So, you are watching the first Conan the Barbarian movie. Conan is brought to town early in the film, and the market is crowded with suspicious merchants, thieves, vagrants, broken wizards and prostitutes and the detritus of a sword and sorcery society. In the background, four men are in a straw covered corner, dressed in fur loin cloths and swathed in chain mail armor banging on guitars and drums and pounding out slow anthems to heaviness and glory undreamt of…..
No, this never happened, but that imagined scene gives the uninitiated a pretty good idea of what Manowar are about. And In retrospect, they would have done a helluva job on the soundtrack to that movie, Alas an opportunity squandered….
Manowar are fairly unique in the annals of Heavy Metal. Before death metal, black metal, speed metal, thrash metal, there was Manowar. Since their inception in 1980, they have plowed ahead with a singular vision: being the loudest sword wielding metal band on the planet, bent on the destruction of every band except those who play true metal. Their dedication to the ideal of true metal fuels their drive, and is their zeitgiest. What exactly defines ‘true metal’ is rather nebulous…even the metal masters themselves are unclear on it. In one radio interview done circa 1983 (the golden age of Manowar) they claimed they listened to no rock music at all, only classical. An incredulous DJ asks if he heard correctly. Then, suddenly realizing they are on the air, and that they had toured with Black Sabbath, they quickly added: “We like Black Sabbath a lot!” (They also allowed that their current tour partner Ted Nugent was okay too.) So they are on record as saying they only listen to: A. Themselves B. Classical Music C. Black Sabbath. This keeps their minds clear for their Beowulf era sword slash sorcery sagas of honor, killing, revenge, killing, metal, and killing. Other frequently visited topics for lyrics are ‘we are the best band in the world’ (about a dozen songs fall into this category) and railing against ‘false metal’. Add in a dollop of Norse mythology and you pretty much have it.
Manowar sprang into being in 1980 during Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ tour. Joey DeMaio, founding member and brain trust of the band was working with their lighting rigs and supposedly handling the pyrotechnics end of stage productions. “i got to blow things up on stage, THAT is metal” he said in an interview. He had an epic voiced partner in Eric Adams from his hometown of Auburn, New York that had the pipes to give life to DeMaio’s self penned tales of swords and vengeance . But the necessary pieces were not quite assembled yet. That tour proved fruitful, as Joey encountered Ross the Boss of Dictators fame playing guitar for Shakin Street in the opening slot for Sabbath. They compared notes on what each had in mind for the perfect band, and finding common ground and common minds, a plan for world domination was hatched. (We met on English ground, In a backstage room we heard the sound, And we all knew what we had to do… -from the song Manowar from debut LP, Battle Hymns.) Back in the States, an advertisement for a drummer who’s ‘heart was black’ yielded the Rod’s drummer Karl Kennedy (Canedy) and then quickly his replacement, Donnie Hamzik. This quartet recorded the debut album, released on Liberty Records in 1981. The album sank without a trace, and was vigorously ignored by press on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet some gems are in there. Most notably, the inclusion of Orson Welles in the narration of the epic Dark Avenger. An extensive quote of the narration is needed to understand exactly what these guys were about
“Let ye not pass Abaddon–Return to the world
From whence you came And seek payment
Not only for thy known anguish But to vindicate the souls
Of the Unavenged” And they placed in his hands
A sword Made for him
Called: Vengeance Forged in brimstone
And tempered By the woeful tears of the Unavenged
And to carry him up on his journey Back to the upper world..”
Picture the stentorian voice of Welles, dripping with gravitas,solemnly intoning that one. In one song, the ethos of Manowar is laid bare. Yet few in the world took notice. They were promptly dropped by Liberty within months of the album’s release. Manowar, realizing the world was against them, closed ranks and declared war on…..well pretty much everyone. The path to success was clear: not the way of commerciality, but to get even weirder and more uncompromising. One piece was missing though.
That piece was drummer Scott Columbus, a former plumber. In an interview regarding his entrance, DeMaio said “He literally pounds metal for a living, what more could you want for a true metal drummer?” What more indeed? With a drummer with a heart black enough to propel this motley sword wielding crew towards Valhalla, Manowar sought a new label.
The new label was the US indie Megaforce. Formed in 1982 to put out Metallica’s debut, Kill ‘Em All, they were home to early Anthrax and Raven releases as well. (all three begrudgingly declared true metal by their new labelmates). Manowar was willing to do anything to succeed. In the aforementioned interview, they said “we will play anywhere with anyone! I will personally hang up posters for any show! But nobody will tour with us, they are afraid!” Ross jumps to the radio mic and yells “their hearts are filled with fear, their hearts are filled with fear!” They were deadly serious. I, however nearly wet myself in hysterics. This was a band that was dead set on entertaining, although perhaps unintentional humor was rising to the top.
Into Glory Ride, released in 1983 set a new standard. The album cover showed them dressed in fur loincloths, wielding swords. Yet unlike other metal bands, one got the impression that they would actually use these swords. A quick aside: In late 1983, they had scheduled an interview with the British magazine Sounds. They asked the reporter to meet them in a field at dawn. He sat in the grey morning alone, thinking ‘Damn, I’ve been had by these Yanks, they got me to get out of bed and sit here like an idiot.” And then..a thrum thrum thrum in the distance became audible. The sound reconciled as horses hooves. As the sun rose in the distance, Manowar crested the nearest hill on four horses, with swords held high, thundering down the plain towards the disbelieving journalist. They circled his car, threw their swords point first into the ground around him, and announced “We are Manowar!” and dismounted for the interview. Perhaps the best promo stunt in the history of rock, although the writer was not so sure they were kidding. As were their legion of growing fanbase.
