Monday, September 30, 2013

Coda (1982)

The aptly-named Coda is a post-breakup album of outtakes from Led Zeppelin's recorded archives. It sounds about as you would expect an outtakes album to sound - spotty, with some more and less interesting tracks (the best of which, being outtakes, don't quite rise to the level of Zep's best songs, with the possible exception of the one or two live tracks). It doesn't have the cohesion of a real album, but honestly, after listening to In Through The Out Door, you could be forgiven for forgetting just how fantastic Led Zeppelin sounded in their earlier days, and hearing that again (on not all, but a few of the tracks on this album) is perhaps a better memory of the band than leaving off with In Through The Out Door.

Like all of Zeppelin's albums, it starts out strong, with a track called We're Gonna Groove, which is one of the several (often cover) songs the band performed live during their earliest tours that was never formally recorded for one of their studio albums. It's a short, high-energy rocker, with some fantastic-sounding contributions by all members of the band, especially Jimmy Page and his frenetic guitar attack. A single listen will cure the malaise that In Through The Out Door left you with.

The second track on the album is a song called Poor Tom, which is actually a variation on a song called That's No Way To Get Along, that was also recorded by The Rolling Stones under the title Prodigal Son (on their Beggars Banquet album). It's a light, shuffling, acoustic piece, with prominent percussion, and a harmonica part. It's a nice enough little number, but ultimately it fails to impress much.

Of all the songs Zep could have chosen to feature a live version on this album, it's curious that they picked I Can't Quit You Baby - but I'm certainly not complaining, seeing as I like the song so much, and this live version is absolutely smoldering with the kind of raw energy that is typical of Zep's early live recordings. It's an excellent teaser for the journey many of Zep's fans will embark upon, delving into the band's prominent (and often rewarding) bootleg catalog, after they've come to the end of their studio recorded (and officially released live) material. The only remaining question is why Poor Tom was slipped in between this track and We're Gonna Groove, breaking up the live combination, especially considering that those two songs were often performed together...

Then we come to Walter's Walk, which it turns out is kind of a Frankenstein of a number (or possibly the donor to other Frankensteins), parts of which were used in various other songs in Zep's catalog. Unfortunately, it's not as interesting as that introduction makes it sound. It's not bad, either - it's got a good rock n roll atmosphere, with a satisfying guitar part - but as you can expect from an outtake, it falls about in the range of average quality.

Ozone Baby is one of those strange kinda songs - like South Bound Saurez - that don't leave a whole lot of an impression. Of course, it doesn't help when you don't listen to the album that contains it nearly as often as the band's others - but then that's a symptom of the songs on the album not being as good. Actually, Ozone Baby has a decent rhythm, with a chorus that sounds eerily familiar. Now that I'm reading that it's one of three songs on Coda that are outtakes from the In Through The Out Door sessions, I'm wondering if that album would have been better with the outtakes than some of the other songs that made it on there.

Darlene was another one of those ITTOD outtakes, and is a little bit better than Ozone Baby. Which is kind of interesting, because it's a bit of a quirky song. But it's got a good rhythm, and despite being sort of light-hearted, I think it's far more effective at being a good song than other songs that try to be "fun". Even the piano part in this song sounds good. Its inclusion wouldn't have raised ITTOD to the level of a great album, but I think it would have improved it a little.

Bonzo's Montreux follows in the footsteps of Led Zeppelin II's Moby Dick, as a drum solo song. But this time, we don't get the kickass guitar riff intro/outro. Instead, we get some weird electronic effects, that make the song sound very dated. The drumming is impressive, as always - John Bonham was rightly hailed as one of the all time best drum gods of the 1970s rock scene - but I wouldn't say this is the best track to remember him by. If you really want to be impressed, get a hold of one of the live versions of Moby Dick, of which the antics in the studio version and this song are a mere taste.

I love the story behind Wearing And Tearing. Rumor has it, the band was going to release the song anonymously as a single, to see if punk-loving audiences would eat it up, not knowing it had been recorded by one of the very "dinosaur" bands they loved to rail against. It never happened, but here it is on Coda, and it's fast, and it's hard, and I think I could see it having sort of a punk aesthetic. Not an authentic punk aesthetic, of course, but it's not by any means the worst of Led Zeppelin's genre experiments. In fact, apart from the live tracks, I think it's the best song on Coda, and it would have definitely improved the quality of In Through Out Door if it had been included on that album.

Bonus Tracks

Special editions of Coda (the version included in the Complete Studio Recordings box set, I think) tack on several bonus tracks to the end of the album, which I think is a fantastic idea, for completionists who want to get every last song recorded by the band that's ever been officially released. The only problem is that you have to buy the box set to get them, so if you've already bought Led Zeppelin's complete studio recordings, you're basically paying box set price for four tracks. One of which is on the BBC Sessions album, so three, really. And they're not even that great. :-\

The first of them is a song called Baby Come On Home, which is kind of ballad-y, and has an organ part that recalls maybe Your Time Is Gonna Come from Zep's first album (although much more understated). It's actually a pretty little song, but given its status as a rare, hard-to-find track, it's not gonna blow your mind.

Travelling Riverside Blues is the song that was recorded for the BBC, and is available on Led Zeppelin's BBC Sessions album (highly recommended). Most of the songs on that album are alternate live versions of songs that turn up on Zep's studio albums, but this is one song that stands out, and was actually released as a single. It sounds really good, features Jimmy playing a slide guitar, and is a cover of a Robert Johnson song. The only complaints I have about it are that it's not sad enough as a blues song, and not hard enough as a rock song. But if you're just listening for fun, I think it sounds great.

Led Zeppelin's first album contained the acoustic instrumental Black Mountain Side. Well, the next bonus track includes its cousin, White Summer, together with Black Mountain Side in one piece, the way Jimmy played it live - White Summer/Black Mountain Side. The White Summer part was first recorded by Jimmy while he was still in The Yardbirds (on the Little Games album), which is why he probably didn't record it again with Led Zeppelin (being that it's not even a band song, but a solo showcase), but here you get the whole impressive thing, and I have to admit, the two pieces sound great together. The only thing that's more impressive is the live version on the Royal Albert Hall portion of the new Led Zeppelin DVD - which, by the way, is a must-watch.

The final bonus track is a song called Hey, Hey, What Can I Do? which was actually released as the B-side of the single Immigrant Song. It's a pretty, acoustic number that wouldn't sound out of place on Led Zeppelin III. It's got a nice rhythm, and the chorus is infectious. I have to admit that it sounds really good, but at the end of the day, it's perfectly suited for the lite-FM format, and that's not the hunger I wish to sate when I put Led Zeppelin on my stereo. I find myself craving Dazed and Confused, Heartbreaker, Black Dog. It's too bad the time has run out for this Zeptember, because I'd love to dig into some live Zep right now. Maybe I'll save it for next year...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

In Through The Out Door (1979)

The strangest thing happened when I put on In Through The Out Door - it was like a breath of fresh air after listening to Presence multiple times on repeat. I don't know what it is - the songwriting, or the production, or what - but Presence is a very oppressive, even claustrophobic record. It's unique in Zep's discography, and In Through The Out Door sees Zep back in their regular mode (the one that involves tackling various genres). But this is not the same Led Zeppelin that produced albums 1-4, HotH, or even Physical Graffiti. Four years have passed since Physical Graffiti, and the '70s is coming to a close. You can already hear the age in Robert Plant's voice - he's not the screaming rock god he was in 1969. And the album features lots of keyboard and synthesizers, heralding the rapid approach of that pernicious decade for rock music, the '80s.

About a year after the release of this album, John Bonham would turn up dead (official cause of death: excessive partying), and the band would make the decision that they can not go on without all four members (an appropriate and respectful decision, I feel). It was the end of an era, in more ways than one. What would Led Zeppelin have sounded like if they continued on, or if John Bonham hadn't died? There's no telling. Rumor has it that they were planning to go in a heavier direction again, but could they have escaped the musical influences of the '80s? Chances are poor. Many other big bands of the '60s and '70s who survived into the '80s in some form or another (including the likes of Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones) suffered in that decade. Regardless, Led Zeppelin had made their mark on the musical landscape, and it was perhaps time for them to step aside and let someone else carry the torch into the future.

There is one thing that Presence and In Through The Out Door have in common - their two best (though not most popular) songs are found at the start and the end of the album. ITTOD opens with an interesting track called In The Evening. It doesn't quite manage to be the rock hit that this album so desperately needs, but it's got a good riff, and an eerie part at the beginning. It definitely has a bit of a unique sound to it, and the guitar and vocals both scream to me "aging Zeppelin", but at the same time, it's the best song on the album. Though that doesn't bode particularly well for the rest of the album.

South Bound Saurez (sic) is, honestly, a song that doesn't make much of an impression. I'd say it's one of the most forgettable songs in Zep's catalog. Which isn't to say that it's terrible, but it just doesn't have a whole lot to make it memorable. There's some piano going on here, and a bit of "sha na na" in the outro, so even the fairly decent guitar solo (which is too rare on this album) isn't enough to save it from sounding almost pop/dance-like. Like I said, it's not terrible, but I doubt you'll ever hear yourself saying, "ooh, put on South Bound Saurez!" (Though I have a feeling the semi-intentional typo may contribute to your unwillingness to say the title out loud, for fear of mispronouncing it -_^).

