I recently realized that I may have more in common with Led Zeppelin than I previously thought. I’ve always related to Jimmy Page as a guitar player, but my focus on longer songs made me take another look at the more ambitious and experimental side of the legendary band. In particular, “Achilles Last Stand” stood out to me because it’s an uptempo epic. Why do people sit and listen to 10+ minutes of this song? I wanted to find out.
Songwriting and Arrangement
The song comes out of the gate with its sonic signature on full display — the intro arpeggio alternating Em and F#m, and the main riff going from F#m to Em, then to D. When the song’s key is in E, the F#m creates an exotic sound — that of a E Dorian mode. Modal harmony may seem complicated on paper but in reality it’s simply creating harmony based on a scale other than major or minor. The parallel minor chords can sound weak and subdued, but here the note/chord of D (the flat 7th in the key of E minor) is used in prominent places to add forcefulness to the picture.
But this is all done atop John Paul Jones’ bass galloping on the E pedal tone. His bass contributes urgency to the proceedings with dotted rhythm, which is not mirroring what the drums are doing. This is one of the keys to create such dense, thick sounds with minimal instruments — have each voice play a different part. It’s become so expected in rock and metal for the guitar and bass to play the same riff, but there’s no such rule and Led Zeppelin takes full advantage of the distinct personalities that make up the group.
When Robert Plant’s vocal enters the scene, it’s a much smoother affair than the guitar or the bass. The vocal melody isn’t an assertive, dominant role in this song, it’s more like an icing on a cake — noticeable but hardly the main ingredient. With the rhythm section firing on all cylinders and guitars providing colorful harmony (even if laying back a bit to give room to the vocal), perhaps Robert felt that it was better to create a contrast with a vocal line that just glides above the torrential roar beneath.
After four stanzas the music changes from galloping to pummeling with an angular riff that emphasizes an F chord. We’ve been hearing F# minor a lot so far, so when this F chord (which is another chord not in the key of E minor) enters, the effect is jarring. But the song doesn’t dwell there, instead giving way to a graceful ascending figure, this time in proper E minor. After hearing E Dorian for a good while and then getting jarred by F chords, this E minor tonality feels like a relief, even though its upward motion builds energy back up to commence the main riff again.
The curious fact is that there is no discernible chorus to this song. The E minor ascending section has a distinct guitar and rhythm pattern so that they almost act like a chorus would, providing a point of arrival and a contrast from the verse sections. The second time the song visits this faux-chorus section, an epic guitar solo breaks out. And while Jimmy Page’s guitar soars, the song goes into a new section that pounds on E minor, which serves as the response to the E ascending pattern’s call.
At this point we’re about half way through a 10-minute epic and the rest of the song mostly uses variations of the material we’ve heard before. Toward the end the verse pattern Jimmy Page goes into this quick guitar figure that Robert Plant mimics with vocalization, which comes across like squiggles floating on a mighty river. The song concludes by returning to the main verse riff and then arriving back to the opening arpeggio, completing the whole cycle.
All in all if you look at the song just on the writing and arrangement levels, you can see a handful of deft touches but no defining compositional hook that really anchor the whole song. The song feels sprawling and abstract, and even the lyrics don’t really offer much to latch on to, describing a mystical journey but without arriving anywhere. The material is strong and variations keep the music from becoming too repetitive, but 10 minutes are a long time to spend on a piece. Then what keeps us listening?
In the case of Led Zeppelin, the strength of the material is lifted to an entirely different level on the might of the musicians. It’s rare to find an ensemble where each and every member has such distinct and noticeable presence. Most bands are lucky to have a recognizable singer. And rhythm sections are often relegated to tame, anonymous roles.
But when you have John Bonham on the drums, you can’t help but notice him. This song is a tour de force for Bonham, always catapulting the momentum forward. My theory is that the drums are the most important instruments in a rock band, and that when rhythm is interesting it makes the whole song interesting. Led Zeppelin became exceptional because they had Bonham to elevate the songs that Page and Plant wrote. Don’t get me wrong, Page and Plant were exceptional writers and in particular Page created many innovative guitar compositions. But it was Bonham that elevated merely great to legendary. If you pay close attention to how different parts relate to each other, you can tell that the drums really lead the charge, with guitars and bass riding on the drums’ coattails.
Speaking of riding along, Plant’s performance here also stays on the restrained side. He is perfectly capable of unleashing piercing wails or trot out rapid-fire attacks, but here he chooses to create contrast with graceful delivery. There are time and place for a group to match its gesture in a singular fashion, but combining contrasting gestures create layers and depth.
So from the furious Bonham to languid Plant, the four members provide different shades of intensity in this track, and that pushing and pulling is part of what keep audience engaged through repeated listens. More uniform performance can sound shallow and tiring. It’s harder to mix in variations and still sound cohesive, but the reward there is that the music has more lasting power.
With a title referring to a figure in Greek mythology, you’d think the production will drench the whole band in reverb to create a sense of reverence and mystery. Reverb is used prominently, but it actually only wraps around the vocal and some lead guitar lines. If you listen to the rhythm section there is no hall reverb muddying up the picture — it actually maintains a fairly intimate ambiance. Mix-wise the guitars create a wall of sound through which other instruments punch through, and this is accomplished because different reverb / ambiance is applied to different parts. If all parts sounded like they were sitting in the same room, the sound would blend more and come across plainer.
There are a lot of different guitar parts that come and go, so to cut through Plant also have to double some of his lines to give them the girth they need to stand on its own. But over all the mix manages to sound unclattered thanks to clear contrasts applied to a sense of distance. Some vocal/guitar lines sound very close while others seem to come from far away. In stereo mix it’s easy to notice only left vs. right placement, but a great mix utilizes that sense of depth and distance.
In the end, “Achilles Last Stand” turned out to be a bit of an enigma. The sprawling opus rely on clever variations of Page’s guitar orchestrations to keep things changing, but compositionally it’s not the tightest piece — there are some sections that are repeated more times than necessary. What lifts it up is four distinct individual voices that occupy the space, most notably the unduplicatable presence of John Bonham. When the performers have so much personality, the songwriting and arrangements can be a little indulgent and still get away with it.
That’s not to say that the songwriting itself doesn’t have merits — it does. But 10 minutes of it is accomplished by deft productions and sly contrasts provided by Robert Plant’s graceful performance that purposely didn’t match the aggression of the rest of the band. This song almost feels like a dance number, with all the incessant rhythm but no clear chorus / hook to deliver.
And that’s a perfectly valid experience to deliver. When what gets going is so good you don’t want to come out of it very soon — instead you can immerse yourself into the majesty of the exceptionally individualistic musicians locking together to create a sea of sounds. With more modern, shorter attention span (System of a Down comes to mind) it’s tempting to exorcise all excess and make the songs go into head-spinning zig zag. But what sets this song apart is that Led Zeppelin leaned on the indulgent side, allowing unnecessary parts still exist. And with this band, that may be just what the fans ordered.