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Houses of the Holy—8

 

Released: 1973

1) The Song Remains the Same  2) The Rain Song  3) Over the Hills and Far Away  4) The Crunge  5) Dancing Days  6) D'yer Mak'er  7) No Quarter  8) The Ocean

 

Following the commercial success, but critical failure of “Led Zeppelin IV,” Jimmy Page must have been at his wits end.  He had just produced four albums of such intense rock that he actually changed the course of music history.  And that music Zeppelin had created was exactly as Page envisioned: a perfect blend of heavy and light…teenaged theatre that could best be described with the word “physical.”  His band was selling out arenas throughout the world and selling enough albums to make their families secure for generations.  On top of all this, Zeppelin had just released their best album with what many felt was their single greatest song…

 

But they were still not respected.  They were still considered a second tier rock band behind The Rolling Stones, The Who, and other first generation British Invaders, nothing more than goofy phonies, too loud to be meaningful.  Particularly with The Who releasing a revolutionary album making heavy use of synthesizers, the brilliant “Who’s Next,” and The Stones at an even higher point of critical love with their string of “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street,” the boys from Led Zeppelin were considered juvenile and their music nothing but teenaged fodder.  Page had tried to silence the critics with his most recent releases; each fashioned with the goal of critical acceptance by virtually eliminating cock-rock form their repertoire.  He even tried to downplay the band’s name and image, releasing an album with no information on the cover and wearing beards and unflattering clothes on stage so that only the music would matter.  But when none of this worked, when Zeppelin was still not respected, Page finally felt it was time for a change…it was time for him to demonstrate that Led Zeppelin was capable of diversity and experiment.  And with this new goal, the band recorded “Houses of the Holy.”

 

The album opener, “The Song Remains The Same,” with its rolling guitars and blissful bass, soars with an intriguing blend of country twang and progressive structure.  The instrumental introduction sounds like an acid drenched hoedown and is so far removed from any semblance of cock-rock (or mysticism for that matter) that it is clear Page wanted to show his experimental chops right out of the gate.  Plant’s lyrics deal with his realization that no matter where the band travels, their music doesn’t change the impact it has on people, although, with continued numbers like this, they certainly should have been taken more seriously.  From progressive rock, the album flows directly into the band’s best ballad, “The Rain Song.”  This is perfectly named, as it sounds like the gloomy calm before a storm.  With John Paul Jones’s delicate use of a mellotron and perfectly placed piano, Page’s equally elegant picking, and Plant’s restrained vocals this is just regal.  Like the previous track, it does go on a little too long, but the coda here is stunning and the overall mood of the song might just be their most atmospheric.             

 

The folk/rock masterpiece, “Over The Hills and Far Away,” has a perfect acoustic introduction, absolutely spellbinding.  Unfortunately, the band uses it as a tease before they start rocking, but the tune is still awesome.  Page’s guitar solo is one of his most impressive, combining country and the blues and melding them together to flawlessly fit, and Plant’s lyrics are full of pleasantly innocent riddles (distancing himself from his sexual overtures of the past).  Jones’s slow, ominous organ coda should be out of place, but instead makes the song seem that much more powerful and adds to the chance taking changes the band was undergoing.  While the first three tracks were nothing short of impressive, things definitely take a turn for the worse…

 

But just how bad is the question…most everyone seems to think that four of the remaining five numbers are borderline terrible…I’m not so sure.  True, “The Crunge” is a disco song, with stupid lyrics and features Plant doing his James Brown impression.  But this is just a song…it isn’t a mystical statement or a rocking call for sex…it is just Zeppelin opening up and having a good time, with the ending “Where’s that confounded bridge?” line being hilarious.  It isn’t great (it wasn’t supposed to be), but it is a lot of fun and funky and cool to hear Zeppelin in a new light.  Likewise, “D’yer Mak’er” gets all sorts of flack for being a stupid spoof on reggae…and true enough it is a stupid spoof on reggae, but it’s great anyway: absolutely catchy, dumb and brilliant.  Bonham’s drumming is some of the best of his career and this was the big hit from the album, making it into the US Top Twenty.  It has everything a hit song should have (including cheese) and helped to cement the experiment tag of this album even harder.

 

Ironically, the two tracks on “Houses of the Holy” that are the most similar to the band’s previous hard rocking image, and least experimental, are also two of the most heavily criticized songs on the album.  But again, they are not nearly as bad as their critical reputation.  Dancing Days” features Robert Plant atypically singing monotone, and because of this and the strange Eastern drone, the song has a hypnotic effect.  It isn’t powerful enough to bowl you over or good enough to really make you take notice, but it surely isn’t as lazy or misguided as its critical standing would lead you to believe.  Likewise, “The Ocean” is frequently panned to no end.  Its main structure is nothing but a basic 4/4 rock song, but the background vocals and middle acapella section more than make up for whatever generic feel it held, and the Fifties inspired coda, complete with background “do waps” and Page’s boogie solo, are enough to make this song memorable and a perfect way to end this anything but mundane album.

 

The one song from the album that virtually everyone agrees is impressive is “No Quarter.”  This is a dark, mesmerizing track, with splashes of spacey organ fills, delicate piano fluttering, and dramatic shifts in texture.  It goes back and forth from soft to hard, but it never looses its creepy, empty mood.  Page gave John Paul Jones, the song’s main composer and instrumental star, enough leeway to attempt such a marathon of a tune, and because of the bassist’s effort, the band (at least in their own minds) got closer to ridding itself of its cock-rock cross.

 

With elements of progressive music, atmospheric masterworks, folk/metal hybrids, piss takes, and slightly less thundering hard rock, “Houses of the Holy” is Led Zeppelin’s most diverse album.  The highs are some of the band’s highest points, but the lows are so unlike the band’s traditional output that many see this album as a failure.  Page wanted nothing more than for the critics to look at the band with new eyes, but unfortunately for him, they just questioned why the band sounded so unlike themselves…why didn’t they just stick to the hard rock?  It seems there was just no way for Zeppelin to win.  Still, this album has received a bad rap over the years and is full of enough good music to rank up with the group’s better efforts.

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