Then we come to the first of the two really popular songs on this album - Fool In The Rain. I'll admit, I was at one time sick to death of this song. I guess I can sort of understand its popularity - it's one of the more accessible songs on the album, and the lyrics are fun, about a man waiting for his date, who fears he's been stood up, until he realizes he's been standing on the wrong block. But it's just not a good rock song. I mean, it's got that piano again, and some kind of weird tropical island shit going on that sounds like it was misplaced from a Jimmy Buffet recording, and there's actually a whistle in the solo. A whistle! Having been away from it for so long, I can stand to listen to it now, but trust me, when a group of sorority girls play it loud and often, alongside Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar On Me and other syrupy pop-rock fluff, it gets tired really fast.

I'll tell you a secret. I actually don't hate Hot Dog, even though it's a light-hearted country-ish, almost square dance-like, hoe-down type of a tune. I mean, I don't really like it, but it does have a fun little guitar riff. Frankly, at least from a vocal standpoint, I think this is a more successful channeling of Elvis than Candy Store Rock was, but it sure ain't no Hound Dog (which was actually first recorded by blues belter Big Mama Thornton before Elvis got his hands on it). Unless you live in some place that actually still holds their school dances in barns, you're probably not going to go crazy for Hot Dog, but at least it's not as forgettable as South Bound Saurez.

I knew a DJ once (well, knew of him) who said on one occasion that those people who considered Carouselambra their favorite Led Zeppelin song were the band's true fans. He was probably just joking, but I wouldn't put it past him to have really meant it. Seriously, though, Carouselambra is just not that good. It's ten minutes long, yet it comes up rather short of being epic. It's heavy on the synth keyboards, and seems to want to be a prog song. But it just isn't effective or convincing - you'll be much more impressed if you just go listen to a Yes recording. But it's an interesting enough experiment for the band. They're just much better at applying their virtuosic talents to good old-fashioned blues and rock 'n roll. Still, I've treated Carouselambra as a joke for a long time now, and - I'm still not about to give it any awards, but - I think that it at least deserves a little more credit than that.

Honestly, I feel bad saying anything negative about All My Love, because it's this emotional ballad Robert Plant wrote for his son who tragically died in 1977. It seems almost disrespectful, but then, the song and the tragedy are two separate things. And it's not that All My Love isn't a good song. It sounds just fine. It's just that it's not the kind of song I enjoy. Even as ballads go, it's not a rock song. I mean, it's got a synthesizer solo. It's a good enough synthesizer solo - that's not the issue. It's that the overall sound of the song doesn't get me going. And while it's good for any band to make some successful music outside of their usual style (this song proved to be fairly popular), it's not the sort of song I would point to and say, "listen to this, this is Led Zeppelin, man." I mean, it's another example of how this whole album is good enough, for what it is, but doesn't really manage to be a great Led Zeppelin album.

The last song on the album is a track called I'm Gonna Crawl, and is one of the two I'd rate the best on the album. It's not as much rock 'n roll as In The Evening - in fact, I'd probably put it in the category of ballad - but it's got a nice, slow, triplet beat, kind of hinting at the structure of a slow blues without strictly being a blues, and Plant's pained vocals give it the sort of pathos I like in a song. Additionally, it's got a pretty insistent guitar part that cuts in where the song's energy peaks, and one of the better solos on this album. I hate to knock the keyboards again - John Paul Jones is a fantastic musician, and he made plenty of worthwhile contributions to the band, that's not under debate - but it's one of those instruments that's a little bit foreign to rock music (like horns in the blues), and using it effectively in a rock song without "watering it down" is very tricky to do (if that's even your intention). But take a song like No Quarter - the keyboard part makes that song, and yet it's still a really good piece of rock. And the symphonic parts on Stairway to Heaven were just perfect. But here, on I'm Gonna Crawl, it just seems to take the song in a softer direction, that works at cross-purposes to what everything else is doing in the song. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Presence (1977)

In 1977, Led Zeppelin is not as young as they once were. At the start, they put out their first two albums in the space of one year. Now, they're in the habit of releasing an album every other year. It's inevitable that years of touring, and rock stardom, would take its toll on the members of any band, and the perspective Led Zeppelin has in 1977, as leaders of the rock world, is much different than the perspective they had in 1969 when they were new and fresh, and raring to take on the world. Nevertheless, it is a perspective that is not without value.

Presence is a very heavy record, much like the first half of Physical Graffiti. Musically, it's the band's most consistent record, but that actually works to its disadvantage here. Listening to it, for once I find myself thinking that those light breaks between the harder songs on Zep's other albums serve a necessary function. The majority of the songs on this album have a similar sound, with a similar heavy riffing approach. There seems to be less of a collaborative songwriting effort between the members of the band, and the music suffers as a result.

As a heavy album with lots of hard rock songs, I should like it as much as any of Zep's albums, but the truth is, Presence isn't as strong as many of them. On any other album, I could usually point to a heavy song and say, this song is heavy, so I like it. Here, all the songs are heavy, and while they're composed of good parts - Jimmy's playing throughout the album, for example, is excellent - they just can't all be that great. It turns out that it takes more than a rocking riff or a searing solo to raise a song to the level of masterpiece. And nowhere is that more clear than on this album, where you can listen to its mediocre tracks alongside either of the two masterpieces that do appear on this album. It's a shame that both of them clock in at within 30 seconds of the ten minute mark, which makes them very unlikely candidates for radio hit stardom.

The album begins with its piece de resistance, Achilles Last Stand, which opens with a unique fade-in (echoed by its corresponding fading outro), before breaking into a heavy, marauding, epic piece of guitar rock. This is one of Jimmy's greatest heavy rock compositions, where the dynamic elements of the rhythm are just as captivating as the dizzying solos. Fans refer to the sound on this song as a "wall of guitars", for good reason. Meanwhile, John Bonham is pounding on the drums in overdrive on this song, which I consider (though not being a drummer) one of his best recorded performances. And Robert Plant sings lyrics that make liberal references to mythology, that tend to get your creative juices flowing. It's a late strike for the band, but I consider it one of their greatest songs, and not just as a later-era song, but standing fully on par with earlier hits like Dazed and Confused or Stairway to Heaven.

For Your Life features a very stop-and-start rhythm, which you'll find is a recurring theme in the songs on Presence. It's fairly repetitive (especially coming after the meandering Achilles Last Stand), and kind of hypnotic. It's really not a bad song, but I don't think it really jumps out at you at first, for some reason. But now that I'm listening to it for like the third time on repeat, I'm discovering that it (like this album overall) kind of grows on you. Like, compared to the rest of the musical world, it may not be flashy, and it may not draw you in, but once you're in there, you really start to get comfortable. Plant's pained groaning, and of course Page's excellent guitar work in this song, sort of hits a tasty groove. I'd call it an acquired taste, but one that I'm definitely able to develop.

Musically, Royal Orleans is kind of like a more upbeat For Your Life. It doesn't sound at all out of place on this album, but it also kind of channels a D'yer Mak'er, or maybe even a The Crunge, but not in a particularly good way. The lyrics are also more humorous, describing the occasion on which a member of the band (does it even matter who?) allegedly spent a night in New Orleans and woke up next to a woman who turned out to be a man. Unlike the last song that I could get into, this song doesn't do much for me.

The songs between this album's fantastic bookends suffer largely from plain old mediocrity. They're not terrible, but they're not great, either. Nobody's Fault But Mine is the one exception, that manages to pull itself ahead of the pack. And since its runtime comes in at under 7 minutes, it's the rightful choice as the only real semi-radio hit off the album. And it's a pretty good demonstration of a late-era hit for the band, to contrast with the youthful exuberance of their earlier hits. The song itself is one of the band's last rock resurrections of an old folk/blues tune, this time a spiritual Blind Willie Johnson number. And like many before it, Zep's version is nearly unrecognizable - in the best possible way. It relies on a guitar riff that's far more exciting than any in the songs it's couched between, and it uses the stop-and-start rhythm to maximum effect here, even to the point of leaving you guessing when the song's actually going to end - almost as if the band's just enjoying the song so much, they don't want to stop playing it. Meanwhile, Plant pulls out his blues harp again, and gives one of his better performances with the instrument. You could probably condense Presence to three tracks (this and the two bookends), and you wouldn't be missing out on much.

I believe that Candy Store Rock is supposed to be an imitation (or at least a Zep-itation) of 1950s rockabilly, more or less in the style of Elvis. It's an interesting concept, Elvis being the "King" of rock, and Led Zeppelin being rock gods, but unfortunately it suffers from the same mediocrity that plagues the majority of the rest of this album. Truth be told, 1970s album-oriented rock is already the descendant of '50s rock 'n roll - and is better in my opinion - so it works better when a band like Led Zeppelin is building on their inspiration to record tunes like Communication Breakdown or, hey, even Rock and Roll, instead of going backwards and trying to recreate a more primitive form of rock music.

