Music

Led Zeppelin: Presence (Deluxe Edition)

Led Zeppelin's most underappreciated album gets the remastered treatment.


Led Zeppelin

Presence (Deluxe Edition)

Label: Atlantic / Swan Song
Release Date: 2015-07-31
Amazon
iTunes

Amongst the innovative Led Zeppelin II, the eclectic House of the Holy, and the perfect Physical Graffiti, it’s hard to believe that Led Zeppelin had something akin to a forgotten album. However, because of the (since unparalleled) critical and commercial garnered by the band’s first six albums, their 1976 opus, Presence, often goes ignored and underappreciated by both critics and fans alike. Like most albums that are misjudged as being “bad albums”, Presence is often criticized for what it’s not, instead of what it accomplishes.

Led Zeppelin had been used to making records in the face of public criticism and external strife. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that on the band’s first album, Led Zeppelin “waste their considerable talent on unworthy material”. After the lukewarm reception of 1969 debut Led Zeppelin many were wondering if Led Zeppelin had committed career suicide, and with the release of House of the Holy, those same critics wondered if Zeppelin had anything left in the tank at all. When in doubt, and when faced with stacked odds against them, Zeppelin could always be counted on to rebound and come back stronger than ever. The fundamental difference between Presence and every other Led Zeppelin album is that it was the band’s first album produced in the midst of internal turmoil.

Following the wildly successful Physical Graffiti, Zeppelin were given the monumental task of following up such a flawless album. Before they could even do so, frontman Robert Plant was involved in a near-fatal car accident on the island of Rhodes. While he was recovering, he was joined by guitarist Jimmy Page, where the idea of recording an album was first conceived. After writing the majority of the songs together, the pair reconceived with John Paul Jones and John Bonham in Germany where the recorded and mixed the album in only 18 days. Because of the spontaneity of the album’s genesis, Presence is their jammiest and funkiest album, standing in stark contrast to the meticulous precision of the band’s earlier works.

The biggest issue plaguing Presence is that it’s Physical Graffiti-era Led Zeppelin trying to be Led Zeppelin II-era Led Zeppelin. As a result, Presence became the band’s simplest album, but again, that by no means makes the album bad, a fact that went largely ignored by initial critics of the album. Despite being only seven tracks deep, Presence has more than its fair share of memorable moments and standout songs.

Kicking off the album is the band’s last true epic, “Achilles Last Stand”, which picks up right where “Sick Again” left off. Between Bonham’s heart attack-inducing drumming, Page’s incendiary guitar play and Plant’s hypnotic shrill singing, the opening track is more of a cold opening, one where Led Zeppelin is firing on all cylinders with no need for introduction. If Physical Graffiti represents the zenith of the band’s career, then “Achilles Last Stand” is the sound of the band taking in one last view before climbing back down to earth.

Backing up “Achilles Last Stand” is the egregiously forgotten (and according to Sporlce one of least known Led Zeppelin Songs) “For Your Life”. With its powerful bassline, rugged guitar riff, and sardonic lyrics, “For Your Life” is one the brightest hidden gems in the band’s entire catalogue. Equally forgotten is “Royal Orleans”, a biographical account of John Paul Jone’s misadventures with a transvestite prostitute. The cohesion of the guitar, bass, and drums sounds like a steam train chugging along over Plant’s playful delivery. Bonham’s bongo breakdown during the bridge of the song stands out as one of the most amusing moments on an album dominated by guitar overdubs and desperation. Symbolically, “Royal Orleans” provides a brief cheerfulness on an album overwrought with turmoil and alienation.

Presence is best known for two tracks, “Achilles Last Stand” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, the second last track on the album. The bluesiet song on the album, “Nobody’s Fault” is a behemoth made from bone-crunching basslines, a maniacal harmonica solo, and its memorable “call-and-response” structure, and it’s a shame that the band only had three years to play the song live. At its core, “Nobody’s Fault” serves as a paradigm for the state of the band’s reputation, as well as the album Presence. It’s a heavy, blues-rock track that like an avalanche grinds down everything in its path. However, there’s still an immaculate aspect to the song that leaves listeners in a mystified daze, as if they had never heard anything like it before. The true power of Led Zeppelin was in combining the ethereal with the physical; elevating the earthly and human elements of the blues while simultaneously elevating their own music to almost divine levels.

Despite its strong first half, in its latter half, Presence does encounter a few pitfalls that dilutes its overall impact and prevents it from standing as tall as its sister albums. “Candy Store Rock” sounds like the prequel to 1971’s “Rock and Roll”. “Hots on for Nowhere”, while not malignant, is superfluous, and “Tea for One” may very well be the worst Led Zeppelin song of all time.

Led Zeppelin wrote some beautiful ballads, from the sensitive “The Rain Song” to the timeless ‘Ten Years Gone”, the band was just as good at making listeners shed a tear as they were at making listeners want to rock out. Conversely, “Tea For One” is a failure of a ballad. It mercilessly drags on for almost 10 minutes, all four members sound incredibly bored on the recording, and it sounds like they all planned to stretch out the song as long as they possibly could. Making a list of the worst Led Zeppelin songs would be next to impossible because there really aren’t that many bad songs, however, “Tea for One” would have the dubious honor of kicking off any such list.

Like the rest of the band’s discography, Presence has gotten the remastered treatment, and like the rest of the re-releases, the bonus material leaves too much to be desired. With the promise of bonus content, the band got their fans' hopes up just to cut them down with the lackluster contributions. All the re-release of Presence has to offer are (slightly) different versions of “Achilles Last Stand”, “For Your Life” and “Hots on for Nowhere”, one instrumental that was thankfully cut from the recording sessions, and an amusingly different version of “Royal Orleans”, the only saving grace of the bonus material. The only real difference between the outtakes and their standard counterparts is a differently mixed guitar solo with a slightly tweaked vocal arrangement. As far as the extra content goes, like the previous six re-releases, Presence is just another disappointment. After all, why open up the vault if there's nothing to bring out?

Despite its weak second half, Presence is too good of an album to be dismissed. Although side one doesn’t stand up to any of the band’s previous work, the first four tracks still offer a fun ride through epics, hard rockers, and jovial romps. The album is also Page’s best work as a producer as he’s able to perfectly juggle the vocals with the music in a way that accentuates all the pieces into their most sonically balanced album. Everything just sounds much cleaner and polished, yet still rugged and earth-shattering.

Presence was Led Zeppelin’s most human album, and for some that may be off-putting. But it was an album that they themselves needed to record at the time to prove that they would be able to rebound from inner turmoil as resiliently as they recovered from external strife. Because of this indestructibility and their ability to make perfect records, the band gained this aura of divinity and mysticism. Long has Led Zeppelin been portrayed as gods; on Presence the gods came down from Olympus.

7

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image