All three albums contain classic metal material and show the band’s uncanny and unique ability to effortlessly switch between light and shade, and between anger and pathos.
Manowar burst onto the scene in 1982 with their brand of powerful heavy metal. If anything set them apart from other bands it was their lyrics which focused on Norse myths and similar fantasy themes. Those lyrics often told epic stories of violent revenge or the glory of heroic death in battle. Classic metal anthems in this vein such as Battle Hymn or Blood Of My Enemies sent audiences wild, and young adolescents (including myself, I must confess) lapped it all up. Never mind that there were no Vikings coming over the hill that needed killing, or that the only person you felt like inflicting a painful revenge on was the guy who stole your girlfriend; it was just great fun to get into the spirit of the songs and imagine being powerful enough to effortlessly chop your enemies up into little pieces, whether they be Vikings or that guy who stole your girlfriend.
Incredibly, Manowar released four albums within the remarkably short period of two years and three months. While they made very little impact on the album charts, they did build up a large and loyal following and embarked on an extensive world tour. Presumably exhausted by all that, they then took a year off. They returned in 1987 with a brand new record deal with Atlantic and went on to release three albums for their new label which have now been neatly packaged together in this compilation.
Fighting The World was their first Atlantic release in 1987. The band line-up was unchanged with band leader Joey DeMaio on bass joined by Ross Friedman on guitars (usually referred to as Ross The Boss), Scott Columbus on drums and Eric Adams on vocals. We were about to be steamrolled by another blistering heavy metal album, right? Well, not quite. The opening title track is very catchy with a neat vocal hook but the heaviness of the band’s earlier albums seems to have gone missing slightly. Despite this change, Adams cheekily sings: ‘Now people keep asking if we’re gonna change; I look ’em in the eye tell ’em no way; Stripes on a tiger don’t wash away; Manowar’s made of steel not clay’. Well, the stripes may still be there but instead of a roar coming out if its mouth what we get to hear is a rather lame meow. Looking back at the historical context, this change is perhaps not surprising. Even though only three years had passed since Sign Of The Hammer, the music industry had changed significantly. Heavy rock had gone from being a niche to mainstream, and the charts dominated by the glam bands writing commercial stadium anthems and vying for attention on MTV. It was hardly surprising that Manowar were influenced by these trends. While the title track is actually a very good foray into that more mainstream commercial sound, there are unfortunately some weaker efforts on this album. Blow Your Speakers, for example, sounds to these ears like a second-rate Kiss outtake (with appropriately crass lyrics), while Carry On seems to be a feeble attempt to manufacture a stadium anthem.
Luckily, all is not lost! Defender reintroduces us to the epic storytelling of Manowar with the brilliant atmospheric spoken introduction (courtesy of Orson Wells) while Holy War is quite commercial but keeps the pure metal edge of earlier albums. The band save the best for last by getting back to their battlefield territory and ripping through the breakneck speed metal anthem that is Black Wind, Fire And Steel. It’s one of their finest achievements and it’s no surprise that this compilation adopts it as its talismanic title.
1988 saw the release of Kings Of Metal. In many ways, the album saw the band easing up on pleasing the MTV crowd with a return to their epic metal roots. The album opens energetically with Wheels Of Fire that is almost a continuation of Black Wind, Fire And Steel but maybe even faster! This is followed by the title track which is as cheesy as Fighting The World in the lyrics but we do get a great metal riff, very much influenced by Judas Priest. We then get something quite unusual for Manowar: a power balled. The song in question is called Heart Of Steel and it is quite brilliant. The melody is fantastic and the emotional delivery by Adams shows what a great singer he is. In this song the band managed to successfully merge their epic metal style with the more commercial sounds going on around them. The second part of the album is a bit of a mixed bag. There are the familiar battle themes in the excellent The Crown And The Ring (Lament Of The Kings) and the anthemic Blood Of The Kings. Unfortunately there is also the slightly disorienting grinding doom-like chords of Pleasure Slave. Not only is that one musically odd, but lyrically too since to my knowledge it’s the only Manowar track that could be considered a love song. Well, a love song in a somewhat male chauvinist way with Adams chiming in with lines like: ‘Woman be my slave; Chained unto my bed; Woman be my slave; Begging to be fed’. OK, maybe it’s best they stick to killing warriors. All in all, Kings Of Metal is a mixed bag with some outstanding tracks rubbing shoulders with some less memorable ones.