Hots On For Nowhere is not the worst song on Presence - I would give that accolade to Royal Orleans. It's just that, by the time you get to it, you've heard the same stop-start rhythm so many times, you're starting to get sick of it, because it all just sounds too "samey". It's not without justification that Presence doesn't get as much love as most of Led Zeppelin's other albums. Of course, it does have something of a unique atmosphere, and is worthy of a niche kind of appreciation, and I could describe it as an acquired taste. There was a time when I may have appreciated it especially for that reason. Nowadays, I can admit that Presence is a flawed record. I wouldn't rate it one of my favorites, but it's certainly not terrible. I mean, it's got a couple really good songs that are as good as anything the band has recorded, and - I still like it more than In Through The Out Door.

But before we get on to that, there is the matter of Presence's closing track - Tea For One. It's a straight-up blues piece, with a very tasteful and in-depth performance by Jimmy Page on lead guitar. Interestingly, it's one of the most original blues the band recorded, and yet it's still definitely one of their best. Which just proves that despite all the musical borrowing they engaged in, these were very talented musicians, who could still put together an excellent original tune (of course, I would argue that what they did with their cover tunes itself proves that fact). It stands out a bit on Presence (being both much bluesier and much better than the rest of the album, excepting Achilles Last Stand), but that's just as well, because it helps to raise Presence to the level of a must-listen album, even in spite of its flaws.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Physical Graffiti (1975)

Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin's first (and only, among their original studio albums) double album, and the last album during what I would label their classic period. The band had made a name for themselves, and their sound had matured. It was 1975, and the classic rock format was well established (although obviously not called "classic" at the time). It was still contemporary, but it wasn't new and fresh anymore, like it was at the turn of the decade. And though good rock music would continue to be made through the end of the decade, and - to a much lesser extent - into the '80s and beyond, by this time the popularity of punk and disco was on the rise.

Led Zeppelin, gods of their genre that they were, could be propped up as a prime example of the concept of the "dinosaur rock" band, bloated on excess and their own popularity, selling out huge stadiums in the mid-'70s. That Physical Graffiti is a double album could be interpreted as an expression of their ego and ambition. Of course, it could also be interpreted as evidence that this was a band that loved playing music and writing songs (well, when they weren't recording other people's songs), and wanted to share that with its fans. As I said, Physical Graffiti is Zep's last "classic" album, but I don't believe their coming decline was yet in evidence here.

This is a long one, so I'm going to jump right in. The opening track pretty much sets the stage for the album. Gone is the light and airy sound of the previous album, and in its place we have Led Zeppelin in their heavy mode, but with a sound that's even crunchier, and perhaps closer to the heavy metal style that they could be credited as being among the progenitors of, than they were on their previous albums. Custard Pie is another amalgam of old blues tunes, and though it's never gotten the recognition of some of Zep's other rocked up blues frankensteins, it's got a biting riff and I think it's really good.

But The Rover is even better. It ranks up there for me, with Since I've Been Loving You and No Quarter, as one of those several Zep tracks that never really get a lot of radio play, but that I would rate as some of the best tracks they ever recorded. SIBLY was blues, and No Quarter had an eerie atmosphere, but The Rover is straight up hard rock. And one of its most shining qualities is the kick-ass guitar riffage that Jimmy plays, that weaves through the song and supports Robert Plant's vocals. Overall the song just trucks along with a steady momentum, and the changing guitar parts give it a sense of motion, like you're actually getting somewhere, and not just repeating the same riff over and over for five and a half minutes. It's a damn fine piece of music, if you ask me.

And after the fadeout, cue the intro to In My Time of Dying, which instantly recalls the slide tradition of blues - one that this band hadn't properly addressed, until now. Soon enough the rock and roll kicks in, and the eleven minute long journey begins, as the song builds up gradually in intensity to a jamming crescendo of rock energy. In My Time of Dying is not an original composition, but an old folk/blues tune, sometimes titled Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed. If you compare it to most previous versions - Bob Dylan's on his debut album for example - Zep's is a world apart. But the missing link is a 1969 recording by an unknown band called Fear Itself, who attacked the song with psychedelic rock energy, producing an extended version with prominent fuzz guitar. I would be surprised if Led Zeppelin weren't influenced by this previous recording, but their own version is somewhat more accessible, and Jimmy's slide guitar restores that bridge to the song's roots in the blues. Regardless, it's one of those tracks, like The Doors' L.A. Woman, where you can sense that the band is in a groove in the studio, managing to totally nail the track while having a whole lot of fun in the process.

I think that Houses of the Holy (curiously not appearing on the album of the same name) is probably the most poppy song on Physical Graffiti. That having been said, it's still fairly heavy (love that riff!), which actually makes for a nice combination. Although I do often prefer the harder tracks, it's nice to have something a little more fun to break up the monotony, and you can be sure that you'll hear this one on the radio every now and again. And compared to a song like Dancing Days (which I always want to compare to this one for some reason), it's got a little more oomph to make it more interesting (in my opinion).

Trampled Under Foot (which might just as well have been called "Talkin' Bout Love") follows in the tradition of Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues, as a song that uses automobile terminology as a metaphor for sex. And as far as songs about cars go, it could quite possibly give Deep Purple's Highway Star a run for its money. Trampled Under Foot is ultra-heavy, with a driving guitar riff that's maddeningly difficult to get down (if you've ever tried to play it on guitar), and some cool organ stuff working in the background. Truth be told, it is a little repetitive, and I wonder how it's a more popular radio track than, say, The Rover, which is the same length but more dynamic. But I guess it's got a really good groove, and I'm sure that rock fans (especially later ones who've grown up with heavy metal) are able to appreciate its almost sludgy atmosphere.

The first half of Physical Graffiti closes with Kashmir, which in some circles has been raised to the level of contender with Stairway To Heaven for the title of Led Zeppelin's greatest song. I am not in that camp, however I do like Kashmir a lot. It's got an interesting ascending riff, and the lyrics that Robert Plant sings, about searching for a magical place that seems to have become lost in a wasteland, are among his most captivating and imaginative. There is a symphonic accompaniment to the song, but it manages to complement the song's weight quite well, and avoids making it sound too orchestra-y. The overall effect is somewhat hypnotic. And where Kashmir has been credited as an example of Led Zeppelin's interest in Indian-flavored world music, the fact that it maintains such a heavy atmosphere makes it more effective than, for example, Page and Plant's subsequent attempt to channel Eastern influences in Most High (on their semi-reunion album, Walking Into Clarksdale). Kashmir is, undoubtedly, an impressive musical accomplishment, but I listen to music with my ears, not my brain, and so, while I like it, I don't usually count it as one of my favorites, and I'd just as soon put on Achilles Last Stand if I'm looking for an epic, fantasy-themed, heavy rocker.

In all honesty, I think the first half of Physical Graffiti would have made for a very strong album all on its own. The second half is a lot more experimental, and a lot less heavy, but there are still a couple more heavy tracks left, and a few others very much worth listening to, as well. In The Light is one of the stranger ones. It opens with an eerie, bagpipe-y intro, that leads into a bunch of neat synthesize-y stuff. Eventually, a rock guitar kicks in, salvaging this song from the fate of total obscurity. The result is an effective but very unique song to add to Led Zeppelin's catalog, and one of the few with more of an emphasis on the keyboard than the guitar.

If you played Bron-Yr-Aur (not to be confused with Bron-Y-Aur Stomp) out of context, you might not guess that it's a Led Zeppelin song. You don't even have any lyrics to recognize Robert Plant's voice by. But as an acoustic instrumental, it follows in the rare steps of White Summer and Black Mountain Side. It's a very short piece, barely breaking the two minute mark, but it's very beautiful, with a kind of undulating sound that recalls to my mind the babbling of a gentle brook. There's hardly enough substance to satisfy you, so it's not surprising this song never gets played on the radio or anywhere else, but it's a shame, because it really is one of the prettiest pieces in Zep's catalog.

Down By The Seaside is interesting, because it's one of those songs where I'm not quite sure how to categorize it. It continues the watery theme suggested in Bron-Yr-Aur, both in lyrics and in the watery instrumental tones in use, but has an almost country feel to it. Then, of course, in true Zeppelin fashion, the song takes a left turn and gets all fast and heavy. It's one of those tracks that I kinda like, but not really super like. The sort that offers some variety from all those hard-rocking hits, in a way that's not quite as captivating as those hits, but is at least more interesting and more effective than some of Zep's other off-the-wall experiments (I'm looking at you Led Zeppelin III, and parts of Houses of the Holy). In Survivor parlance, I wouldn't vote it off the island (this week), but I'm not gunning for it to win, either.

Ten Years Gone, however, would find itself in the final round, neck and neck with The Rover (can't we have two winners? It's a double album after all!). TYG is a gorgeous song. And so under-appreciated. When was the last time you heard it on the radio? It has a haunting quality to it that recalls Tangerine, but this piece is heavier and more substantial. If you play guitar, I implore you to learn - at the very least - the opening chords. They're every bit as beautiful as Bron-Yr-Aur, but this song is an electric ballad and not an acoustic interlude. It's beautiful and it's rock n roll! Seriously, this is how rock ballads should be done.

