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Led Zeppelin Remastered: The Second Batch (IV & Houses of the Holy)


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I, II, III | IV, Houses of the Holy

Following the 1-2-3 punch of its first three albums—first released between January 1969 and October 1970 and reissued in June, 2014 as the first batch of a year-long series of overdue (and expanded) remasters of its entire nine-album catalog—Led Zeppelin continued on an upward trajectory, touring extensively and beginning to introduce songs that would ultimately appear on the British rock band's fourth album, one that bucked all marketing conventions and contained neither the name of the band nor the name of the album beyond a series of symbols, one for each member of the group. At the time it was referred to, in various camps, as everything from The Fourth Album and Untitled Runes to The Hermit and ZoSo...but as the years have progressed it's ultimately become known simply—and, not unlike the numeric designations of group's first three recordings—as Led Zeppelin IV.

Certified gold before release, IV remains a pinnacle amongst the group's many achievements, though in some ways its massive success has also led to continued overexposure of many of the album's superlative songs on Classic Rock radio stations, unfairly diminishing its status as the group's most truly eclectic album to date—surpassing, even, III's acoustic/electric mixed bag. For those who love this record irrespective of the countless times tracks like "Black Dog," "Rock and Roll" and "Stairway to Heaven" have been aired, Jimmy Page's remaster is, as was the case with Zeppelin's first three recordings, a significant upgrade on previous editions, revealing greater depth and breadth in the sound of the acoustic instruments and adding more punch and bite to the electric ones that dominate most of the album's eight tracks.

Coming 13 months after III, IV was the album that, released in November, 1971, achieved even greater fame and fortune—and with 37 million copies sold worldwide, has justifiably become one of the most successful recordings in history, garnering well-deserved popular and critical acclaim. Sixteen months were to go by before Zeppelin followed IV up with its first titled record, Houses of the Holy, in March, 1973. If it didn't achieve the same success as its predecessor, 39 weeks on the Billboard chart (two of them at #1, topping IV's #2 peak) were far from shabby, and some of its songs—this being the the first album of all-original material—would become staples in its live sets, in particular the episodic title track and atmospheric "No Quarter." It was, however, also the group's first to receive some critical drubbing in the press, in particular for the inclusion of two songs—the reggae-inflected "D'Yer Maker" and funkified "The Crunge"—that might have seemed out of character at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, merely demonstrated a group that, while characterized as hard rock and one of the founding fathers of heavy metal, was always far, far more than that.

Together, IV and Houses of the Holy cemented Led Zeppelin's position as one of the biggest band in the world for the four-year period of 1971-75, filling houses ranging from a British club tour, intended to give its fans a close-up view of a band that was regularly filling arenas and stadiums, to those larger more cavernous venues, including three shows at New York City's Madison Square Garden that were filmed and ultimately released to theatres in 1976 as The Song Remains The Same. These two recordings also heralded the beginning of a period of serious sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, wanton destruction and no shortage of debauchery that have become legendary in the annals of rock history. But while these stories have been well-documented, and some of the imagery in the booklets accompanying the two-CD/two-LP Super Deluxe Edition of this series of remasters—also coming as single-disc reissues of the original recordings and Deluxe Edition 2CD versions that include a second disc of works-in-progress, alternate mixes and versions, as well as digital downloads versions of the single and double-disc editions—the most important story here is the music, and with Page creating separate remasters for each medium, it's music that not only stands the test of time, but sounds absolutely undated and better than ever more than forty years after it was first released.

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin IV (Deluxe Edition 2CD)
2014 (1971)

From the opening guitar chords, a cappella vocals from singer Robert Plant and a muscular unison guitar/bass riff, driven by John Bonham's thundering "where's the one" kit work, Led Zeppelin IV makes clear that something was happening to the group that Page had formed from the ashes of The Yardbirds in the fall of 1968. If the group's earlier albums—impressive, each and every one—managed to bring together everything from high octane rock and roll and visceral blues to traditional British folk music and even a bit of church, IV would prove to be the group's most successfully eclectic album yet. After the one-two punch of "Black Dog" and the more straightforward (and aptly titled) "Rock and Roll," "The Battle of Evermore" is something else entirely, with just acoustic guitars and mandolin driving a song that Page claims, in a 1977 Trouser Press interview, "was made up on the spot by Robert [Plant] and myself. I just picked up John Paul Jones's mandolin, never having played a mandolin before, and just wrote up the chords and the whole thing in one sitting."

