Fight or Flight: The Dichotomy of Manowar

They’ve been hugely popular in Europe for more than a quarter century, yet they are complete non-entities in America. They’re loved by large number of metal fans, and laughed at by just as many. Their music can be world-class fantasy/power metal at its most exhilarating one minute, and embarrassing caricatures the next. They’re some of the most creatively limited (some might say lazy) songwriters in metal history, yet they can ignite a crowd of 30,000 like few other bands can. They’ve put out some of the cheesiest music videos ever made, yet have had screen legend Orson Welles narrate one of their songs. Their fashion sense practically screams latent homosexuality, yet they’ve recorded some of the most blatantly misogynist songs of all time. They have one of the most likeable, charismatic frontmen in the genre, but also have an overly serious bassist/auteur who continually lashes out against what he calls “false metal” and gets into unintentionally hilarious quarrels with journalists about whether or not they are willing to “die for metal”. They get absolutely no respect from outsiders, but have a remarkable bond with their ultra-devoted fanbase, one that no other band can rival.

The many contradictions of Manowar have befuddled me for the last two decades, and again were brought to light recently as I watched the band’s new, lavishly produced concert DVD The Day the Earth Shook: The Absolute Power (Magic Circle Music). Back in the mid-1980s, we teenaged metal fans embraced everything stupid about heavy metal, whether it was the shock rock fun of W.A.S.P., the goofy Canadian power metal of Anvil and Exciter, the campy Satanism of Venom and early Slayer, or even the mousse-abused rockers like Keel and Kick Axe. But few of us, on this side of the Atlantic anyway, were willing to make the jump to the music of Manowar. Even a 15-year-old can tell when a band takes something too far, and by the time Fighting the World was released in 1987 with much major-label fanfare (led by the flaccid single “Blow Your Speakers”), Manowar was as much of a walking joke to us as former NWOBHM greats Raven had become the previous year. They wore loincloths, for crying out loud. None of us at the time had ever suspected Rob Halford was gay, but we sure as hell thought Joey DeMaio was.

Yet there they are on my TV, playing to tens of thousands of rabid punters in Germany, looking and sounding as strong as ever, owners of their own record label with complete ownership and artistic control over their music and merchandise, carting out an orchestra and a freakin’ choir at this massive outdoor festival show — not because they have to, but because they can.

Filmed on July 23, 2005, at Germany’s Earthshaker Festival in front of 25,000 devoted fans, and using no fewer than 27 cameras (including the same SkyCam used in NFL broadcasts), The Day the Earth Shook: The Absolute Power wastes no time in reminding us just how big a spectacle this is, from the bombastic opening credits that resemble The Simpsons‘ Senor Spielbergo more than William Wyler, to the steady stream of metal anthems that immediately follow. And it indeed gets the blood pumping to watch the band burst out to “Manowar” from 1982’s Battle Hymns, but just when I find myself thoroughly enjoying the old school metal, the foursome concludes the song with a deadpan salute, the trademark clasped-right wrist sign that every person in the crowd reciprocates. This carries on for nearly a full minute, the audience silent, arms raised, giving the whole event an oddly solemn vibe. Such willingness to fully buy into Manowar’s shtick is what divides metal fans. It’s hilarious to hear such ludicrous lines as, “I can see by the look that you have in your eyes / You came here for metal, to fight and to die”, but it’s one thing to get an ironic kick out of it and quite another to buy into the band’s “brothers of metal” credo.

Now Slaying

Manowar, Gods of War (SPV)

Rating: 4

Manowar has recorded the first in what will be a series of concept albums about the mythological war gods, but unfortunately, they waste so much time with overtures, ballads, and narratives, that by the time they wake the hell up and play some heavy f**king metal, we’ve lost interest. When they focus on hard-driving fantasy metal, they can be unstoppable, as “King of Kings”, “Sleipnir”, and “Loki God of Fire” attest, but well over half of the 74-minute album is devoted to boring exposition, and all the solemn narration and orchestration becomes unbearable. And if that weren’t enough, they have the gall to append such an ambitious opus with the insipid “Die for Metal”. Great idea, horrible execution.

