Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Thomas Roller at firstname.lastname@example.org
It can be hard to find motivation in the wintertime, and apparently most musicians agree with me, because trying to find something interesting to review at this time of year is like trying to get a square meal by licking the bottom of a McDonald’s dumpster. So until Kanye’s new album is available on a medium that isn’t Tidal, I’m pulling an old critic’s trick and doing a retro review. I’m pretty glad about that, because it means I can finally talk about one of my other favorite bands: Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin, of course, was an English quartet of musicians who came together to make the greatest and most influential rock band of all time. Yeah, I described them with a superlative. Led Zeppelin is amazing. The band’s sound was so singular and has yet to be improved upon. Mixing English traditionals, Delta Blues and some hard arena rock, its success served as a benchmark for countless bands for years to come, and it continues to influence artists today. It’s one of a few bands I know that doesn’t have a single bad song in its discography. And this year, the band’s penultimate studio release, Presence, celebrates its 40th birthday.
The first thing you notice about Presence is how different it sounds from the rest of Led Zeppelin’s catalog, while still feeling like a natural progression from where the band left off at the end of its previous album, Physical Graffiti. This album is fascinating from a historical standpoint because it marked a turning point for the band, a brief period of more experimental music that was cut tragically short by the death of drummer John Bonham and the subsequent breakup of the band. I always get the sense that if Zeppelin had made more records after its final release, In Through the Out Door, this experimentation would have taken the band in even more exciting directions.
It’s because of this premature ending that I think that some regard Presence and its successor as the worst of the Led Zeppelin records, and while the album does meander at certain points, I still hold it up as an under-appreciated gem. I’m still a sucker for the epic opener “Achilles’ Last Stand,” which combines Robert Plant’s Tolkien-esque songwriting and storytelling abilities with the virtuosity of the rest of his band. At 10 minutes long, the song is no slouch, but it never wears out its welcome. The composition is so dynamic that it feels like movements of a symphony.
Once that song ends and the album really opens up, it becomes apparent that this is a much more subdued affair than the raucousness of the first three Zeppelin records. This is a more mature Led Zeppelin, tempered by the years of jubilation and tragedy that the band experienced throughout its tenure. Even Bonham’s legendarily loud drumming seems tempered. There’s also a lot more synth and keyboard work than on previous releases, a trend that would continue on In Through the Out Door.
On this album, Zeppelin leans far more heavily on jam-oriented composition, as opposed to the driving, pulsing rock backbeats that they’re famous for. Think more “Stairway to Heaven” than “Immigrant Song.” The songs are given a lot of room to breathe, and guitarist Jimmy Page gracefully dances through the odd tempos and long, slow rhythms of this record. His guitar playing is as soulful as ever, and a little bit wistful as well.
The closer in particular, the monstrous blues jam “Tea for One,” seems an uncharacteristically melancholy way to close out a Zeppelin record. Plant’s vocals hang in the air like fog, Bonham’s drums are almost silent by his standards of playing, and Page’s guitar weeps all over the smoky rhythms of this track.
This album is covered with these painfully sublime musical moments, and it’s that kind of feeling that makes me think that Led Zeppelin definitely had something significant to say with this new sound. What makes me sad is that it never really got to finish saying it.