Fellow Progarchist Rick Krueger has already published a fine review of this young group, but here is my shout-out to Greta Van Fleet, up and coming rockers from the small town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Inspired by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and other blues-based rockers, these boys (ranging in age from 19-22) are an emerging force to be reckoned with in the music world. Check out their live performance at Coachella from April of this year and try telling me that rock n roll has died…
John Paul Jones would answer, “Yes.” I have contemplated this question for some time now: is Led Zeppelin worthy of being labeled a “progressive rock” band? Although best remembered for the being the premier hard rock band of the 70s, Led Zeppelin could easily fit into the category of progressive rock-at least to some extent. For a band that never released a single, never performed on “Top of the Pops” (or any other television program), and was able to get away with leaving their name off their album covers, the Zep certainly achieved a level of success unmatched by any other band during the “progressive” era. Please bear with me as I detail the history of Led Zeppelin’s gradual transition from blues-based rockers to true “progressive” artists.
The history of Led Zeppelin’s music demonstrates that they are indeed worthy of the “prog” label. Bursting on to the scene with Led Zeppelin I in 1969, the band’s early repertoire was dominated by blues-inspired songs, but early on they were showing signs of being something more than just a hard rock band. Dazed and Confused, memorable for Jimmy Page’s use of a violin bow on guitar strings to eerie effect, which demonstrated just how willing these virtuosos were willing to go to break the mold, one step at a time. Was the album truly “progressive” in the way we think of the word? Perhaps not, but it was a step in the right direction.
Led Zeppelin II was not a significant departure from the first album, many of the themes remaining the same (namely, women and sex), and most of the songs still bluesy in their origins. II, however, did introduce the rock n’ roll world to Tolkien and his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings in the excellent folk-rock piece Ramble On. And so began the marriage of Tolkien and the (progressive) rock world, thanks to Robert Plant’s fascination with Middle Earth. An odd match, perhaps, but it was a wonderful union indeed, one that would inspire generations of future progressive rock artists. (Also, observe the uncanny resemblance between Robert Plant and Theoden. Coincidence? I think not).
Led Zeppelin III demonstrated yet again the willingness of the band to experiment with various styles. An eclectic album to say the least, the boys shift from metal (Immigrant Song) to blues (Since I’ve Been Loving You) to traditional folk (Gallows Pole, That’s The Way, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp) rather seamlessly. Although the decision to include more folk and traditional music was not as well received, III has grown in popularity and respect over the years. It was not until the next album, however, that Zeppelin placed themselves firmly on the mantle of progressive rock.
By 1971 Led Zeppelin had developed such a following that they neglected to put their name on the album cover: and it did not hurt them in the slightest. As a matter of fact, Led Zeppelin IV proved their most successful album, and one of the most influential albums of all time. IV may also be considered their first “pure” progressive album. Although Black Dog and Rock and Roll retain the “standard” rock sound, the rest of the album is undoubtably unique in its composition. The Battle of Evermore, an explicit reference to Middle Earth, and Misty Mountain Hop pay homage to Plant’s favorite literary land. Going to California is a pleasant yet intricate folk song dedicated to Joni Mitchell, the Canadian singer who supposedly captured the hearts of both Page and Plant. Four Sticks may be the first “math rock” song ever composed, a song so complex that it was only performed by the band once in concert. When the Levee Breaks features explosive drums from John Bonham and fine harmonica work from Plant. Finally, there is the iconic Stairway to Heaven, an eight minute long epic with enigmatic lyrics that starts off slowly and builds up to a climax of one of the most impressive guitar solos in rock history. If that does not fit the “progressive” mold, then I don’t know what does.
Zeppelin’s repertoire only became more progressive after the immense success of IV. Houses of the Holy featured two more Tolkien-inspired songs: the folk-rock Over the Hills and Far Away, and the haunting No Quarter. Physical Graffiti not only featured their longest song (In My Time of Dying, eleven minutes), but also perhaps their greatest one: Kashmir, one of the finest progressive rock songs ever composed. Backed by an orchestra, Plant, Page, Bonham, and Jones unleashed in this full scale epic of travels in a far off land, a theme explored by progressive rock groups past and present. Their next album, Presence, although perhaps their weakest, nevertheless featured the powerful (and progressive) opener Achilles Last Stand, as well as the catchy rocker Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Zeppelin’s next and final album (although they did not know it at the time) remains their most progressive. In Through the Out Door is dominated by John Paul Jones’ synthesizers and keyboards, and he is more than a competent keyboardist. His work prior to this album (Trampled Under Foot, No Quarter, The Rain Song) was impressive, but he truly shines on Zeppelin’s last album. In the Evening and Fool in the Rain prove he is more than capable on the keys, but it is his frenetic yet dexterous playing on the lengthy and cryptic Carouselambra that established Jones’ place in the canon of great prog rock keyboardists. This claim may be a stretch to some, as most identify Jones as a bassist, but I would urge the reader to listen to these songs mentioned above before arguing otherwise.
After John Bonham’s untimely death in 1980, the band split up, each man going his own direction. Jimmy Page, one of the most versatile guitarists to ever grace the stage, actually teamed up with Chris Squire and Alan White of Yes to form XYZ (X-Yes and Zeppelin). Although the project was aborted after a short time, it nevertheless demonstrated Page’s willingness to form what could have been a truly “progressive” super-group.