I find myself struggling to like Night Flight more than I do, and I wonder if this is maybe one of the songs on this album where the more substantial keyboard parts detract from the overall sound. Then again, even the guitar part has a kind of mediocre, chugging rhythm. The lyrics are interesting though, evoking an adventurous journey that may or may not involve the end of the world (or just the end of somebody's life), and may tap into the same wanderer's mentality that was in evidence on Ramble On. But even when Robert sings about a gun being shoved into his hand, the upbeat atmosphere of the song makes it feel more like an exciting fantasy (like if you were sitting in the theater watching a movie), than anything real or substantial. My head fills with images of Indiana Jones on a train... The best (and funniest) part of the song is the very end, when Robert exhales an "uh!" as if to cue the end of the song, but the song keeps going, so Robert lets out a few more insistent uhs until the song actually does end.

Appropriately titled, The Wanton Song finds us back in the mindset of the first half of Physical Graffiti, all unrelenting and heavy. Like all the other great heavy songs on this album, it's got a great riff, and a driving rhythm, with Robert shouting over all the instruments. I guess it's not all that dynamic, but I like it, and it's pretty refreshing after all these less-heavy experimental tracks, to find Zep doing what they do best - play good, hard rock.

The next two songs are, in my opinion, the low point of the entire album, as much as I hate to heap anything but praise on Zep's recorded works. Boogie With Stu features guest pianist Ian Stewart (who played with The Rolling Stones) playing a variation of Richie Valens' Ooh! My Head which might have as much in common with Little Richard's Ooh! My Soul, another variation on the theme. The song is upbeat, and more of a light-hearted in-studio jam than a serious piece of music, and, personally, the boogie-woogie piano doesn't suit my fancy. The clap-like beat also fails to impress me. I just can't get into it.

Black Country Woman seems to be a little bit more consciously composed, and is an acoustic piece with a pretty strong back beat (channeling the more effective Bron-Y-Aur Stomp), where the mandolin makes another appearance. But unlike Zeppelin's best acoustic pieces, that utilize the instrument's natural harmonies to create beautiful melodies, this sounds closer to an afterthought you might hear on an unplugged album, or something performed in a bar after the band you came to see has gone home. The lyrics tell of a man wronged by a no-good woman, but the overall, upbeat atmosphere of the piece precludes me from feeling much in the way of empathy - it seems more like an opportunity to dish dirt while drunk and lonely, but not especially depressed.

And Physical Graffiti finishes - appropriately (you could never accuse Led Zeppelin of not paying attention to song order on their albums) - with another heavy track. Sick Again is something of a critical look at the teenage groupies that would dog the band. Though Plant assures that he takes pity on their degenerate lifestyles (it's not like the members of the band weren't indulging in all kinds of despotic acts and chemical influences themselves), you'll notice that he doesn't sing about turning down their advances (quite the contrary). If anything on this album is evidence that Led Zeppelin were becoming self-important dinosaurs, it's this. Woe be to the ultra-hip, super-popular rock band that doesn't properly appreciate its teenage groupies. ;-p

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Houses of the Holy (1973)

When I look back at Led Zeppelin's first five albums, I have a subconscious tendency to split them into two groups. I, II, and IV are the straightforward blues/rock albums (and also the better ones, in my opinion), and III and V (a.k.a. Houses of the Holy) are the more experimental ones, where Zep gets loose and plays around a bit with genres. It's appropriate that the band should take a little bit of a detour after that powerhouse of a fourth album, because, really, how do you follow that up? But they must have learned something, because in my opinion, HotH sounds a lot better than III, and even the band's off-the-wall genre experiments come off sounding a little bit tighter (even radio friendly) here than they did the last time the band really branched out. As an album, it's not fully as compelling as Zep's best, but it has a nice coherent atmosphere to it, and I have to say that I really enjoy it, for what it is.

The first track finds Jimmy Page back to his old habit of recycling musical ideas from his Yardbirds days. The riff from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor (which also featured an early application of Page's violin bow trick that would feature as a prominent element in Zep's version of Dazed and Confused) gets a facelift here in The Song Remains The Same, a rather compelling and upbeat track. The guitar tricks are more rhythmic than lead-y here, almost suggesting more of a Pete Townshend kind of approach, but are impressive nonetheless. As a result, it's a different kind of track for Led Zeppelin, but it works really well. Plant's vocals have some strange effect going on that you might find distracting, but that's really the only criticism I can come up with for this song.

The Rain Song is a gentle ballad that proves to be one of the prettiest songs in Zep's catalog. It's soft and atmospheric, but it builds up enough fanfare to assert itself. And somehow, it manages to be a lot more interesting than the band's previous feel-good ballad, Zep II's Thank You. The acoustic chords sound just beautiful here, and are backed up by a terrific orchestral arrangement. I think that I probably didn't like this song much at first listen, just because it doesn't rock, and it's not bluesy. But I took the time to actually learn to play some of it on guitar once, and I've been in love with it ever since. It's only too bad it's in such an unusual tuning, otherwise I'd have made a point to play it more often.

Over The Hills And Far Away is a special kind of beast in that it manages to be - simultaneously - a good acoustic and electric song. I've known songs that go from acoustic to electric (or vice versa), and there are songs that try to meld both acoustic and electric parts, but this is pretty much a perfect example, because either part could probably stand on its own, yet they work so well together. The acoustic part is very pretty, and the electric part's got lots of oomph, which is just the way it should be. Ultimately, I am an electric guy. I can, absolutely, appreciate the prettiness of acoustic pieces, and I love to listen to them now and then. But at the end of the day, it's the electric powerhouses that make me wanna get out of bed the next morning. Which is probably the only reason I've never appreciated this song more than I have, and why, despite listening to it and being able to clearly recognize how amazing it is, it still doesn't wow me as much as my favorite Zep tracks. But damn if it's not a great song.

I think that, in my experience on Zeppelin fan forums in the past, The Crunge is tied with III's Hats Off To Harper as being the most maligned and least appreciated track in Zep's catalog. Which is a shame. I'm not saying that either one is that fantastic, but they're not even competing for the worst tracks Zep's recorded. I mean, like, even D'yer Mak'er from this very album moves me less than The Crunge. Anyway, I used to have a classic rock tribute band named after The Crunge, so that tells you where I stand. It's not that I think it's an amazing song - really, it's not that great. And it's pretty much the band's interpretation of James Brown's brand of funk (think "Sex Machine"). So it's not terribly original, and it doesn't have the innovation that Zep's treatments of the blues usually do, but, it's got a pretty decent groove, and the whole thing with Robert calling out for the bridge at the end (also in imitation of James Brown - although responding to himself is pure Robert, as far as I know), cheesy though it may be, I've always thought was pretty fun. I mean, I never understood what a bridge was, in music, until I heard this song. So it's educational, too. :p

Dancing Days works quite well. It's upbeat, and like much of the music on this album, it demonstrates Led Zeppelin's lighter touch to rock. Truth be told, I like their heavier songs better, but if it was all they ever recorded, they'd be like some latter days heavy metal band whose songs all sound exactly the same. And that's not very interesting. The main riff is actually very fun to play. I wouldn't say this is a song that's gonna leave an impression on you (although results always vary), but it's much easier to groove to than, say, Zep III's Celebration Day.

I suppose that D'yer Mak'er (the title of which, as mysterious as it seems at first glance, should be common knowledge by now) is Zep's imitation of reggae music (allegedly with some doo wop thrown in). Although to be honest, I don't have a lot of experience with reggae music. What I do know is that I don't like it as much as rock and blues (and even funk), and D'yer Mak'er - although as a song, it's probably much more successful (and certainly more radio friendly, history dictates) than III's genre experiments - is one of my least favorite tracks on this album, in the long run. Not that I hate it, per se, but the general sound of it doesn't really click with me.

No Quarter, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. What Since I've Been Loving You was to Led Zeppelin III, No Quarter is to Houses of the Holy - the unlikely diamond in the rough, the underrated song (not unappreciated among Zep fans, but certainly not as popular or radio friendly as their hits) that justifies the existence of an otherwise below-top-notch album, which I actually rate as one of my all time favorite songs in all of Led Zeppelin's catalog. The guitar in No Quarter sounds excellent, and that definitely helps my appreciation for the song, but for once, it is John Paul Jones' praises that I intend to sing. His organ work on this song is sublime, with a watery effect that gives the track its eerie atmosphere. The lyrics conjure images of lonely wanderers in the night, who may or may not be trusted. Specifically, my mind recalls scenes from Lord of the Rings, when the hobbits are on the run from the Ringwraiths, aided by the mysterious stranger known as Strider. I almost made a music video using No Quarter once upon a time, set to scenes from the anime series Berserk (tracking The Band of the Hawk's night-time raids), but I never finished it. Live versions of the song - and I think it was a live, bootleg version that originally got me hooked on it - feature extended, virtuosic solos from both Page and Jones, on the guitar and organ, respectively. It's a mark of the song's genius that it can inspire so much imagination.

And before you know it, we've come to the last track on the album, a happy little piece called The Ocean. To discuss its flaws first, I think it suffers from the same problems I mentioned in Dancing Days, namely that it's a tad bit too light, and that keeps me a little reserved in devoting more appreciation to it. However, the things it does right, it does better than Dancing Days, which is to say that it's got an even better riff (a bloody fantastic one, actually), and the breakdown at the end (which, in my maturity, I can now concede is not especially "bluesy") is very exciting (I love a song that's not afraid to break ranks and switch things up a bit). Thinking back on the track that closed out Zep's fourth album - When The Levee Breaks - and how heavy that song is and how it sticks with you, The Ocean can hardly compare. But given that this is the lighter, airier, more fun-focused Houses of the Holy, it seems a wholly appropriate end to the album.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Untitled a.k.a. ZoSo a.k.a. Symbols a.k.a. Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

A lot has been made of Led Zeppelin's fourth album. And it's true that the connection you have with a piece or collection of music - the period of your life when you discover it, and what it means to you - can affect your opinion of it, in the same way that nostalgia works. Of course, I'd like to think that good music is more likely to make an impression on people in the first place, but who can be sure (certainly, even the question of what music is good is a subjective one)?

