Primarily recorded at RAK Studios during the back end of 1992 and early 1993 “Fate of Nations” was Robert Plant’s sixth solo outing and remains his most Zeppelin like solo record.
In fact it is difficult not to argue that if Zeppelin had been able to continue into the nineties that this would have been the exact type of recording they would have been making. Elements of Zeppelin going as far back as Led Zeppelin III are evident as well as the more obvious similarities to the later albums. That is not to say though that this is a poor mans Zeppelin album. Quite the opposite in fact and I will argue long and hard that this is Robert Plant’s most consistent and well rounded album.
Often cited as a cry to Jimmy Page to work together again opening track ‘Calling To You’ could also be Plant displaying to David Coverdale who was at the time collaborating with Page that when it came to Zepplinesque vocals he was still the master. After an almost gentle intro the track comes to life as a hard hitting fast paced cousin of ‘Kashmir’ with a trademark pouting Plant vocal. The guitar work from Kevin Scott McMichael is spot on and Nigel Kennedy’s violin compliments it perfectly driving the riff along before exploding into a frantic finale.
‘Down To The Sea’ is less frantic but no less enjoyable. Think of one of those folky workouts from Led Zeppelin III or Physical Graffiti rocked up with a huge chunk of eastern mysticism added and you’ve pretty much got the idea. ‘Come Into My Life’ is the first of the slower songs and is literally dripping with emotion. The backing vocals of Maire Brennan, harmonium of Phil Johnstone and hurdy gudy of Nigel Eaton creating the perfect backdrop for a husky passion filled Plant vocal.
At this point in the album the lighter more commercial radio friendly sound comes in with the two better known tracks from the album. Placing the two next to each other was a work of genius as they compliment each other perfectly. ‘I Believe’ starts with an almost pop like intro before the melody takes over and transforms the song into a classic peice of commercially accessable nineties rock. ’29 Palms’ carries the feeling on perfectly and was Plants tribute to not only the town in the Mojave desert but also Canadian songstress Alannah Myles with whom he was …….. lets just say touring …… at the time he wrote it. Note the velvet glove reference at the beginning of the song. Either of the two could be seen as natural progressions from ‘All My Love’ on “In Through The Out Door”
The power is back with ‘Memory Song’ which opens with a particularly heavy riff that remains prominent throughout. Some acoustic guitar is layered on top in parts but in truth the song really fails to go anywhere. It is one of the few weak links on the album for me but that may of course come from following the five excellent tracks that started the album off. The cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ is next and takes Plant right back to his days on the folk circuit of the Black Country. Hardin’s tracks for me have always been better when performed by someone else and Plant re-iterates that view for me here as his version is far superior to the original.
The string arrangement by Lynton Maiff and mandolin of Maartin Allcock setting off the track nicely. ‘Colours of a Shade’ starts off with an almost spanish guitar intro from Allcock who also plays mandolin again and Aeoleon pipes along with Chris Hughes. All this provides an extremely atmospheric, almost ethnic and beautiful backing for another sublime Plant vocal. For some reason this track was left off some non UK issues of the album. A curious decision to say the least but one which has been rectified on subsequent issues. ‘Promised Land’ sees a return to the band sound and is another fast paced riff driven track that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of the later Zeppelin albums. Along with the earlier ‘Memory Song’ it is, for me at least, lacking in the quality of the other tracks.
The next two tracks ‘The Greatest Gift’ and ‘Great Spirit’ have been described as Plant’s most heartfelt vocals ever and whilst that may not be entirely correct they are certainly up there with the best of them. One thing that can’t be denied though is that this is certainly Plant’s most personal album. The lyrics throughout giving rare glimpses into the mans soul and inner feelings on a variety of subjects. The posturing rock God and hiding behind Tolkien themes and imagery is long gone and what we have here is an artist reaching into the very depths of their being and laying it out there for all to see and it is indeed the greatest gift he can give us. Plant displays his love of the ethnic and of eastern mysticism once more with the truly wonderful ‘Great Spirit’. Rarely has a song about social conscience and the self destructive nature of the human been so beautiful and also so uncondescending.