I hope this piece did not drag on for too long, but I felt it necessary to delve deep into and explore the fascinating world of Led Zeppelin. Many consider this group to be among the best, if not the best, in rock n’ roll history, but to me they are more than a standard rock n’ roll band. In my book, they were also one of the finest progressive rock bands of all time.
Time flies when you’re having fun listening to great music! 2014 brought in a bumper crop of excellent music in general, and prog in particular. Here are my favorites of the year:
10. Robert Plant: Lullaby And …The Ceaseless Roar
Mr. Plant returns to his folk roots of Britain, and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs. A couple rock out, but this is mostly an acoustic tour de force that transcends any musical trends of the day.
Lunatic Soul: Walking On A Flashlight Beam
This album didn’t garner the rave reviews of his first two, but I still think anything Mariusz Duda produces is far better than 90% of anything else out there. “Treehouse” may be my favorite song he’s ever recorded.
John Bassett: Unearth
This album opened my eyes to entirely different side of Mr. Bassett’s talent, and I love it. I hope he does more music in this vein – thoughtful, melodic, acoustic pearls.
John Wesley: Disconnect
Mr. Wesley has been Porcupine Tree’s secret weapon when they play live, and on the side he has been quietly making extraordinary music of his own. Disconnect is his best ever, and it features the inimitable Alex Lifeson on “Once A Warrior”.
It took me awhile to get into this album, but it was definitely worth the effort. It is a beautiful package, from the artwork and lyrics to the music itself. The subject matter is very dark, but listening to the entire album is a cathartic experience. It also has Jan-Henrik Ohme’s strongest vocals to date.
North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day
Their third album, and the third one to make one of my best-of-the-year lists. Soaring vocals, gorgeous string arrangements, a wall of sound that is indescribably exhilarating. If Brian Wilson produced Catherine Wheel, it might sound as good as this.
A marvelous steampunk trip through metaphysical dimensions. Robin Armstrong’s imagination knows no bounds, and his musical talent matches it.
Flying Colors: Second Nature
Wow. No “sophomore slump” for this band. One of the many Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy projects that are active these days, Second Nature is an outlet for the more melodic side of their talents. Throw in the genius guitar work of Steve Morse, and this is an irresistible set of songs.
Their Mountain album was my favorite of last year, and the only reason this isn’t number one is because it’s only 34 minutes long. I admit it – I’m greedy for more Haken music!
With Kaleidoscope, Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas finally become a real group. On earlier works, you could tell which bits were Neal’s, which were Roine’s, etc. Every song on Kaleidoscope is stamped with Transatlantic’s distinctive sound, and it is a glorious one.
As many on this site have already covered, or are in the process of covering, their favorite albums of 2014, I will keep my post (very) brief. 2014 was, as many have observed, an excellent year for progressive rock music. Here, in no particular order, are my top three albums of the year:
Second Nature-Flying Colors: These five virtuosos did not disappoint in their sophomore effort, a complex yet accessible symphonic prog album.
The Endless River-Pink Floyd: A beautiful and touching tribute to deceased keyboardist Richard Wright, David Gilmour and Nick Mason proved to the world that they are still top-notch musicians.
lullaby… and the Ceaseless Roar-Robert Plant: the ex-Led Zeppelin frontman does not rock out like he used to, but his new album, a blend of folk and Americana, is nevertheless a delight to the ears. (You can read my full review of the album here).
I look forward to another great year of music in 2015. A Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my fellow Progarchists and to all of our readers!
I was hooked from the start. I have already listened to Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar twice in its entirety and thus far it is one of the few albums of which I can sincerely say I enjoy every song. Be forewarned, however: this is not the Plant of hard-rocking Led Zeppelin. Instead, this album is a blend of alternative, folk, Americana, progressive, and world music, a peculiar amalgam of genres, but it works. It is more Battle of Evermore-esque (my favorite Zeppelin song) than Whole Lotta Love-like. Absent is the wailing guitar of Page; the thunderous and formidable drumming of Bonham; the dexterous bass of Jones. This might seem disagreeable to some, but guess what: I don’t miss them and the album doesn’t either. These standards of the rock genre have been replaced by bendirs, banjos, kologos, ritis, and other exotic instruments to create a distinctly West African/alternative inspired sound. Imagine Peter Gabriel, Gordon Lightfoot, and George Harrison got together one day and made an album: this would be the product. Add Plant’s vocals and I’d say you have a recipe for success. Fortunately, Plant acknowledges his strengths and understands his weakness: namely, that his vocals are not what they used to be. You will hear no wailing or screaming; no vain attempt to hit notes out of his range that at this point would make him sound like a man in agony rather than the great vocalist that he is. Anyway, the point I am trying to make here is that I cannot recommend this album highly enough. As someone who appreciates the complexity and diversity of world music and folk, I believe Robert Plant has found his niche, crafting music that is good, true, and beautiful.
Here are my favorite songs from the album:
Little Maggie: an enjoyable traditional folk song updated with a somewhat “alternative” sound
Embrace Another Fall: somber, haunting, alternative sound with a dash of electric guitar added for good measure
Up on the Hollow Hill: sounds like a softer, eerier version of When the Levee Breaks from IV, featuring a consistent drum and guitar pattern
Arbaden: shortest song on the album; more alternative with a techno-edge, similar in sound to some of Coldplay’s works; features Fulani vocals by Juldeh Camara, a native Gambian
P.S. I also highly recommend Plant’s previous two releases, Band of Joy and Mighty ReArranger.