Nevertheless, when I listen to Zep's fourth album even now, it seems clear to me. The band has reached a pinnacle on this record. Whatever combination of performance (which Zep had been acing since the start), songwriting (which was probably improving since their earliest days), and production (the curious and uninitiated will want to research "Headley Grange") was involved, the band sounds mature and in the zone on this record. They recorded fantastic music before this album, and they would record lots more afterward, but something about this one stands out. The parts are incredible, and yet together they manage to create something even greater on the whole.

Everybody says this is Zep's best album, and I've been mostly inclined to agree over the years, even though there have been times when, like saying The Beatles are the greatest band of all time (actually I'm not a big Beatles fan), or Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time (I am a big Hendrix fan, although I have to admit it took some time for him to grow on me), you wonder if the answer is so obvious that you might be ignoring some better, less-recognized alternatives. But right now, today, looking back on Zep's recorded catalog, I can say with confidence that this is the band's best record. It might not be your personal favorite, or the one you necessarily enjoy listening to the most, but I think it's the best record of who Led Zeppelin was, and why they've made such a huge impression on the landscape of rock music.

The album opens with a bang, with a sublime piece of rock that's kind of like the short rockers of past albums, but a little bit longer and more involved. It has a compelling structure that emulates the call and response style of old holler blues and its later, band-ier derivatives, that I seem to recall Jimmy once crediting the inspiration for to Peter Green's Oh Well. Much as I like that song (being a huge Peter Green fan and all) - and the atmospheric second half is unrivaled anywhere outside of traditional oriental instrumentals - Black Dog is more polished, and just rocks harder. Robert Plant's voice is at his peak, and in this song it trades space with the rest of the band, Jimmy's guitar at the forefront with a cascade of rock riffage that doesn't let up until the fadeout. The message here is clear: the gods of rock are in top form and they'd like to borrow your ear for the next forty minutes.

Black Dog's immediate followup - Rock and Roll (incidentally also partially inspired by Peter Green's band Fleetwood Mac - namely the drum intro Mick Fleetwood played on live versions of Little Richard's Keep-A-Knockin') is closer to the "short rocker" format, and has a rollicking good riff (try learning it some time!) that keeps the song moving. Bonham is, appropriately, in top form here, but the guitar also leaps off the record, and you might just find yourself echoing Plant's chorus, "been a long time, been a long time, been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time"! It's really great to listen to music that's not only well composed, performed, and produced, but that also sounds like the band is having a lot of fun playing it.

On track three, the band takes their first breath, and introduces a folk tune featuring mandolin playing and Sandy Denny (who sang with Fairport Convention) performing guest supporting vocals. But the really amazing thing about The Battle of Evermore is how good it sounds, not being a rock song and all. Certainly, the fantasy-themed lyrics (that make liberal references to The Lord of the Rings) help to create the atmosphere, but somehow the sound of the whole thing sounds authentically mystical. Maybe it's part of the magic of this album, that everything on it is laced with gold, but this is one of the most intriguing of the softer songs in Zep's catalog, and quite possibly the best mandolin-based song I know of.

How does one analyze a song like Stairway To Heaven? You want to say that the song's hype contributes to its popularity, but would it have so much hype if it wasn't popular to begin with? And the fact remains that, something like thirty years after the song was written, recorded, and released, and with minimal if any knowledge of its legacy, it captivated me, too, to the point of obsession. I'm sure the title helps - that in conjuring the image of Heaven, and the idea of building a stairway to it, not only people's attention, but also their investment in the song is heightened. But if the song weren't good enough to back up people's expectations, that's all it would be. On the contrary, this is a fantastic piece of music. It manages to be both soft and pretty at the start, and lively and heavy at the end, and perhaps the most intriguing part of all is how it gradually builds up the tension over the course of the song, like a good story arc in the form of musical perfection. And must I even mention the guitar solo? I don't know what it is, exactly, but I suspect it has something to do with the anticipation, where the melody finishes up, and you know the solo is coming, but it takes an extra bar or two to get there. And you feel the anticipation, and you know it's coming, but where is it? You wait, and it's coming, and the drums kick in and you know it's going to be there and then, bam! it's there, and it feels so good. Look, I'm not trying to be cute when I say this, and I'm not the first one to have said it, but it's true. This song is sex in rock form. And it's totally appropriate that a sexy band like Led Zeppelin should be the ones to create it. There are many songs I'd be gleefully willing to consider as "the best song of all time", but there's always that doubt - what about this one, or that one? But...if you were to walk up to me and say, "Stairway To Heaven is the best song of all time", I would not argue with you.

It's hard to follow Stairway To Heaven, but this album's not finished yet. Misty Mountain Hop gets maybe a little less air play than most of the other tracks on this album (certainly the rocking ones), but it's got every bit of the energy and feel good tone of, say, Rock and Roll. Plus, for once, it's driven by a really cool keyboard riff. This is another really fun song to sing along with, and the way that Plant's vocalizations cap the verses and fill out the choruses is positively thrilling!

Four Sticks has the dubious distinction of being probably the most (only?) forgettable song on this album - but consider the album we're talking about. Actually, it's not a bad piece of music, and it certainly mops the floor with the duds on Zep's third album, for example, but it doesn't often get much credit. To be truthful, it is a rather repetitive song, and it drones a bit, but it's got a riff with lots of momentum. And Plant is still in great form, as he is all over this record. But when your neighbors are songs like Black Dog, Stairway To Heaven, and When The Levee Breaks, well, you can be forgiven for not taking home a ribbon.

For the second time on this album (unless we're including the gentle opening to Stairway To Heaven), the band lightens up, this time for a genuine acoustic ballad, wherein Robert Plant sings a barely-concealed ode to Joni Mitchell. I've said before that I don't often go for straight-up acoustic songs, but Going To California is so pretty, and it's one of the exceptions that I like a lot. There is a definite element of longing in the song, and Plant's echo effect on one section gives it a little extra magic. I'll never forget playing the melody to this song over and over in my head as I sat in a commercial jet for the first time in my life, as it began to lift off, beginning its journey to San Francisco where my relocated girlfriend awaited me...

You just know, an album like Zep IV is going to go out on a strong note. And indeed it does. When The Levee Breaks is a lovely piece, because it's heavy and it's rocking, and its another demonstration of the band's ability to breathe new life into old blues songs (think Zep II's Bring It On Home, but turned up to 11). Levee is an old folk blues dating back to the 1920s, written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but what Zep's done to it here renders it nearly unrecognizable - in the best possible way. The lyrics are also updated to include what I interpret to be an homage to the great exodus of blues players (lead by the great Muddy Waters) from the Mississippi delta north to the slums of Chicago, giving rise to the great modern tradition of electric blues music. I have been told that Bonzo's drum beat on this song - which is very beefy - has been sampled endlessly, and Plant plays like a virtuoso on the harmonica (not his first demonstration of that talent, but probably his most captivating). The song has an almost hypnotizing quality, and Plant's warnings about the impending disaster ("when the levee breaks, mama, you got to move") keep you on edge. Altogether, it's another fantastic piece of music, and a fitting close to what is, in my opinion, quite plausibly the greatest rock album ever recorded.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Riddick (2013)

Based on my originally lackluster reception of the Riddick saga, I didn't have very high hopes for the new Riddick movie when I first heard about it. But then I saw the trailer, while sitting in the theater for The Conjuring, and get this - I actually got excited! It looked like the movie was relying more on the scaled back formula of Pitch Black than the bloated Chronicles of Riddick, and best of all, the nighttime creatures shown in the trailer actually looked kind of scary this time! So I changed my tune and decided I'd give this new Riddick movie a try.

Well, it certainly follows the formula of Pitch Black - some might say too closely, that it becomes a bit repetitive. I was wondering how they were going to tell another isolated marooned-on-a-desolate-planet story after the ending of Chronicles, and they actually make a point to tell how Riddick gets from Point A (the Necromonger throne room) to Point B (random desolate planet), but honestly, it feels like a hastily-thrown-together explanation, and I'm left wondering if maybe the series would have been better off just picking off where Chronicles left off and not trying to repeat the success of Pitch Black.

In any case, the movie as it is, is still pretty interesting. The first section features Riddick, left for dead on the aforementioned desolate planet, nursing himself back to health while avoiding becoming prey to the planet's local fauna. It's a pretty neat marooned story, with some beautiful alien landscapes. The creatures are all obvious CGI, which is not a look I particularly like, but they're designed pretty well. There are some reptilian bird creatures, and a race of doglike animals, one of which Riddick befriends, but the real star is the badass, creepy-looking, scorpion-like puddle beasts, which appear to be the planet's apex predator.

