The proto-doom metal masterpiece "No Quarter" is a classic case of a brilliant track that becomes even more enormous in its live incarnations.
Thick, smoky plumes of fog creep along a mass of green hills, enveloping the countryside in a blinding gray. At first, there is nothing. But then, suddenly, a war horn blares through the murky clouds, a noise so loud that the blades of grass begin to quiver with the oscillation of the sound waves. Shortly after, these quivers give way to earth-rumbling trembling as a stampede of ironclad soldiers flood the rolling hills, swords and maces in hand.
This is the image evoked by the first 30 seconds of "No Quarter", the seventh track on Houses of the Holy. As the last seconds of the comedy reggae jam "D'Yer Mak'er" fade in to silence, an ominous synthesizer melody is quietly introduced. Then, a single bass note is plucked—echoing deeply, as if ringing through a gorge—further deepening the morose mood of this opening salvo. It's hard to believe for a moment that things have progressed in this way; not but a song ago, Led Zeppelin were leaving the listener equally perplexed and amused (not to mention irate in some cases) with their bizarro take on reggae. To shift to the chilly pre-battle landscape of "No Quarter" may seem like an odd move following such an uncharacteristic Zeppelin track. But, truth be told, there really is no proper way to transition to a song like "No Quarter". Even if the band had placed a full-throttle rocker like "Black Dog" before this cut, there still would be an unavoidable sense of foreboding with the opening notes to this song. The power of "No Quarter" has yet to falter 40 years after it was release to the public. It's undoubtedly one of Zeppelin's compositional masterpieces.
In his Between the Grooves series on Led Zeppelin IV, AJ Ramirez wrote,
Zeppelin always refused to restrict itself to bludgeoning caveman headbangers (something which would result in metal fans often positioning Black Sabbath—an ensemble that is on record as being enamored by and taking cues from Zep—as the “proper” founding father of metal), instead maintaining a broad stylistic palette that incorporated acoustic instruments and diverse ethnic sounds to realize the “light and shade” dynamics Page strove for.
Led Zeppelin's status as the classic rock band is, for the most part, undisputed. Placing them in the lineage of heavy metal, however, is a trickier exercise. Black Sabbath, commonly regarded as the progenitor of the genre, were themselves indebted to Led Zeppelin, and Sabbath itself didn't mark a clean break from classic rock. Rock and heavy metal are deeply interwoven genres, especially in the formative years of the latter. As Canadian metal critic Adrien Begrand once said, "Metal writers should not only know their metal history, but rock n' roll history as well." Being heavy isn't a mutually exclusive goal for the rocker and for the metalhead; stylistic divides between the two undoubtedly exist, a fact simple dichotomies aren't likely to illustrate well.
"No Quarter" is an important case where the lineage of classic rock and metal are fused together. Though not the heaviest of Zeppelin tracks, the song is undoubtedly metal in its mood and execution. I would argue that the track is one of the early examples of what is now referred to as doom metal; though this genre is most commonly tied to the lugubrious, plodding meters of Sabbath, the textural and atmospheric nature of this track makes it easy to see as an instance of proto-doom metal. The minor-key sonic terrain created by the synthesizers and keys on "No Quarter", along with the language of mythic warfare in its lyrical matter, makes this one of Led Zeppelin's defining "metal" moments. If one were to slow this track way, way down and imagine the four members of the band enrobed in ringwraith cloaks, they'd fit extremely well at a Sunn 0))) concert.
The metallic aspect of "No Quarter" really kicks in after the portentous synthesizer opener. After the drums come in and Jimmy Page strums a few shimmering chords, a wicked cool guitar riff comes to the forefront. The band is especially skilled here in their balance of the pervading sense of bloodshed and (what would later be seen as) a hip-hop sensibility; like "When the Levee Breaks" and "The Crunge" before it, this opening guitar/drum interplay would work marvelously as a sample. Yet this riff only stays for a little while; not long after it sets the chord progression for the song, the doomy synthesizers pick back up once again, forming maliciously tranquil verses.
"The winds of Thor are blowing cold", Plant intones. As a spiritual successor to Zoso's "The Battle of Evermore", "No Quarter" shifts the talk of warfare away from the realm of J.R.R. Tolkien references to a philosophical discussion on the nature of violence. The armies of this song "choose the path where no-one goes"; Plant's inversion of the Biblical aphorism about the narrow gate is an extremely good, menacing move here. This path is equally as mysterious as the message carried by the soldiers "wearing steel that's bright and true", Plant insists "they carry news that must get through", but it's never made explicit what this news is. The only thing made certain in the lyrics is that these soldiers—whoever they might be—"hold no quarter". As depicted in the song, these soldiers—also called "dogs of doom"—are a pervasive, relentless force, one that nature could not ever restrain. The world of "No Quarter" is one where violence has reached its point of no return, a fact reflected by the music; rather than getting caught up in brutalizing riffs or feverish arrangement, Zeppelin lets the ambiance set the scene. There is no point in trying to fight against the soldiers who have abandoned surrender. To embrace the doom is the only option.
Within the lyrics themselves, this phrase is potent, but in a large sense context-less. As a metaphor about Led Zeppelin's live performances, however, it's spot-on. Houses of the Holy, as mentioned in the Between the Grooves piece on "D'Yer Mak'er", gets its title from the band's view about the venues they performed in on their famous world tours. They viewed their concerts as, in an oblique way, an act of communion and—dare I say it—worship. With the introduction of "No Quarter" into their live set, the band stated their MO as a live outfit quite clear: they "hold no quarter." They don't let their music do anything other than unleash its unrestrained energy out on to the public. The message is left up to interpretation, but if there's one thing that's evidently clear it is Led Zeppelin's non-negotiable desire to rock.
Though there are many contenders for the title, "No Quarter" stands out as the ubiquitous Led Zeppelin live song. The song takes up a pretty expansive seven minutes of Houses of the Holy, but live it becomes something else; at times, the group would go on for fifteen minutes, really letting the song breathe. The part of the track that begins around 3:00 into the LP version where John Paul Jones begins playing an acoustic piano is where the live version really escalates. Jones would frequently incorporate different classical motifs into his piano solo, enhancing the already epic quality of the track significantly. The two live versions available—one on The Song Remains the Same, the other on the recently released Celebration Day—are phenomenal showcases for Zeppelin's stature as a live band with a force to be reckoned with. The latter is especially worth listening to, as it more than any other song in the 2007 reunion show demonstrated the band's timeless vitality. Page may have looked a little withered on stage compared to his presence in Zeppelin's glory days, but on "No Quarter" he really lets his guitar playing cut loose with an extravagant amount of wah-wah effects.
When that nine-and-a-half minute version of "No Quarter" ceremoniously concludes, it reveals itself to be one of Led Zeppelin's defining moments as a band. Even after ending their career on a relatively weaker note (though, let it be known: In Through the Out Door is awesome), they still managed to take no quarter live, wrinkled and aged though they may have been. "No Quarter" is emblematic of the band Led Zeppelin have always been: innovative, heavy, and, perhaps most importantly, uncompromising. As heavy metal began to rise from the same primordial ooze that wrought hard rock in the early '70s, it was songs like "No Quarter" that provided a key link into the evolution of the genre. The rock and metal worlds would be very different today were it not for this resounding battle cry.