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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Long Live the Triptych: Five Great Series of Three Rock Songs

Posted By on Thu, Aug 18, 2011 at 6:00 AM

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Led Zeppelin: "Houses of the Holy," "Trampled Under Foot," and "Kashmir" (Physical Graffiti, 1975)

The distinctive tone of the guitar riff that starts "Houses of the Holy" is the launching point for these three songs, a trio that explores the guitar's ability to shape-shift.

The riff in "Trampled Under Foot" is markedly similar to the one in "Houses of the Holy," but this time it's doubled with a clavinet keyboard. Guitarist Jimmy Page alternates between a straightforward tone and an aggressive wah-wah sound; combined with the clavinet, it sits somewhere between Zeppelin's signature riff-rock and funk. As the song continues, Page peppers in quick, spacey licks with generous doses of echo to add a sense of depth and wandering.

That wandering slides into something cosmically grand and epic in "Kashmir" as the band trades the clavinet for a string section. Although Page wrote the song's signature riff, the guitar becomes a mere accessory to the strings. Even so, his axe is the glue that keeps the orchestra connected to the rest of the band.

The three guitar riffs are all classic and instantly recognizable -- the genius is in how Page's instrument takes on a different role in each one.

(Listen here.)


Smashing Pumpkins: "Soma," "Geek U.S.A." and "Mayonaise" (Siamese Dream, 1993)

None of these three songs was released as a single, but the trio is stunning. "Soma" begins with a lulling guitar melody, barely audible, and weaves its way through a dreamy haze until it finally explodes into an all-out arena rock singalong.

"Geek U.S.A." picks up at the high points of "Soma," aggressively switching between straight-ahead '90s rock and a slow, thick heaviness that catapults right back into guitar solos and headbanging awesomeness.

As the last note fades with the heavy fuzz of distortion, one of the guitars lets out a high-pitched screech -- the perfect segue into "Mayonaise," which both combines and resolves the two songs before it. It starts with a "Soma"-like lilting guitar melody, but quickly builds into a beast that's heavily distorted but somehow delicate and melodic. Each chorus is punctuated with the squeal of a cheap guitar that the Pumpkins discovered and used for this song, which connects "Mayonaise" to the fade-out wails of the song before it.

The lyrics allude back to the dreaminess of "Soma" but also the trapped frustration of "Geek U.S.A." "Can anybody hear me?/ I just want to be me," singer Billy Corgan howls, somewhere between a snarl and a sob.

Taken together, the three songs showcase the best of the Pumpkins' creative output, with a wide range of moods and enough craft to make us (almost) forgive Corgan's ego-maniacal attempt at reuniting the band with no other original members. At least we got these three songs first.

(Listen here.)

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Dean Schaffer


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