At the end of the first act, Riddick spies a massive storm advancing on the horizon, with hordes of those puddle beasts in its wake, and decides to ring up some bounty hunters in the hope of catching a ride off the planet. Of course, the bounty hunters want nothing more than to capture Riddick's head as a trophy (or better yet, paycheck). So then we're treated to another pretty much by-the-books "Riddick vs. bounty hunters" match, with the approaching storm acting as the deadline that the coming eclipse served in Pitch Black. And when it arrives, well, all hell breaks loose, of course.

Riddick (the movie) is probably not as effective as Pitch Black. And one of the things I appreciated about Pitch Black is that it wasn't really a movie about the character of Riddick, Riddick was just an awesome character in a movie with an awesome premise. But by this point, the Riddick character has become the raison d'etre for the movie. Which is okay, I guess, but sort of defeats the purpose of trying to do another Pitch Black instead of continuing the story of The Chronicles of Riddick. I don't know why I thought this, but I was expecting this movie to wrap up the series and provide some closure for its titular character (maybe I just didn't think they would try to stretch it out beyond a trilogy). On the contrary, the door is wide open for another sequel. And if it means they'll readdress the Necromonger plot thread, then I think that's a good idea.

In the meantime, we have this movie. If you like the character, and especially if you're fond of Pitch Black, more so than The Chronicles of Riddick, then you're probably going to want to watch this movie. Your opinion of it, ultimately, may vary. I view it pretty much the same way I view the rest of the series - no groundbreaking masterpiece by any means, but an entertaining way to waste a couple of hours. And one thing that Riddick has over the other two movies so far in this trilogy (besides the surprise of a little bit of nudity), is the creature design for those puddle beasts. It's one of the things Pitch Black didn't do well enough - create an effectively scary-looking monster design. Well, they nailed it this time around.

It's only too bad Riddick has to spend time being an action and a sci-fi movie, because it kind of takes away from the massive horror potential this monster has. Hell, I've seen too many horror films that hinge on the creepiness of its monster design falling short, and they would kill for a monster this gruesome. Horror directors (and special effects crews) take note.

The Riddick Trilogy

Before hitting the theater to see the new Riddick movie, I decided to dust off my old DVD of "The Riddick Trilogy" and rewatch Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.

Pitch Black (2000)

A friend introduced me to Pitch Black many years ago, which I otherwise would have missed. It's a sci-fi/horror action flick starring Vin Diesel as an intimidating yet sympathetic antihero. And it's got the most brilliant premise - a ship (carrying the dangerous criminal Riddick) crash lands on a planet with three suns, that's about to experience its only night in every 12 years or so, thanks to a syzygy-induced eclipse. And guess what comes out at night - swarms of man-eating insectoid alien lifeforms! Riddick breaks free of his chains, but when night falls, the stranded crew has worse problems to deal with, and thanks to his surgically-induced night vision, Riddick may be their best (and only) hope for survival.

With such a slam-dunk premise, it's a shame I didn't like the movie more, but I thought that it fell a little short of its promise. It's still a fun movie to watch, and Vin Diesel's Riddick, the badass with a heart of gold, is very charismatic. But, it comes up a little short as a horror film, and I think it's because the CG creatures are not as scary nor as varied as they could have been. I mean, they look more like something out of Starship Troopers than Alien. That's not to say that they're poorly designed, but they feel more sci-fi than horror, and so they didn't really scare me.

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

Much to the chagrin of fans of Pitch Black, its sequel drops the horror pretense that made the original so compelling, and opts for more of a straighter sci-fi premise. Upon first viewing of this movie, my opinion was that it was not all that good. And so, when I recently popped in the disc for a rewatch, my expectations were pretty low. And maybe it's for that reason that I didn't think it was all that bad this time. The scale of the movie is pretty epic - an army of "Necromongers" (they worship death, or something) is basically destroying the universe, one planet at a time, and Riddick may be the only one capable of stopping them (according to prophecy) - but if you don't take it too seriously, I think it's a pretty fun and engrossing movie.

And here we get yet another charismatic villain in the form of Karl Urban's ambitious Necromonger named Vaako, who manages to outshine his superior, the Lord Marshal of the Necromongers. The most captivating segment of the movie occurs within and without a maximum security prison on a planet whose daytime surface temperature is hot enough to burn a man alive in seconds, that climaxes in a deadly race against the sunrise. There are a lot more fantasy elements included in this story compared to Pitch Black, like an elementalist who can vanish into thin air, reanimated corpses, and the Lord Marshal's ability to grab people's souls and tear them out of their body. It's no Star Wars, but it's not Plan 9 From Outer Space, either.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

If I'm not mistaken, Led Zeppelin's third album was received somewhat less favorably than their first two, and if I have to be honest, it's a justified reaction. That's not to say that III is a bad album, or that it doesn't contain good music, but it is a bit of a change in direction for the band, with less emphasis on the blues and hard rock that gave their first two albums such a...presence. I think it's fine that the band was willing to experiment, and certainly it demonstrates their musical diversity, and I know there are people out there who would say that III is their favorite Led Zeppelin album. But not me. That having been said, there are still a few really strong songs on this album, so it's not a waste of time.

The album starts out strong, with another one of the band's short, high-energy rockers. This time, it's the Viking-inspired Immigrant Song, with a stampeding guitar riff and a howling vocal performance by Robert Plant, who recites the phrase "hammer of the gods", and claims "we are your overlords" (obviously spoken as the Viking narrator of the song, but popularly misinterpreted as the egotistical boasting of a rock god). As short as it is, it's even better with the guitar solo Jimmy would play in live performances of the song.

Friends is, lyrically, a nice song about the value of friendship ("the greatest thing you ever can do is trade a smile with someone who's blue"). Musically, though, it has a peculiar fingerprint, with an emphasis on acoustic strumming, and some kind of strings or synthesizer in the background. It's an interesting experiment, and though it does keep up a good pace, I've never been incredibly keen on it, and even now it doesn't impress me much.

Celebration Day gets a little more electric-y, but I think that ultimately it suffers from a twangy, almost country-like feel. It's interesting, because it's still got Zep's unique sound, so it doesn't, like, actually sound like a country song or anything, but it's just got that flavor, and I don't think it suits Zep quite so well as hard rock and blues. Then again, that could just be because I'm a big fan of hard rock and blues, and I don't care much for country.

Since I've Been Loving You is, in my opinion, hands down the highlight of this album, and it totally justifies the rest of the album's existence. This is Zep doing the blues again, and it's one of the best blues in their entire recorded catalog. It's sad and it's tearful, and it's got one of Jimmy's best performances on guitar. The live version from the concert/movie The Song Remains The Same is, perhaps, even better, with an out of this world intro, and watching it for the first time was the pivotal moment that inspired me to become a guitarist. It's not just accomplished guitar playing - as there are tons of talented guitar gods out there - but the soulfulness of the guitar, which is a trademark of the blues, as well as the utter cool that this song has, and the total sexiness that exudes from Jimmy's guitar, it all just adds up to blues/rock perfection, and my opinion of the song has not decreased one bit over the years.

Out On The Tiles is another example of a song on this album that doesn't quite come together. It's got a boogying riff, and the chorus is catchy, but ultimately, it fails to leave an impression.

With the best and the worst out of the way, the second half of this album is more consistent than the first. Despite being a traditional folk tune (recorded by Leadbelly, among others), Gallows Pole manages to be interesting, and Led Zeppelin does a good job of modernizing it, while keeping it mostly acoustic and not going full out rock n roll on it. For a song that sounds like somebody is playing a banjo on it, it's actually not that bad.

Tangerine is a wistful little tune that combines a haunting acoustic melody with a striking (if short) electric guitar solo. It doesn't try to be country or folk, or bluegrass or anything, but just an acoustic rock ballad with lyrics about lost love. I think that maybe it didn't make a huge impression on me at first, but it did grow on me, and I still like it a lot.

Following in the acoustic ballad vein, That's The Way is a bit of a longer song that emphasizes those beautiful acoustic melodies, with a very full, very pretty strumming style. I think JPJ is also playing mandolin on this song. Meanwhile, Robert Plant sings melancholy lyrics about being separated from a childhood friend that couples a nostalgic sadness with the musical beauty of this piece. I don't go for strictly acoustic numbers that often, but this is a very nice one that I can get behind.

Bron-Y-Aur Stomp is another acoustic piece - with a prominent drum beat, courtesy of Bonzo - but unlike the previous one, this one is more upbeat with some accomplished picking to fill out the strums. It's a very fun, very light song, in which Plant sings about his dog, and I can imagine it would be the sort of tune that's fun to bust out when jamming with other musicians. It doesn't have enough weight for me to call it a really good song, but it's a pleasant little distraction, and I think it works better than some of the more experimental pieces Zep performed on this album.

