I see these albums as where the perfect collaborative balance achieved in the first 5 albums was lost. From what I have read Page was pretty much the main driving force behind Presence and has complained JPJ didn't pick up the slack, then ITTOD seems to be the opposite situation with JPJ having to step in? Both albums feel like one or two members overwhelm the basic unit's harmony. For example compare JPJ's use of synth on In The Light from PG and it is perfect haunting introduction to an epic song despite it's length. But fast forward to ITTOD I find his synth solo on All My Love really unsuited to the songs emotions and straying into prog rock pompousness with out paying attention to the lyrics. Also the parping synth horn riffs on Carouselambra could have worked but in the mix they totally overwhelm Page and Plant, the careful balance of each members contribution is destroyed. Admittedly this is more due to the mix but Jones' sound choice is so strident I can't really imagine how it would have fitted even if mixed well, same riff but different sound but Jones' taste goes out the window and he blasts us with medieval horns for 10 minutes (IMO of course!).
Strangely despite people saying they don't like ITTOD as it doesn't sound like Zep for me it encapsulates the spirit of the previous albums better than Presence. Zep was always about taking chances and experimenting. They may not always work but it made the albums exciting and unexpected. ITTOD reminds me of House of the Holy, I may not love all the experiments but I would not change any of them as they are pushing themselves into new and exciting areas. People may not like Zep playing funk and reggae (on HOTH) or people may not like Zep playing synth rock or Latin rock but I respect ITTOD for this experimentation.
I also disagree with many listeners and find the first track In The Evening to be a rather weak opener. It is like they want to reassure people this is still a Zep album. But while it has plenty of atmosphere and a killer solo, I find the chorus pretty weak and it lacks the twists and turns of the tracks it is trying to rekindle the spirit of. I think ITE feels like a Presence track, like the linking track between eras. They are experimenting with textures rather than melody or harmony. This is not a bad thing but for me the interesting sounds end up giving a fairly ordinary track a glamours sheen that makes it sound better than it is. Again just my opinion, I can understand why this maybe heresy to many! I also should say I am being hyper critical here but I still enjoy both albums. I just wanted to examine why I ultimately find each album frustrating.
One final point is that ITTOD reminds of the way I feel about the Rolling Stones album Goats Head Soup. Both albums were made in the depths of drug addiction for a key member with one member taking up the slack (Jagger in the Stones case). Both albums are played brilliantly, put together with obvious care and show the band trying very hard to stay current and experiment. However something is missing. That magic excitement and balance is missing, some members are not firing on all cylinders. Everyone is looking at a different goal, each can see greatest but it is tantalisingly out of reach. The albusm are less than the sum of their parts. When an album is truely great you don't really notice things like problems with the mix or out of tune guitars, you are caught up in the listening experience. With GHS and ITTOD I start enjoying a track and then I am pulled out of the experience as a problem with the mix starts to bug me, or some other element I feel should have been there.
So while I find it frustrating I think with a better mix ITTOD would have been a better album than Presence. I always sit down thinking I will enjoy Presence more than I do. But it feels one dimensional. JPJ only has one co-writing credit for the jam of Royal Orleans and on this album we have the problem of too little JPJ rather than too much. He always was more than a bassist and his brilliant keyboard work and arranging pushed many Zep tunes from good to great. The other problem with Presence for me is that, understandably, Plant is a bit off form lyrically and melodically. The whole album is made in troubled times so it is hard to judge it too much given this, it is amazing it is as good as it is. But I find Plant doesn't do justice to the riffs on Hots On For Nowhere or Candy Store Rock. The Na Na Na refrain is rather weak and having two "filler" tracks sequenced next to each other is an mistake. It could be argued HOFN and CSR could have worked well on a double album like Presence where weaker songs can work as part of the patchwork. One or two more killer tracks on Presence would have given it more balance as a listen. Also emotionally the jump from these two light tunes into Tea For One is too much for me, it is like jumping off a cliff into the darkness of TFO. I sometimes wonder if a light and a heavy side may have worked better with Achilles, FYF, NFBM and TFO on side one and RO, CSR and HOFN (with perhaps one more song) on side two? It is quite interesting that both albums start with a multilayered guitar epic and end with a dark slow blues.
I also think if you combined some of the best tracks from both albums into one LP it would be amazing. I also think if some of the contemporary tracks from Coda had been included in ITTOD it may have been stronger although I am not sure if they were in any state of completion at the time?
I think given the turmoil of the band we are lucky to have either album and this turmoil is the root of both the similarities and the differences between them. ITTOD has to be viewed as a response to Presence, the struggle between the members trying to transcend the problems and launch the band into a new era but maybe not being healthy enough physically and psychologically to do this. When viewed with this historical filter with an understanding of the complex circumstances a lot of the criticisms melt away for me. It is the first time we hear Zep falter and show the vulnerability of being a mortal capable of missteps. This makes the best tracks on each album amongst their most moving and human songs for me.