Sunday, December 22, 2013

Led Zeppelin - Achilles Last Stand

I discovered Led Zeppelin when I was very young, even then it was much later in life than it needed to be. I grew up liking Meat Loaf, The Doors and The Beatles, but for some reason no one bothered to introduce me to the rest of classic rock until I was about twelve years old, which is far too long to go without. Once my father learned that my big brother and I were into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd he stepped in and made sure we had CDs by both bands. In some ways my dad was awesome. I spent almost every night falling asleep listening to Led Zeppelin between ages twelve and sixteen.

I hated reading when I was a kid. The subject matter of all the books I was told I could read in school I found demeaning to my intelligence. This is not to say I was some super genius child, for my reading comprehension level was only ever slightly above average, but the subject matter of the books made available to me were just so immature. Adventures of a boy with his dog, or teenage detectives, or some other such uneventful books made me cringe. It was not until I discovered “The Lord of The Rings” in fifth grade that I started to enjoy reading, and it was not until after I somehow finished “The Lord of The Rings” at that age that my mother finally decided to step in and introduce me to books that were actually about things. I remember my mom reading me books about the adventures of Hercules and Perseus when I was just a child, we also used to watch “Hercules The Adventures Continue” and “Xena Warrior Princess” together, so she thought I might enjoy Homer’s epics, which led her to purchase “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” for me. In some ways my mom was awesome.

I spent a lot of time reading and listening to Led Zeppelin after that. You can imagine my excitement, while reading the first few pages of “The Iliad” and discovering Achilles for the first time and listening to “Achilles’ Last Stand” at the same time.

At the time I did not even know. I did not make the connection right away. I did not know Achilles was the famous Greek warrior or that Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ Last Stand” might be about him. I would later come to notice all the Tolkien references in various Zeppelin songs, so this was the first time, for me, when music I loved and a book I loved overlapped, and I was pumped.

Led Zeppelin was never a blunt band when it came to lyrically content. Robert Plant always offered up some sense of mysterious poetry to everything he wrote. This in turn made their songs more universal and easier for a variety of people to relate to because the room for interpretation was so very open. Look no further to “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin’s most famous song to find a huge variety of wildly different interpretations. I mentioned as much when I talked about Stairway back in May of 2011:

This same holds true for “Achilles Last Stand.” Unlike rock operas like Manowar’s “Achilles Agony and Ecstasy” or Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” which more or less directly retell the passing of events that take place in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” respectively, Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” is far more cryptic. In fact there is good reason to think there are no verses in “Achilles Last Stand” that are explicitly about Achilles, or his death.

Statue of Achilles by Ernst Herter on the Greek Island of Corfu.
We could easily interpret the opening lyrics as belonging to those of a Greek warriors preparing for the voyage to Troy, ready and eager for war.

“It was an April morning,
When they told us we should go.
As I turned to you,
You smiled at me.
How could we say no?

With all the fun to have,
To live the dreams we always had.
Woa the songs to sing,
When we at last return again.”

And there are verses that could be interpreted as belonging to Odysseus during his long journey home:

“To seek the man whose pointing hand,
The giant step unfolds,
With guidance from the curving path,
That churns up into stone.

If one bell should ring,
In celebration for a king,
So fast the heart should beat,
As proud the head with heavy feet, yeah!”

And I always thought this verse was probably about Persephone and her mother Demeter:

“Days went by when you and I,
Made an eternal summers glow.
As far away and distant,
Our mutual time to grow,
Oh, the sweet refrain,
Soothes the soul and calms the pain.
Oh, Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again.”

The ancient Greeks explained the passing of seasons by Persephone’s unusual relationship with her mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and her husband Hades, god of the earth (and also the dead). Persephone would spend half the year with her mother nurturing the fields and gardens of the world, and the other half of the year she would spend with her husband Hades in the underworld and when this happens Demeter would allow a cold spell to fall upon the earth to spite of her son in law.

