An idea that came to me as I explored old favourites uncovered in the course of my voyage of musical discovery it forced me to reflect on those projects that showed musicians of talent that truly excelled themselves when given hold of the reigns; projects that they aren’t known for, that wasn’t expected of them, and somehow ended up stronger as a result of that. You can learn a surprising amount about an artist and their influences by listening to the members hammer it out in other work. For example…
The Band: Led Zeppelin
The iconic band that needs no introduction; arguments emerging only over whether their earlier work was better than their latter (note: no, it was not. Their greater degree of experimentation in tracks like “Achilles Last Stand” and “Kashmir” top their early work handily) and for the past forty years have provided a constant entry at everything from Metal clubs to Disco nights the world over. Even with dogged claims of theft of the intro for “Stairway to Heaven”, you’d be hard pushed to find many who would doubt their talent or their long lasting musical influence.
The Surprise: Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation – Mighty ReArranger
Perhaps disingenuous to call it a side-project, but what many failed to notice was that when Led Zeppelin broke up following the death of John Bonham in 1980, Robert Plant kept going. Since their break-up he’s recorded ten albums—a larger body of work than I’ve yet had time to fully indulge in—collaborating with the likes of Phil Collins and Barriemore Barlow, the former Jethro Tull drummer, before finally settling on a semi-permanent line-up named The Strange Sensation. Perhaps one of the greater driving forces behind Zeppelin’s shift into folkier and more experimental territory, his solo work sees this drive flourishing into the forefront, becoming bolder until we reach what I consider his finest work, 2005’s “Mighty ReArranger”.
I find myself drawn to this album more frequently than anything Zeppelin has produced, which may come across as blasphemy to some, but there’s an enigmatic tranquility to the grooves that I simply haven’t found anywhere else; a blend of his hard rock roots with southern grooves, blues-based licks and a plethora of North African rhythms. What his voice is lacking in power and ability to hit those high notes, it more than compensates with his aging gravelly earthiness. All too often you’ll find aging vocalists attempting to recreate the range of sounds they were capable of in their younger years only to fall flat. Plant proves one of the few vocalists who not only understands the manner his voice has aged, but understands the new strengths and weaknesses that come with that aging, becoming perhaps one of the only vocalists who sounds better as he enters his sixties than he did thirty years earlier.
There’s such a sheer variety on offer here; a wealth of knowledge and experience coherently formed into bitesize chunks. Whether we’re talking about the polyrhythmic tribal drumming of “Somebody Knocking”, the sweet blues licks of the title track, “Mighty ReArranger” or what is perhaps the most conventional rocker on the album “Shine it All Around”, Plant hasn’t just spent the past three decades experimenting with new ideas, he’s fuckin’ mastered them, and this album is his proof.