IN LATE 1975, Led Zeppelin found themselves with just 18 days to record the follow-up to Physical Graffiti. The Rolling Stones were due at Musicland Studios in Munich, meaning Zep, despite their status as 'biggest band in the world', had to record the album and get out - quick.
More distressingly, Robert Plant had been seriously injured in a car accident and was still confined to a wheelchair during the album's recording. Yet from such circumstances, a odd and sometimes fascinating work emerged.
Presence begins with a swirling, arpeggiated, guitar figure from Jimmy Page. Haunting, mournful, and decidedly eerie, this opening to 'Achilles' Last Stand' colours the entire track with a sense of melancholy. Yet the mood and feel created by this motif is appropriate given it is inspired, however indirectly, by The Iliad. It is also a tour-de-force from Page, who ranges across its 10 minutes with more ideas than most guitarists manage across entire albums.
Although 'Achilles' Last Stand' has never achieved the same status as 'Kashmir' or 'Stairway To Heaven', it remains an important song. Its galloping opening rhythms presaged the terrain Iron Maiden would explore in the 1980s and while there are those who say 'Whole Lotta Love' is Zep's main contribution to heavy metal, 'Achilies' in its sense of ambition and epic scope, has much more claim to this title.
Zep have never appreciated being catagorised alongside metal acts, and this is understandable. Zeppelin is a blues band, first, foremost, always; as the rest of Presence demonstrates uncatagorically, most forcibly on the closing track 'Tea For One'. Its slow, late night, subdued feel, effectively communicates just how bad the song's narrator has got the blues, and Page's guitar work is sublime.
The highlight, though, is 'Nobody's Fault But Mine'. An old blues standard, it is refashioned into a thrilling epic through nervous, urgent, edgy blues-rock guitar, frantic harmonica, and strident rythyms, interspersed with psychedelic, spacey riffing. It is also Plant's best performance. His vocals explore all the melodic possibilities the song has to offer, particularly the utterance of the song's title, teasing the listener by holding the most obvious such melody until almost the end.
Of the remaining tracks, 'Royal Orleans' and the Elvis pastiche 'Candy Store Rock' are fillers. Only the high camp of 'Hots On For Nowhere' stands up to repeated listening.
Talking about Zeppelin often means talking about Page and Plant only, but Presence demonstrates the importance of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, who lock together in a tightness that rivals, perhaps even surpasses, the band's better albums, without sacrificing a sense of funk or swing.
Of the bonus tracks, most are reference mixes of the main songs and offer little different from the completed versions. The gem though is '10 Ribs & All/Carrot Pod Pod (Pod )', a beautiful, atmospheric, piano led instrumental - quite unlike anything else in the Zep canon.
Presence is far from Zep's strongest work, but Zep's weakest albums are superior to most band's masterpieces. It was a triumph over difficult circumstances, and its best tracks can justifiably be placed high on the list Zep's greatest songs. Not heard it for a while? Treat yourself to a fresh listen today.