Thursday, September 11, 2014

Led Zeppelin III on LP, Remastered by Jimmy Page

I recently finished my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. PSF editor and publisher Jason Gross came up with the idea to choose my ten favorite columns over the last 17 years, and number 10 was my famously misplaced 2001 column where I raved about the Classic Records reissue of the Led Zeppelin catalog on 180 gram vinyl. As it turned out my column came exactly one issue before Will Shade's excellent article, "Dazed and Confused: The Incredibly Strange Saga of Jake Holmes," which carefully lays out how Jimmy Page stole Holmes' songs over the years. After that my column vanished in the ether, excluded from the archives, and can only be found via a Google search. It took me a while to figure it all out, but after all these years I totally get why Jason did it. It was just bad timing. (Years later Jason told me that he didn't hate Zep--but what they did was pretty sleazy.)

The day after I finished the column, I headed out to the local Hastings to check out their newly remodeled vinyl section, which was still small but growing steadily. I found the latest Zeppelin box sets, remastered by Jimmy Page and released just a few weeks ago, all sitting on a shelf and priced at $134.99 each. (At this point they've released the first three albums, with the rest to follow soon.) I've been really curious about these because I've always lamented the horrible sound quality of the Zep catalog, even the Classic reissues which were expensive and still not quite there sound-wise. I've always used the CD box set, the one released in the '90s, as my reference, but these are merely the lesser of all evils.

But $134.98? I'll pass. I'm not a box set kind of person. I don't need all the outtakes and unreleased materials--that's for fanboys who want an entire disc of their rock idols coughing and scratching their balls in the studio while the engineers finish their coffee breaks. I just want to hear the original releases remastered so the sound quality is as realistic and/or goosebump-inducing as possible.

Fortunately, these new LPs have been released in a basic version which just contains the original album. I first saw these at Fidelis, our dealer in New Hampshire, a couple of weeks ago. I would have grabbed them all right there but I hate bringing LPs on a plane. So there I was in Hastings, a week or so later, and they had a copy of the newly remastered III right there, below the big box sets, for just $24.98. I grabbed it without thinking and headed to the register.

Along with the first three sides of Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin III has always been my favorite Zep album because it stands apart from the others in so many ways. It's softer, more acoustic and more psychedelic than any of the others and showed that the band wanted to grow and evolve into something more than a killer blues-rock band. It's also downright weird in places--"The Immigrant Song," for example, belongs in a genre of one. Yet III also contains some of Led Zeppelin's most beautiful music, the country-tinged "Tangerine," the reflective "That's the Way" and the very unusual yet very traditional "Gallow's Pole."

So how does Jimmy Page's reissue measure up to the others? Well, to start off, this pressing is incredibly good. The surface of the LP is almost perfectly silent. Starting off with "The Immigrant's Song," which always sounded like it was recorded in a dungeon with two paper cups and a string, this remaster is decidedly modern-sounding with an expansive soundstage and plenty of air around the instruments. Moving on through the album, you'll notice that Page paid particular attention to bringing out the sound of his acoustic guitars so you can hear the individual strings resonate against the wood. Never has the band sound more live, more there in the room with you.

On the other hand, I wanted more of a visceral impact--starting with fuller and deeper low frequencies. Zep is a band that should knock your proverbial socks off with dynamics and power and sheer rock and roll head-rushes but I always thought they were hamstrung by crappy, muddy production values. So this new version excels at bringing out more details from the grooves, but it still lacks that headbanging magic I find routinely from other hard rock bands from the era.

Still, this is good enough to supplant all other versions of the catalog. To make these better, more of what I truly want, someone would have to cheat and add things that weren't originally there in the studio. As any purist will tell you, that's a big no-no. The real question is whether I'm going to collect each album as they're released, and that's a tougher decision. I don't feel particularly compelled to go out and get the first two albums--I already have the Classic Records versions of those and they cost me too much money to just cast them aside because something shinier came along.

But Physical Graffiti? Houses of the Holy? You bet I'll lay down the cash for those.

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