Review Summary: Led Zeppelin's magnum opus. A near perfect package which demonstrates a masterful blending of all the styles the band had thus far explored.
By the time Led Zeppelin released this masterwork they were already worldwide superstars and up there competing with The Rolling Stones and The Who for the ostensible title of 'The World's Best Rock Band', at least as far as the music press was concerned. This record was a massive commercial and critical success. John Paul Jones had seriously considered leaving the band during this time which interrupted the recording sessions but they were eventually re-united and went on to record eight songs, the combined length of which would not fit onto a single LP. Subsequently, the band decided to make Physical Graffiti a double album by including previously unreleased tracks from earlier recording sessions.
It is difficult to know where to start with this behemoth of an album. It contains some of Led Zeppelin's best known work in the form of 'Kashmir', 'Trampled Under Foot' and 'In My Time of Dying' but there is also much of merit to explore in the less well-tread ground. 'Kashmir' has of course become one of the trademark Led Zeppelin songs. Plant and co. had already proven that there was a lot more to their music than sledgehammer driven rock and roll and 'Kashmir' demonstrates a progressive rock influence with it's hemiola driven momentum. The inexorable groove of this masterpiece with Bonham's unyielding 4/4 backbeat anchoring the uneven guitar and mellotron time signatures pushes the song relentlessly forward with a rolling hypnotic grace. It is not only for the quality of the music that this album, and 'Kashmir' in particular, became a staple throughout the demo rooms of high-end hi-fi specialists; the production on here is warm, powerful and open. Of course there is a hell of a lot more to this magnum opus than 'Kashmir'. Even those not familiar with Led Zeppelin's work will probably have heard the deliciously funky riff on 'Trampled Under Foot', inspired by blues musician Robert Johnson's 1936 'Terraplane Blues' which ended up being a favourite of the subhuman scavengers of the sampling world. Other highlights include the John Paul Jones penned 'In The Light' with its haunting intro created by Jimmy Page using a violin bow on an acoustic guitar, the light and shade of the masterful 'Ten Years Gone' with its heavily overdubbed harmony section and 'In My Time of Dying', an arrangement of a traditional gospel music song which the band made their own.
The 'padding' for this double-album was provided by previously unreleased tracks from earlier recording sessions, off-cuts which were probably deemed unworthy to be included on a full release. However, the sheer quality of what is on offer in the form of these cast-offs makes one wonder what other treasures were once attempted and discarded in the studio during the band's career. The acoustic instrumental 'Bron-Yr-Aur', originally recorded in 1970 for Led Zeppelin III, is an appealing ode to rural life in an open tuning and 'Houses of the Holy', originally intended for inclusion on the album of the same name, is a standard Zep outing with a great hook. But the stand-out track from the previously recorded material has to be the bruising 'The Rover' with its bluesy phase shifted licks, memorable solo and a typical pile-driving performance from Bonham on the sticks.
Physical Graffiti is a glorious culmination of all the different musical styles Led Zeppelin had explored on their previous outings. Their bluesy hard rock infused debut, the riff loaded second , the folk rock leanings of their third album, the masterful blending of light and shade on their fourth and the multi-layered approach on 'Houses of the Holy' which included their first foray into funk rock; all of this is present on Physical Graffiti but it's mellower, funkier, more dynamic and more powerful than anything they had done before. But this album is not merely an amalgamation of previous endeavours. It has a character all of its own. It is bold and dynamic while still managing to remain warm and engaging and it is dense and complex while still retaining a sheen of accessibility.
Robert Plant has stated that he considers Physical Graffiti to be Led Zeppelin at its most innovative and Jimmy Page has referred to it as the high point in the band's career. And who could argue ? This is the creative zenith of arguably the greatest rock and roll band ever to grace the globe and an essential purchase for anyone remotely interested in Led Zeppelin and their legacy.