Released in 1973, Houses of the Holy was the fifth studio album by Led Zeppelin and in many ways was quite a significant moment in the history of the band. It was on this album when Led Zeppelin began to branch out musically and explore other musical sounds, as up until that point they had pretty much stuck within the confines of blues, hard rock and a bit of folk thrown in for good measure. On Houses of the Holy, there is still hard rock and there is still folk, but there is also funk, reggae, progressive rock and even an eastern inspired song, with the band spreading their wings stylistically and experimenting with whatever they thought sounded good. Along with this somewhat change of direction musically, the band were also beginning to incorporate new production techniques into their recording which helped to evolve their sound more. Jimmy Page’s guitar playing for one on this album is more layered and less bluesy, while in keeping with the technological advances of the early-70s, keyboards and a mellotron also make an appearance. This combination of new styles and new sounds helped to make Houses of the Holy a completely different beast from the bands previous release, the classic Led Zeppelin IV. But despite this change in direction the results were just as good, all be it in a different way.
The album starts with the fast-paced rocker “The Song Remains the Same”, a song which sounds more progressive than their previous work and contains heavy layers of multi-tracked guitar. This is followed by “The Rain Song” which is a progressive folk ballad that features a mellotron providing the orchestral baroque effects. This song was probably the furthest removed from Led Zeppelin’s traditional sound up until that point and was definitely a radical departure for the band at the time. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is a folk rock track which starts with an acoustic folk section before transforming into a heavy guitar track much like one of their earlier songs “Ramble On”. This song highlights well how much the band was developing as songwriters, with many of their songs now beginning to feature different sounding sections as well as multiple genres.
The middle of the album is where they really begin to mix it up stylistically, starting with “The Crunge”, a funk rock track that is a play on James Brown’s style of funk. As a track, it is more a studio experiment rather than a complete song and contains no bridge or chorus, something which Robert Plant is keen to point out in a tongue and cheek way at the end of the song. For me, this is the weakest track on the album and I’m not sure whether their foray into funk was a good idea. They have better success in their stylistic experimentation on the next two tracks, firstly on “Dancing Days” which has a Middle Eastern feel to it, especially in the exotic guitar riff that makes the song sound so good. “Dancing Days” was actually inspired by an Indian tune which Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had heard in Bombay, an inspiration which can clearly be heard throughout the song and that gives it what I would describe as quite a hypnotic-like feel. They take their stylistic experimentation further on “D’yer Mak’er”, a reggae-influenced track with a reggae drum beat and guitar riff. The title of the song is even a play on the word Jamaica leaving no doubt as to where the influence for this song came from.
The album concludes in explosive fashion with two of the better tracks on the album.
No Quarter” is a mellow progressive rock track which features John Paul Jones talent on the keyboards, something which in most unlike Led Zeppelin fashion dominates this song. This song more than any also highlights the changes the band was making in terms of song production, with studio effects and trickery featuring strongly. Things such as a compressed guitar track, as well as the use of the theremin and a Moog synthesizer, gives this track a magical quality and ensures it is one of the album’s standouts, as well as being one of the bands best songs. Finally, the album closes with heavy rocker “The Ocean”; a track which works well as an album closer with its heavy guitar and drum sound. This track also has the effect of reassuring the listener that the band still had the ability to rock out when they wanted to.
Although Houses of the Holy was a huge success commercially on its release, its critical reception was mixed, which leads me to believe that maybe the music press didn’t really know what to make of a traditional rock band playing reggae and funk. However, as time has passed it has generally held up quite well and has been acknowledged as a pivotal release in the bands career. In summing up I firmly believe Houses of the Holy is one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest albums and certainly is one of their most diverse musically. What this album showed was that this band was full of great musical ideas and that they were not just one trick blues rockers, while highlighting also their prowess as songwriters especially in their ability to mix up songs with different sections, tempos, and rhythms. If you want to see how Led Zeppelin developed musically in the mid-70s Houses of the Holy would be the place to start, while if you ever thought that they were just a plain and simple hard rock band then this album I am sure will help to change your mind. Houses of the Holy for me is experimental and eclectic; it is full of magic, surprise, and intrigue and captures strongly everything good about Led Zeppelin.