Houses Of The Holy
Atlantic Records, 1973
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/13/2012
When I was a little boy, I remember looking through my Aunt Ann’s records that were stored at my grandparents’ house. For some reason, I was always confused when I came to Houses Of The Holy, the fifth release from Led Zeppelin – probably because I didn’t know what to make of all those weird-colored naked children. My aunt always said she loved the song “Over The Hills And Far Away,” thanks to the opening guitar licks from Jimmy Page.
When I became older and achieved Buddha nature, I learned what Led Zeppelin was all about, and discovered the music behind the funky album cover. Coming off what was a career-defining song with “Stairway To Heaven,” Led Zeppelin dared to release an album that was their music on their terms, and didn’t really give a lick whether you liked it or not.
The end result was an album that, despite having certain songs played to death on classic rock radio, still remains some of the band’s best work ever.
It is that oversaturation of some of the tracks that can cause a listener to totally miss just how important songs like “Over The Hills And Far Away,” “The Rain Song,” and “The Song Remains The Same” really were. Mind you, this was the era of progressive rock, so mastery of an instrument was nothing new in the scene. But the way that the band (guitarist Page, bassist John Paul Jones, drummer John Bonham, and vocalist Robert Plant) so layered these songs to create more of an experience showed that Led Zeppelin was truly on top of their game. (One could argue, though, that this process was started with “Stairway To Heaven,” or even as early as “Dazed And Confused,” and I wouldn’t disagree.)
“The Rain Song” was the track that completely shattered any prior conceptions that people had about Led Zeppelin – a song not driven by blistering guitar solos from Page, but by a neo-symphonic melody complemented by keyboard work from Jones. It was one of the richest songs Zeppelin ever recorded, and I would argue that it is one of their top five songs, second only to “Stairway To Heaven”. Not quite as strong, but ambitious in its scope (and somewhat successful), “No Quarter” is another track that dares to shake your belief in what you think Led Zeppelin is or should be. This one doesn’t get nearly the airplay that it should, and seeing that “The Rain Song” gets time on classic rock radio, length is not the issue here.
But as serious as Houses Of The Holy can be, it also showed that the lads knew how to have some fun with their work. Listen to “The Crunge” and tell me that this wasn’t Led Zeppelin completely cutting loose and nearly slapping the face of the serious atmosphere they had created with the album’s three previous songs. Jones’s keyboard work here is a portent of what one would hear six years later on In Through The Out Door. Likewise, “The Ocean”’s faint vocal lead-in – I never figured this out, was that Bonham shouting in the background? – dares to suggest that Zeppelin was declaring that they were going to end this album the way they started it: on their own terms. Good thing they knew what they were doing, because it works.
Yet there is one song on this disc I have never been able to get into – namely, “D’yer Mak’er.” From the pseudo-reggae groove that drives the song to the laid-back delivery of most of Plant’s vocals, even to one of the most uninspired solos Page ever laid down on tape, this track is one that has always fallen flat to my ears. Still, one out of eight ain’t bad.
If I had taken the time to get past the freaky cover art (which, legend has it, looks that way due to a printing error) when I was younger, I might have gotten into Led Zeppelin a lot earlier than I did. While I still maintain that “Stairway To Heaven” is the ultimate rock song – no matter how many times I hear it, I have yet to tire of it – you could make a very strong case that Houses Of The Holy should be the first Led Zeppelin album that someone new to Zeppelin should purchase.