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Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV CD (album) cover


Led Zeppelin


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4.39 | 1067 ratings

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4 stars In the year of our Lord one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-one, it was seemingly the time for big rock bands to make what I'd call "self-consciously great" albums (like The Who with Who's Next or The Rolling Stones with Sticky Fingers). It feels to me like Zeppelin really wanted to make a big statement with this album, and it's hard to argue that they didn't; this is, after all, the centerpiece of their legend, the one that everybody owns or at least has been able to tape just from listening to classic rock radio (if you listen to any one generic classic rock station 24 hours a day, I'd lay 3 to 1 odds that you will hear this entire album, barring perhaps "Four Sticks," in no more than three days). The production on here is almost ludicrously meticulous (if a bit sterile in places), and it displays in a broad flourish all of the various sides of the band (as opposed to going overboard in one direction or another as on the last two albums). They're aggressive rock'n'rollers ("Rock and Roll"), they're regular acoustic balladeers ("Going to California"), they're mystical Tolkien addicts ("Battle of Evermore"), they're bluesy cock-rockers ("Black Dog"), they're anthemic voices of a stoned generation ("Stairway to Heaven"), and when the mood suits them they're the awesomest re-interpreters of traditional blues numbers in the world ("When the Levee Breaks").

Unfortunately, they're also prone to bouts of being among the world's biggest morons. Even when I was in my earliest developmental stages of becoming familiar with rock music, listening to "Stairway" repeatedly and thinking that "Carry on My Wayward Son" and "American Pie" were among the best songs ever written (uggggggggggggggggghhhhh), I hated the living guts out of "Misty Mountain Hop," and that feeling has only cemented over time. EVERYTHING about that song irritates me: the way the electric piano combines with the guitar and bass to create a tone that may as well be the actual sonic manifestation of retardation, the way Plant sings one of the stupidest "melodies" ever to make its way onto mainstream classic rock radio, the way it neither rocks nor pops in any way that I can find remotely acceptable ... This is, without a doubt, my least favorite Led Zeppelin song, one I hate more than the worst filler material on Physical Graffiti or Presence, or the worst tracks on Coda, or even "Thank You" or live versions of "Moby Dick." If I never hear this song again, it will be far too soon.

Nothing else on the album even remotely makes me wretch as much as that track, but there are still other places that make me more than a bit confused about the commonly held notion that this is one of the greatest albums of all time. "Four Sticks" really isn't interesting at all to me; it has that ugly discordant riff and guitar sound, and Bonham drumming with four sticks instead of two, and ... basically nothing else of note. I mean, it has some ugly wailing and some "artsy" synth noises here and there, but I'll be damned if I'm going to consider those significant positives. Anyway, I'm also not an enormous fan of this version of "Black Dog," though that shouldn't be taken to say that I dislike the track; I actually love the live takes of it on BBC and How the West Was Won. The main problem I have here is that the perfect production, to my ears, takes away the fire that the track otherwise has. In my opinion, this is a song that needs to be raw, to be aggressive, to be unpolished, as opposed to here where so much of the edge is taken off of Plant's vocals and the playing of the other three. Here, it's a decent enough track, but it doesn't really rouse a bone or organ in my body.

The other five tracks, though, are between great and phenomenal, and are enough to bring the rating up to an extremely high level given how much of the album I don't really like. "Rock and Roll" is a great representative of its title, a piece where Bonham's insanely loud drumming is a totally necessary asset and where Plant gets in a great echoey vocal. As far as heavy retro-rock goes, this is about as good as it gets, and Page's hyperactive guitar work throughout is really awesome.

The next two tracks feature the band trying to go for a heavy "mystic" vibe, and overall they're both winners. I admit that I like "Battle of Evermore" a bit less now that I've become a Tolkien addict; I know that this is supposed to be about one of the big battles in "Return of the King" (everything I've read from people on the subject says it's about the battle on the Pelennor Fields, but I can't shake the feeling that it might actually be about the battle at the Black Gate), but even after having read "The Lord of the Rings" four times, I'm still not totally sure what the heck Robbie's wailing about (who the heck are the angels of Avalon??). In other words, not only are the lyrics awfully amateurish sounding, it keeps feeling to me that Plant didn't actually remember "RoTK" very well while he was writing them. That said, I still think it's an awesome track, and it succeeds where other bands fail miserably in such attempts. The weaving of Robert's voice with Sandy Denny's is utter heaven to my ears, and Jimmy throws in some of the most beautiful mandolin (that's what it is, right?) playing I've ever heard on a rock album.

And then there's "Stairway to Heaven," and though there's probably no need for me to comment on it I will anyway. It's a pretty random choice, I think, to be the most revered song in the Zeppelin catalogue, let alone one of the most worshipped songs of all time. As lots of people have pointed out, the opening acoustic guitar melody is basically stolen from "Taurus" by the band Spirit (and don't try to tell me it isn't; Spirit opened for Led Zeppelin for much of 1970, and Page is known to have specifically made note of how neat he thought that particular Spirit instrumental was), but even disregarding that, the lyrics are more than a bit portentiously nonsensical (and yes, I'm aware of the irony of saying that when I'm a big Yes fan), and as far as metal anthems go, I'd much rather listen to "Child in Time." But the song is worth it if only for the absolutely amazing, seamless transition from acoustic ballad to all-out anthemic rocker, not to mention the amazing guitar solo in the climax. And dagnabbit, it got me into rock music!

The album then takes a turn for the worse (to say the least) with "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks," but as a reward for the pain comes a lovely acoustic ballad in "Going to California." It would be better if it didn't have yet more Tolkien worship in it, but it's pretty nonetheless; it beats "That's the Way," at least, and that wasn't a bad song itself. But this is only the quiet before the storm. If you've wondered why I could give a **** to an album that contains what is hands down my least favorite song by the band, the reason is largely because it also contains (on the same side, no less) what is hands down by favorite song by the band. "When the Levee Breaks" is, as far as I'm concerned, Led Zeppelin's finest moment by far, and I don't care if it's a cover; the band's strengths were in arranging and creating an apocalyptic mood, not in songwriting, and this also proves to me that, even at this time, nobody in the whole world could beat Led Zeppelin at covering the blues. I'm not even really sure how to describe it; I have never heard a song where every element of the band worked so seamlessly together as in this one. Bonzo's drumming is powerful and drives the song along without being distracting, Jones' bass does its job remarkably, Page rips out some of the most vicious and aggressive slide guitar parts I have ever come across, and Plant's voice (which screams itself almost ragged and hoarse in places, but all for the better) and harmonica just bring it all together. Every part is outstanding, and each only serves to highlight and enhance all the other parts. It's, well, it's as if a pre- programmed blues computer ran a program to come up with the optimal kick-ass arrangement and recorded it on disc. As far as I'm concerned, for seven glorious minutes, Led Zeppelin really sounds like one of the greatest bands in the world, and one that I can love as much as seemingly everybody else does.

In the end, this is not a consistent record, to say the least. Not only does the quality of the songs vary ENORMOUSLY, the songs just don't flow together at all (especially in contrast to III). Indeed this is much less of an album than it is a collection of 8 songs which may or may not have anything to do with each other. Largely because of this, and largely because of the excessively perfect production, the whole thing can sound and feel overly commerical and fake at times. Despite all of these flaws, however, this is still a terrific album, and I would advise all who do not have it yet (though I can't see why such a person would be reading this page) to get it and get it soon. Or, of course, get out some tapes while a radio station "gets the Led out" ...

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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