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.
The 1983 release of The Principle of Moments was the second solo album by Robert Plant, following the disbandment of Led Zeppelin in late 1980. The album follows close on the heels of Plant’s debut, Pictures At Eleven and employs the same musicians and production team. Recorded in Wales, the production was polished and clinical while maintaining enough rock edge to keep it original and interesting. Plant had declined to tour following his debut because he didn’t want to perform any Led Zeppelin songs live and didn’t yet have enough original solo material to justify a tour. With the release of this second album, Plant’s second life as a major recording artist took was fully spawned.
The Principle of Moments was the first release on Plant’s independent label Es Paranza Records, after the folding of Led Zeppelin’s label Swan Song, which was also the label from Plant’s debut. Swan Song ceased operations due to the failing health of Zeppelin manager Peter Grant. When Swan Song’s offices were cleared out in 1983, early demos from Iron Maiden, Heart and other popular bands were found.
The sound of The Principle of Moments fuses new wave rock with some elements of reggae and abstract motifs and is percussion heavy with sharp, high-pitched guitars, led by guitarist Robbie Blunt and drummer Phil Collins. While not as dynamic as in the heart of the Zeppelin years, Plant’s vocals are melodic and refined. The album’s title comes from the scientific Varignon’s Theorem, which states that the moment of any force is equal to the algebraic sum of the moments of the components of that force. With the experimental tracks on this album, Plant seems to be declaring his independence from the Zeppelin sound and celebrating his own “moment” in time.
Although not officially released as a single, the opener “Other Arms” reached number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. Musically, the song continues the style of Pictures at Eleven, melodic and heavy on the chorus backing vocals, a long way from the improvised arrangements of Zeppelin’s early days. “In the Mood” (which was officially released as a single) follows and marks the point where the album starts to distinguish itself. Built on bassist Paul Martinez’s very simple yet infectious bass line, with Blunt’s simple, strummed chords on top and a strong percussion presence by Collins in contrast to laid back music and vocals. Plant’s melody rhythm is almost like blue-eyed rap and this translated into a Top 40 single on the pop charts.
Keyboardist Jezz Woodroffe shines brightest on the ballad “Through with the Two Step”, where Plant’s melodic verse vocals drip with melancholy sweetness to the waltz of Woodroffe’s wafty keyboards and in contrast to Blunt’s excellent lead later in the song. “Horizontal Departure” is a very upbeat and entertaining, sex-infused rock song, like a new wave version of Zeppelin;s “Whole Lotta Love”. Again Collins has a very strong and dynamic performances on drums, contrasting against the very measured riffs of Blunt and Martinez.
The album’s biggest hit is the closer “Big Log”. Reflective and somber, this is a mature song in every respect, musically, lyrically and production-wise. It employs some of the better synth-era techniques – the rubber kick effect, snappy top beat – along with well refined guitars, a swell of long synths, and vocal choruses by session singers John David and Ray Martinez. But this song is a true showcase for Robbie Blunt, one of rock’s forgotten great guitarists, whose cleaver latin phrasing leaves the most indellible mark in this truly unique composition.
The Principle of Moments includes a trio of experimental songs. “Messin’ With the Mekon” starts with an almost Jimmy Page-like riff before giving way to a moderate Caribbean groove with measured beats, although the arrangement does seems hollow when trying too hard to fit odd pieces together. “Wreckless Love” contains a mixture of electronic and Middle Eastern textures and other highly experimental arrangement that only gels due to Plant’s strong melody. The song features Barriemore Barlow, formally of Jethro Tull, on drums, as does “Stranger Here…Then Oven There”. Another experimental song with some brilliant verse vocals, this song also suffers from too many superfluous effects and arrangements, which do little more than interrupt the reggae beat and flow of the song’s core.
With two Top 10 albums under his belt, Plant launched a successful tour in late 1983, taking the stage for the first time since Zeppelin’s Knebworth concerts in 1979. In the following years Plant would work with his former bandmates sporadically, starting with the short-lived oldies project The Honeydrippers, while continuing to build his solo career.
Robert Plant stands on a small stage 4,500 miles from his birthplace, and yet he’s never been so close to home.
We’re in Clarksdale, in the very heart of the Mississippi Delta, which the former Led Zeppelin frontman has appointed as the setting for the American debut of his latest musical shenanigan, with his new band, the Sensational Space Shifters.
