Achilles Last Stand – Led Zeppelin (Presence, 1976)
When it comes to epic rock songs, this one very well may be the template. Slowly fading up over the horizon we are quickly whisked away on the sonic landscape with the crack of John Bonham’s drum stick as we go chugging along. The song approximates, as closely as anything I’ve heard, the feeling of either going into a battle or on some kind of epic journey.
Dramatically this song is a J.R. Tolkien novel in a ten-minute song form. It’s musical Shakespeare. It winds and turns and resolves itself succinctly while everyone is not sure what to expect before the end comes.
While there is one constant groove going almost the entirety of the song, I enjoy the excursions that guitarist Jimmy Page leads us down (check out the wicked cool guitar part at 2:00). Also the incomparable drumming breakdowns at 4:13 are things bands have been trying to replicate for the last 40 years. It’s the unquestioned highlight of the ‘Presence’ album (one most fans don’t consider one of their best), if not their entire catalog, which is saying something.
Lyrically we are in mythical land as the mighty arms of Atlas hold the heavens from the earth. Plant deftly navigates the terrain of tropes that Zeppelin loved to cover with Greek mythology and the heady writings of wars long-ago fought. For me it conjures up images of ‘Warcraft’ commercials (complete with Kate Upton) and movies like ‘Braveheart’.
While Led Zeppelin wrote many outstanding rock songs in this vein, this has always been a personal favorite. It has it all. Robert Plant is in top-notch vocal form. Bassist John Paul Jones paints a vivid picture. Another thing that probably helps is it was never overplayed on the radio compared to a “Kashmir” or “Dazed and Confused”.
The song ends up framing itself as it ends the same way it began with Page’s misty guitar seemingly going back down the imaginary mountain from whence it came. For my money this is as epic as rock n’ roll music ever could get in all its bombastic glory. As Plant sings, he knows the way…