And the album closes with Hats Off To (Roy) Harper which, incidentally, has the distinction of being one of the least-liked songs in Zep's catalog. Certainly it has a very unusual sound to it, with what sounds like slide guitar and a vocal part distorted with an almost "watery" effect. But I don't think it's all that bad; of course it probably helps that it's another amalgam of various blues tunes. I'll admit it's nowhere near as effective as any of Zep's other more and less traditional forays into the blues, but I don't find it to be at all unpleasant. And, it aptly closes off an album that is characterized by some pretty courageous musical experiments, for a band that was in the process of making hard rock history.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

I find it hard to listen to any of these songs with fresh ears, as they are all imbued with so many memories and countless listens over the years. I envy anyone with a similar taste in music as me who has not discovered Led Zeppelin yet. They opened my eyes (and ears) to what good music could be. I know this is going to make me sound elitist, but the music of my generation didn't resonate with me, it didn't move me. But when I heard Led Zeppelin especially (along with several other bands from that era), it showed me that music could be an art form, and especially how rock 'n roll could be more than a droning melancholy or an over-exaggerated jumble of speed and power - it could be a dynamic entity, alive with human feeling.

When I think of Led Zeppelin's second album, I'll always think of a comment I once heard in relation to it, that I don't remember the source of. It said that you have your whole life to prepare your debut album, but you've got only nine months to prepare the followup, and that's while you're on the road, touring. That's true in Led Zeppelin's case, and the fact that they pumped out such a fantastic album less than a year than their stellar debut, just goes to show how talented they were, and also how ready they were to storm the music scene. Prior to his introduction to The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page was honing his chops doing session work, but as soon as he helped put Led Zeppelin together, he was ready to stretch out and experiment, to see what he could do. The musicians that accompanied him on this project were no less talented or ambitious, and the result speaks for itself.

Whole Lotta Love is a great example of one of those songs that was so popular, and you've heard it so many times, that you begin to forget just how brilliant (and revolutionary!) it was. And this was another case of the band covering a blues (Muddy Waters' You Need Love) that had already been done by a rock band before (The Small Faces), yet still managing to make it sound fresh and original. It has a kickass riff, and the middle section features a theremin part very unusual for a pop/rock song, that leads into one of the most concise yet badass guitar solos of all time. Meanwhile, Robert Plant is moaning indecently, singing about giving you every inch of his love, and it all makes for a very powerful, very effective display of rock swagger.

Like the second track on Zep's first album (Babe I'm Gonna Leave You), What Is And What Should Never Be is another track that demonstrates the duality of Zep's musical formula. It manages to be both sweet and romantic, and also hard rocking in alternating sections. Plus it's got some of the most fun lyrics to sing along to in any song ever. It doesn't quite hit you like Zep's straight rockers (such as Whole Lotta Love), but it's still a very good song, and shows the quality in even Zep's lesser-tier songs.

The Lemon Song, man. Now this is a solid blues jam. It strikes me that songs like this one, and I Can't Quit You Baby, aren't more popular, because they're some of my favorite Zeppelin songs. But I guess they are more blues than rock. Still, this one rocks pretty hard. It's largely based on the Howlin' Wolf tune Killing Floor, with (as is typical of Led Zeppelin) bits of other songs and enough originality to make it sound fresh and exciting. All members of the band are really getting down on this one, even JPJ on that bass!

I still remember when I first got this album and started listening to it. It was just after 9/11 (alright, that really dates me - but as being a lot younger, rather than older, than a Zeppelin fan typically ought to be), and I would put it in the stereo in my car in the morning on the way to high school. Listening to it, I thought that the first five tracks had a bit of an off and on rhythm. The first, third, and fifth tracks were the kickass highlights, and the second and fourth were the breaks in the action. Thank You, being a ballad, is one of those softer tracks. And really, it's a nice song, with more organ work by Jonesy, but it's just too light and airy for my tastes. I much prefer the live version on the second disc of the BBC Sessions, which has a crunchier guitar part. It's amazing the effect a good electric guitar can have on a song...

Heartbreaker, on the other hand, is one of Zep's mainstays, and is a piece of hard rock mastery. The riff is fantastic, the verses flow easily, and the guitar solo - especially the part where the entire rest of the band drops out - is monumental. I don't even care if it was pieced together from various takes in the studio, it works. Like Dazed & Confused on the first album, and even more so than Whole Lotta Love (which is, however, not a bad choice), this is one of the songs that I would turn to in order to demonstrate to someone what Led Zeppelin, as one of the premiere bands in rock n roll history, was all about.

Living Loving Maid is a curious little add-on to Heartbreaker, but mostly because the band dropped it from live performances of Heartbreaker, despite the song ending abruptly and so effectively seguing into LLM on the album. I think they actually work pretty well together, and while LLM is simpler and less ambitious than Heartbreaker, it has an excellent riff, and I think it's very effective as a short rocker, much like Communication Breakdown was on the last album.

Ramble On is, in my experience, pretty popular, I think. And I recall liking, from the very beginning, the concept behind it. You know, the old "rolling stone" theme. The errant wanderer, who travels the land, and never stays too long in one place. The nomadic lifestyle. I don't know what it is, but it appeals to me. That having been said, musically (as opposed to lyrically), Ramble On has always underwhelmed me, and though so many people like it, I never counted it one of Zep's best songs. It does have a bit of that light/heavy dichotomy that I've described in other songs, but something about it falls just short of effective for me. Again, I can't say that it's a bad song, for sure, but when you've got so many good ones, there have to be some that fail to measure up. And which ones those are, of course, will depend on who you ask.

Lament the death of the drum solo exhibition song. I'm a little torn on the concept of a song dedicated to an extended drum solo. I mean, I'm not really a drummer, and though it's interesting at a few minutes, it does tend to get kind of boring when it begins to approach twenty minutes on the live stage. On the other hand, it seems unfair, that with all the emphasis on the other instruments (especially guitar), that a drummer wouldn't have an opportunity to show off. So it's like one of those equal opportunity things, and I'm certain that drummers must really appreciate songs like Moby Dick. Anyway, the song's not even all that long, so even if it bores you, it's not like it takes up that much of your time. And anyway, I do greatly appreciate, as a guitarist, the trend of putting a kickass guitar riff in to bookend the drum solo, as Ten Years After also did with their song The Hobbit.

Bring It On Home closes out Zep's second album, and on a strong note. Although some have criticized Plant's "bastardization" of the singing and harping of Sonny Boy Williamson's original, I think it serves to emphasize the difference between the blues originals Zep covered, and the gusto with which they covered those songs. When the electric riff explodes almost two minutes into the song, it's like Led Zeppelin saying, "say hello to that baby the blues had - its name is rock n roll". Additionally, I think the softer blues parts work really well in contrast to serve as the intro and outro to this jumping rock tune. I think it's an excellent piece of music, situated at the end of an excellent album.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Human Centipede II (2011)

I'm not going to make any excuses for watching The Human Centipede II (which should have been called The Human Millipede). After watching the first one, I knew what to expect. But the "meta" nature of the sequel, as described in the synopsis, reeled me in (like a sucker).

Part two is a lot more graphic, and even more disturbing than the first, but it has at least one thing going for it, and that's its smart self-awareness. What is the worst possible thing you could say about the movie The Human Centipede? How about that some lowlife would watch it and want to try it at home? Well, that's the premise of this movie.

The sicko this time around is a bloated, bug-eyed, asthmatic troll of a subhuman who lives with his mother (so, basically, your stereo-typical 4chan poster), and is absolutely obsessed with the movie The Human Centipede, to the point of masturbating (with sandpaper!) to it on repeat. Plus he was psychologically and sexually abused since childhood (although honestly, I don't understand how that's even relevant - it's not like it makes him sympathetic, or his actions any more understandable).

Whereas the doctor in the first movie was a trained surgeon who simply had a twisted view of what constitutes a medical marvel, this guy is an utterly pathetic, homocidal, antisocial pervert who is such a caricature of creepiness that you can't imagine how he would have survived long enough in the real world to carry out his fantasy of stitching together a 12-person human centipede with a hammer, duct tape, and a staple gun.

But yeah, that's kind of the brilliance of it, because it totally emphasizes how ridiculously absurd the premise is, as much as the idea that somebody would a) want to, and b) be able to recreate it after seeing the movie. Maybe some crazy Nazi scientist during WWII, but those were extenuating circumstances that allowed for many inhuman atrocities to be committed. In modern society, the idea that a movie like The Human Centipede should be banned because somebody might enjoy or emulate it is, as I said, as absurd as its premise.

Still, social commentary aside, what we're left with is a fundamentally disturbing movie. I give it props for its stylistic approach, but it's still a movie about a sicko (however fictional he may be) whose only joy in life is shooting innocent people, clubbing them over the head with a crowbar, and then sewing them together ass to mouth.

It makes me wonder why I even watch films like this. I mean, I'm all about the importance of defending free speech, and the worst that speech has to offer is that which is most in need of defending. But there are less distancing ways to push the boundaries than with sadistic, pathological violence.

However, violence remains a far more acceptable dramatic subject than sexuality, and so even bad horror films have more interesting stories than most porn. I just wonder if maybe I'm fueling my own fear of real life violence and medical operations by watching so many overindulgent dramatizations, and that rather than desensitizing me, it is feeding my paranoia and anxiety...

The Human Centipede (2009)

When The Human Centipede first came out, I vowed not to watch it, because, really, why would I want to? But I saw that it and its sequel were available on Netflix and, well, let's just say, it's a good thing I'm not a cat. Now I'm torn between wishing I hadn't watched it, and being relieved that I've gotten over it, and sated my masochistic curiosity.