Battlelore, Evernight (Napalm)

Rating: 7

Unlike Manowar, fellow fantasy metalers Battlelore display the ability to write compelling songs, and their fourth album is their most refined to date. The merry band of Tolkien nerds works the formula especially well, effortlessly juxtaposing the sumptuous melodies of comely elf girl Kaisa Jouhki with the death growl of evil Uruk-Hai dude Tomi Mykkänen.

Horna, Ääniä Yössä (Moribund)

Rating: 6

Proudly self-described as “Satanist, heathen black metal”, this latest offering from Finland’s Horna is the kind of underground black metal that will have scenesters drooling and everyone else shrugging in disinterest. In fact, it has its moments. The grooves on “Raiskattu Saastaisessa Valossa” are tremendous, but the intentionally primitive production starts to wear thin on the monotonous, 22-minute title track.

Mendeed, The Dead Live By Love (Nuclear Blast)

Rating: 7

Clearly following Trivium’s lead, England’s Mendeed has streamlined its metalcore sound, putting more emphasis on melody and dynamics, while at the same time tightening its delivery to the point where it’s starting to fuse American metalcore and Swedish death metal nearly as well as All That Remains does. Some editing might have served this album better, but it’s nonetheless a significant step forward.

Mors Principium Est, Liberation = Termination (Listenable)

Rating: 7

The Finnish melodic death standouts are in typically fine form on their third disc, achieving a bracing blend of Bodom’s relentless energy and Dark Tranquillity’s melody with some interesting twists, from the fascinating blend of the Gothenburg and hard trance on “The Animal Within”, to the spacious synths on “The Distance Between”, to the closing instrumental “Lost Beyond Retrieval”.

Once upon a time, despite taking the term “self parody” to bizarre new levels, Manowar put out some classic metal music in their prime, and we get a quick sampling early on the DVD: first with the title track from 1984’s Sign of the Hammer, and then with the sensational one-two punch of “Blood of My Enemies” and “Kill With Power” from the landmark album Hail to England (also released in 1984). Partially an homage to the then-exploding British metal scene, which was quick to embrace the young New York band, Hail to England is clearly influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal sounds of the early 1980s, and at times bests some of the finest releases the scene yielded. Presented in a charmingly primitive mix that’s just barely able to withstand the barrage of distortion therein, and clocking in at a very economical 33 minutes, the album’s seven tracks waste no time going for the jugular, and in the process, along with bands like Accept and Grave Digger, helped pave the way for the classic European power metal sound.

Driven by a stately yet booming 6/8 beat by drummer Scott Columbus, “Blood of My Enemies” is prototypical Viking metal, sung with chest-swelling conviction by Eric Adams. Bassist Joey DeMaio is one of the more unorthodox bassists in the genre (his goofy solo “Black Arrows” the only smudge on an otherwise spotless record), and like Lemmy Kilmister, doesn’t so much anchor the rhythm section as serve more as a rhythm guitar, which we can hear on “Each Dawn I Die”, as he propels the song with sinister-sounding lead riff, his bass so far up in the mix it all but drowns out the guitar of Ross “The Boss” Friedman. Fittingly, “Hail to England” is steeped in mid-tempo NWOBHM hooks, arguably as invigorating as anything from such British bands as Saxon and Di’Anno-era Iron Maiden, while the nine-minute “Bridge of Death” is even more old school, deriving its structure from Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny and Dio-era Black Sabbath. Towering above everything else, though, is the ferocious “Kill With Power”, in which Manowar answers Accept’s sleek Porsche sound with a big, fat Harley of its own. Like a revving engine, it takes Columbus a good 14 seconds to build up to full speed, but when he does, it’s off to the races, Friedman and DeMaio delivering matching staccato picking, while Adams is at his best howling the refrain that is impossible not to sing along with: “Kill with power! DIE, DIE!” And does the Earthshaker crowd ever sing along; however, unlike the unbridled joy of a Brazilian metal audience, there’s an almost liturgical solemnity in the way the German faithful respond as Manowar tears into the song with gusto.

