Led Zeppelin

How Led Zeppelin embraced prog-rock on ‘House of the Holy’

All the rules fell by the wayside by the time Led Zeppelin recorded ‘Stairway to Heaven’, as the band began exploring new forms of music that were different, and more European, to the harder-edged blues anthems on their first two albums. It wasn’t just Robert Plant and Jimmy Page either, as keyboardist John Paul Jones was showing a greater interest in the form and presentation of the music in question. They were imbibing the sonic ambience of the era, culminating in a fifth album that was laced from head to toe in the emblems of prog rock.

Jones stakes out his own dense territory by crafting the emotionally coiled keyboard hook to ‘No Quarter’, offering Plant the chance to sing in a more subdued, cerebral manner. Giddily inventive, and based almost entirely around the keyboard riff, the song is one of the most original works in the band’s canon. Everything from the dense keyboard line to the guitar flourishes that soak the instrumental passage sound like something from another dimension entirely. And just as things threaten to get too quiet, Robert Plant lets out his rock voice to close the ballad on a shrill, singular scream. In typical mid-1970s form, the song defies pigeon-holing but instead thrusts itself headfirst into the unpredictability progressive rock permitted artists during the era.

The album shows the band at their most expressive, never tailoring to forms that were commonly heard on the radios.The most straightforward number, ‘Dancing Days’, is an ode to the early days of the group, albeit enlivened with animal imagery and punched up by shimmering cadences, providing the blueprint for their Eastern masterwork, ‘Kashmir’. Through a maze of multi-track guitars, Plant lets out a colossal roar, mimicking Jones’ jaunty synthesiser and barrelling bass work. The band were firing at all cylinders, but the strongest work is the most incendiary, casting off the shackles of blues-rock for something more kaleidoscopic in tone and density.

Each man was prepared to dispel any preconceived notions about the band, whether it was infusing the melodies with an underlying degree of sonic keyboard sound, or showing George Harrison that a so-called “heavy metal” band could write a ballad to match The Beatles output. There’s nothing hard-edged or rollicking about ‘The Rain Song’, but, instead, it favours a more sombre outlet, projecting the failings of the narrator for a more peaceful, pleasant piece about absolution through stormy weather. The lyrics were excellent, but Page couldn’t resist ribbing Harrison with a gentle nod to the opening of ‘Something’.

‘The Song remains The Same’ was Page’s first and best foray into orchestral pop, layering the soundscape with a series of bellowing riffs, each one more ornate than the one that came before it. Such exhibitions of sound were bold, bringing balance and bravado to the mix, which is why it shouldn’t sound surprising that Page initially intended for it to be an instrumental. But Plant’s vocal isn’t mere dressing, as his cosmic lyrics embellish the thunder that soaks the propulsive number. “Every time I sing that,” Plant remembered, “I just picture the fact that I’ve been round and round the world, and at the root of it all there’s a common denominator for everybody. The common denominator is what makes it good or bad, whether it’s a Led Zeppelin or an Alice Cooper.”

Not every experiment works: White reggae effort ‘D’yer Maker’ does little to show what English men could do with the genre – audiences would have to wait for The Police to get that particular fix – and the pounding, drum-heavy ‘The Crunge’ features one of Page’s most nauseating hooks. Neither song showed the band at their best, which makes us wonder why the excellent title track was discarded, only to turn up on their next album, Physical Graffiti.

But at its best, the record is an album of contrast, character and contradiction. The album is capped off with a triptych of esoteric epics: The sprawling grooves of ‘Over The Hills and Far Away’; the crawling, visceral thunder of ‘No Quarter’; and ‘The Ocean’, a monster number that sounded better on stage, where the suspended and jagged drum beats were given free rein to let loose and play from all corners of the kit.

Led Zeppelin was growing from simple bluesmen to artists of a more interesting description. There’s nary a riff wasted on the album, and the drums sound steady but precise. The bass punches in and out of the mix, and the vocal effects carry an added pathos, particularly as Plant was responding to the lyrical valve that was opening before his very eyes. This was a band enjoying the rivers of abstract rock. Even after their idiosyncratic fourth album, Houses of The Holy stands as the band’s greatest tribute to prog, and it’s still as dazzling today as it was when it was first released.

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