by Perry Meisel
Led Zeppelin has roused from its slumbers long enough to present its annual self-tribute, and the result ("Presence," on Swan Song) is the band's best disc in years. This is Zep's seventh album since they joined together in a London recording studio back in 1968, and it actually threatens to compare, even more than '71's nameless album, with the exhilarating pretensions of those monuments from the early days: Zep I and II.
"Presence" ranks this high in Zep's oeuvre because the band is relentless here at what it does best. We're spared the tedium of Page's acoustic guitar and Plant's bogus balladeering for the first time in Zep recording history. Instead, we get throbbing riff stuff with a vengeance devoid of ornament of any kind. With more than his usual vindictiveness, Page slows and thickens a pile of (normally) crisp rocking grooves ("To be a rock and not to roll" says the clincher to the poem-notes of "Zoso") and swells them to grotesque proportions by compulsive rhythmic repetitions that translate (as always) to narcissistic self-absorption. The tracks ooze with the grease of these exertions.
There's also a kind of pattern to all this over the course of the album. It thunders from the start, but it widens and contracts its rhythmic ground as the disc unfolds. The sound circles from close columns ("Achilles Last Stand") to massive horizons ("For Your Life") and back again ("Nobody's Fault But Mine"); from slow blues ("Tea for One") and Bo Diddley bounce ("Candy Store Rock," with a trace of Mark Farner in Plant's vocal) to a twangy funk as creamy as its title ("Royal Orleans"). Page orchestrates his riffs, too, leaving the most astounding ones till the penultimacies of the album's later phase ("Nobody's Fault," "Hots on for Nowhere"). Even his multiple guitar tones (count the channels) accede to a kind of dramatic unfurling from radiance to doom in this allegory of rocking forms, where architecture, melody, and colors (rock synesthesia: "Play some more orange, Eric") all constitute repetitions like the ones Page lavishes on his own rhythms.
This formalism stands in sharp contrast to the "humanistic" lust and despair of both the lyrics and the instruments. Sentiments of destruction and violation, after all, don't augur well for the careful structures that contain them. But the dangers posed by this threatened conflict between the band's impersonal craftsmanship and its manifest rage for chaos are neutralized by Page's tactics as a producer. If Plant is human - a standard erotic victim - at the start of the lp ("Is there no mercy in the city of the damned?"), he turns into an alloy of Page's metal by the halfway point ("Nobody's Fault").
Of course, this thematic is so stylized that all the struggle and defeat freezes into purely ritual gesture even before Page the auteur comes out and performs this alchemy on Plant. In fact, this ritualization or (over)formalization tends to empty human content out of the music from the beginning, and substitutes in its place the struts of a gleaming chrome artifact.
So I'd suggest Zep to be the phenoms they are because of a peculiar formal success in relation to rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and not because of commonplace alienation themes or Page's supposed wizardry as a solo guitarist. We tend not to see the submerged rock and roll modalities in Zep as clearly as we ought to. We mistake the pseudo-symphonic pomp of a good deal of English rock as a sign for some authentic relation to classical music. The Wagnerian surface, though, is deceptive, obscuring as it does those primal scenes of prepubescent Lennons and Jaggers fixed by the radio or more likely the phonograph entranced by black American music. The ocean was an aisle of safety for the Pages, Townshends, Lennons, Jaggers, Becks, Mayalls, and Claptons of this world. It made blues and rock and roll something that came out of a plastic box, as safe and contained as English society itself.
Zep's music, then, takes its meaning more from its relation to rock and roll as a repository of gestures, moods, and figures than from the kind of relation to experience itself invoked by American rockers. Zep's musical significations are to be felt in sluggish caricatures of hyperbolic permutations of rock norms reworked the way Sonny Rollins, for example, weighs and magnifies the unspoken assumptions of a conventional rhythmic setting in jazz.
The reason this strategy can work is because Zep has the soulful Bonham on drums. Without a link to the standard rhythm and blues virtues which he provides in the snap of his snare and the cunning hesitations of his phrasing, Zep would be without musical foundation. Like Ringo, Bonham is traditionally dismissed or even ridiculed when both in fact rank among the great Unacknowledged of rock history. You can feel Bonham's funkiness not just in the Roger Hawkins similitudes of the new disc (the snare and tom fills, for example, on "Achilles'" or "Candy Store Rock"), but even as far back as the specially syncopated high-hat on Zeps I or II. From this angle too you can catch the saxophone logic of Page's rhythm guitar - his metal riffmaking, after all, is really a trash play on the stutter of soul horn arrangements and the drones of Phil Spector's walls of sound.
All this and more on "Presence," Zep's best album in years and the best hard rock disc to appear in recent memory.
Originally published in The Village Voice, June 7, 1976