Not only does The Day the Earth Shook serve as a tidy career overview, but Manowar, not surprisingly, takes a very unique approach to this particular show, bringing back the band’s four former members for a mid-set performance. Guitarist David Shankle and drummer Kenny “Rhino” Earl round out the early-’90s Triumph of Steel incarnation, and the reunited quartet delivers energetic renditions of “Metal Warriors” and “Glory of Achilles”. Meanwhile, the band’s original line-up is reunited next, as drummer Donnie Hamzik and Ross the Boss, who is welcomed with a euphoric reception, lead the band in one of the set’s highlights, the Battle Hymns epic “Dark Avenger”. To have all eight guys involved is an outstanding idea, and it’s great to see the former members participate so enthusiastically; in fact, it’s such a good idea that the Scorpions, following Manowar’s lead at the Wacken Open Air festival a year later, brought out every musician who ever played with that band.

One thing such a concert allows a band like Manowar to do, while delivering a “greatest hits” set, is to shrewdly mask what has been a decidedly unremarkable past two decades. Their early discography from 1982 and 1987 was peppered with anthems devoted to the power and the glory of heavy metal (Hail to England has no such song, so it’s no surprise that that particular record is their best), but back then, such songs were likeable enough, and practically everybody did it, from Anthrax (“Metal Thrashin’ Mad”), to Ronnie James Dio (“We Rock”), to even Metallica, whose legendary Kill ‘Em All contained no fewer than four charmingly bone-headed songs (“Hit the Lights”, “Motorbreath”, “Whiplash”, and “Metal Militia”). As the 1980s wore on, though, and most acts grew past the metal rave-up, Manowar became consumed with the gimmick, so much so that an already cheesy band was reduced to a cartoon. The turning point: 1988’s Kings of Metal, one of the most frustratingly inconsistent, alternately thrilling and nauseating metal albums of all time.

Writer Martin Popoff has said of Manowar, “Deeming this band a parody is a futile pursuit in infinite ironic layering, for Manowar is a philosophy of inter-connecting unbelievables that just disintegrates into mass ludicrousness under too serious scrutiny.” Which is very true, but whereas on the first five albums the balance between raging ’80s metal and the more comical aspects of the band never fell from that gossamer-thin tightrope, Kings of Metal, while managing a handful of inspired moments, falls head over heels onto the comical side, and lands with an ugly splat.

If the been-there-done-that feel of “Wheels of Fire” doesn’t have eyes rolling, the band’s clumsy attempt at thrash metal falls completely flat, Columbus’s tom-tom triplets during the chorus sounding like a blown tire flupping on the highway, the boys doing themselves no favors with lyrics like, “My blood is nitroglycerine / I’m fire / Burning, burning, burning, burning / Ready to explode / Don’t want nothing left of me to scrape off the road.” “The Warrior’s Prayer” is a tedious, four-and-a-half-minute spoken-word piece punctuated by the most painfully obvious sound effects ever put to tape (“My heart began to pound — THUMPTHUMPTHUMP — storm clouds filled the sky with darkness — KABOOM! — and the four winds blew with such anger — WHOOOOSH — that I held fast to a tree”), which then segues into the very silly “Blood of the Kings”, during which Adams howls away a horribly self-righteous tale with a thinly veiled metaphor (what? Manowar are the Metal Kings and their fans are the legions of soldiers? No way!). DeMaio, meanwhile, is flat-out hilarious on his piccolo bass solo interpretation of “Flight of the Bumblebee” (renamed “Sting of the Bumblebee”), but the band hits an all-time low on “Pleasure Slave”, a clunky attempt at eroticism that blows up in the band’s face, with an arrangement so hackneyed, and lyrics so demeaning (“She is waiting to kiss my hand / But she will wait for my command / My chains and collar brought her to her knees / She now is free to please”) that we expect the album cover to be of a woman on all fours with a glove shoved into her mug.

