For me, Led Zeppelin began as the epitome of everything good about rock: solid guitar work, forceful vocals and rhythmic backing, devotion to primal blues forms, and most of all, thunderous excitement on stage and vinyl. But as superstardom came to them, so too came the gradual evaporation of those qualities from their sound. In the same way that the Rolling Stones evolved into a senior, "safe" bizarro-perversion band, Led Zeppelin has become a senior, "safe" heavy-metal band. But by its very nature safety cannot coexist with heavy-metal fire and macho intensity (or bizarro-perversion, for that matter), which is probably why Houses of the Holy is one of the dullest and most confusing albums I've heard this year.
Even after a hundred listenings I'm still not convinced this album is by the same group that brought us the likes of "Communication Breakdown," "Heartbreaker" and "Black Dog." The powerfully simplistic rhythms and surging adrenaline drive that made those songs so compelling is nowhere to be found. Only once is it attempted, on "The Ocean," but there it's so diluted with pointless humor that the necessary musical tension never develops. Jimmy Page's guitar spits jagged fireballs with John Paul Jones and John Bonham riffing along behind him, but the effect is destroyed by ridiculous backup cooings and an overbearing "killer" coda that's so blatant it can only be taken as a mock of straight rock & roll. "Rock 'n' Roll" to the contrary, Led Zeppelin's forte has always been rockin' the blues; if they took themselves seriously they'd realize that they are foolish to step outside that genre.
The only other tune approaching the Zep's past triumphs is "The Song Remains the Same," a slice of Whodom that works solely as a vehicle for Page's guitar antics. And that's really what Led Zeppelin's been about from the start. Interesting things abound in what amounts to a 5:24 guitar solo — groin-rattling riffing, a clever fuzz run, and some finger-picked figures executed with a finesse that belies their macho origin. And Page manages to run through this hefty gamut without once being self-indulgent. It's not the music that made Led Zeppelin famous (their style is hardly interchangeable with the Who's), but at least it's got more than an amp or two of the excitement that they're renowned for. And on this album, that alone is a major triumph.
Two songs are naked imitations, and they're easily the worst things this band has ever attempted. "The Crunge" reproduces James Brown so faithfully that it's every bit as boring, repetitive and cliched as "Good Foot." Yakety-yak guitar, boom-boom bass, astoundingly idiotic lyrics ("when she walks, she walks, and when she talks, she talks") — it's all there. So is Jones' synthesizer, spinning absolutely superfluous electronic fills.
"D'yer Mak'er" is even worse, a pathetic stab at reggae that would probably get the Zep laughed off the island if they bothered playing it in Jamaica. Like every other band following rock's latest fad, Led Zeppelin shows little understanding of what reggae is about — "D'yer Mak'er" is obnoxiously heavy-handed and totally devoid of the native form's sensibilities.
The truly original songs on Houses of the Holy again underscore Led Zeppelin's songwriting deficiences. Their earliest successes came when they literally stole blues licks note for note, so I guess it should have been expected that there was something drastically wrong with their own material. So it is that "Dancing Days," "The Rain Song" and "No Quarter" fall flat on their respective faces — the first is filler while the latter two are nothing more than drawn-out vehicles for the further display of Jones' unknowledgeable use of mellotron and synthesizer.
"Over the Hills and Far Away" is cut from the same mold as "Stairway To Heaven," but without that song's torrid guitar solo it languishes in Dullsville — just like the first five minutes of "Stairway." The whole premise of "graduated heaviness" (upon which both songs were built) really goes to show just how puerile and rudimentary this group can get when forced to scrounge for its own material. One would think that the group that stole "Whole Lotta Love," et al., might acquire an idea or two along the way, but evidently they weren't looking. Let's hear it for androids!
When you really get down to it Led Zeppelin hasn't come up with a consistent crop of heavymetal spuds since their second album. Their last three efforts have been so uneven that had they started with Led Zeppelin III I'm convinced they wouldn't be here today. While they've been busy denying their bluesrock roots, Robert Plant's vocals have lost their power and the band's instrumental work has lost its traces of spontaneity. In simple fact of matter, Houses of the Holy was 17 months in preparation, yet Led Zeppelin I (the product of a mere 15 hours) cuts it to shreds.
So all in all it's been two separate groups we've called Led Zeppelin, and I've tired of waiting for the only legitimate one to return. An occasional zinger like "When the Levee Breaks" isn't enough, especially when there are so many other groups today that don't bullshit around with inferior tripe like "Stairway To Heaven." Beck, Bogert & Appice, Black Sabbath, the Groundhogs, Robin Trower — the list is long and they all fare musically better than the Zep because they stick to what they do best. Page and friends should similarly realize their limitations and get back to playing the blues-rock that moves mountains. Until they do Led Zeppelin will remain Limp Blimp.