Perhaps the two most popular bands of the '70s, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles represented opposite poles of the musical impulses of that time. Having started out as something of an epic blues quartet — the sound that spawned a million metal bands — Zeppelin grew increasingly exotic in their sources, drawing on the spookier aspects of Celtic folk and the more mystical elements of music from the Middle East, North Africa and India.
The Eagles, for their part, started out as relatively earnest country rockers, developing a sound they inherited from the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, their fellow Californians. Country rock, which was associated with the land and other traditionally American themes, functioned as a corrective to the excesses of psychedelia and the aristocratic posturing of English rock stars (like, for example, Led Zeppelin). As the '70s wore on and the agrarian-utopian dreams of the '60s faded, the Eagles' vision (and personal habits) darkened. California became a metaphor in their work for a jaded, soulless America willing to pave over the beauty of the West in exchange for the cheap thrills of the L.A. fast lane.
Now it's the mid-'90s, and the Eagles and Led Zeppelin are airborne once again — the latter under the disingenuous guise of "Jimmy Page and Robert Plant," summarily ushering John Paul Jones out of the picture and making for a neat two-way split of the impending billions in royalties. Wryly titled, No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded and Hell Freezes Over each contain a few new songs (three for Zep, four for the Eagles) and a clutch of old favorites recorded live and semiplugged for MTV. Guess what? The new songs aren't as good. But while the Eagles don't prove as adventurous as Page and Plant, both albums are far better than anyone but their accountants had a right to expect.
No Quarter, which miraculously avoids obvious choices — no "Stairway to Heaven," no "Whole Lotta Love" — in particular provides some genuine thrills. Two of the new songs — "Yallah" and "City Don't Cry," both recorded in Marrakech, Morocco — rely on the sort of one-dimensional riffs Page could write in his sleep, but elsewhere the guitarist rises from aesthetic death, playing with more originality and vision than he's shown since Zeppelin crashed. The title track — recorded as a duet in Wales, with Page's 12-string and Plant's voice enhanced by a world of effects — is transporting, superior to the original studio version in every way. "Since I've Been Loving You," recorded with a full electric band, is deepened by a luxurious string arrangement that recalls the orchestral R&B of James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World."
Most dramatically, "The Battle of Evermore" and "Kashmir" soar to astonishing heights on the wings of an Egyptian ensemble that joins Page and Plant's band. The effortless artistry and emotional daring of Najma Akhtar's countervocal on "Evermore" easily provide No Quarter's high point; every time she opens her mouth, the energy level of the piece intensifies to an otherworldly degree. The album's closing track, "Kashmir," also achieves an irresistible momentum as African, Indian and pure rock & roll motifs collide in a frenzy and shake the song to an ecstatic climax. It's a fitting end to a boldly imagined, thoroughly sensual musical journey.
Hell Freezes Over — the title derives from a prediction of when the contentious Eagles would reunite — offers consistent, if less tumultuous, pleasures. If the arrangements and certain of the selections are safe — "Hotel California," "Life in the Fast Lane" and "Take It Easy" are all on hand — they are lovingly rendered. Of the new studio material, Don Henley's delicate "Learn to Be Still" (co-written with Stan Lynch) can take a respected place in the Eagles catalog, though the Henley/Glenn Frey anti-PC rant "Get Over It" crosses the line from funny, righteous outrage ("I'd like to find your inner child and kick its little ass") to smug, privileged self-righteousness ("Some call it sick, but I call it weak").
Also, this version of the Eagles — Henley, Frey, Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, Don Felder — is a bit too much of a democracy. Despite Henley's having emerged as the band's most significant songwriter — along with being its most distinctive singer — the other members studiously get their due on Hell. At the time of this recording, the group obviously didn't have time to shape a contemporary identity — if it ever will be able to — so the result is a tasteful, somewhat insular compilation of songs by former Eagles, rather than a fresh statement by a newly reunified band.
Of course, few of the people who care will be disappointed. Led Zeppelin and the Eagles are inestimable influences, and for millions of listeners, young and old, encountering them — in whatever form, whatever the quality of a specific performance — is encountering an important part of recent musical history.