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.

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