Plant is headlining the 25th annual Sunflower Blues Festival, topping a bill that features such stalwarts as James “Super Chikan” Johnson and Charlie Musselwhite. With his new confederates, he’s mixing and mashing songs from a lifetime of devotion to this heartland, once known as the golden buckle in the Cotton Belt.
In a blinding performance, the band roars through retooled versions of Zeppelin’s Black Dog, Bron-Yr-Aur and even a burst of Whole Lotta Love, also making selections from his solo catalogue alongside nods to Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, Willie Dixon and other blues titans.
This place lent its name to the 1998 collaboration that marked Plant’s first studio work with Jimmy Page in two decades, Walking Into Clarksdale, and it’s a true spiritual home from home. That’s obvious from the minute he sits down the following morning on the front porch swing of one of the festival’s organisers, a personal friend who got him to take up their longtime invitation.
“The whole reason for coming to America right now was that I’ve been asked a zillion times to play at this festival, and I wanted it to be Africa returning to Africa,” he tells me, acknowledging the extraordinary flavours of Space Shifter Juldeh Camara. The Gambian master musician adds to the feeling of a music that came out of African-American pockets of the South, now being sent back there.
Plant says he has almost completed a new album with the Space Shifters, “12 tracks, 11 originals and no sentimental stuff”. If they deliver on disc as they do on stage, it’ll be a record to savour. The group, who made their British debut at Womad last month, boasts lusty guitar lines from both the longtime collaborator Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson, with some vocals by Plant’s partner Patty Griffin.
The frontman’s working choices of recent years have been peripatetic. After he and Alison Krauss had taken bluegrass and Americana to a massive new audience by selling three million copies worldwide of the 2007 collaboration Raising Sand, he constructed the Band of Joy, featuring Griffin, guitarist Buddy Miller and others, for a tour and self-titled 2010 album. For Plant, a change is better than a rest.
“The events between 1968 and 1980 were the kind of cornerstone for everything I’ve been able to do, they gave me the springboard,” he says, referring to the Zeppelin era. “All I’m doing is using the same amount of licence, with different people, to what we did in 1969.
“That was the great thing about the adventures with Alison, and singing with Patty and Buddy, that I started singing differently. Somebody said to me in London when we played the Forum recently, ‘You had your big voice back.’ I put the big voice away for quite a long time because I thought, we know how to do that. So it was good to get it out again. It’s all the same really, you just have to use the right colours for the right picture.”
Plant is on sharp and thoughtful form. The lines on his face may be trying to betray his 64 years, but his unquenchable inquisitiveness is infectious, as he joins the improbable dots between the Delta and his West Midlands heritage with a level of knowledge that’s scholarly but never showy.
“I don’t know when it was that I first came here,” he muses. “If I said I came looking for Robert Johnson… I was actually just looking for clues. And I found clues.
“When I came here in the 1980s, before the museum was here, when RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough were still playing, there was still an actual scene for that grinding [blues] stuff, so it was very easy for white kids to get on to that. I suppose that was the last really great flurry.”
More recently, Plant visited Clarksdale’s reopened Roxy club. “I went there in winter and saw Lightnin’ Malcolm with Kimbrough’s grandson, playing hip hop drums against this grinding, excessive guitar thing. It was really good, fire baskets blazing and the stars over the Mississippi. Suddenly I thought wow, how did I get here?”
For a boy from West Bromwich, the route might seem serpentine, but in inspirational terms, it was really a direct route from the Black Country to the Mississippi River. On Plant’s earliest recordings, long before Zeppelin and even before the original Band of Joy, you can hear that he had answered the call of the Delta, and it’s been in his bones ever since.
“I’ve got friends I went to school with, back home in Worcestershire, who’ve still got their programmes from going to see those festivals at the Birmingham Town Hall or wherever it was they played – Manchester Free Trade Hall – where you’d see Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor. We’re talking about 48 years ago. It doesn’t figure, really, but maybe that’s why it works. Maybe that was the draw for me.”
I remind him of a favourite tale he has told before of one particular British visit by another of his heroes, Sonny Boy Williamson, who tried to cook up his favourite repast, rabbit, in the only thing he could find in his hotel room, a coffee percolator, and promptly fell asleep. Legend has it that the whole floor had to be evacuated. “It was a bit of a stink,” says Plant with some understatement.
