Led Zeppelin’s seventh album confirms this quartet’s status as heavy-metal champions of the known universe. Presence takes up where last season’s monumentally molten Physical Graffiti left off — few melodies, a preoccupation with hard-rock rhythm, lengthy echoing moans gushing from Robert Plant and a general lyrical slant toward the cosmos. (Give an Englishman 50,000 watts, a chartered jet, a little cocaine and some groupies and he thinks he’s a god. It’s getting to be an old story.)
Physical Graffiti was a penultimate of sorts (“Trampled Under Foot” was the hardest rock ever played by humans, while “Kashmir” must be the most pompous) and the new record certainly tries to keep up. The opening track, “Achilles Last Stand,” could be the Yardbirds, 12 years down the road. The format is familiar: John Bonham’s furiously attacking drum is really the lead instrument, until Jimmy Page tires of chording under Plant and takes over.
Although Page and Plant are masters of the form, emotions often conflict and the results are mixed. A few bars from one piece convince the listener he’s hearing the greatest of rock & roll, then the very next few place him in a nightmarish 1970 movie about deranged hippies.
Actually there is some fine rock on Presence. “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” is strong, while “Candy Store Rock” perfectly evokes the Los Angeles milieu in which the Zep composed this album; it sounds like an unholy hybrid in which Buddy Holly is grafted onto the quivering stem of David Bowie.
Zeppelin’s main concern here is to establish a reliable riff and stick to it, without complicating things too much with melody or nuance. At their best, the riffs are clean and purifying. The two dreary examples of blooze (“Tea for One,” “For Your Life”) may stretch even the diehards’ loyalty, but make no mistake: Presence is another monster in what by now is a continuing tradition of battles won by this band of survivors.