You actually believe by the end of it that Plant truly believes every word he has sung. Packed full of feeling and soul it demonstrates a side of Plant’s vocal ability which is sadly overlooked by many, and is one which he goes back to all to infrequently. There is an argument that this is the best track on the album. High praise indeed but fully deserved. The closing track ‘Network News’ is a fast paced angry swipe at the purveyors and surveyors of the worlds demise and is almost a parallel delivery of the previous tracks message. If ‘Great Spirit’ was saying it with love then ‘Network News’ is saying it with a mighty uncontrolled anger.
“Fate of Nations” is unfairly overlooked by many as Robert Plant’s ‘social conscience album’. For me though it is the perfect Robert Plant album. It highlights all of his vocal and songwriting abilities and sees him reaching new heights as a lyricist. Far superior to any of the subsequent Page/Plant releases it is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Plant’s solo career. In fact it is so good as a listening experience that I believe it is second only to Led Zeppelin II in Plant’s entire back catalogue.
Something must have surely happened during the minuscule two-year period between Manic Nirvana and this album, because it’d be hard to imagine two albums more stylistically and emotionally different from one another, unless you bring Central Siberian folk motives into the picture. But it’s more than just a matter of “difference”; it’s almost a matter of “rebirth”. Fate Of Nations offers us a new, revised and restructured version of Robert Plant, one you could only see occasional brief glimpses of in the past. It’s a cleaned up, sobered up, straightened up, wisened up version of Robert Plant. If Robert Plant had been Tigger, this version of Robert Plant would have been the Domesticated Tigger of Rabbit’s dreams. Only this time Rabbit’s dreams have actually come alive.
And it’s a great version of Robert Plant. You know, ever since he became hiding behind all the gimmicks and antics of mid-period Zeppelin, as I now realize, in the heat of all the gimmick-bashing I have almost managed to forget how totally cool his singing voice was from the very beginning, and how it never really lost any of its power since the day it first became known to soon-to-be Zep fans. Behind the “baby babies”, and all the strutting, and all the posturing, and all the meaningless, but pompous lyrics, I’ve missed the actual guy. And this is where I get the actual guy – disarmed and almost frighteningly sincere, first time since… well, ever, I guess!
Yep, this is an old man’s album. Another old man’s album out of a miriad. It doesn’t rock too hard and it sure doesn’t experiment. And it radically and utterly and completely steps away from any trends there might have been in the past two decades; indeed, many of the songs seriously attempt to recreate the classic Zeppelin sound of old instead, and some actually succeed, thus paving the way for Plant’s reunion with Page in the next few years. It’s also rather long and I couldn’t call all of its melodies instantly memorable. But it touched something deep within me upon the very first listen, and now, completing my fourth, I feel ready to make the final conclusion: Fate Of Nations can honestly rank up there with some of Led Zeppelin’s best work, and there’s no shame in believing that.
It is quite different, though. Like I said – no strutting (‘Promised Land’ has some, but it’s just a cute little exception that only proves the rule). Those with little tolerance towards non-aggressive, easy-going (by all means not to be confused with “easy listening”!) rootsy pop will hardly understand how anything on here can be discussed on equal terms with ‘Whole Lotta Love’ or ‘Stairway To Heaven’. No, this is quiet stuff, and certainly nowhere near groundbreaking. But it’s amazingly consistent – not one tune on here that hasn’t got some interesting point to prove – and there’s about as much sincere passion and humanism here as there is swagger and youthful arrogance on Zep’s ’68-’71 albums.