“But the connections for me were just those voices, drifting through West Midland adolescence. Unexplainable, really. In the British racial exchanges, we learned a lot from Studio One and all that great stuff coming out of Kingston, for sure, thanks to people like Chris Blackwell at Island Records. But this stuff was foreign.”
It informed Plant’s earliest ambitions and never budged, even when he and an early collaborator, drummer John Bonham, first met up with Page and bassist John Paul Jones. “It seemed to go hand in hand with a kind of underground, bohemian sub-culture coming along, that wanted to get as far away from the Cliff Richard world,” he says.
“So much Zeppelin did come from here. Almost subconsciously, just through the floor of the room where we were recording. With Jimmy’s enthusiasm and knowledge and record collection, between the two of us, on that level, we had such a mutual preference towards that stuff, and the wild side of rock ’n’ roll.”
The festival date featured a fine version of John Mayall’s I’m Your Witchdoctor, with Plant recognising how the blues went from the US to Britain and back again in an “upside down” reimagining.
“Without the people from around here, where would we have been? What would Mick and Keith have done?” he wonders. “It’s all a long way back, even to go back to Led Zeppelin or the Stones or whatever, but it did shape, and still does shape, the music from around here. It goes through to the Black Keys, to Jack White, to all over the place. There’s nothing new under the sun – you just get a can of paint out.”
It’s become somewhat of an unofficial tradition that each April 15th, I go postal (oops – accidental Tax Day joke) on a particular album that is considered in many circles to be a classic. Last year, Yes and Tales From Topographic Oceans was my victim – Jon Anderson still isn’t returning my calls as a result of that whopper.
I really didn’t mean for the tradition to continue this year, but when I dug out of the Pierce Archives (I’m still waiting for my refund) Now And Zen, the 1988 release from Robert Plant, the creative juices started flowing again, and, well… let’s just say that Plant was better off when he wasn’t trying to mimic Led Zeppelin.
For the first part of his solo career, Plant seemed to stay away from the bombastic rock that was the career of his former band. Songs like “Big Log,” “In The Mood” and “Little By Little” showed that Plant was an accomplished musician himself, without all the trappings of a rock star.
Why he decided to let it shred again I’ll never understand; Plant comes off like he’s trying to milk his past for all it’s worth – and Now And Zen fails because of this.
Part of the problem is Chris Blackwell’s use of synthesized drums on the two singles, “Heaven Knows” and “Tall Cool One” – haven’t people realized how hokey these things sound? Of course, the big selling point at the time was that Plant “reunited” with former Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page on these songs. Problem is, Page is so far buried in the mix that it’s hard to tell what he’s playing at all. For that matter, Page’s work on these two songs leaves a lot to be desired – he doesn’t sound as inspired as he did on the other Plant-Page side project The Honeydrippers.bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250
Sticking with one of the singles, Plant’s usage of Zeppelin samples on “Tall Cool One” is supposed to be an answer to all the rap groups who had done the same thing – but in this case, their usage is embarrassing. It smacks of a lack of creativity – and the track itself is a laughable failure.
And Plant’s return to cock-rock isn’t a welcome change. Whether he’s talking about whacking the donkey in private (“Dance On My Own”) or having his inamorata’s “head, heart, arms and legs wrapped around my family pride” (from “Heaven Knows”), embarrassing is the adjective to use again. Hey, Bobby, you probably got parallel more in 1974 than I have in my lifetime – and you were in your forties when this album came out. Stop worshipping your dick, just stop it!!!
Ahem… now then. The remainder of Now And Zen features some of the weakest songwriting Plant has utilized since his solo debut Pictures At Eleven (which, from my vague recollection, wasn’t a bad album at all). “Helen Of Troy” is a late Eighties attempt to capture the fury of Zeppelin songs like “Achilles’ Last Stand,” while “White, Clean And Neat” is both a flashback to growing up in the Fifties as well as young lust. Sample lyric: “Beneath her skirt, between the clean white sheets / It’s such a long long way from the streets.” Give me a fuckin’ break. (Kirsty MacColl must have been broke when she agreed to do backup vocals on this album.)
