The Lord of Steel (Magic Circle Music)
by Phil Freeman
It’s been 30 years since Manowar‘s debut album, Battle Hymns, was released in August 1982. When they first appeared, led by former Black Sabbath tech Joey DeMaio on bass and Ross “the Boss” Friedman on guitar (formerly of the Dictators), with vocalist Eric Adams up front and drummer Donnie Hamzik in the back, they were pretty much perfectly in tune with the metal zeitgeist. Their sound was post-Steppenwolf biker rock amped up for a new decade, slick and polished with squealing guitar solos and choruses meant to be screamed by arenas full of fans. And their lyrical worldview was set in stone (or forged in steel) early on: themes of brotherhood, love of metal, and—somewhat more surprisingly—a cultivated alienation from mainstream society that verged on the sociopathic. The narrator of “Death Tone,” the opening track from Battle Hymns, has a lot in common with John Rambo, the hero of David Morrell‘s novel First Blood (which was significantly more fatalistic and haunted than the movie); the lyrics include “Now, you were sittin’ home/And I got sent to Nam/I went to the big house/You just worked a job” and “Unemployment checks run out next week/It won’t be very long ’til I’m back on the streets again.”
This kind of working-class realism struck a chord with metal fans of the time, who’d embraced similar sentiments in songs ranging from Black Sabbath‘s “War Pigs” in 1970 to Judas Priest‘s “Breaking the Law” a decade later. This worldview would continue to crop up in Manowar‘s lyrics as late as “Return of the Warlord,” the opening track from 1996′s Louder Than Hell and a sequel to “Warlord” from 1983′s Into Glory Ride. The song included the lines, “I got no money or big house, just got life/I don’t like to save, it’s more fun to spend/If you like metal, you’re my friend/And that bike out in the yard, that’s my wife/Don’t try to understand me, my family never will/Had to punch my teacher out, now he’s chilled/I might stay in school or die in prison/Either way, it’s my decision/One more beer and heavy metal and I’m just fine.”
This identification with biker culture is but one of three primary themes in Manowar‘s music, though. The other two are: a fantasy-based heroic mythos that incorporates elements of Viking culture and a more generic warrior-ism, as exemplified by the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian; and songs that glorify Manowar themselves and their fans. Manowar frequently employ steel as a central metaphor—their songs themselves are compared to swords and hammers, and nearly a dozen of them have “Steel” or “Metal” in their titles (“Secret of Steel,” “Black Wind, Fire and Steel,” “Heart of Steel,” “The Lord of Steel,” “Metal Daze,” “Gloves of Metal,” “Kings of Metal,” “Metal Warriors,” “Brothers of Metal Part 1,” “The Gods Made Heavy Metal,” “Die for Metal”). Many Manowar songs, such as “Kings of Metal” and, on the new album, “Manowarriors,” are about the awesomeness of being Manowar and fighting for metal and brotherhood in an indifferent or even hostile world.
This perception of hostility isn’t unfounded. Since roughly their second album, Into Glory Ride, Manowar have been figures of fun within much of the North American metal community. Part of this comes from the album’s cover art (for which they donned leather and spikes, and brandished swords; DeMaio wore a fur loincloth), and part of it, ironically, comes from their very earnestness. The louder and more emphatically Manowar proclaim their love of metal, the more forcefully American metal fans shove them away like an embarrassing relative. In Europe, the band is capable of hosting its own multi-day festivals with multiple well-known acts opening for them; at home, they rarely perform live at all, and when they do, the shows are in mid-sized clubs. Of course, American metal fans’ antipathy to Manowar isn’t entirely due to their rhetoric and image—the music they play is highly unfashionable in the States.
Though they continued to employ motorcycle imagery (and motorcycle sound effects) on their albums, the band’s songs moved away from the heavy biker-rock sound of Battle Hymns almost immediately; beginning with Into Glory Ride and continuing on 1984′s Hail to England and Sign of the Hammer (released in July and October of that year, respectively), they created a style uniquely their own, mixing the hard-charging riffs of contemporaries like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with a love of dramatic, almost operatic gestures not far from what former Rainbow and Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio was doing on 1983′s Holy Diver and 1984′s The Last in Line. Eric Adams was—and remains—a leather-lunged metal screamer in the classic vein of Dio, Judas Priest‘s Rob Halford and Iron Maiden‘s Bruce Dickinson, albeit with slightly more street edge and grit in his delivery. Ross the Boss’s guitar leads combined hard rock rawness and metal precision, while meshing extremely well with DeMaio’s thunderous bass lines, even as the two men seemed to battle for dominance in the mix. And drummer Scott Columbus (who died in 2011), while keeping things fairly simple and primitive, nevertheless drove the band hard. (His relatively subtle and tasteful use of cymbals is something for which he’s very much to be admired, and I wish more metal drummers would follow his example.) But this sound is unwelcome in America, where one subgenre after another—thrash, death metal, nü-metal, screamo—have seized the spotlight, each one moving farther and farther away from the core values Manowar stand for and valorize.
