April 13, 2014 by NowhereButPop
Houses of the Holy is the sound of Led Zeppelin realizing that they are the biggest and best band in the world. Released in 1973, it marks the halfway point in their career, as well as a stylistic shift in their music. This is the album in which they began to explore musical experimentation in greater depth, instead of designating an entire album to one specific genre of music. Houses of the Holy is Led Zeppelin IV part II; it is with this album that they use branch out into reggae, rockabilly, and heavy synth use. Everything they had learned from IV, they honed on Houses of the Holy. In terms of their career, this album is the first day of the rest of their lives.
Released to initial disappointment, Houses is the closest thing Zeppelin ever did to an “artsy” album; it’s them experimenting as amateurs with different musical styles, and despite these initial misgivings in 1973, Houses proves to be one of the strongest albums in the band’s discography. It’s an album that captures Led Zeppelin being both majestic, with songs such as “No Quarter” and “The Rain Song”, and hard rocking “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “The Ocean”. This is the dual memory that fans have of Led Zeppelin, that of regal transcendence and gritty heavy metal. This paradigm is most evident on Houses of the Holy, even though it was first seen on IV because Houses is a more eclectic sounding album.
The biggest knock against the album is that it sometimes loses itself in its own grandiosity; this is the most minor of criticism, but on certain songs such as “The Crunge”, the album seems to lose its own focus. While not as tightly knit as IV, Houses of the Holy is quite analogous to its sister album in that it borrows from the same blueprint, adding to the idea that this is Led Zeppelin IV Part II. Below is a breakdown of the tracks on Houses and its analogous from Led Zeppelin IV:
|Houses of the Holy||Led Zeppelin IV|
|“The Song Remains the Same”||“The Battle of Evermore”|
|“The Rain Song”||“Stairway to Heaven”|
|“Over the Hills and Far Away”||“Misty Mountain Hop”|
|“The Crunge”||“Black Dog”|
|“Dancing Days”||“Four Sticks”|
|“D’yer Mak’er”||“Going to California”|
|“No Quarter”||“When the Levee Breaks”|
|“The Ocean”||“Rock and Roll”|
The majority of the album, in fact six of the eight songs, are canonical Zeppelin songs that all add to the grandeur and impact of the band’s catalogue. The two that stick out, “D’yer Mak’er”, and “The Crunge” fail to assert themselves because of their random insertion and experimentation, but also because the band never seemed to justify their existence insofar as developing upon that sound. It’s for this reason that Led Zeppelin II has retroactively been hailed as a great album, because within the bigger picture of their career III does not exist inside of a vacuum; we’ve come to accept Led Zeppelin as being a band fully capable of playing acoustic sets. But reggae and funk, not so much.
Where Houses ultimately succeeds however, lays within the emotions of the six, amazing, remaining songs. “No Quarter” is a synth masterpiece that stunningly captures the desperation and furious hopelessness of being a P.O.W., while the equally epic “The Rain Song”, detailing the wonders of spring and blossoming love, is arguably the band’s most harmonious song they’d ever record.
Released at the onset of spring, on March 28, 1973, there are clear themes of motifs of spring and re-genesis on the album. Whereas IV, released in November of 1971, is heavy and cold as is the winter, Houses is bright and jubilant to reflect the blossoming of life and the turning of the season. “Dancing Days”, with its declaration of the “summer evening grows” endorses the idea of springtime blooming, characterized by a lovers celebration of the warmer seasons. Similarly, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, the standout track on the album, starts off with the thawing out of the frozen months into the loud, vibrant, and exciting spring and summer, only to cool off again and gently ease back into autumn.
Spring, typically associated with life, is again intimated on the closing track “The Ocean”, an ode to both the legion of fans the band had cultivated and to the birth of Robert Plant’s daughter. It is a hard rocker that ends with a throwback doo-wop/rockabilly coda bidding us farewell, and to enjoy the upcoming months.
By crafting an album that reflects life and devotion (“The Ocean”) love (“The Rain Song”) and innocent celebration at the increased daylight (“Dancing Days”), in Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin has created the definitive springtime album. Motivated by Plant’s lyrics emphasizing the dawning of a new day and the celebration of life, Houses proves to be the band’s most melodious work, and because it abides by no formula, it is able to sufficiently stand on its own two feet within the band’s illustrious catalogue.