❉ Old-school epic Heavy Metal in all its operatic, ostentatious glory! Lee Terry turns it up to 11…
It’s easy, not to say lazy, to take the piss out of Manowar, and it’s hard to review them without addressing that fact. The bombast, the pomposity, the cod-Viking cliches, the absolute po-faced irony-free commitment to their aesthetic, the homoerotic leather-loincloths-and-oily-pecs image…. It’s all fodder for mockery, and unlike the likes of Venom, there’s never been so much as a sniff of humour or self-deprecation about anything they’ve done. However, on the other hand, there’s the music. Whatever you think of their approach, they do what they do damn well.
I’ve only ever seen Manowar once. 5th June 1987, Manchester Apollo. I was 17 years old at the time, which is an ideal age to allow oneself to be swept along with the Conan-with-guitars imagery. The show in question remains by far the loudest gig I have ever experienced in my 35 years of gig-going (bear in mind, I saw the notoriously tinnitus-inducing Motorhead seventeen times, and they never came close to this). Everything in the place looked slightly blurred, because of the air vibrating. They were incredible that night; overblown, theatrical, equally self-mythologising and audience-pandering, and bludgeoningly powerful. Everything that epic heavy metal should be.
The album they were promoting on that tour was Fighting The World – their first release through major record company Atlantic (home of Led Zeppelin) after four albums on independent labels, and the first of the three CDs in this set. It’s quite a short album – comprising nine tracks, two of which are sub-two-minute interludes. The opening title track hammers home hard, all pounding toms and pummelling guitars, full of us-against-the-world lyrics. Blow Your Speakers is in a similar vein, berating radio and MTV for ignoring Metal in favour of more commercially-digestible genres. Carry On is one of those Big Chant kind of anthems, the sort that Judas Priest did so well in the early ‘80s, while Violence And Bloodshed, with its slightly iffy wannabe-Rambo lyrics, ups the tempo significantly.
The centrepiece of the album is the six-minute epic Defender, with its fittingly portentous narration by Orson Welles (yes, really). This is proper chest-beating stuff, with vocalist Eric Adams giving a lung-strippingly operatic performance and guitarist Ross The Boss, a million miles from his proto-punk beginnings with The Dictators, dealing out coruscating lead breaks all over the shop. Then there’s the soaring Holy War, built on a rumbling double-kick drum pattern and some Lemmy-esque bass chords from band mastermind Joey DeMaio.
The album closes with the howling carnage of Black Wind, Fire And Steel, which is about as fast as Manowar got at that time. In retrospect it’s slightly odd that in 1987, the heyday of thrash metal, Manowar remained resolutely apart from that sort of excessive velocity, keeping their approach much more in a traditional, mid-paced vein, but when they wanted to go fast this demonstrates they were more than capable.
The following year marked a bit of a shift in my personal musical tastes, and consequently I never heard the following album Kings Of Metal at the time. Opener Wheels Of Fire seems to embrace the very thrash influences that the previous works had so studiously avoided, but still with the signature Adams operatic wail over it all. Title track Kings Of Metal is another of their self-aggrandising tracks, with the refrain “Other bands play, Manowar kill” becoming a rallying call for the rest of their career.
Heart Of Steel is another epic, a piano-led anthem of huge proportions. Sting Of The Bumblebee, meanwhile, is a showcase for bassist DeMaio’s talents, as he deals out a high-speed mauling to Rimsky-Korsakov’s best known piece. Then there’s The Crown And The Ring (Lament Of The Kings), a spectacularly over-the-top eve-of-battle hymn with a massive choral section. (Incidentally, while researching this piece, I found a fully choral version of it on YouTube as performed by the Inspiration Choir, which is quite exquisite. Go find.)
Kingdom Come is a more direct slow-burning HM anthem, while Pleasure Slave is…decidedly dodgy, and precisely the sort of misogynistic crap that Metal bands were forever derided for. Oh dear. The last three tracks – Hail And Kill, The Warrior’s Prayer (an overlong spoken bit with the conceit of a grandfather telling a child a story about the Metal Kings slaying thousands) and Blood Of The Kings – all cover pretty much the same ground, a semi-mythological conflation of playing Metal and battling against undefined enemy legions. The first half of the album is rather excellent, but it all wears a bit thin towards the end, and Pleasure Slave taints the whole effort.
There was a four year gap between Kings Of Metal and the next opus, The Triumph Of Steel. During the intervening period both founding guitarist Ross The Boss and long-time drummer Scott Columbus both flew the coop, with their respective slots being occupied by Dave “Death Dealer” Shankle and Kenny Earl “Rhino” Edwards. The approach had changed little however; if anything, the band’s vision had become even more grandiose. The Triumph Of Steel‘s opening track is Achilles: Agony And Ecstasy In Eight Parts, a half-hour Heavy Metal opera retelling Homer’s Iliad, and it’s just as preposterous as it sounds, incorporating a variety of different styles and tempos as well as extended bass and drum solos alongside the interpretation of the Greek legend. Its ambition is laudable, but it just goes one and on, and eventually fades out rather than really concluding.
Metal Warriors is more of their signature style, although their self-praise is beginning to grate about by this time and the “Heavy Metal or no Metal at all, wimps and posers leave the hall” stuff is starting to sound a bit desperate. It must be said though, when it came out in 1992 – at the apex of the Grunge wave – this stuff gained a receptive audience from metalhead loyalists who felt a bit left behind by the sudden change in the rock climate. Ride The Dragon is a fine slice of headlong riffage, bringing to mind German power metal masters Helloween, with an unusual call/response vocal featuring Eric Adams duetting with himself.
Spirit Horse Of The Cherokee is an uncharacteristic dip into non-European mythology, addressing the colonisation of North America from the perspective of the Natives. Burning and Power Of Thy Sword are more of the heroic-fantasy stuff, The Demon’s Whip is a purposeful march through the realm of Hades, and Master Of The Wind is a wistful semi-ballad that eschews drums almost entirely, while the final Herz Aus Stahl is a German-language reworking of the previous album’s Heart Of Steel, probably as a nod to the band’s massive popularity in Germany.
In contrast to the rather truncated Fighting The World (just over half an hour), The Triumph Of Steel clocks in at almost 75 minutes and it’s a bit of a marathon by anyone’s standards. It’s a much more immersive listen than the earlier albums, with longer and more intricate songs. Of the nine tracks on offer, only two come in at less than five minues, two are just shy of eight minutes, and then there’s the half hour of Achilles. Whether that’s better or worse than the shorter, catchier and punchier tracks on the earlier albums is entirely a matter of preference.
If old-school epic Heavy Metal with virtuoso musicianship and operatic vocals is your thing, and you have a high tolerance for the overblown and unintentionally ridiculous, or if you’ve ever wondered what a Boris Vallejo painting would sound like through a Marshall stack, this box set might well be exactly your horn of mead. Their stubbornness and refusal to bow to the prevailing trends of the day are to be admired, at least.
❉ ‘Manowar: Black Wind, Fire & Steel – The Atlantic Albums 1987-1992′ (QHNEBOX143) is available from HNE Recordings/Cherry Red Records, RRP £19.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Lee Terry is a regular We Are Cult contributor and a member of The Kingcrows, Leeds’ scuzziest sleaze-punk-n-roll maniacs.