Alright, it’s official: I will never love Led Zeppelin. But I don’t see myself disliking them anytime soon either, they’re too professional for that. They leave little of an impression on me due to their lack of human warmth or supremely creative melodies, but when I actually sit down and listen to them my first thoughts are usually along the lines of “You know, this is actually pretty fun.” If music existed in purely technical/headbop terms for me, I’d definitely give a lot more kudos to Zeppelin then I do, but as is I tend to really undersell them.
Take this great album for example! When I reviewed Physical Graffiti I said it was my favorite Zep album behind the debut, but I don’t know what I was thinking. Not only is Houses of the Holy a lot tighter, it’s a heck of a lot more fun and WAY easier to get through in one sitting. It’s so lovably goofy and crazily diverse that there’s no way for me not to heap praise on it. And hey, is that a hint of humanity and warmth I detect? Is this perhaps the most emotionally honest album Zep ever put out? Who’s keeping score anyway? Just have fun!
So, what works here? Well, the melodies are nice, but they’re never the focus (not to mention…who knows which ones they actually wrote?). The playing is fantastic, but that’s true of practically every album of theirs. The production is the best and most crisp they got outside the debut, I guess. I think it’s the general “anything can happen” atmosphere, the strange mystique it insists on having, and even some okay lyrics for once. Pure sugar, this one.
But what refined sugar! The album opens with that is, by a large margin, the best trio in the Zeppelin catalogue. “The Song Remains The Same” starts with an ear-candy guitar intro and continues in that vein by adding some powerful drumming and unpredictable noodling. The result is a twisty-turvy-timey-wimey roller-coaster of a song. It’s shallow, but who cares? Led Zeppelin IS shallow, just enjoy it while it’s on! Wait, scratch that, they must be capable of more than I think, because “The Rain Song” is a gorgeous acoustic exercise. The beauty comes from the tone and note choices rather than superficially “soft” strumming or familiar chords. The actual strings are a nice touch as well, and the “Stairway”-esque escalation is incredibly satisfying. “Over The Hills And Far Away”, then, sounds just plain cool, and continues Zep’s consistent strength of intoxicating and varied guitar tone. It’s hard to describe why a Zep song works when it works, because it’s all very in-the-moment, so I guess you’ll just have to trust me.
The last two songs are fantastic as well. “No Quarter” is wonderfully atmospheric. No really, an atmospheric Led Zeppelin song! They use their mastery of texture to produce one of the most unuqie sonic creations in their catalogue, a warbbily, cave-like-yet-expansive, rippling exercise with occasional fuzz to keep it interesting. How many bands, let alone hard rock/heavy metal bands, were able to pull something like this off WELL in 1973? “The Ocean” is in a similar vein as “The Song Remains The Same”, with some unpredictable cooking and neat melodic twists. Even if Robert Plant’s vocals are really obnoxious, it’s still a satisfying closer.
So right now we have a lineup of five songs that are easily on par with the debut, and if that was all there was, Houses of the Holy would be tied for my favorite Zeppelin album. Unfortunately, there are three songs between the opening trio and closing pair that easily rank among the very worst the band would ever do.
The only one I don’t hold against the album is “The Crunge.” It’s a funk song that is excruciating, brain-dead, and irredeemably horrible, but not in a bad way! Plant’s squeaky vocals, the clumsy and repetitive funk licks, the face-desk inducing lyrics, and the painfully derivative guitar tone are all unbearable on their own, but put together they become HILARIOUS. Something magical happens, and you end up with a masterpiece of bad. I wish I could say the same for “Dancing Days”, a super-generic rock n’ roll ditty with a barely-existent melody and sluggish playing. “D’yer Mak’ker” is reggae. I wish I could make these things up. It’s also terrible reggae, with extremely uncreative work in both the vocal melody and guitar and one of the limpest, weakest “solos” I’ve ever heard.
Three is a pretty large amount of stinkers for an album with only eight songs, but the highs are so high and the overall atmosphere so infectious that I can’t help but elevate the score a few notches from a more-deserved 7 or 8. I like positivity, sue me.
…but what in God’s name is up with the album cover?
Thematic Content: 3/5
Experience: A kid in an early 70s candy store.
9/10. Best Song: No Quarter or The Song Remains the Same