With its Tolkienesque lyrics, "Evermore" is the only song Zeppelin ever recorded with a guest vocalist and what a guest vocalist; ex-Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny ran, perhaps surprisingly, in the same circles as Zeppelin, the British electric folk rock progenitor's second bassist, Dave Pegg, having played with Bonham prior to the pair moving on to greater fame and fortune in two seemingly very different groups. Still, those two groups shared more than might first meet the eye, as amply demonstrated by both "Evermore" and the similarly acoustic "Going to California," from IV's second side.

But for all the British traditionalism of "Evermore" and the first half of "Stairway to Heaven"—a song that truly deserves the overused and abused designations of "ciassic" and "iconic"—Zeppelin's blues roots also make a strong appearance on the album-closing "When the Levee Breaks," a hard-driving song that features a rare harmonica feature from Plant that takes up a full 80 seconds (and 20 percent) of the song before the singer comes in with the lyrics first written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in response to the great Mississippi flood of 1927. As different a song as it is, what ties "Levee" to the album's side two opener, "Misty Mountain Hop"—what links every song on which he plays, in fact—is Bonham's almost impossible fat snare, roaring toms and dark, splashing cymbal work. Every bit the virtuoso as The Who's Keith Moon, what differentiates the two is that, as bombastic and busy as they both could be, Bonham grooves in ways that Moon never could; he also had a more sophisticated sense of time, as his playing on "Black Dog" demonstrates, playing across the rhythm of Jones and Page's riff as effortlessly as he bolsters the aptly titled "Four Sticks" where he did, indeed, play with two sets of sticks, shifting between 5/8 and 6/8 time as effortlessly as Page's layered acoustic and electric guitars and Jones' blend of bass and VCS3 synth came together to create one of the band's most abstract yet still positively grounded songs yet.

What differentiated Zeppelin from some of its peers at the time was its degree of sophistication. It may have rocked, and rocked hard, but Page's ear for guitars layers and Jones' rampant multi-instrumentalism (both born of years spent as studio musicians in the '60s), along with Bonham's ability to work in mixed meters even as he laid down grooves few could touch, all resulted in a group—and, here, an album—that nobody else could have made. Even "Stairway to Heaven"—overplayed and, consequently, parodied and sometimes (unfairly) ridiculed—is, in fact, an epic blend of folkloric acoustic guitars and recorders that slowly builds, with the addition of Fender Rhodes, electric 12-string guitar and, ultimately, bass and drums into a powerhouse solo spot for Page that may be one of his best ever—a combination of blues-drenched bends and rapid-fire pull-offs that, nevertheless, is absolutely singable—and one of Plant's most memorable vocal deliveries on record.

In fact, what makes Led Zeppelin IV such a success is not any one contribution—though Plant's singing continues to evolve, his range reaching seemingly impossible heights and his ability to squeeze every possible meaning out of a single, cracking scream a rare thing of beauty—but the confluence of everyone's contributions. It's not about posturing solos—though Page certainly did his fair share in performance—it's about a group that hit the ground running with its first album, expanded its purview with its second and third, and here, with its fourth, reached a pinnacle that it would ultimately have a difficult time topping.

The second disc contains a complete set of alternate versions and mixes that reveal more about the process of making the record and the matter of choice, but at the end of the day is incidental. It may be played a few times for the sake of interest, but ultimately it will be the first disc that most will reach for—as close to a perfect recording as Led Zeppelin would ever make, without a weak or questionable moment throughout 43 minutes that are by turns hauntingly lyrical, viscerally rocking and, as a whole, exhilaratingly cathartic.

Led Zeppelin
Houses of the Holy (Deluxe Edition 2CD)
2014 (1973)

With an album as perfect as IV, Led Zeppelin was faced with a significant challenge in delivering its follow-up, and it was a full 16 months—the longest gap between albums to date—before its first titled album (and first album of all-original music), Houses of the Holy was delivered. It was the group's first record to receive some critical drubbing and there are, indeed, some questionable moments, but even a less-than-perfect Zeppelin record is orders of magnitude better than those from many of its peers.

The record certainly opens with a bang: Page's rapid-fire electric 12-string work juxtaposed with Pete Townshend-like chordal slams, all driven by some of Jones' most impressive bass work and Bonham playing it straight—but with rarely equalled power and commitment—it takes nearly a minute and a half before Plant enters. His relatively low register only lasts a short while during the song's shift into half-time before the band kicks the tempo back up and, after an impressive solo from Page, the singer moves comfortably into the stratosphere.

