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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin III

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 7
Overall Rating = 11


A lot of Led Zeppelin fans swear by this album: after all, in theory at least, the origins of this album indicate the makings of a true masterpiece. With two hard rock/heavy metal classics in the bag and plenty of successful touring, the band's decision to isolate themselves in Wales to work on their music mirrors the Beatles' decision to quit touring 4 years earlier (especially useful a comparison with the start of the new decade, since people were already calling Led Zeppelin the Beatles of the 1970s). Yet, as you can tell from the rating, I'm not one of those who readily hops on board this particular hype train. The problem with this album is that it shows them trying to expand their horizons. Now, I'm normally not one to complain when a generally heavy band wants to lighten things up on a couple of songs, but this particular album is made up of a majority of mainly acoustic-based tracks. When you're dealing with a band whose primary strength is in riffs, reinterpretation of blues/folk tunes as blistering rockers and dark atmosphere, having them go for melody-based writing can offer plenty of issues.

That’s not to say none of the acoustic tunes are any good. In fact, there's only one I'm not sold on at all, the closing "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper". Musically it's fine enough: it's just Page and some sloppy, grating, echoey Blind Willie Johnson-style, which might be a bit underproduced for the time, but which is interesting enough. My issue with the track is Plant's singing. He sings some generic "my woman's evil" kind of blues lyrics, but even calling it "singing" might be a bit of a stretch. He basically howls in a melody-free way, with lots of stuttering and moaning noises. That's not even the worst part; that distinction goes to the vocals being processed through a kind of irritating phased filter, as if trying to emulate the harmonica-blocked vocals of the previous album's closer but in a way that allows Plant to emote more. How they thought this was a fair tribute to newcomer on the folk/blues scene, Roy Harper, I'll never know.

My second least favourite acoustic track, the first of its kind on the LP, "Friends", is technically miles better. The main acoustic riff is once again bluesy in nature, but it's definitely more focused, even as it alternates low chord drones with higher note strummed fills. It also has a bit of an Eastern feel. That does owe in parts to the aforementioned lower chords, but the menacingly swirling strings/Mellotron (not sure which, although either way I know they're John Paul Jones' doing) are what really make that work. Once again, the composition's flaw is in Plant's delivery, although there's at least a melody this time, and his more nasally delivery adds to the atmosphere rather than detracting from it, so there's that. In some ways, it kind of reminds me of Cream's "As You Said"; obviously, it has its own melody and chord progression, but the droning acoustic guitar plus strings duo is a shared characteristic that makes them pretty unique for similar groups who deal more often in heavier stuff.

Of course, those who swear by the acoustic side of the album's charm probably don't do it because of the two tracks I find more flawed, but because of the two pretty ballads in the middle of side two. And yes, it's true, "Tangerine" and "That’s the Way" are quite pretty: decent attractive melodies, crystal clear acoustic strumming and some delightful pedal steel embellishments. I would probably appreciate them more if they didn't sound so similar. About the only way I can distinguish them in my head is in the way the mood changes (or not) from verse to chorus in each one: in the case of "Tangerine", the verses seem despaired and the refrain cautiously hopeful, while in the case of "That’s the Way", both verses and refrains have a relaxed, yet hopelessly romantic feel to them. I suppose I can also note that one guitar chord sequence in "Tangerine" reminds me of the second acoustic section of "Stairway to Heaven" and it has a fuzzy, melodic electric guitar solo to spice things up. So if I had to pick one of the two worthy of promotion from a minor highlight to a major one, it'd be "Tangerine" (even though I ever so slightly prefer the melody to "That's the Way").

Personally, I much prefer the up-tempo acoustic rockers surrounding the two ballads. The LP and LP side's penultimate track, "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" (a title that I believe is Welsh in origin, but don't quote me on that) isn't everyone's favourite for reasons I can't understand. It's nothing mindblowing, of course, but as a folk-blues groove with a hint of skiffle (yep, the genre the British Invasion stars all began in back in the 1950s!), it's not meant to be anything more than fun. With lyrics about the joys of a man's friendship with his dog, the acoustic riff chugging along nicely, the drums being as simple, yet effective as can be (bass drum on the beat, hi-hat off-beat, and that's all), and the bass kind of buzzing like a standup bass, without actually being a standup bass, it can't help but be enjoyably simple and stupid. Even Plant's vocals are quite good: in the "verses" he seems to follow the bassline in a set of drone-like doubled-tracked vocals, and in the one-or-two line refrain, he belts out a bit without going overboard.

My favourite of the acoustic tracks, as well as side two's best track, is the opening "Gallows Pole". Once again, Wales itself is an influence, as the story in the lyrics about a man sentenced to death pleading friends and relatives to bribe the executioner for his freedom is borrowed from a traditional Welsh folk tune. Instrumentally, this tune is the most diverse of the acoustic compositions, being a kind of British folk/hard rock hybrid. The arrangement is of the gradually developing kind which I generally favour: a first verse with Plant only getting backing from a chiming acoustic riff laced with suspended guitar chords (or suspended-sounding, at least), a refrain with a counter-melody to Plant's vocal melody played on the mandolin, and then the rock in folk-rock comes in, with simple, booming drums, cascading banjo arpeggios and, in the coda, some energetic, fuzzy lead guitar battling it out with Plant's overexcited ad-libbing. Some people consider the coda a weak point in the tune, but I think, contextually speaking, it's the perfect way to end the song: after desperately grovelling for his mother, friends, and brother to pay off the executioner, or for his sister to take him away for a little romance, the main character of the song has plenty of reason to feel excited. That, and it adds to the general build-up of the song, so it's not like it's a complete non-sequitur.

