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.


  1. SIBLY ranks as my #1 favorite Zep song these days. it's just a perfect storm of epic cool, every member is at their best on this one.

    Songs like Hats Off may not be Zep's best, and I admit it -- they're not... but they still represent to me what made Led Zeppelin such a great band. They aren't just great rockers like Aerosmith or Van Halen, they were cheeky and curious and deep lovers of diverse music who weren't afraid to experiment.

  2. Yeah, I definitely had your opinions about Zep's musical diversity in mind when I listened to this album.

    SIBLY is kind of like Cortez The Killer, in that it's not super popular like Stairway To Heaven (for example), but it features some of Jimmy's best playing of all time, and it's just such a suave track.