No Led Zeppelin song, let alone a Robert Plant solo song, has ever made me cry (although ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and ‘I’m Gonna Crawl’ came pretty close at times). All the more amazing is how ‘I Believe’, a tune you might know since it was a single and got some good airplay in its time, manages to hold me in Robert’s own shoes for four minutes, making me care about his long-lost son almost as if it were my own offspring. As much as I like Clapton’s ‘Tears In Heaven’, I’m afraid Robbie wins here, with one of the saddest and at the same time most uplifting odes to a dead person ever written. The lyrics are never obtrusive – it’s not even that easy to tell who the song is addressed to without a very scrupulous analysis – and Plant’s vocal delivery is absolutely breathtaking; I get goosebumps every time the ‘neighbour, neighbour, don’t be so cold’ line rings out loud and clear. Throw in some great vocal harmonies; fresh, lively guitar jangle and a Byrds-ey guitar solo; and a moderate synthesizer backdrop that happens to actually add depth rather than reinstate banality. Gorgeous.
It’s clearly the best song, but it’s only one song, after all – what if he let us down with the rest of this material? He doesn’t. Even the more ‘fillerish’ tracks, like the unexpected cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ (the early precursor to Dreamland), is graciously sung and arranged, with exquisite orchestration, pretty acoustic guitar, and a weird sitar track as a bonus. The already mentioned ‘Promised Land’ doesn’t quite fit in with the mood, but it’s a hoot, almost a benevolent parody on classic Led Zeppelin: its main groove and arrangement tricks including echoey harmonica make me think of ‘When The Levee Breaks’, among other things. But even then Plant is nowhere near obnoxious, delivering the moderately smutty lyrics in a weird, hoarse manner.
As for the carefully thought out material, much of it is absolutely first-rate. ‘Calling To You’ once again tries to capture the ‘Kashmir’ vibe, but this time with memorable riffs and really interesting mood shifts between verse and chorus. ‘Down To The Sea’ is upbeat and toe-tappable but essentially folksy, combining a taste for the archaic with a love for all things catchy and radio-ready. ‘Come Into My Life’ is Plant at his pleading best, conveying desperation and longing by actually singing the lines rather than adlibbing moot stuff. (I seem to remember Maire Brennan of Clannad credited for backing vocals here – or was it on a different song from the same album? in any case, there’s plenty of traditional Celtic elements as well as Enya-style-ified treatings of the same on here, and it’s good).
The record might drag in a few spots (it IS long), but it’s nowhere near as monotonous as this review might make it seem; it’s just that since the melodies rarely “jump out” at you, at first there might be a suspicion of the album being too ‘smooth’. It isn’t, really. Apart from pseudo-adult contemporary, folkish stuff, Eastern stuff, and direct Zep imitations, there’s also some straightforward catchy guitar pop like ’29 Palms’ – a song that I first thought bland and uninteresting, but later found totally addictive because of the great guitar arrangement – and some of Plant’s obligatory pagan mysticism (‘Great Spirit’) which is sorta like heavy-metal-meets-New-Age on practice, and even a heavy rocker about the Gulf War (‘Network News’) which, once again, doesn’t quite fit in with the rest, but contains some excellent riffage and basically achieves its not-so-complex goal, namely, to kick some political ass.
In short, Fate Of Nations done me good. It gave me (so far) four hours of what I’d call “rational enjoyment” – even when the music wasn’t THAT good, it felt great listening to it just because instead of getting all the bad things you’d expected, you weren’t getting none of it; the sight of Robert Plant doing an album so decidedly “un-Robert Plant”, and doing it with confidence, devotion, and sympathy, was enough to put the juice back in the cherry, if you pardon a sleazy metaphor. And when the music was good, it made me think of Robert Plant as a sensitive human being, heck, just a real person, not a long haired stage muppet. And kudos to his backing band as well: they seem to be more or less the same as on Manic Nirvana, and yet they are able to deliver tasteful, gallant music in the “laid back” vein just as genuinely as they were able to deliver brawny rock’n’roll two years ago.
