When you think of modern adaptations of Homer’s Iliad, you’re more likely to think of a particular movie (e.g. 2004’s Troy), novel (e.g. Lord of the Silver Bow by David Gemmell), or comic book (e.g. Marvel’s Iliad or Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze) rather than a piece of music. But Homer has inspired modern musicians, too, and today I’d like to devote a few words to one song in particular.
It’s “Achilles: agony and ecstasy in eight parts” by American heavy metal band Manowar. The song was originally released on their studio album The Triumph of Steel, back in 1992. The song feels kind of jazzy in places, and despite being carefully orchestrated, sounds at times like the result of an impromptu jam session. If you’ve never listened to it before, you can probably find a version using Google or download the song on iTunes. Be warned, though; it’s not an easy listen. This isn’t the kind of a song you put on in the background while you go do other things.
The song, as befitting a musical rendition of Homer’s epic, is nearly 29 minutes in length and, as indicated in the title, consists of eight distinct parts (though this doesn’t include the prelude and part VII consists of two parts in itself, so it’s actually ten parts). The song focuses on the confrontation between Achilles, the Greek champion, and Hector, the Trojan leader, and follows the story in Iliad books 12 through 22.
Agony and ecstasy in eight parts
The prelude (0:58) sets the stage with a bit of a clichéd, dramatic opening, though it slowly becomes better after about the 38-second mark. It then switches gears with part I, “Hector storms the walls” (2:07). The main riff is a bit repetitive but does drive the song onwards, and the galloping rhythm fits the reference to Hector approaching the Greeks with his chariot. The description of javelins, arrows, and stones flying through the sky are taken from the original poem.
Part II, “The death of Patroclus” (1:51), opens with a lot of energy, before fading, around the 45-second mark, into a pseudo-ballad, in which Achilles mourns the death of his comrade-in-arms. After a few lines sung in regret, Achilles (voiced by Manowar frontman Eric Adams) promises, “I will not rest before Hector’s blood is spilled; his bones will all be broken, dragged across the field!”
Part III, “Funeral march” (2:45), starts off with bells – a modern touch that recalls the ringing of bells in a modern church for the funeral service. Twin guitars, courtesy of David Shankle, dominate this instrumental song as it builds to a crescendo. If you’ve read the Iliad, you’ll know that Patroclus was wearing Achilles’ armour and that his kit was taken by Hector. The Greek hero needs new armour, and this is the subject of part IV, “Armor of the gods” (4:59) – a lengthy drum solo featuring Kenny Early “Rhino” Edwards, though the other instruments join the fray towards the end. (Incidentally, this album is the only one to feature Shankle and Edwards, and main songwriter and bassist Joey DeMaio no doubt intended parts III and IV specifically to highlight their talents.)
Next up is part V, “Hector’s final hour” (3:21). It starts off with a military drum beat before introducing the whispered vocals of Eric Adams, who gives voice to Hector. Hector realizes that even the mighty walls of Troy will not protect him from his fate. “Today my mortal blood,” he says, “will mix with sand. It was foretold that I would die by your hand.”
Indeed, part VI is fittingly called “Death, Hector’s reward” (3:33). The song is frantic at times, with heavy drums, and gives an idea of the might of Achilles as he confronts Hector. “Hector,” Achilles (Adams) cries, “feel my hate!” The lyrics and instruments intertwine to express the madness that engulfs Achilles, who turns berserk in his quest for vengeance.
Part VII, “The desecration of Hector’s body”, consists of two parts. Part 1 (1:56) starts with a trembling guitar: this is the point where Hector’s dead and Achilles is making the preparations to desecrate his corpse (e.g. make holes in his ankles to put a rope through). In part 2 (1:49), the instruments are more heavily distorted: Achilles has gone mad and is dragging the fallen Trojan’s corpse around on the battlefield. This a hard song to listen to, especially since it gets positively atonal in the last minute or so, but it was clearly done on purpose.
Most modern adaptations of the Iliad tend to add a tinge of regret at the death of Hector. To modern audiences, after all, the Trojan hero – with his young wife and infant son – comes across as more sympathetic than the selfish, sulking Greek killer of men, Achilles. In keeping with their image (and with how the Greeks regarded him, too!), Manowar emphasize the heroic properties of Achilles, and the final part of the song, the culmination of Manowar’s version of the story, is therefore entitled “The glory of Achilles” (5:09).
Part VIII summarizes the death of Hector and how Achilles desecrated his body, before turning to the funeral of Patroclus and the associated sacrifice of Trojan captives and animals. A little after the middle point, there are a series of guitar solos and melodies in celebration of Achilles’ victory that last until the very end. Like most of the song, it’s not very easy on the ears, but it somehow seems to fit the source material in its brutality.
Other bands have taken a stab at putting the story of Achilles to music. Power metal band Jag Panzer released “Achilles” on their 2004-album Casting the Stones. It’s inferior – musically as well as lyrically – to Manowar’s “Achilles”. Furthermore, it’s clear that the song is based on the movie Troy (2004), with its reference to Patroclus as Achilles’ “cousin” and an oblique mention to the Briseis from the movie. Manowar’s version is much more faithful to the original source material.
And finally, Jeroen Wijnendaele pointed out to me that there’s an obvious “prequel” of sorts to Manowar’s song about Achilles, namely Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ last stand”.