Given that three of the four electric guitar-focused tunes are major highlights of the album, it indicates to me that, even when they wanted to focus on their softer or more creative side, Led Zeppelin are at their best when they're heavy. The sole non-highlight of the category, side closer "Out on the Tiles", is still a good song overall, and better than the near-lowlight that closes side two, (as if this wasn't obvious). Page's riffs are perfectly good displays of his talent at creating riffs, whether the descending set of jackhammer chords preceding each verse, or the tricky stop-and-start boogie-like pattern in the verses, or the slide-like blues riff in the coda; likewise, the tone he employs is juicy with just the right amount of crunch, showing he's still got it in regards to exploiting his riffs to their limits simply on the way they sound. Add the steady, slightly funky nature of Jones' bass and Bonham's big, boisterous echoing drums, and you've got a fine backing reminiscent to classic Deep Purple at their funkiest. My problem here is (once again) with Plant's vocals: this time, the singing itself is actually good, with a kind of half-spoken feel in the verses, but in my head they don't suit the backing track all too well.

Of the three highlights here, "Celebration Day" tends to be the least liked (and not always considered a highlight, either). And while I don't consider it to be as great as the other two, that doesn't mean it's a failure. The combination of dark, slide guitar riffs and the occasional funky chicken-scratch chord fills makes the song seem much more complex than it is, the droning, swirling, single synthesizer note buried in the mix makes it hypnotic, and the way all of that backs Plant's vocals, where he menacingly and frighteningly hollers and howls despite the contrast with the upbeat lyrics, gives it a whole backwards ritual vibe; how else could you explain singing "my my I'm so happy" in a voodooist blues rock context with a singer who doesn't sound happy but solemn (and given Page's affinity for the occult, I wouldn't be surprised if there is that sort of… external influence)? The peak of this ritual must then be the guitar solo, one of Page's finest, and one that just explodes out of the mix in a series of ecstatic speedy runs in another great juicy tone.

But it's the two best-known songs that take the cake in regards to being the LP's finest. The opening "Immigration Song" is about more than simple "immigration"; rather, it's about Viking conquests. Some critics claim the Viking element is severely missing in the music compared to, say, their later "No Quarter", but that's a statement I couldn't find more inaccurate. While the latter created a sonic landscape symbolizing the cold, biting winters Viking tribes endured, the speedy metal onslaught of this composition opts to show a conquest in action: if the main riff, this stop-and-start, stuttering, proto-thrash chugging of two chords in six notes, doesn't make you picture armies of Vikings marching forward and clashing into each other, either there's something wrong with me, or with you. All kidding aside, there are positive and notable aspects other than the phenomenal riff, played in unison by Page, Jones and Bonham (his heavy drum bashing is set to the exact rhythm rather than playing it straightforward, although I suppose that would just make the song a bit too cacophonic). For starters, you have Page overdubbing some sparsely placed tremolo guitar chord fills that can sound like snow and wind pushing through the Viking armies with just the right mindset. Jones' basslines bubble out of control as the refrain comes to a close. And as for Plant, he supplies a vocal performance that, were it recorded 15 years later, would be irritating hair metal-like nonsense, whereas here, with the "ah-ah-ah ah" high pitched battle cry, the careful switching from dark, deep, mysterious enunciation and tense falsetto, it's perfectly atmospheric.

Finally, there's "Since I've Been Loving You". While one of the band's strong suits is anything metallic, their other strong suit is dramatic slow blues, and this just happens to be one of the most dramatic slow blues in their catalogue, wiping out "I Can't Quit You Baby" from their debut and, if not beating "You Shook Me", certainly coming close. Everything about the music is just perfect: the initial B.B. King-copped intro, played so quietly you could practically hear the engineer sneeze (he doesn't, but you get the idea), Bonham's drums played steadily yet recorded so well you actually can hear the bass drum pedal squeak (something that becomes more noticeable as the song gets louder), Jones supplying a set of breathy, soulful Hammond organ (and bass pedals to accompany Bonham's rhythmic thump) and of course, Page's masterful guitar playing throughout. Half the time he's playing as quietly, or sometimes quieter, than the first five notes, and other times he whips up a storm of blues licks up and down the scale, with a main solo that sounds like a man aching and crying in a fit of rage and despair over his woman. And of course, who can forget the sad, desperate six-note melody that transitions the song from one 12-bar sequence to the next? That melody alone could pack more punch than 100 top-quality Led Zeppelin ballads. Some criticize Robert Plant's vocals as being overbearing, but I find he follows the ebb and flow of the song perfectly, starting off quietly, almost singing in a mock-cabaret tone, before the desperation sets in and he howls and moans in a way that's far more effective than even that of "Whole Lotta Love", removing the sexuality completely but adding extra self-pity. Even when he ad libs and deviates from the main melody, he always goes back to it, and it's always vaguely hinted at even when he strays from it, so those who might be weary of an excessive lack of melody can feel comfortable knowing this.

Overall, I would consider this a solid 11/15 LP. Like I said, it's quite a step down from their first two albums, which I adore, and even their next one, which manages to find solid middle ground between what their first two accomplished and what this one wanted too, but it's still an album that shows some sort of songwriting, singing, playing and arranging talent. Ultimately, if you want acoustic Led Zeppelin at their best, the more obvious choices, like the acoustic tunes on Led Zeppelin IV (*cough*"Stairway to Heaven"*cough*), or my personal favourite, "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" from their debut (showing their delicate side and their heavy side over the course of six minutes), would better suffice. On the other hand, this first step into diversifying their sound is a worthy one, and while I think Houses of the Holy tops it in that regard, I don't think that one would be as successful if they didn't already dip their toes into these waters. And anyways, there are still some great songs to be found here, and only one bad one, so while I don't think it's the masterpiece many Zeppelin fans purport it to be, it's a very good album worthy of a spot in your record collection.

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