Interesting side note Albion is a reference to Britain. The old Celtic names for the British Isles included Avalon where King Arthur is suppose to be resting until Britain needs him again and Albion which refers to the primary island. Additional interesting side note, Robin Hood’s sword was called “Albion,” get it, because Robin Hood fought with/for Britain. What does Albion have to do with Greek mythology or Achilles last stand? I have no idea.

Perhaps most easily identifiable is this mention of Atlas the titan who holds up the word:

“Wondering and wondering,
What place to rest the search.
The mighty arms of Atlas,
Hold the heavens from the earth.”

Though I once again think of Odysseus with the bridge:

“I know the way, know the way, know the way, know the way.”

There are many possible inspirations from Greek Mythology in “Achilles Last Stand” but none of them seem to have anything to do with Achilles. There is a healthy hodgepodge of mythological reference throughout but nothing ever fixed to one specific event. Nonetheless these are great lyrics.

Jimmy Page and
Jon Paul Jones were
among the first notable
musicians to use
multi-necked guitars.
More important than the lyrical content of “Achilles Last Stand” is the guitar work. I remember it being rumoured that there was twenty six different guitars Jimmy Page used for the studio recording of “Achilles Last Stand” and while I was able to confirm the rumour of multiple guitars, the number of guitars that were used remains uncertain, I heard twelve being the lowest number ever mentioned while twenty six remaining the highest. Given the variety of sounds within I have always been tempted to believe it was true that Page used multiple guitars tuned differently to create “Achilles Last Stand.” I have seen John Paul Jones plays an eight string bass guitar and Jimmy Page on a triple neck guitar performing this song live, which would fit with the theory of complexity, however most performances by Led Zeppelin have Paul Jones playing a four string bass and Page on a regular six string Les Paul, and they manage just fine:

Achilles Last Stand Live Knebworth 1979

The speed at which Page plays guitar is among one of the single most impressive things ever in all music history. The way this man’s fingers moved is nothing shy of super human. Out of the impressive repertoire songs and guitar solos produced by Led Zeppelin I believe “Achilles Last Stand” to be Page’s single greatest performance. The guitar work is so intricate and fast that theories about multiple guitars being needed have always seemed warranted, and performing this song live is something of legend in just how difficult it must be. The adventures and heroes of ancient Greece deserve as much if you ask me, the greatest stories ever being expressed to us by the greatest guitarist ever in a supersonic display of fantastic music. Easily one of Led Zeppelin’s best songs and one that never seems to receive the praise it deserves.

Until next month, keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Symphony X - The Odyssey

It is difficult for me to think of a progressive metal band that existed before Symphony X. The American – New Jersey group debuted in 1994, and prior to that time I do not believe anyone thought to combine the two terms “progressive” and “metal” together. Logically eventually someone would come around to putting those two things together but guitarist Michael Romeo and keyboard player Michael Pinnella just might have been the first to do so.

To be perfectly honest I currently have a limited working knowledge of Symphony X. I started getting into Symphony X when friends, most notably Driver Nick, encouraged me to listen to them, but also because singer Russell Allen. Allen joined Symphony X in 1995, one year and one album after the bands introduction; however I was at least somewhat familiar with Allen before I even knew Symphony X was a thing. Allen was guest singer for my beloved Avantasia and also he has a joint project with Norwegian metal Viking singer god Jorn Lande (who is amazing) simply titled, Allen/Lande. Clearly it is not hard in this day and age for great metal singers to find work.

Symphony X does have a progressive sound, the use of keyboard that is now so common in many modern metal bands, brings a new range of operatic sounds and ambience, and they have used trumpets and violins among other classical instruments to build their sounds at times. To this end Symphony X has an atmosphere that lends itself well to emotions of fantastic voyages and other far out ideas, and like so many bands before them Symphony X was inspired by great literature and thus inspired to compose music of a similar epic scale. As you may recall Manowar wrote a twenty-eight minute power metal epic about the Iliad, well not to be outdone Symphony X wrote a twenty-four minute power metal epic about “The Odyssey.”