So does anything on Now And Zen work? Yes, one track – “Ship Of Fools”. Plant’s return to a more moody, melodic form of music captures in five minutes what he had built up his prior solo career for. The song assumes no ghosts of days past, it just plows forward. If only Plant had done this for the entire album.
It’s funny – when I was younger, I used to love this album (and I still occasionally enjoy hearing “Heaven Knows,” though I’m ashamed to admit it after bodyslamming it into the concrete). And maybe in 1988, to a world still hungry for anything close to Led Zeppelin in sound, it worked. But nowadays, this is a tragic comedy of what used to be.
Now And Zen offers very little substance and only a little more flash – and is possibly the low point of Plant’s career. To achieve oneness with the universe, avoid this turkey like you would the post office on April 15th at 11:55 p.m.
Sun Plaza Hall, Tokyo, Japan – February 26th, 1984
Disc 1 (63:22): In The Mood, Pledge Pin, Messin’ With The Mekon, Moonlight In Samosa, Thru’ With The Two Step, Burning Down One Side, Wreckless Love, Worse Than Detroit
Disc 2 (72:41): Like I’ve Never Been Gone, Big Log, The Young Ones, Change Your Story. London rehearsals: jam #1, jam #2, Thru’ With The Two Step #1, Thru’ With The Two Step #2, Messin’ With The Mekon, Rockin’ At Midnight / Young Boy Blues #1#2
Robert Plant ended his first solo tour of Japan in 1984, and his first visit to Japan in twelve years, with two shows at the Sun Plaza in Tokyo on February 25th and February 26th. Moody Guy Moments on Image Qualit contains a very good audience recording of the final night of the tour. There are several cuts between songs that eliminate some of the Plantations and the tape cuts out in the end while he’s introducing the final encore of the night “Honey Hush.”
The cuts could have been handled better by the label, but they pass by quickly and the music is unaffected by any disturbance. This is a overall a very good Robert Plant release and the only one of this particular show.
The title comes from the overall mood of Robert Plant’s first foray into solo composition. Both Pictures At Eleven in 1982 and Principle Of Moments the following year were adventurous explorations of various moods, most of the melancholy.
The show starts off with very long versions of “In The Mood,” “Pledge Pin” and ”Messin’ With The Mekon.” These elongated versions are a perfect statement of the musical prowess of this outfit and before “Moonlight In Samosa” Plant says: “This is the last Japan show. No more playing in Tokyo…but it’s been very very remarkable and very nice and the people I’ve met here have been warm and remarkable Japanese people. Thank you for your hospitality and your kindness and at the pleasure you give us…good night.”
The performances are startling throughout, especially “Wreckless Love” and “Worse Than Detroit,” which is expanded with quotes from “Can’t Be Satisfied.” After this number Plant says: “okay we’ll be back next time…Mr. Udo is in the dressing room right now … talking about the next Japanese tour. Let’s hope he’s got the speaker on and can hear us while we talk. We’d love to come back Mr. Udo. Next time it will cost you” Plant jokes. “Of course we’ll come back. It’s been very nice coming here. Goodnight, goodbye, this is the last number” before the set closer “Like I’ve never Been Gone.”
“Big Log” is the first encore and afterwards Plant gushes about Cliff Richards, who is an “evergreen” star. Plant is interrupted in the middle when someone hands him a note. Plant reads the note: “Dear Robbie, the babys’ doing fine.”
At the very end of the tape Plant is saying: “Now that was rock and roll. That was part of the start and so was Cliff Richard. And in Chicago Leonard Chess had formed the Chess label and in New York Ahmet Ertegun was driving around and in the trunk of his car he had records by Big Joe Turner…” The tape cuts off there unfortunately, but given the introduction it’s apparent he was introducing “Honey Hush,” a hit for Turner in 1953 and a cover tune Plant performed several times.
Image Quality include a half hour long rehearsal tape. It doesn’t give much information except they occurin London. Given the presence of the horn section and that half of the tape is occupied with “Rockin’ At Midnight” and “Young Man Blues,” two songs normally played during the Honeydrippers set on the Shaken N Stirred tour in 1985, means this rehearsal dates from the spring of that year. Plant speaks about his stance on the stage during the set and the band jam a bit. It’s an interesting little tape to have and works well as a bonus.
Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands – December 20th, 1993
(78:12): Interview, 29 Palms, Thank You, That’s Why I’m In The Mood, Whole Lotta Love, Hurting Kind, Ship Of Fools, If I Were A Carpenter, Going To California, Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. Bonus track: I Believe (Later with Jools Holland (BBC) 1993)
29 Palms And 1 Plant captures Robert Plant at the very end of his initial solo career before he began working with Jimmy Page in the Unledded project. Plant’s attitude for Fate Of Nations is a return to his roots and drawing inspiration from late sixties psychedelia (which would be the same approach as the decade ended with the short-lived Priory Of Brion project). This attitude is certainly reflected in live performance and is audible on this release.
This contains a radio broadcast from the Paradiso in Amsterdam on December 20th. On the artwork this show is attributed to December 13th, but Plant played at the Zenith Club in Paris on that date. Most of the show is present but missing are “Tall Cool One,” “Ramble On,” “What Is And What Should Never Be,” “Calling To You” and “Heaven Knows,” all songs regularly included in the set.
It sounds as if there were two half hour broadcasts edited to run consecutively. There is a cut after “Whole Lotta Love” (which was the encore and not played in the middle of the show) and a faint snippet of a DJ’s comments.
The disc starts with a short interview with Plant while he visited Amsterdam. He discusses the inspiration for his music in general and for “29 Palms,” the latest single, in particular. It’s a breezy, fun song (a rarity for Plant) and segues directly into “Thank You.”
Most of the first broadcast is occupied by the following track “That’s Why I’m In The Mood.” It is a fifteen minute long medley which has never seen official release and alone brings worth to this release. It has snippets of “In The Mood,” the Zeppelin songs “That’s The Way” and “In The Light” and a cover of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch” interspersed with his patented shrieks and screams. It is a moody piece of work which foreshadows some of his material in Page & Plant, Priory Of Briton and Strange Sensation.
The second broadcast, from “Hurting Kind” to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” is much more mellow and laidback than the first. It is interesting that the final song was the one which formed the artistic bond between him and Jimmy Page at the very beginning of Led Zeppelin, and would be important for their reunion the following year.
The bonus track “I Believe” is taken from ”Later…With Jools Holland” telecast on May 21st, 1993. The complete broadcast also contains “If I Were A Carpenter,” “8.05,” “Bluebirds” and “Whole Lotta Love.”
29 Palms And 1 Plant (Hammerjack HJ014) is a minor release from the mid-nineties and is among several other titles. Live At Paradiso, Amsterdam (SRS) is a Russian release with the broadcast from “29 Palms” through “Going To California” and Paradiso, Amsterdam (Tie Dye 98118) is a Dutch release which has both broadcasts but in reverse order. It is an essential title for Robert Plant collectors.
Essentially one of the most boring things that happens to me in my average boring life is putting on records put out in the Eighties by Seventies’ hard rock bands. For some reason, no Seventies’ heavy band I’m aware of at the moment really survived the epoch change in a nice way. Nobody began to rock harder; nobody continued to rock just as hard.
Instead, the classic traditional guitar-heavy energetic sound was replaced by wuffly-muffly synth-happy diluted borefests that all sounded ‘profound’ and ‘mature’, but lacked entertainment value so severely it makes me wanna cry. Fans who were following these bands all their lives and grew up with them were probably happy. But those who weren’t in the game from the start… oh man, that’s really hard to swallow, you know.
Pictures At Eleven is a classic example. It’s Robbie Plant’s first powerful statement in his solo career, and it could be worse, but man oh man could it ever be better.
First, the goodies: without Page, Plant is still able to get on. He enlists talented guitarist Robbie Blunt (no, I didn’t make it up, but maybe Plant did? Mr Plant and Mr Blunt?) who’s no speed technician like Page but who sure can play a mean riff from time to time and… whatever, any Eighties hard rock guitarist who was able not to sound in that generic Eighties way (aka ‘bi-i-i-i-i-i-ig generator’ style, as every Yes fan would tell you) deserves some acclaim.
Second, Robbie (Plant, not Blunt) is in full vocal force and not only that, he actually sounds better than on many late period Zep records seeing as how he mostly manages to avoid the endless frustrating ad libs and baby-babying.
