Led Zeppelin – Presence (1976)

I have a list of classic albums to write about – one would think it’d be something I’d resort to more often, given how comfortable the music must feel by now, after hundreds of listens. It’s not. It’s quite the opposite. Never mind the question “What can I say about Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin that hasn’t been said a hundred different ways before?”, that’s not a valid concern after all, is it… The difficulty is personal, not referential – how does one put into words things from which it is exceedingly hard to feel detached from? Such is the trouble with albums like “Presence” and bands like Led Zeppelin. Still, the challenge is unavoidable and exhilarating, so here goes…

Led Zeppelin

I guess it’s pretty odd that the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Led Zeppelin is Courtney Love’s confession that the first time she heard them, she felt terrified, in a magnetic “can’t look away” sort of way. I think I read that somewhere in Richard Cross’ “Heavier than heaven” biography of Kurt Cobain. I’d already listened to plenty of Led Zeppelin by the time I was reading that, but this statement really stuck with me – the way their music can shock, permanently, unfathomably, from first contact, was very well captured in that recollection.

There’s something savage, primal about them, something half reptile / half feline, a sizzling, slightly nauseating blend of flavor and texture in the heavy, perfumed rhythms, a certain vibe I haven’t really heard anywhere else. I’m sure this has been said before, but this music is simply oozing sex. You can’t take such a thing lightly, it won’t let you feel indifferent, it won’t back off – the minute you hit play it takes the stage and it won’t let you ignore it no matter what. Much of that translates into aggression, and I don’t doubt the fact that it can be off-putting at first. At least, that was my experience. You hear these familiar, uncomplicated blues licks, very grounded and organic, but somehow twisted into something slithering and carnivorous, seductive and ruthless… I felt the Led Zeppelin experience was an acquired taste, but once there, the hunger never really goes away.

Presence isn’t the most “all time favorite” heavy album of theirs. It’s not the “Stairway to Heaven” album. It’s not the “Black Dog” album. However, I think it’s the most unrelenting display of groove and the fiercest concentration of “Led Zeppelin-ness” in their discography. John Bonham is a monster on this record – the drums are unbelievable, they fill the space like you wouldn’t believe, it’s just spectacular. It’s no wonder the band split after his death – this album proves it: Led Zeppelin’s vast skeleton is John Bonham’s drumming. Take that away, and the band cannot stand, pure and simple. That isn’t to say that the others aren’t doing a legendary job – Jimmy Page is just staggering here, tone honed exquisitely, guitar (un)controlled to perfection, John-Paul Jones laying down the bass law, as always, Robert Plant providing some of his best vocal work ever (especially considering he had undergone vocal cord surgery half way through recording the album – you can hear the harshness in his voice on a few of the songs). The band is simply flawless on this record and it just stands as a testament to John Bonham’s genius as a drummer that he manages not only to support the grand shape Led Zeppelin was in at the time, but to stand out, like some sort of drumming demigod.

The blues are probably more prominent in this album than any other they released, save perhaps for “I”, although their shape is a million miles away from the approach they show there. The band paradoxically seems much “tighter” here, they seem much more in control, focused, although if you watch their early videos and TV appearances, it’s obvious that they were a lot more precise and up-tight when they started off, even though the music seemed so much more unbound at first sight. Maybe this odd sort of symmetry is what makes me think of Presence as a “full-circle” kind of album, both a return to roots for them, and a completion, a crowning achievement. Somehow, it’s not entirely surprising to me that it’s also, according to the man himself, Robert Plant’s favorite album of theirs. There isn’t much more I can say at this point. Enjoy!

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