So daunting is the legacy of Led Zeppelin that even a powerhouse vocalist like Robert Plant felt obliged for a time to flee from it. Consequently, where his former band came roaring out of the gate, fully formed and foaming at the mouth, Plant stumbled through a series of solo outings in the 1980s on which he increasingly employed the sort of overly produced, synth-drenched arrangements that typified the era, the kind that now sound seriously dated. Granted, he still commanded attention; likewise, his work contained hints of his glorious history. Yet, his commercial success hindered his evolution more than it helped it. After all, why should he repair something that was so financially lucrative? Although he continued to germinate new ideas and carry forward the concepts that he had developed with Led Zeppelin, he also appeared to be paralyzed by his attempts to hold onto the past while slipping into the present.
Then, along came Fate of Nations, an album that, 14 years after its release, remains the most pivotal effort of Plant’s canon. Hardly a perfect endeavor, it was, nonetheless, the outing on which he turned a corner, discovered a way out of his dilemma, and mounted an escape from the glossy textures that had sucked the organic essence from Shaken ’n‘ Stirred, Now and Zen, and Manic Nirvana. As a vocalist, he arguably never sounded better than he did on Fate of Nations. Although he still was quite capable of conjuring demons with his anguished, tormented wail, he also had gained a supple expressiveness that could hold its own with the best that Motown had to offer. In the end, Fate of Nations gave Plant the confidence to embark upon a full-fledged reunion with guitarist Jimmy Page — which, as it turned out, was more hype than substance. Most important, though, it effectively relaunched his solo career by laying a firm foundation for everything that followed.
Right from the start, with the propulsive, heavy stomp of Calling to You— one of many permutations of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir that he has concocted over the years — it was clear that the crafting of Fate of Nations had stirred something deep within Plant’s soul. Replacing Page’s crash-and-burn pyrotechnics with violinist Nigel Kennedy’s manic inventiveness, the song served notice that Plant had begun to rediscover his wayward muse. Still, the first half of the outing faltered slightly as the Eastern shadings of Calling to You gave way to the tabla-driven groove of Down to the Sea; the duskily hypnotic country-soul of Come into My Life; and the infectious pop of I Believe and 29 Palms, before finally swerving back into the snaking, Zeppelin-esque march of Memory Song (Hello, Hello). Still, the primal, heavy metal intensity that made his former band’s work so forcefully compelling was noticeably diminished, and the atmospherics that Plant applied to the rest of the opening act’s tracks were so disparate that the material, good as it was, struggled to assume a single-minded sense of identity.
The latter half of Fate of Nations, however, unrolled in a remarkably cohesive fashion, and taken in full, it shed light on the entirety of the affair. Containing his trademark, blues-baked swagger, Promised Land was a writhing fireball that fully tapped into the gritty potency of Plant’s past, while the Biblical implications of Tim Hardin’s folk classic If I Were a Carpenter became the lynchpin that not only united the endeavor but also bound Plant’s pre-Zeppelin pursuits to his subsequent solo outing Dreamland. Furthering this notion is the lovely remake of Moby Grape’s 8:05 that augments the remastered rendition of the effort.
Nevertheless, the final two tracks (Great Spirit and Network News) were what lent Fate of Nations its heart and soul as Plant outlined the horrors facing the world and called upon a higher power for guidance and salvation. Set up perfectly by the gentle, loving smoothness of The Greatest Gift, Great Spirit spiraled outward from Marvin Gaye’s iconic outingWhat’s Going On to develop a life of its own; and with lyrics that tell tales of “flags, princes, kings, patriotic fools/as freedom lies in twisted heaps,” Network News was a scathing indictment of the first war in Iraq that chillingly has repeated its relevance a decade later. In 2005, Plant reworked his ideas and tweaked his overall approach, the result of which was Mighty ReArranger, the current pinnacle of his solo canon. It all began, though, with Fate of Nations, an outing that has grown in stature and magnificence as it has aged.