Homer’s “The Odyssey” is the sequel to “The Iliad” and follows Odysseus, King of Ithaca, in his ten year journey trying to get home after the end of the Trojan War. Most people who have never read “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey” typically do not realize the great jump in time in between the two. “The Iliad” ends with Hector’s death, and “The Odyssey” begins with Odysseus nearing the end of his ten year voyage and recanting his experiences to the people who live on the island kingdom he washed up on. Nowhere in Homer’s work is Achilles' death or the fall of Troy described to us. It is told to us that Achilles died the death that was predicted of him and that Odysseus thought up the idea of the infamous Trojan Horse and how that was the final maneuver towards the destruction of Troy, but we, the reader, never get to live these moments. This skipping of events does serve to set up a surprise when we discover the true identity of the half starved, half crazed, wanderer as Odysseus. The warrior king whose skills were only eclipsed by Achilles and Diomedes (he’s a whole other story) was now a worn down, weary wanderer.

There are many conflicts for Odysseus in “The Odyssey.” There is the conflict of man versus nature. The Greek heroes angered Poseidon when they failed to give him credit for destroying Troy (the god of the ocean helped just believe me) so he plagued the heroes when they tried to sail home. Odysseus and his crew have to fight against the treacherous Mediterranean and the monsters and magic they encounter on each island. There is a conflict of man versus man as Odysseus has been away from home for so long he knows there will be suitors trying to steal away his kingdom. And last there is the conflict of a man against time. The Trojan War took ten years to reach its bloody end, and Odysseus has been lost at sea for an additional ten years, his wife Penelope cannot hold out forever, the people of Ithaca will demand she remarry and in doing so anoint a new king. There is so much to take in throughout “The Odyssey” in narrative, theme, and symbolism that it is in many ways the perfect story to be transposed into other mediums. Enter Symphony X’s “The Odyssey.”

So much happens in “The Odyssey;” which gives Symphony X plenty of material to fill in a seven part musical adventure, and I will do my best to briefly explain each part.

Part 1 – Odysseus Theme / Overture

It is a good idea for any musical to open and close with an overture, we call that continuity. Symphony X evidently prescribes to this logic as well.

Part 2 – Journey to Ithaca

The primary objective or our protagonist is to return home to his wife and child. The opening lyrics to Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” covers this aptly;

“To the one that I love, my journey has begun.
When our eyes meet once more there will be peace.
The taste of your lips the warmth of your touch,
Again, forever, two souls as one.

Seems like forever that my eyes have been denied.
Home - I'm dreaming of the home.
I've been twenty years away from all I ever knew,
To return would make my dream come true.”

The next several parts depict the many horrors Odysseus and his crew face.

Part 3 – The Eye

Landing on an island Odysseus and his men must escape a Cyclops who just so happens to be the son of Poseidon, whom as you recall is unhappy with the Greek heroes.

“A mountainous black - engulfed in a shadow,
A bone-chilling growl and an Eye of Hate,
A ghastly fate - held prisoner by the Eye.”

Part 4 – Circe

Circe is a goddess and a witch who uses polymorph magic to transform many of Odysseus crew into animals.

“Stay - like those before,
I condemn you all - from walk to crawl,

Part 5 – Sirens

Odysseus and the sirens.
Sirens are rather famous mythological monsters that are half bird half human female, who would plague sailors with their sweet song and lure them into the waters where they would drown. Odysseus’ crew needed someone to watch and guide them through the storm while being bombarded by the sirens. Their solution was to tie Odysseus to the mast and have their king do his best to guide them, while being tormented by the sirens, while the rest of the men row. Symphony X’s cover art for the album depicts this moment.

“Tied steadfast to the mast,
Tragedy awaits me.
I'm falling victim,
Betrayed by the sea.”