The band then embarked on another lengthy world tour but during that time the wheels started falling off. Friedman and Columbus both left the band, being replaced respectively by David Shankle and Rhino Edwards. It was 1992 before the next release, The Triumph Of Steel, came out. By now, Glam had been blown away by Grunge and Manowar veered back towards their tried and tested metal formula. They also pushed their creative limits by producing a 28 minute masterpiece entitled Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy. For a band steeped on blood and gore, it was perhaps appropriate that for this mammoth effort they draw lyrically on the first ever documented story of epic heroes wielding swords and killing each other – Homer’s The Iliad which tells of the ten year that the Greeks and Trojans spent fighting outside the walls of Troy before Ulysses got fed up and came up with the wooden horse idea. Manowar retell just one small incident of the Trojan war. The incident in question is (in a nutshell) about Achilles getting upset because his friend Patroclus gets killed by Hector and Achilles therefore heads off for revenge and duly kills Hector. Ah yes, Manowar do love stories of revenge!
The track isn’t one single 28 minutes of music but is divided into eight parts, almost like a mini-rock opera. The fast sections not surprisingly accompany the battle scenes, but there also some emotionally tinged slower moments too. Within the eight parts, there are sections which highlight each of the band members talents: Shankle gives us the excellent twin-guitars in The Funeral March; Edwards has a cleverly done drum solo which is meant to represent the famous shield of Achilles being forged (in Armour Of The Gods) – you probably just groaned at the thought of a drum solo on a studio album but it is surprisingly well done; and a little less exciting is DeMaio’s bass solo in The Desecration Of Hector’s Body. The spine-tingling highlight for me is in the opening of Hector’s Final Hour where the tension builds up from the spoken intro, the synths swell and then Adams comes in with ‘I hear the silent voices, I cannot hide. The Gods leave no choices, so we all must die’. It’s an awesome moment in which the band seem to be in synch with the spirit of Homer’s tale where Hector is a tragic figure worthy of sympathy, not just the bad guy in some Hollywood movie. While the bands lyrics can be crass sometimes, here they have stuck faithfully to the story as recounted by Homer and it really does lift the track to another level.
Achilles is a hard act to follow but the band do the best thing in the circumstances: they switch mood completely with an infectious anthem called Metal Warriors – heavy metal warriors in this case, not real ones! It’s a good and relatively short song. There’s a strong speed metal influence in this album which begins in Achilles but also extends to Ride The Dragon and The Power Of Thy Sword, with the latter being nearly eight minutes long (and possibly overstaying its welcome). Of the mid-paced songs, Burning has a good memorable riff but The Demon’s Whip is another eight minute track that seems overlong. The album closes with Master Of The Wind, a beautiful ballad with another tremendously good vocal performance by Adams, and a stunning melodic turn on the line ‘Fly away to a rainbow in the sky’. It’s a very atypical song for the band – orchestra and no electric guitars – but it’s one of the great Manowar songs.
Apart from noting that the band’s sound didn’t change despite fifty percent of the line-up being different, I was left musing on how The Triumph Of Steel might have turned out if CDs hadn’t been invented. As a traditional vinyl 40-minute opus it might have been hailed as one of the great metal albums of all time. Instead, what I assume was a need to fill out to CD length, meant that there was inevitably some filler material and that waters down the impact of the great material on this album.
There’s just one bonus track here – Herz Aus Stahl which is a version of Heart Of Steel sung in German. While not major successes in the UK or US, all three albums went Gold in Germany so the inclusion of this track is a nice touch. The box set is nicely packaged and includes a booklet with the lyrics from all three albums. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how over the course of these three albums Manowar were influenced by the trends around them but never sold out to those 80s excesses. All three albums contain classic metal material and show the band’s uncanny and unique ability to effortlessly switch between light and shade, and between anger and pathos. It’s great stuff so listen to it once again, buckle on a sword, and go look for some Vikings.