What makes Kings of Metal so maddening is how such abysmal songwriting detracts from some of the most fun tunes the band has ever recorded. The title track, corny as it may be (“True metal people wanna rock not pose / Wearin’ jeans and leather, not crackerjack clothes”), remains incessantly catchy to this day. The power ballad “Heart of Steel” brims with sensitive tough guy sentiment, and the band manages to make it sound poignant, featuring a surprisingly tasteful arrangement, Adams relishing the role of the noblest of warriors. It’s ironic that on an album full of several career nadirs, Manowar comes up with their greatest single moment, but that’s definitely the case on the triumphant “Hail and Kill”. Featuring an intro that rivals Judas Priest’s “The Hellion”, the song shifts into an acoustic opening verse highlighted by the so-bad-it’s-great line, “May your swords be wet / Like a young girl in her prime”, before erupting into a rousing, uptempo main movement driven by the band’s greatest shout-along refrain. The song’s power is undeniable; it is Kings of Metal‘s sole saving grace.

And so goes the alternation between the fun and the inexplicable on the Earthshaker DVD: DeMaio reads the crowd a letter in which the estate of composer Richard Wagner refuses to accept a gold record on behalf of the band and then proceeds to wipe his ass with the letter, while the roaring rendition of “Hail and Kill” elicits such an enthusiastic response that it gives one goosebumps. The band brings out a massive orchestra and choir during the last section of the concert, only to be plagued afterward by rampant rumors that backing tracks were used; meanwhile, “Battle Hymn” is an awesome sight, featuring all eight members of Manowar, past and present, including all three drummers, who each appear on three hydraulic risers. Playback of “The Crown and the Ring” brings the show to a surprisingly stirring close, while people in the crowd actually openly weep during the accompanying fireworks display.

For all the scorn that’s heaped upon Manowar and its fans, however, one has to respect the lengths the band goes to connect with the devoted following. The merchandising and publicity is inspired, from the attention-grabbing “Born to Rock, Drink, and Fuck” T-shirts, to the swashbuckling artwork by Ken Kelly, to the garish 20-meter semi-truck the band has used as a traveling billboard, lounge, and vending center (though the Official Manowar Chocolate Ingot didn’t exactly curtail the onslaught of “fudge-packing” jokes from the haters). This year, fans that travel to see Manowar from abroad are entitled to a free T-shirt upon presentation of their passport. The band’s fan club is well over 200,000 strong, and as a token of gratitude, a special fan convention was held in the days before the Earthshaker show. The band spared no expense, treating the fans to memorabilia, a private sound check performance, clinics featuring all eight members, screenings, copious amounts of beer, exhibitions of Viking warfare, more than 1,000 prizes (including a customized Harley), and if that wasn’t enough, plenty of entertainment for the more willing ladies in the crowd (“98 women offered themselves to the band”, claims the DVD. “None were denied”). So extraordinary was this event that more than three hours on The Day the Earth Shook: The Absolute Power are devoted to documenting it.

With six huge DVD sets in five years and a brand new album in tow (their first in nearly five years), Manowar knows what their fans want, and bless ’em, they give it to them in spades, and the rest of the world be damned. Being a metal fan has always involved an “us against them” mentality, but Manowar’s fans, those Trekkies of metal, stand defiantly not only against the mainstream naysayers, but also in the face of vehement derision from many of their fellow brothers and sisters of metal. For yours truly, having finished this admittedly spectacular DVD, my opinion of the last 20 years of Manowar’s music has not wavered, but for all the infuriating inconsistency (how can “Warriors of the World” suck on record yet sound so incredible live?), the band’s dedication to their public is astounding, and the fans, geeky as they may seem in their devotion, are steadfast enough in their conviction to warrant a nod of respect. It’s not for everyone, and I’ll never be able to fully convert, but as Walter Sobchak once said, dude, at least it’s an ethos.