Part 6 - Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla is a multi-headed sea monster that dwells in the rocky ridges of a pass and Charybdis is another sea monster typically rationalised as a whirlpool. The term “Between Scylla and Charybdis” is an idiom that basically means caught between two dangers or imply an impossible choice between two terrible options. Odysseus is forced to sail between the two; this spells the end for the remainder of Odysseus’ crew as he is the sole survivor of this nightmare. Wisely, I think, Symphony X depicts this moment from “The Odyssey” as an intense instrumental. What is there to say really?
"Between Scylla and Charybdis" is like being caught between a rock and a hard place, only way worse!
"Scylla and Charybdis" by Steve Somers
Part 7 – The Fate of the Suitors / Champion of Ithaca

Twenty years is a long time to be away from home and in his absence Penelope, queen of Ithaca, is broached by many suitors. After twenty years they demand she choose one of them so she devises a test. She will marry the man who can string a bow and shoot an arrow through the rings of twelve axe heads all of which are planted on the ground in a singular line; but when the suitor’s attempt the test they all fail, none among them can string the bow let alone shoot an arrow from it. Then a withered and ruined homeless man comes forward and asks for the chance to prove himself in this test.

“A contest of valor,
To pierce the twelve rings,
In a single arrow's flight,
Yet, not a one can string the bow.”

There is a technique to stringing a bow. The string cannot be stretched very far but the wood of the bow can bend. The trick is to use your leg as a brace and bend the bow around your leg so the string can reach the second end of the weapon. This withered and ruined homeless man uses this technique and strings the bow with ease. He then proceeds to shot an arrow through the twelve axe heads. Then the illusion fades and all in the hall know Odysseus has returned.

“My veil of silence lifted,
All is revealed,
Revenge burns in my heart,
Thrashing and slashing down all my claim the throne.”

This is my favorite moment in the book “The Odyssey.” In the beginning of the novel, worn out Odysseus is thought to be some meek man and when his hosts tease him he speaks up and proves he is no mere beggar by throwing a discus a great distance and with that everyone is convinced that he must be the stuff of kings, for only a great man could throw a discus so well. In the end of the story Odysseus performs the feat of stringing a bow and firing it perfectly. In ancient Greek culture a good man was much more than good natured, a good man needed to be capable. A great man, if he were great, would learn all that he could and as such was expected to be able to fight with sword and spear, wrestle, box, till a garden, tend a field, read and write, ride a horse, drive a chariot, forge weapons, build a house, throw a javelin and shot-put. A great man is expected to be able to throw a discus. A great man is expected to be able to string a bow. Among the suitors none could even string the bow, thus disqualifying them as good men.

This concept was revived in the renaissance, you might recall the term “a renaissance man” as someone who was cultured and capable in all things. The idea is a good man would not leave things alone, he would learn all that there was to know. I like the idea of constantly learning and improving, and while we live in an age of information so huge in volume that knowing all things by all people is impossible, I still believe the endeavour to try is truly noble, and I think, perhaps, you disqualify yourself as a great man the minute you stop learning. That is the symbolism behind “none can string the bow.”

“Triumphant - Champion of Ithaca.”

After everything Odysseus has been through it is such a satisfying ending for him to return home to his faithful wife, his son, and his kingdom, and Symphony X invokes the feelings I have always held for this story’s heroic and happy end in a very powerful way. These progressive metal champions have created a fanfare worthy of Odysseus, the Champion of Ithaca, and a song worthy of the epic.

- King of Braves

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Manowar - Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy

Cover art for Manowar's 1992 "The Triumph of Steel" by Ken Kelly

There is some controversy over which band is the loudest in history. The Who were believed to be the loudest band of all time after they gave everyone, including themselves, hearing damage at 126 decibels at 1976’s The Valley concert, but a lot of time has passed since then and many bands have competed for the title of “loudest.” In 1984 Manowar successful reached 129.5 decibels and proudly pronounced themselves the loudest bad ever. Other bands managed to eclipsed the 129.5dB such as Motorhead (130dB), Gallows (132.5dB), and KISS (136dB), which forced Manowar to perform at the Magic Circle Fest in 2008 at 139dB, thus reclaiming the title. As of now Manowar is still on record for “loudest” band ever and they will probably hold on to the title for a long time, since it is dangerous to have concerts at such high volumes and also because it is hard to have a concert that loud that doesn’t end up breaking some kind of law or bylaw.