Third, everyone and his grandmother will tell you that Plant was ‘going for a Zeppelinish sound’ on here, but I frankly don’t hear it. Oh sure, I do hear a lot of individual Zeppelinisms in the songs and yeah, most of them would probably have easily fit in on any post-Houses Zep record given the proper Page treatment.
But… I really don’t feel that Pictures At Eleven had been consciously written to satisfy the crowd’s lust for more product that looked like Zeppelin. In other words, Plant was simply following his own vision rather than going for a commercial matter of attraction. Most probably he thought that the record would sell anyway, on the strength of his name alone – and he wasn’t actually mistaken, as the album reached #2 on the British charts.
But funnily enough, the album has very little commercial potential, which is why there were no hit singles. Perhaps the closest to a ‘catchy tune’ on here, and the only song that truly ‘rocks’ in the conformist sense of the word, is the closing funk-rocker ‘Mystery Title’, with a classy riff, a good drive, a high blast of energy, and an overlong running time. Think a variation on ‘Trampled Underfoot’ or something like that.
The rest of the album is hard to describe. Despite all the advantages listed above, the album DOES suffer from Eighties’ excesses. All of the seven tracks really blend into each other, all of them overproduced, instruments and overdubs bulging out from beyond each other. There’s an atmosphere here – atmosphere similar to that of ‘Kashmir’, with Eastern influences, an overall solemn and majestic mood, all based on unnnerving mid-tempo rhythm work. But there’s one disadvantage – Plant is a minimal composer, and his pals and colleagues like Robbie Blunt are no better.
Instead of penning really memorable melodies, Robert really goes for mood and atmosphere, and this results in painful unlistenable horrors like the eight-minute ‘Slow Dancer’ which goes absolutely nowhere and does absolutely nothing beyond overstating the “look at me I’m so serious look at me I’m so Mr-Been-There-Know-It-All now” notion. It’s funny to note, by the way, that the tune borrows a lot from Rainbow showcases like ‘Stargazer’, and coincidentally, Cozy Powell plays drums on that track (the rest of the drum parts are handled by Phil Collins, strange enough).
I actually can’t disprove that notion. The album boasts surprisingly good lyrics, for instance – devoted to personal relations, for the most part, but Plant has really gone a long way from ‘Battle Of Evermore’ and even ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The mood actually works if you want it. It’s the main melodies I can’t memorize even from my deathbed, be it the slower blooze of ‘Like I Never Been Before’, the straightforward rock of ‘Worse Than Detroit’ or the artsy philosophical pattern of ‘Burning Down One Side’.
And even when there is a nice riff to underpin the song (‘Pledge Pin’), it is very often drowned out in unnecessary overdubs (‘Pledge Pin’ even has a sax solo!) and almost always lacks vocal hooks of any character. Granted, Plant has never been the hookman – Page always took that honour. But Blunt is no Page, and a couple vocal hooks could have helped, instead, I’m just having to follow Robert’s ravings in a pretty ‘dazed and confused’ way.
Still, I betcha anything this one’s a particular favourite among Robert’s fans, so what do I know?
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.
Well, well, well… Somebody must have walked over to Robbie Plant after a show, lightly tapped him on the shoulder and said: ‘Hey! That was a great show, but I thought you were once a member of that great metal band, Led Zeppelin? Or maybe it was some other Robert Plant?’ And Robbie got all sick and depressed and finally said, ‘Right! I’ll make a Led Zeppelin album if they want me to!’. And Manic Nirvana rocks hard as a result.
All the songs just RIP out of their shells, with bashing crashing drums, fat distorted guitars all over the place, fast tempos, occasionally screeching vocals, overexaggerated choruses… all of this never falling on even a single half-creative, half-innovative idea. For the most part, this record just screams COCK ROCK at you from every corner. Smutty lyrics, even – ‘Big Love’ is as far removed from ‘Big Log’ as possible.
But dang it, I love this album. I feel ashamed to admit it, but I love this album. Then again, why should I ever feel ashamed? On the contrary, I must praise Robert for taking that wretched genre (further massacred by late Eighties generic production) and coming up with interesting songs where others would have probably never really bothered to find hooks and impressive melody resolutions when the penis waggling alone would count.
