From one legendary British rock band to another, today we return to Led Zeppelin for their fifth released album, “Houses of the Holy”. An interesting change of pace after their colossal fourth album, “Houses of the Holy” is rated #278 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
With a subtle shift in style, I believe this record reflects Robert Plant flexing his increasing influence as the visible front-man of the band, and pushing the band in different directions. Even though it has been less than five years since the first Led Zeppelin album, I believe that both from a stylistic and ability standpoint, Robert Plant was evolving and changing dramatically from the frenzied, piercing, bulletproof high-end vocalist of “Communication Breakdown” into a true singer. He didn’t take great care of that upper end of his range, and due to overuse and smoking, he ultimately had to have surgery that impacted the high end of his range, and from that point on, many of the bands songs were lowered in key. I also think that at his core, Robert Plant is not a hard rocker by nature, and prefers the great diversity of style we have seen in his career since the band split up. For the first time on this album, he is beginning to confront those vocal realities, as well as his desire to change directions, and has been quoted as saying he greatly prefers this album to the fourth album.
The good news is, he still sings in front of three phenomenal musicians, who together were the best of their day. Opening with “The Song Remains The Same”, the connectivity of Page, Jones and Bonham is once again without comparison. I don’t care for the way they altered Robert’s vocals on this studio version, accelerating it artificially as if to recapture his high-end. I love this song live, I just don’t like the vocal production on the studio version. Paired together as they often were live, next comes their first experiment with a string-based ballad, the gorgeous classic, “The Rain Song”. Page and Jones create a magical middle section to this song, with Page’s acoustic guitar and Jones’ string arrangements, and the subtle drum re-entry adds the dramatic conclusion along with perfect, unaltered vocals from Plant.
Next comes their best display of light and shade on this album, “Over The Hills and Far Away”. Opening with a spectacular acoustic lead-in from Jimmy Page, this song is reminiscent of “Ramble On” in the way it moves seamlessly into a powerful, intense rocker, with one of Robert’s last old-school vocal performances. Overall, this may be the best song on the album. Side one ends with their next experiment, taking on the world of soul and James Brown. Even as they ask “where is that confounded bridge”, as if they were riffing “Sex Machine”, they do their best to capture the spirit. This song has never really been a favorite of mine, but listening to as much James Brown as I have on this journey, I do applaud their effort to try and the rhythm beat from Jones and Bonham is super tight, not surprisingly.
Side two opens with “Dancing Days”, an exuberant song about the joys of summer, which resonates with me as we are in the middle of summer here as well. I think this track, and this album, represents the band at their happiest. At this point in time, they were clearly on top of the rock world, and were still making great records and delivering stunning shows, before they started to backslide into substance abuse, differing directions, multiple bad luck events, and excessive self-indulgence. The riff on “Dancing Days” is fantastic, and Plant’s vocals are perfect.
With yet another experimental sound, we have their attempt at reggae, with “D’yer Maker”. Again, I applaud the effort more than the actual result. While this song is ok, it doesn’t really grab me, and in fact, I actually prefer a reworked version of this song that was released in 2007 called “Me Love”, by Jamaican singer Sean Kingston. I bet if you asked Robert Plant, he would say the same thing.
“Houses of the Holy” has enough inconsistencies like “D’Yer Maker” that I rate the album below their very best albums, but it does have some stunning songs as well. Next comes what would become the keyboard showcase for John Paul Jones, “No Quarter”. This is the band at their heaviest and most powerful, even with a slow and mystic song. The chorus guitar riff hits at your core, and the mix of Jones’ keyboard intro, Plant’s haunting vocals, and Bonham’s ever-present drum superiority makes this song a powerhouse here, or live. The album closes with John Bonham counting us off, into another master Jimmy Page riff, on “The Ocean”. This is another track I love here and live, especially when Bonzo grabs the mike to add the high harmony second vocal. They often used “The Ocean” to close out shows on their 1973 tour, as many of these songs were also featured on that tour.
As noted, I will nitpick a few of these tracks, more so than on some other performances, but I still love this album, especially for the ammunition of live material that resulted from this album. Saying once again, this is Robert Plant taking the wheel while on top of the world, and the band was fully equipped to deliver as only Led Zeppelin could in 1973.