Led Zeppelin III seems to hold a special place among music critics. Whereas the previous album was their cock rock album, a work so willfully sleazy it still offends the snobbish music fans among us, the band takes a different, less “obnoxious” approach on III. It’ll forever be remembered as “the album on which they’d incorporate a lot of folk,” and rightly so, as only three songs out of ten could be called “hard rock.” Of course, the debut album already contained “Black Mountain Side,” so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that they’d pick up their acoustic guitars once in a while, but in a way, it also must’ve been memorable, as most of their contemporaries still seemed hell-bent on becoming as heavy as possible. As such, the album also leads the way to the classic untitled fourth album, which is often considered the best crossover of folk and hard rock ever, and while this merger isn’t always that successful on this baby, it’s an extremely likeable album, hell it’s even elegant, and one you can turn to in many moods. By consequence, it’s become the Led Zeppelin album I probably play most often, and I bet I’m not the only one.
Now, it’s not a GREAT album – it simply lacks a few stunner -, but it’s definitely a grower, certainly after the none-too-subtle Led Zeppelin II. It immediately kicks off with one of their most recognizable rockers, the short, pumping declaration of war “Immigrant Song.” It’s pretty silly actually, with its Viking imagery (and should be held responsible for that ridiculous sub-genre it spawned) and Plant’s high-pitched wails, but it’s also a prime piece of rawk. And watch out for that huge bass groove. In case it might forget to point it out in the later reviews: John Paul Jones may not have been an extraordinarily gifted musician like Entwistle, but he was the quartet’s restless soul, providing a lead-heavy foundation, tasteful organ parts and string arrangements. Equally important: many of the band’s explorations were instigated by Jones, so it’s no surprise it’s his career that made the freakish turns, by becoming producer of acts such as The Butthole Surfers and avant-queen Diamanda Galas twenty years later. Anyway, “Immigrant Song” is a good, hard rockin’ song, but for some reason – and I’m well aware I’m alone on this one – it’s not as enjoyable as the awkward “Celebration Day.” That song has some brilliant multi-tracked guitar parts, powerhouse drumming (and how Bonham bashes those cymbals!) and simply the best chorus on the entire album. The one rock track that’s left, “Out on the Tiles,” is quite disappointing in comparison – tough, but one-dimensional – even though their hard rock brethren probably would’ve sacrificed an arm for it. Anyway, it’s not one of these tracks that’s the one undisputed highlight, but the majestic epic “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” You either like it, or you don’t, and if you don’t, chances are slim you’ll like much of Led Zeppelin’s output. Even though it serves perfectly as an extended mood piece – somehow, it still renders me speechless every time I hear it -, it’s of course also an exercise in bombast (I have to admit that my favorite part of the song is the first 70 seconds). But still, Page’s performance throughout is simply stunning, a masterful combination of passion wrapped up in the blues. Plant’s performance is probably an acquired taste (and he does go overboard if you’re used to less confident vocalists), but you can’t deny that he gives it his all. Again, what cracks me up the most, is the sound and you can actually hear one of Bonham’s pedals creaking if you listen carefully.
The pleasant textures of the non-rock tracks is also one of the album’s assets. “Gallows Pole,” for instance, isn’t that special, a reworking of a traditional that starts of wistfully and soon develops a frenzied, hard-hitting pace, but it’s the way in which things click together that turns it into a winner: that combination of acoustic and electric guitars (“Stairway to Heaven” anyone?), the graceful way in which Jones’ mandolin suddenly comes in (after 1:05) and the moment Page’s banjo pickin’ and Bonham’s simple beating simultaneously enter the picture a bit later. Something totally different, and a remarkable entry in their catalogue is “Friends.” It starts off acoustic, contains some rather cheesy lyrics (yeah, we all gotta be good friends, etc), but then those strings come in, and they give the song this dark, eerie tone that’s easily as effective as Sabbath’s tritonic doom in creating an unsettling atmosphere. Before you start thinking it’s one of my favorite albums: I’m a bit less ecstatic about the next few songs: during “Tangerine” they make great use of steel guitar, but overall I’ve thought it lacked the final ingredient that might lend it some true character. Likewise, the nice “That’s the Way” combines folk and country-ish in a successful way, but I somehow feel it’s still a missed opportunity, as five and a half minutes don’t seem enough to come into its own. Still, what the hell am I complaining about? They’re still good! The weaker stuff is tacked to the end: “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” named after the “small derelict cottage in South Snowdonia” is folk, but not the kind that I like: it reeks too much of campfire coziness and boy scout-bonding for my taste. Finally, the album ends very confusingly with the distorted acoustic delta blues of “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper.” It lacks rhythm, has got nothing to do with Harper as far as I know, throws some blues elements together and seems to serve one purpose: it might inspire you to check out good country blues. But hey, overall Led Zeppelin III is a damn fine album that finds the band expanding its sound and preparing itself for world domination a year later.