Robert Plant & The Sensational Shape Shifters – Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar

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As lead singer of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant straddled the 1970s like a golden-haired demigod.

Between stories of groupies and hotel room-based destruction, the band superseded that decade’s stereotypes of rock ‘n’ roll excess to put together a back catalogue not just the envy of any other band, but one that remains today as influential as it ever was.

Both helping to form and transcending what was becoming heavy metal, alongside songwriting partner and guitarist Jimmy Page, Plant fused blues and jazz sounds with rock guitars, symphonic melodies and introduced a dash of World Music to the mix. Oh, and did I mention he has the voice of an angel? Well, an angel that knows its way round a bottle of Jack Daniels.

Never one to rest on his laurels, he remains an artist keen to push the boundaries and test his talents in a variety of settings. He’s made it abundantly clear over the years that he’s not going to be getting Zeppelin back together to cash in any reunion cheques. Which brings us to this, his latest album with the band, The Sensational Space Shifters. Released last year, I was a bit late to the party, and only got a hold of Lullaby and The Ceaseless Roar in the last few days. And boy, am I kicking myself at having waited.

Starting off with ‘Little Maggie’ you can immediately hear the bluegrass influence coming through from his time working with Alison Krauss. The deep bass and with Plant’s laid-back vocal low in the mix, it’s a very contemporary take on the style. ‘Rainbow’ is lighter, a relaxed and summery sounding track with the vocal cords starting to wake up. The aforementioned World Music sounds creep into next track, ‘Pocketful of Golden’. By now, you realise that there aren’t going to be any heavy Page-style riffs here. What you’re getting is the sound of a man at ease with his talent and who always wants to bring styles of music that he obviously loves and bring them to the 21st century. With ‘Embrace Another’ it’s almost as if a little bit of trip-hop has been added to the existing blend. It’s also the first moment you feel the band has been let off the leash with an instrumental break with crashing cymbals and crunching guitars.

Next is ‘Turn it Up’. Subdued and bluesy, it teases you. Every little pause, you expect to come thumping in, but sadly it doesn’t which is the first little moment of disappointment. ‘A Stolen Kiss’ is a sparse, delicate, piano-led ballad and it is simply stunning. Five minutes of sheer beauty. It’s followed by ‘Somebody There’, maybe the most traditional AOR track on the album. It’s got a slight Tom Petty/Americana sound to it and has the feel of the radio-friendly track on the album. It’s got the first proper guitar solo as well.

‘Poor Howard’ gets us back to the bluegrass style of earlier, but with a much more traditional slant to it before we come to ‘House of Love’. With its sweeping and soaring guitars and background vocal harmonies it’s one of the highlights of the album. ‘Up On The Hollow (Understanding Arthur) ‘ takes the blues vibe from ‘Turn it Up’. It’s got a beat to it that seems almost menacing and distorted guitars in the background that seem ready to cause chaos. One of those songs that I really wish would last another 6 minutes. The album closes with ‘Arbaden (Maggie’s Babby) ‘, a re-imagining of the album opener that brings in all of the albums sounds and influences.

With Plant’s relocation from Texas to back home in England, this seems like an homage and a farewell to country and bluegrass music, as well as the country, that seemed to inspire him over the last decade. Combining it with the world music sound, introducing the trip-hop background and throwing in a touch Celtic folk as well. It could have been the worst of obscure Glastonbury acts. Instead what you have is the sound of a man, not content to sit back and count royalties or trade on past glories, but who is blending sounds and making something truly special. A remarkable album.

 

Graeme Campbell

If it doesn't sound better turned up louder, then what's the point? Stuck somewhere around 1994, raging against the machine and steadfastly refusing to budge.

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