Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album was a transformative moment in the band's history, opening their music beyond basic heavy metal, but while there was still some of that on their follow-up effort, 1973's Houses of the Holy, their music had become even more diverse - so much, that to continue calling them a heavy metal band was like still calling the Beatles a pop-rock band after the White Album was released.
Houses of the Holy is an extremely varied and spectacularly rich set of songs that matches Led Zeppelin's artistic vision with their virtuosity. Singer Robert Plant shows himself to be much more versatile, offering some of his trademark wailing when the situation calls for it but showing moments of depth and even tenderness at other times. Jimmy Page produces more economical guitar riffs with a sharper and clearer sound while John Paul Jones offers fluid bass lines and inspired keyboard work, but drummer John Bonham - the heart of Zep's sound - remains as forceful as ever, bringing the songs vividly to life with his assaults.
Houses of the Holy (yes, there is a song by that name, but it was left off this album and released later) takes unexpected turns from start to finish; while the band packs a punch with the opening cut, "The Song Remains The Same," the dreamy, pensive folk of "The Rain Song" and the exquisite melding of acoustic and electric guitars in "Over The Hills and Far Away" add depth and color to the group's music. No longer a blast of bombast, Led Zeppelin deliver ballads and straightforward rock and roll with the same power but with much more subtlety. Other songs stand out for their deviations away from the typical Led Zeppelin sound; "The Crunge" is a cheeky soul jam, "Dancing Days" is joyous pop (with one of Page's most inspired solos ever), and "D'yer Mak'er" (the title being a pun on how the Brits say "Jamaica") playfully goes for a reggae vibe. Throughout the record, Plant's lyrics go from the simple to philosophical with no guile and no grand pretentiousness; his thoughts and his sympathies are clear and direct, complementing the assured command of his vocals.
"The Ocean," the closing song written as a tribute to Led Zeppelin's oceanic fan base, seems to capture all of the various styles and sensibilities of the songs that precede it, ending with an explosive coda that finds Zep having the time of their lives. "Oh, so good!" Plant calls out toward the end, neatly summarizing the quality of the whole album. Even more than the fourth album, Houses of the Holy makes the case for Led Zeppelin as a multifaceted band. Maybe that's why it's the first Led Zeppelin album to be anointed with a proper title.(This is my last record review for awhile; I need another break. Where's that confounded bridge? ;-) )