin's catalog. The guitar in No Quarter sounds excellent, and that definitely helps my appreciation for the song, but for once, it is John Paul Jones' praises that I intend to sing. His organ work on this song is sublime, with a watery effect that gives the track its eerie atmosphere. The lyrics conjure images of lonely wanderers in the night, who may or may not be trusted. Specifically, my mind recalls scenes from Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits are on the run from the Ringwraiths, aided by the mysterious stranger known as Strider. I almost made a music video using No Quarter once upon a time, set to scenes from the anime series Berserk (tracking The Band of the Hawk's night-time raids), but I never finished it. Live versions of the song - and I think it was a live, bootleg version that originally got me hooked on it - feature extended, virtuosic solos from both Page and Jones, on the guitar and organ, respectively. It's a mark of the song's genius that it can inspire so much imagination.

And before you know it, we've come to the last track on the album, a happy little piece called THE OCEAN. To discuss its flaws first, I think it suffers from the same problems I mentioned in Dancing Days, namely that it's a tad bit too light, and that keeps me a little reserved in devoting more appreciation to it. However, the things it does right, it does better than Dancing Days, which is to say that it's got an even better riff (a bloody fantastic one, actually), and the breakdown at the end (which, in my maturity, I can now concede is not especially "bluesy") is very exciting (I love a song that's not afraid to break ranks and switch things up a bit). Thinking back on the track that closed out Zep's fourth album - When The Levee Breaks - and how heavy that song is and how it sticks with you, The Ocean can hardly compare. But given that this is the lighter, airier, more fun-focused Houses of the Holy, it seems a wholly appropriate end to the album.
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