True, there are some embarrassments along the way, and Robert’s strange tendency to ‘sample’ sounds of the past is not a thing I really approve of, as when he incorporates excerpts from the Woodstock stage banter (‘Good morning! What we have in mind is breakfast and bed for four hundred thousand…’) into ‘Tie Dye On The Highway’.
But most songs, co-written with guitarist Chris Blackwell and other band members, definitely have their moments. If this really was Plant’s idea of a rocking comeback, he succeeded! As amazing it is – I, for one, would never have expected him to be able to successfully pull off a cock rock album thus late in his career.
I mean, take that controversial song, ‘Big Love’, with lyrical matters akin to the ones you’ll be encountering on Kiss records. However stupid it sounds, it’s a pretty driving funk number at any case, with a real catchy, if repetitive and ‘dinky’ chorus. And a messy, but powerful chaotic coda. And a generic, but effective guitar solo. It’s sleazy and offensive, but it’s also memorable, and not for a single second do I really get the feeling that Plant is just exposing his fading sexuality on this song. He doesn’t even overscream! What happened?
Of course, ‘Big Love’ isn’t the best number on the record. But there are many worthy candidates. What about the opening rocker, ‘Hurting Kind’? Am I the only one to think that Plant was going for a very ‘Black Dog’-ish opener on here, only less bluesy than its predecessor? Am I the only one to think that the ‘all right, all right, all right I got my eyes on you’ chorus is sheer genius? Am I the only one to think that Plant sounds more convincing on that thing than he sounds on ‘Stairway To Heaven’? (Hey, the boy’s always been a friggin’ horrid mystical poseur, but he’s always been one darn find cock rocker!).
Then there’s ‘She Said’, with a strange mess of Eastern influences, Sabbath-esque wah-wah riffage, and shrill, ear-blasting guitar trills that seem to be telling us: “Yes, mister, this album is overproduced, but listen to us, we’re guitars and we’re fresh and we’re human played! Refresh yourself!” There’s also the retroish ‘Your Ma Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Night’, replete with record hiss which doesn’t really go anywhere because the production is unmistakably Eighties/Nineties, still, the song’s cool.
The primary effect, like I think I already let you know, was to bang the listeners over the ears with the great wall of rockin’ sound – which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few lighter songs. The power ballad ‘Anniversary’, for instance, is saved from the usual power ballad fate because it’s more pessimistic in nature than the usual ’emotional’, ‘optimistic’ call-to-arms that most of the power ballads. It boasts a supercool solo from Doug Boyle, martial rhythms, unintelligible lyrics and everything that goes along with that stuff.
But maybe my favourites are actually the tearful acoustic ballad ‘Liars Dance’ and the moody shivery folksy shuffle/Goth send-up ‘I Cried’. The clear acoustic shuffle, the dreadful distorted wail in the background, the medievalistic backing vocals, and, of course, the mystery-shrouded ‘this is why I cried’ chorus all combine to make the song a masterpiece, really worthy of Led Zep… why couldn’t Plant have been writing songs like that at the time of Physical Graffiti? But maybe I shouldn’t ask.
But maybe instead of that I should ask why the hell is the song ‘Nirvana’ arranged as a powerful arena-rocker? And why does it seem to me that Robert is using the word ‘Nirvana’ as the name of his gal rather than a particular state of further non-existence in the material world? What I immediately suggest is that the Dalai-lama start immediately suing Mr Plant for mocking the cause of Buddhism. If he’s successful, he may just gain the financial support that’s necessary in order to arm the Tibetan monks to win their independence. But don’t tell anybody this advice stems from me, I wouldn’t want to make enemies with the Chinese government.
I’m just a poor innocent reviewer who happened to like Robert Plant’s fifth solo release even if he was expecting a pile of shit. Come now, would you be expecting anything but a pile of shit from a record with such a dreadfully provocative cover?
If the last album was mood music, then this one is triple and quadruple mood music. Maybe that’s why the only song on it that I really like is called ‘In The Mood’! It’s an innocent little danceable shuffle with well-placed funk bass and somewhat unannoying synth backgrounds.
Of course, Robert lies through his teeth when he chants ‘I’m in the mood for melody, I’m in the mood for melody’, because we all know “Robert Plant” and “melody” stand at two different ends of the cognoscentia spectrum, but let’s just assume he’s chanting ‘I’m in the mood’ and everything falls back in the proper place. Right away! I really like the way he sounds on this track, and Blunt’s little guitar arpeggios in the instrumental section are quite tasteful as well.