If only the album were as consistent as its first three tracks. "The Rain Song" follows, a ballad driven as much by Jones' mellotron as it is Page's layered acoustic and electric guitars, it demonstrates even greater confidence by the band from a production perspective. When the song picks up steam briefly, with Bonham and Jones' acoustic piano creating a briefly pulsating undercurrent, it's both surprising and inevitable. "Over the Hills and Far Away" starts as another piece of acoustic folk, but it's not long before Plant pushes a gritty electric guitar into the forefront and Bonham and Jones turn the song into a more rock-edged affair, with a curiously psychedelic guitar solo panning across the stereo landscape, as a second guitar joins in harmony, once again demonstrating the care that went into every Zeppelin tune and how the studio assumed an increasingly important role in differentiating the group's recordings and live performances.

The triyptch of songs that follow—the thundering funk of "The Crunge," hard-rocking "Dancing Days" and strangely reggae-inflected "D'Yer Maker"—are all songs that would be considered strong on another group's recordings, and it's true that they all continue to demonstrate the group's relentless eclecticism. But after an initial trilogy of songs that suggest Zeppelin is having no trouble following up the near-perfection of its previous albums, they create a lull in the record from which the group has a hard time recovering.

Almost, that is, because what follows is the album's most impressive track, one like nothing Zeppelin had ever done before yet sounding like nobody but Zeppelin. With Jones' warbling Fender Rhodes introduction and Plant's flanged vocals, "No Quarter" is an ethereal, atmospheric seven minutes that is, nevertheless, grounded by Bonham's unshakable anchor and Page's fuzz-toned rhythmic work. A mid-song acoustic piano solo from Jones leads to a clean-toned solo from Page and, ultimately, some overdriven work that suggests an interest in middle eastern and Indian music that would ultimately interest both Page and Plant in later years.

It's so distinct that when the riff-driven "The Ocean" closes the record, it's almost because it has to, to reassert Zeppelin's core strength, even as it does so over Page and Jones' shifting 8/8 and 7/8 line. Still, it's far from predictable as, mid-song, everyone drops out for an a cappella vocal segment that leads to a final verse before the song suddenly takes a left turn into a rocking and rolling coda that seems almost like a non sequitur but manages to end the record on a definitive note.

As with IV, the second disc of outtakes, rough mixes and alternate takes—all songs except "D'Yer Maker" are included"—are of passing interest only, and while Houses of the Holy might be a five-star record for any other group—and four of its eight tracks are worthy additions to the Zeppelin canon—the inconsistent middle section of the record makes it more an average record for a band whose sites were always set so high that it was almost inevitable it would, at some point, find itself with a partial miss.


Tracks: CD1: Black Dog; Rock and Roll; The Battle of Evermore; Stairway to Heaven; Misty Mountain Hop; Four Sticks; Going to California; When the Levee Breaks. CD2: Black Dog (Basic Track with Guitar Overdubs); Rock and Roll (Alternate Mix); Battle of Evermore (Mandolin/Guitar Mx from Headley Grange); Stairway to Heaven (Sunset Sound Mix); Misty Mountain Hop (Alternate Mix); Four Sticks (Alternate Mix May 11, 1971); Going to California (Mandolin/Guitar Mix); When the Levee Breaks (Alternate U.K. Mix).

Personnel: Robert Plant: vocals, harmonica; Jimmy Page: acoustic and electric guitars; John Paul Jones: bass, piano, electric piano, mellotron, mandolin; John Bonham: drums, percussion.

Houses of the Holy

Tracks: CD1: The Song Remains the Same; The Rain Song; Over the Hills and Far Away; The Crunge; Dancing Days; D'Yer Maker; No Quarter; The Ocean. CD2: The Song Remains the Same (Guitar Overdub Reference Mix); The Rain Song (Mix Minus Piano); Over the Hills and Far Away (Guitar Mix Backing Track); The Crunge (Rough Mix—Keys Up); Dancing Days (Rough Mix with Vocal); No Quarter (Rough Mix with JPJ Keyboard Overdubs-No Vocal); The Ocean (Working Mix).

Personnel: Robert Plant: vocals, harmonica; Jimmy Page: acoustic and electric guitars; John Paul Jones: bass, piano, electric piano, mellotron, synthesizers; John Bonham: drums, percussion.

I, II, III | IV, Houses of the Holy

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