Because wearing a shirt is stupid.
Being the loudest band ever might be enough for Manowar to claim victory and call it a career, but fortunately for us Manowar is so much more than just loud. Manowar is one of the original American power metal bands and arguably the greatest of that specific subgenre. Power metal is typically filled with lyrics and themes of fantasy, and while Manowar’s stage presence and look is not what one might think of when discovering songs about dragons and wizards they do in fact sing a lot about magic and heroes. To be fair, Manowar with their muscles and war cry, do sing about more masculine sorts of fantasy adventure, songs about shamans conquering wind magic, mastering the use of magical swords to kill thy enemies, and other such narratives that could come right out of Conan the Barbarian. And it helps that since Monawar’s 1987 album “Fighting the World” artist Ken Kelly has done the cover art of every Manowar album, a man known for drawing warrior fantasy art, including Conan the Barbarian.

I am big fan of Ken Kelly’s and I recommend visiting his site:

"Fighting the World" the first of many
Manowar album covers by Ken Kelly
Many casual Manowar fans might fail to notice all the fantasy references in their music as they may be distracted by the equally reoccurring theme of warriors and war. In the noble effort of creating badass metal about magical warfare the logical conclusion is to write a song about the most epic war ever in all mythology, I am of course referring to the Trojan War. The feud between Achilles, the Mycenae champion and Hector Prince of Troy, is perhaps the best known grudge match between warriors in the history of all war, both real and fictional, which is interesting because Achilles and Hector are theoretically fictionally, but are tangibly real. Troy was a real city and it was sacked. Also historians are at least partially convinced that Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, the ruler of the Greek empire at the time of the sacking of Troy, may also be real, we even think we might have found his face captured in a gold disc. So it is not inconceivable to consider the possibility of a tough general named Hector defending the city of Troy or him being killed by a very tall really, really tanned Greek warrior named Achilles.

Agamemnon's face... maybe.
My favorite book is Homer's “The Iliad” and I loved the conflict between the two clashing heroes. Never before or after has anything in literature built up a clash between two opposing heroes as powerfully epic as the battle between Achilles and Hector. Hector is a perfect warrior but Achilles is a force of nature. Achilles is a literal demigod, his mother Thetis is the goddess of water, so this guy is literally half god. When Achilles enters the battleground he rips through the ranks of Trojans like a hurricane slaughtering everyone. In a book that is little more than a thorough depiction of endless fighting; every amazing feat by every hero, and there are many of them, are all put into the shadow of Achilles impossible power. He ends more lives in one chapter than every other named character combined. So who better to write a bloody and heroic metal epic about than Achilles? Enter Manowar’s “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy.”

I suppose Manowar was not content being the loudest band ever, they also wanted to write the longest song ever, and I believe that is why they wrote “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy.” At twenty-eight minutes and thirty-five seconds “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” is a long song, but it has to be it tells the entire story of “The Iliad.”

“Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” is in eight parts:

1. Hector Storms the Wall
2. The Death of Patroclus
3. Funeral March
4. Armor of the Gods
5. Hector’s Final Hour
6. Death Hector’s Reward
7. The Desecration of Hector’s Body
8. The Glory of Achilles

I will attempt to give you a quick explanation of the story being told here and the dramatic significance of each of the eight parts.

The city of Troy was very well protected by its high walls, so conquering the city was going to be difficult. Upon arriving on the sandy beaches of Troy, the Greeks conquered the surrounding towns and farms and secured a foothold on the territory so they could supply themselves during what was estimated to be a long siege. When it came time to divide up the spoils of war, including the women, Achilles took Briseis as his sex slave but Agamemnon took her from him once he was forced to give up his own sex slave Chryseis. I remind you, this story takes place over three thousand years ago, and we are talking about barbarians here. As a result of this archaic offensive Achilles withdraws from battle.

Manowar begins their epic by introducing Hector and the opening line of this saga is:

“See my chariot run to your ships I'll drive you back to the sea.”

In case you didn’t know, Hector was most feared in combat when he rode his chariot, early during the war Hector terrorized the Greeks with it. Knowing Hector is a Trojan and a badass is all you really need to take away from part 1 – Hector Storms the Wall.