But really, the song’s an exception. Most of the rest is just the same – endless murky sticky drones which are probably intended to suppress your psyche, and they do, but not because it’s all so deep and emotionally rich, rather because it’s so badly executed. Come now, the biggest song on here was ‘Big Log’.
Does it even have anything like a melody? It’s typical Eighties adult pop, moody and a little dark, with drum machines, soft guitars that say nothing, heavenly synth backgrounds and vocals that could care less about whether they’re hook-oriented or not. Of course, when Robert Plant uses his most majestic sounding tone to begin a song with the glorious line ‘My love is in league with the freeway!’, that’s supposed to rule, right? That’s coolness epitomized, isn’t it? Let’s see how I can top this, hmm… ‘My love has a way with angels!’ ‘My love does not care about flowing!’ ‘My love lays its rules with a blessing!’ ‘My love is in touch with the North wind!’ See?
Now go ahead and tell me who of us is more poetically gifted. Oh, okay, I admit that according to these rules, it is possible to mock every single line ever written by anybody, but fact is, if there’s anything that catches your attention on ‘Big Log’, it’s this pompous start, and that’s totally ready-dick-ulous.
Out of the rockers, the only two that somehow manage to stand out (half an inch each, no more) are ‘Other Arms’ and, I think, yeah, it’s the one called ‘Horizontal Departure’. ‘Other Arms’ has a bunch of gritty metallic descending riffs in between the verses, and the ‘lay down your arms!’ call that Plant howls out from time to time until it becomes repetitive ad nauseam for some reason reminds me of ‘lay down your arms and surrender to me…’. Remember that silly tune covered by the Beatles on the Live At The BBC album? Boy, one sure picks up odd associations when listening to Robert Plant.
Although come to think of it, the melody’s mainly just been ripped off of Ray Charles’ ‘Unchain My Heart’ (a MUCH better song). As for ‘Horizontal Departure’, it’s very tedious in the verses section, but at least it has this fast semi-catchy chorus that’s oh so stingy Eighties-pop it hurts, but hey, for a drop of catchiness! For a little piece o’ rock stickin’ out from under the dirty water! Spoiled, polluted by generic production values and total lack of musical ideas! And a Phil Collins on drums on top! And God only knows on what else!
It’s kinda hard for me to say at least anything about the other four songs. I remember for sure that I didn’t vomit while they were on – although, frankly speaking, I’m not so certain about the capacity of my memory at the moment, and it could well be that I have simply spent all the contents of my stomach on the preceding album. But I sure as hell can’t really remember even if they were rockers or ballads, although I did give it the required three listens. I suppose it was some kind of ‘average’ between the two – ballad-resembling rockers, or rockin’-potential ballads. And the length, the length, it just kills… five minutes is normal for a song on here, but when each song has one or two different ideas at best, it HURTS. It saws through your brain, spoils your mood, sucks out all the life energy, I won’t even mention what these songs have done to my AURA. Suffice it to say that about 50% of that stuff is further untalented ‘Kashmir’ rip-offs, and the other 50% is weather channel music.
I sure wouldn’t object from having Robbie Blunt play in my band if I had one… some of his guitar parts are very tastefully done, but I would certainly want him to play something different. Oh, and did I say ‘Kashmir’ rip-offs? Not necessarily so. On ‘Thru’ With The Two Step’, for instance, I think I hear obvious ‘I’m Gonna Crawl’ references in tone and mood. But that’s more a pure and dry statement of fact than an actual endorsement of any kind.
So it’s an eight, and a rather weak one at that – and frankly speaking, I REALLY don’t understand how the hell a song as jello-like as ‘Big Log’ could ever become a hit single. Due to the ambiguous title? ‘In The Mood’, that’s a different matter. It has some potential. Whatever.
Final delirious note: the most obnoxious thing on the album is the final section to ‘Stranger Here… Than Over There’, where the band goes for a stupid imitation of the ‘orgasmic’ section on ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and Plant even stoops to whining ‘push… push…’ a couple of times. Jimmy must have wanted to get an overdose upon hearing that.