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Led Zeppelin IV

Atlantic (1971)
Rating: 8.5/10

Although technically untitled, but often referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, Four Symbols or ZoSo, among a number of titles, the fourth album from Brit rockers Led Zeppelin is another mystical affair drenched in esoteric folklore, if you believe the rumours.

The quartet resort back to eight tracks, adding more punch, and even punk to proceedings with the clout of album opener ‘Black Dog’ and straight-up rocker ‘Rock And Roll’. These tracks are Zep at their most direct since ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Heartbreaker’ from 1969’s Led Zeppelin II opus.

‘Black Dog’ is a swaggering leviathan of a track that rolls into view on a tidal wave of a riff as Robert Plant barks, “Hey mama say the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove”, amid the crescendo of John Bonham drums. It’s Zeppelin at their most potent and flailing, with brute force engaging the listener who in turn is battered by the bombastic bass from John Paul Jones and Plant’s ecstatic vocals.

As a brace of tracks, ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Rock And Roll’ are the epitome of heavy rock, and yet where Led Zeppelin truly rise into heavenly quarters are on the breath-taking strum of ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, which features Sandy Denny on vocals. Again, it’s Zeppelin exploring folky avenues, featuring a sprightly mandolin and Bonham’s subtle percussion.

But those bewitched by such a track would have found themselves dumbfounded by the absorbing ‘Stairway To Heaven’, an eight-minute (although it often seems longer!) folk ballad featuring misty flute and gentle acoustic sway. As rock songs go, it’s up there with the greatest, a sprawling landscape that evokes images of foggy valleys and medieval villages as Plant’s vocals merely caress the strumming guitar of Jimmy Page. Slowly the track builds from graceful whisper to its plodding drum, before eventually transforming into a driving heavy rock anthem of swirling guitar and juddering drums.

From here on the rest of the album, however moving, seems to pale in comparison, the listener spending the next 20 or so minutes recovering. Side two opener ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ is a bouncy mid-tempo rocker featuring electric piano, keyboards and layered guitars. It’s one of Zep’s most underrated tracks, infectious with its tinkering of the ivories and Plant’s soaring vocals.

Of any rock album released, Led Zeppelin’s fourth opus arguably boasts four of the greatest songs in succession, and so after ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ side two does tend to suffer, but only slightly.

‘Four Sticks’ rattles along like a tractor on even ground, with the drums providing the backbeat chug; no wonder considering Bonham actually played the track with four drumsticks – two in each hand! The use of synthesizer gives the album a layered quality, but apart from Plant’s gritty vocal sneer and Page’s riff it’s not a track that get its hooks in immediately, and it could be argued that eventually Plant’s warble has all the effects of a whimpering witch!

For me, track seven, ‘Going To California’ seems out of place on the album. It’s still a dreamy affair featuring the sprinkles of a mandolin, but it leaves us aching for more punch, and thankfully that comes in the form of seven-minute stomper ‘When The Levee Breaks’, which introduces itself by way of Bonham’s heavy-handed percussion and a whining harmonica. It’s as simple as it gets; an elephantine trudge that rattles on throughout despite Plant’s harmonies and Page’s blues-enshrouded guitar plod.

Again, hard to knock the selection of tracks on offer, and the proof is in the pudding, because a batch of these cuts have become embedded into our minds over the last few decades, and while I’m sick to death of hearing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and at times the abrasive ramble of ‘Rock And Roll’, one cannot doubt the orgasmic pleasure these tracks first brought.

Led Zeppelin’s fourth affair moves me far greater than the previous opus, and for that I take my hat off to them.

Neil Arnold

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