As the ’80s and ’90s dragged on, the intervals between Manowar albums grew longer. Fighting the World, their attempt to go big time, arrived in 1987; Kings of Metal came a year later, but its follow-up, The Triumph of Steel, wasn’t released until 1992; Louder Than Hell landed in 1996, Warriors of the World in 2002, and Gods of War in 2007. On the last two albums, the band began to head in weird directions, recording more ballads than thunderous hard rock songs on Warriors of the World, and offering interpretations of the opera aria “Nessun Dorma” and the medley “An American Trilogy” (“Dixie,” “All My Trials” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), originally recorded by Elvis Presley. Gods of War was a concept album overburdened by orchestral overtures and ponderous narration, and packing too few genuinely awesome songs. (The best ones were featured on the live album Gods of War Live, also released in 2007 and possibly/surprisingly the best starting point for Manowar newcomers, as it features killer versions of songs from almost every album.)
Fortunately, this trend toward pomposity and somnolence has been pretty thoroughly reversed on the band’s latest album, The Lord of Steel. In late 2010, Manowar released Battle Hymns MMXI, a re-recorded version of their debut mostly notable because the songs were tuned slightly downward from the earlier versions, and some of them were longer (“Battle Hymn,” once just under seven minutes long, now passed the nine-minute mark, and the narration, originally by Orson Welles—yes, really—was now performed by Christopher Lee). The production’s beefier, but not ultra-modern; it’s basically the old album, only more so. Joey DeMaio stated in interviews that they were inspired to re-record Battle Hymns after reuniting with original drummer Donnie Hamzik, who’d left shortly after making the album. It’s easy to believe the same jolt of energy that propelled the remake also caused them to scrap a concept album they’d been planning in collaboration with German fantasy author Wolfgang Hohlbein, and instead create their most stripped-down, powerful album since the ’80s.
Gods of War sprawled 16 tracks across over 73 minutes; The Lord of Steel, by contrast, packs 10 songs—no interludes, no narration, no instrumentals—into just under 48 minutes. It begins with the title track, driven by a ferocious, almost thrashy guitar riff and DeMaio’s massive bass line, which is fuzzed out to a degree never heard on any previous Manowar album. Adams’ voice has a hoarse desperation, though his range remains powerful even in his fifties. Karl Logan, the band’s guitarist for the past 18 years (he made his studio debut on Louder than Hell), delivers a fleet, yet jagged solo, and Hamzik’s drumming, while mixed to sound somewhat mechanistic, even industrial, is nevertheless thunderous.
The album continues in this battering-ram fashion, maintaining its energy and momentum—”Manowarriors” is a tribute to the band and its fans, one more in the band’s series of songs about fighting for metal and guaranteed to make the live set. The third track, though, is one of the album’s true highlights, up there with the title track. “Born in a Grave,” aside from having an amazing title, is probably one of the best metal songs ever written about vampirism. Lyrics like “Innocence lost and a demon within/Forgive me father, yes i have sinned/I will never be holy/I will never be saved” take the spiritual terror at the heart of the vampire myth seriously, shedding decades of Hollywood kitsch and returning to the primal concept. Musically, too, it’s a beast of a track, driven by another fuzzed-out DeMaio bassline with the guitar’s chugging riff serving almost as an adornment. While holding true to classicist sonic traditions, Manowar have put a unique spin on their own established sound, and metal as a whole, on this album.
“Righteous Glory” slows things down a bit; it’s an ultra-heavy ballad about a valkyrie leading the narrator to Valhalla after his death. But “Touch the Sky,” an aspirational anthem of the type Manowar have recorded many times in the past, brings the energy level back up again, an excellent lead-in to “Black List,” at nearly seven minutes the album’s longest track, and one that begins with an extended instrumental passage showcasing the individual members’ technical skills and their rough-yet-tight interplay. The next two tracks, “Expendable” and “El Gringo,” are Manowar‘s Hollywood moves, sort of. The first is a tribute to Sylvester Stallone‘s movie The Expendables, taking lyrical inspiration from it the way Iron Maiden and Anthrax, among others, have written metal songs about books, comics and movies that impressed them; “El Gringo,” by contrast, actually is the theme song to an action movie of the same name, which pits an American against Mexican drug cartels. It has a certain Ennio Morricone-esque grandeur, with church bells and wordless backing vocal chants, though it’s still totally Manowar, and Logan’s guitar solo delves into snarling hard rock territory. The last two songs, “Annihilation” and “Hail, Kill and Die,” find the band returning to their classic style, particularly the latter, which incorporates the titles of every previous Manowar album into its lyrics atop a grinding, fist-pumping riff and a chorus meant to be chanted along with thousands of other fans at some gigantic outdoor festival in Germany or Romania.
The 2000s were a tough time to be a Manowar fan, at least as far as the studio albums were concerned. But The Lord of Steel is proof that while the band’s ambitions may have gotten out of control at times on Warriors of the World and Gods of War (and the problem wasn’t just that they got grandiose, by the way—1992′s The Triumph of Steel opened with a 28-minute song, “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts,” and that song is terrific—it was more that their big ideas weren’t good ones), they can still deliver the skull-crushing, fists-in-the-air, earnest-to-a-fault metal that earned their fans’ undying love—and the snickers of cynics—in the first place. It’s the first truly great Manowar album in a decade, and speaking as one of their Stateside fans, it’s great to have them back at full strength.