led zeppelin - houses of the holy

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy (1973)

Sorry for the brief break. Life and new work woes got in the way, but that stress moved from “No time to write about records” to “Christ on toast I don’t care I need a break so will write about a record.” Discogs has this lovely little randomizer that picks a record from your collection and Houses of the Holy popped up. Led Zeppelin was there at the very start of my record collection – Led Zeppelin II was the first vinyl I took from my father when I was a kid so I could play air guitar along to “Whole Lotta Love” – so why not listen to something I love, push the world away for a bit go over the hills and far away, so to speak?

It all starts with “The Song Remains the Same” – both on the album and on my journey as a guitar player. It’s the song that made me fall in love with the sound of an open D moving to that Dsus4, by now (or even then) a cliche of songs but still utterly capable of conveying a rush of passion, of anticipation. It’s the epic of the album right up front: crushing rock chords, sweeping open sections, and lyrics that expand from the California sunlight to the Calcutta rains. It’s one of my favorite album openers of all time, and the fact that it precedes two songs that are even better also makes this one of the strongest Side One records of all time.

Houses of the Holy feels like the companion to Physical Graffiti that just happened to come out first. Songs written during the time period for Holy were used on Graffiti, and it feels like this was the dividing line, where the blues based hard rock that dominated the first four (classic) albums made way for something altogether more experimental, expansive, and eclectic. I’ve gone back and forth on my favorite song on the record, and if push comes to shove it has to be “The Rain Song.” Supposedly written as a response to George Harrison complaining Zeppelin never wrote any ballads, Page weaves a gorgeous tapestry of acoustic guitars (for al the guitar heroics heaped upon him, I think Page’s real talent alway lay with his acoustic playing), strings, and some ridiculously tasty licks. The song takes full advantage of the stereo soundstage, and gets some beautiful great lyrics from Plant, especially as the sings kicks into a more robust gear:

“These are the seasons of emotion / And like the winds they rise and fall / This is the wonder of devotion / I see the torch we all must hold / This is the mystery of the quotient / Upon us all a little rain must fall…”

Led Zeppelin – The Rain Song

From there we move to “Over the Hills and Far Away” which has one of the most played in bedrooms intros of all time, next to “Stairway to Heaven.” Again the song for all its bombast in the chorus truly resides in the acoustic playing of Page, and the way the riffs sift and slide from a boogie to straight up rock anthem and back again. The bridge is a wonder of John Paul Jones’s bass work, all slinky menace. Finally, wrapping up Side 1 is John Bpnham’s “The Crunge” which is the funkiest thing the band had done to date, and it’s a marvel of syncopations and groove, and the real first indicator that the band were itching to explore new sounds…

…Sounds that would really spring into being on Side 2. I don’t want this post to be a breakdown of every single song on Houses of the Holy, but between the laid back pop groove of “Dancing Days” to the reggae-infused “D’yer Mak’er” to the ominous psychedelia of “No Quarter” there’s an argument to be made that Side 2 has more to chew on than the consistently amazing Side 1. “No Quarter” in particular captures a lot of the sonic experimentation the band would dive headfirst into on later albums, and it’s more credit to the influence of John Paul Jones on the band’s sound. By the tie we get to more straight-ahead rock closer of “The Ocean” (which honestly might be the first Zeppelin riff I ever learned) we’ve come full circle back to the beginning.

I don’t know if Houses of the Holy is my favorite Led Zeppelin album, but in keeping with the recent series on the Sea of Tranquility YouTube channel, it just might be a “perfect” album. There’s not a single song I’d skip, and every time I put it on I’m energized and ready to go through it all over again.

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