Achilles does not contribute to the war until the death of his cousin Patroclus, slain by the hands of Hector, which Manowar presents in part 2 – The Death of Patroclus. Patroclus entered the battle wearing Achilles armour so when Hector killed him he took the armour and wore it himself to mock Achilles.

He shouldn’t have done that.

I really like the instrumental parts three and four. The “Funeral March” is a great bridge towards the drum solo that is “Armor of the Gods.” Hephaestus the Greek god of fire makes Achilles a new suite of armor, this is represented in “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” with an eight minute drum solo, which has to be the best possible way to convey this moment, especially when you are Manowar.

My personal favoriate moment in the entire epic is part 5 “Hector’s Final Hour;”

“Here inside the walls of Troy, the gods weigh my fate,
From this bay do I abstain, to a memory of hate,
To pay for all the blood that spilled the many thousands I did kill,
No walls can contain the gods' almighty will.
I hear the silent voices I cannot hide.
The gods leave no choices so we all must die.
Oh Achilles let thy arrows fly, into the wind, where eagles cross the sky.
Today my mortal blood will mix with sand it was foretold,
I will die by thy hand into Hades my soul descend.”

I love this little bit of poetry of Hector lamenting his forthcoming doom. A reoccurring theme in Greek literature is the oracles and god prophesising what was to come, word always reaches the heroes and they often know how their adventures will end before they begin; just as Hector knew “this day was promised to me” he also knew his death by Achilles’ hands was coming. Achilles is sent into a great rage when Hector kills Patroclus and Manowar was the right band to capture this fury and this is the part of the song that is the most intense. There is good balance over the course of this twenty-eight and a half minute song, many peaks and valleys throughout in volume and intensity, though perhaps that is unavoidable for a song of this length. The soft moments like Hector’s lamentation bring a real strong humanity to the song which in turn makes the dramatic and violent moments of the same man’s death all the more exciting. I am unsure if this is intentional but the clash of peace and war like moments does well to reflect the same moments in “The Iliad.” There is a calm, albeit tense, moment Hector shares with his wife Andromache where the plume of his helm is frightening their child as it waves in the wind so Hector removes his helmet and kisses his son goodbye, by taking off his helm Hector shows he is more than a warrior, he is also a husband and father. Hector is a man. Then Achilles kills his ass!

A very reoccurring image in Greek pottery is Hector removing his helm before his wife and child.  
Hector and Andromache facing each other contrasted by Paris and Helen looking away from each other
is another reoccurring image in Greek art.  The good noble couple is contrasted by the bad trouble making couple.
Hector’s death is my favourite moment in “The Iliad;”

“Dying, Hector of the flashing helmet said:

‘How well I know you and see you for what you are! Your heart is hard as iron. I have been wasting my breath. But reflect now before you act, in case angry gods remember how you treated me, on the day Paris and Phoebus Apollo bring you down in all your greatness at the Scaean gate.’

As he spoke, the end that is death enveloped him. Life left his limbs and took wing for the house of Hades, bewailing its lot and the youth and the manhood it had left behind. But godlike Achilles spoke to him again, though he was gone:

‘Die! As for my death, I welcome it when Zeus and the other immortal gods wish it to be

I like to imagine there is a pause between Achilles yelling “die!’ and his brave acceptance of his eventually death. The idea of angry Achilles standing over fallen, dead, Hector and yelling at him to die as if it were one last hate filled command to his most despised enemy, just feels so right. Considering the great fury of Achilles I believe Manowar does a great job of capturing this rage in the parts 6 and 7, for Achilles is not content to kill Hector but deems it necessary to desecrate his body as well, in the hope it will damn him in the afterlife. 

"Fury of Achilles" by Charles-Antoine Coypel
Much like Blind Guardian writing an album about Middle Earth, or Metallica’s “Call of Ktulu,” I freaking love it when literature I love is combined with great music and Manowar kind of takes the cake. How better to honor the epic of the Trojan War then with an over the top metal epic? Oh Manowar you truly are the kings of power metal.

- King of Braves