It's not even a "bad movie" in the sense of having terrible production values and all that. Although I will state that the two women who get lost in the woods (in painfully cliché fashion) were overacting, like instead of responding naturally to the situation, with escalating fear, they were acting like they knew they were in a horror movie, and wouldn't stop whining and screaming, and it got really annoying fast.

The doctor, on the other hand, was expertly cast, and even though there's nothing to like about his character, he did a really good job of bringing it to life, and making the audience believe he's a twisted surgeon with mightily sadistic delusions of grandeur.

The rest that I have to say about this movie is that it's as disgusting as its title and premise would suggest, even if it's not as graphic as it could have been - but it still makes you feel really uncomfortable. I'm not above watching uncomfortable movies about disturbing subjects, but at the end you want to feel like there was some kind of point to the experience. Here, you just get the feeling that it was done - much like the doctor's experiment - just because it could, without any thought to whether or not it should.

And therefore, I really have no reason to recommend it to anyone... Even if you are a little curious, you're probably better off just skipping it. I could name you a lot of other extremely uncomfortable movies you could brag to your friends about seeing, that are nevertheless worth watching, if you can stomach them. But not this one.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Equilibrium (2002)

I recently dusted off (literally) and rewatched a DVD I have in my collection - the movie Equilibrium, which seems to want to bill itself as a competitor to The Matrix, but, whatever stylistic similarities they may share, the movie fares better when you're not trying to compare it to the most awesome sci-fi movie ever made. Anyway, The Matrix is a mind-fucker, Equilibrium is more of a traditional dystopian flick. But it's a really good one.

The premise requires a certain level of suspension of disbelief, but if you're not sitting there trying to poke holes in it, I think it's both fun to watch, and also has a lot to say about human nature and the importance of art. The idea is that, in this near future society, ravaged by the effects of a third world war, humanity has agreed (with the urging of a charismatic leader, affectionately labeled "Father") to sacrifice the dizzying highs of human emotion in order to eliminate the abysmal lows, which inevitably lead to the atrocities that man commits upon himself - most notably, war.

So, the population of this "enlightened" nation, Libria, is regularly dosed with a drug called Prozium, which reduces their capacity to feel (emotions). Anyone caught skipping their doses or otherwise displaying feelings is charged as a "sense offender" and is sentenced to execution. The state's most talented soldiers, known as Grammaton Clerics, trained in the art of gun kata - which is like martial arts with guns, using stances based on statistical predictions to optimize both the practitioner's survival and hit rates - are trained to locate sense offenders, and are regularly deployed outside the walls of Librium to mop up pockets of resistance and burn the artifacts of culture (e.g., literature, paintings, symphonies) they're often found to hoard.

Christian Bale is excellent as Librium's premiere Grammaton Cleric, displaying subtle nuances of feeling underneath his cold, emotionless exterior, as the story follows his introduction to the world of sense offending, and his struggle to hide his little acts of rebellion until they eventually grow into a conviction to try and sabotage Father's censurious regime. The movie is expertly balanced between scenes of action and drama, and I found it to be especially moving as an art lover. Even to a jaded postmodernist, I felt that it managed to effectively evoke the beauty of a Da Vinci painting, a Beethoven symphony, a W.B. Yeats poem. And one of the most touching scenes hinged on the beauty of something we so often take for granted - the simple rising of the sun.

Taken at face value, it seems a little unrealistic to believe that society would (could) ever stamp out human feeling to this level, but, honestly, we're not so far off from a world that would, like in the movie's opening, destroy a man's life for looking at a picture of a girl. We already embrace censorship, we just defend it by believing that its selective application is justified. The censorship of all art is thus a dishonest projection (if a valid warning) of the current state of fear; nevertheless, it's a captivating nightmare vision, and it makes you think about the importance of art as a record of human experience, and how dangerous to the very core of humanity a regime of censorship truly is.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Led Zeppelin (1969)

Led Zeppelin makes a splash with their first album, one of the greatest debut albums in rock history. If it's true that original material is sparse here (lots of rehashing of blues and folk tunes), the band makes up for it with their musicality, making these songs sound like you've never heard them before (if you've even heard them before). One thing is clear, Zep is a band with four extremely talented musicians - Jimmy Page on guitar, Robert Plant on vocals, John Bonham on drums, and John Paul Jones on bass and keyboard (among other instruments) - and not only that, they also have great chemistry together, which I think is the secret to why Led Zeppelin were one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

The album opens with Good Times Bad Times. In Zep's catalog, I've always felt that this song was somewhat underwhelming. Though compared to any other band's material, the infectious energy that marks all of Zep's more upbeat rockers is well on display here. It's got a great pulse to kick off the album, but the real gems are a little deeper into the tracklist.

Now, Babe I'm Gonna Leave You is an exceptional song. It's a brooding, beautiful-in-its-sorrowfullness acoustic tune, and yet it boasts a kicking electric part. This is practically a blueprint for Led Zeppelin's musical philosophy, showcasing their mastery of both 'light and shade' - their understanding of the dramatic importance of dynamics in music. That it's an old folk tune is remarkable, because here the band breathes entirely new life into it.

You Shook Me, itself, is not only a perfect example of the way that Led Zeppelin could take a blues song (parts of several, actually) and make it sound new and exciting, but is also a fantastic example of their 'tight but loose' mentality. Well-rehearsed bands are known for playing music that is 'tight', with everything in its right place, while jam bands are known for playing 'loose', with things kind of just falling into place wherever they fit. Zeppelin was unique in that they could play loosely and still make it sound tight, thanks to both their musicianship and their chemistry. Just observe the playful back-and-forth between Plant's voice and Page's guitar in this song, a trademark that the band would utilize in many other songs. Hearing this one for the thousandth time, it may come off a tad bit grating or whiny, but that doesn't diminish the fantastic virtuosity that is on display here.

What can one say about Dazed and Confused? It was a tune nicked by The Yardbirds from acid folk singer/songwriter Jake Holmes, brought to Led Zep (which began life as "The New Yardbirds") by Jimmy Page. It became one of the band's signature songs, for good reason. It's an epic, brooding number, all heavy, with a solo (partly repeated from Page's solo on The Yardbirds' Think About It) that just barrels along. It introduces Jimmy's eerie violin-bow-on-guitar-strings effect (also pioneered with The Yardbirds). And if all that wasn't enough, it takes on even greater life on stage, when the band performed it live. In truth, I've always loved the purity of the studio version, but these days, I think that it can't quite stand up to the power and the majesty of the best of its live versions, some clocking in at the vicinity of thirty minutes, sometimes giving birth to medleys of unrelated songs planted within its bowels. It may not be entirely original (though Plant did rewrite the lyrics for Zep's version), but it is one of Zep's most outstanding contributions to the history of rock music.

For all that I say I don't like Your Time Is Gonna Come, it has an excellent organ part, good lyrics, and is very catchy. It's just, the chorus is obnoxiously repetitive, and it's not rock 'n roll enough for me. But it's not a bad piece of music by any stretch of the imagination.

Black Mountain Side makes for an excellent intermission piece. It's a very accomplished acoustic number, that showcases Jimmy's talent - even if it's a cover and not an original. As acoustic numbers go, it's a pretty interesting one (which should probably be credited to Bert Jansch, hailed by folkies as the Jimi Hendrix of acoustic guitar). It's somewhat more of a showcase married to the other acoustic intermission piece Jimmy did in The Yardbirds, White Summer, the way he played it live with Zep (as seen on the Royal Albert Hall section of the Led Zeppelin DVD). But here, it acts as a nice breather before getting on to some more of Zep's heavier pieces.

And speaking of which, Communication Breakdown is the perfection of what Good Times Bad Times strived to be - the short, high energy rocker. It's got a blood-pumping riff, a catchy chorus, and an excellent, concise performance by the band. It's not complicated, but it's good, raucous fun, the simplest distillation of the rock 'n roll formula, especially looking backwards toward the two-and-a-half minute singles of the fifties, rather than forward toward the seven-and-a-half minute epics of the seventies, of which Led Zeppelin would be among the front-runners.

I Can't Quit You Baby is actually a cover of an Otis Rush song (actually written by Willie Dixon), which was also previously recorded by rival band John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (while future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor was in the band). Zep's arrangement closely follows the Bluesbreakers' formula, but has the advantage of Plant's wailing vocals and Page's guitar tantrums to aid the pathos of the piece. Nevertheless, it still remains in relative obscurity, all but ignored even by most Zep fans. I, on the other hand, have for a long time considered it one of their better songs, being - as I am - a huge blues fan. This is one of the band's most straight-up bluesy pieces, and it has a coolness to it that evokes something of a loungey atmosphere - but not in the bored, dispassionate sense that Steely Dan's overproduced music conjures. I still like it a lot.

Despite being pretty much a mash-up of various songs, as well as a rehashing of The Yardbirds' arrangement of a different Howlin' Wolf tune - Smokestack Lightning - How Many More Times is surprisingly cohesive, and charismatic besides. I've always loved it. It's epic, but in more of a havin'-a-good-time sort of way than Dazed & Confused's the-world-is-ending sense. And the transitions between the different parts of the song, including tempo changes, really gives it a liveliness that is infectious. It's as much an ode to The Yardbirds' rave-ups as it is to the blues songs it commandeers. And that's a pretty fantastic combination, if you ask me.