Manowar meets the enemy
Into Glory Ride upped the insanity quotient quite a bit. With no commercial considerations, all bets were off, and the killing could begin in earnest. False metal was a large target for the band’s vengeance plans. By 1983, hair metal ruled MTV-Cinderella, Poison, Motley Crue, Winger, Bon Jovi, Quiet Riot, Ratt….and Manowar was pissed. “True metal people want to rock not pose, Wearin’ jeans and leather, not cracker jack clothes…” -Kings of Metal LP.
More than most songs, the surreal epic Gloves of Metal from Into Glory Ride continues to hone in one most of what the band was about:
“Hear the pounding army of the night
The call of metal summons us tonight
And gather we on this site
To behold the power and the might
We wear leather, we wear spikes, we rule the night
The sound of metal so loud it cracks the beams
Played by warriors called the Metal Kings.
A hero’s welcome for those who heed the call.
We are together, we are all.
With hands high fists fill the air
Against the world we stand.
Hands high forever we’ll be there,
Gloves of Metal rule tonight.” – Gloves of Metal
This album got them noticed, especially in England. A tour with Mercyful Fate had them opening for the first leg, but their overwhelming stage presence and deafening volume pushed them to headliner status. From the radio interview: “we are the loudest band in the world. Everywhere we play, every theater, we drop plaster. Chunks of ceiling crash to the floor from us.” True to their word, they were included in the Guinness Book of Records in 1984 as the world’s loudest band, a record they have broken twice since then.
Album sales in the UK were healthy, and a full blown tour of England was planned. To accompany the tour, they put out a British only release, with the subtle title of ‘Hail to England’. Considered their masterwork by many, this proferred homage to the country they hoped to conquer contained some of their strongest material to date. Blood of My Enemies cruises along at half throttle, but though the bpm are down, the power soak is set to scorch. And it contains some of their catchiest riffs and some of the most unedited stabs at lyrics yet:
“Three sons have I, and they
Ride by my side. The fierce,
The black, and the wicked are
their names-we ride down my
enemies on their half-hearted flight.
No voice of mercy-no evangels of light.” -Blood of My Enemies
“Run berserk-spreading fear and pain
Black shield and weapons, black our chain.
None can harm us-not their fire-
Iron or steel-for we have the
Will to power-with power we will
Kill with power-die die
Kill with power-die die” -Kill With Power
The last one there is actually kind of catchy. Which is an important point, despite the inane and adolescent bent to their philosophy and lyrics, some of their songs are damn appealing, catchy as hell. As is their paean to their fans, Army of Immortals.:
“Metal makes us strong
It makes us
Metal makes us strong
It makes us stronger, stronger, stronger, stronger…
Stronger, metal makes us strong
In our eyes you’re immortal
In our hearts you’ll live forever
In our eyes you’re immortal
In our hearts you’ll live forever more.”
As goofy as that sonnet is, there is a strong undercurrent to the song, and that is that they believe 100% every word, and it is a genuine heartfelt message to the fans. That is something rarely put to disc.Then, a bass solo I think. Black Arrows is a bass solo…or is it?
“Let each note I now play
be a black arrow of death
sent straight to the hearts
of all those who play false metal”
This pitch bent demented speech is followed by a scream, and a frenzy of notes from a piccolo bass. Melody? Nope. Structure? Nope. Black Arrows of death were sent to dispatch the literally thousands of hair metal bands across the planet, those bands festooned with colorful bandanas randomly tied to their legs, and strategically torn spandex tights. And at 120 notes per minute, one can assume they put a solid dent into the legion of the false metal hordes with said arrows. Did they conquer the British Isles as planned? Not really.
A 12″ single, Defender, brought back Orson Welles once again for a narration. (It was re-recorded for the disappointing Fighting the World lp). A move to Ten Records was preceded by the shameless and ill advisedly titled single, All Men Play on Ten. Although musically solid, the lyrical content (heavy on the Odin this time) was getting silly. Folks began to wonder if the band had pumped the creative well dry. But this is the central paradox of Manowar. How can a band that kicks so much ass instrumentally be so goofy lyrically? Do they actually believe all of the self praising ass kicking Nordic god stuff? No good answers are available.
A jump to Atlantic forced some compromises. Efforts to create a single on Fighting the World were embarrassing, Blow Your Speakers and Black Wind Fire and Steel began to seem inexplicably self mocking, yet it was clear they were serious, despite the comic book cover. The fighting the world theme, once a call to arms in 1983, was now a tired mantra. By 1988, it seemed over. But the band had one last trick up its sleeve.
Kings of Metal, their sixth album marked the last with Ross the Boss and Scott Columbus.But what a farewell this thing is. Wheels of Fire, Kings of Metal, Blood of a King, Hail and Kill….many of their masterpieces which grace their set to this day come from this album. A ten minute narrated story is also included. This is one of the essential albums, and is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
Gonna keep on burning
We always will
Other bands play – Manowar kill
Other bands play – Manowar kill
Even the cartoon cover is grim, with only the US flag still standing, the last unconquered nation. For you see, America never came to grips with Manowar. No radio play, no press, no notice. They stay ignored in their homeland for the better part of two decades of existence.
The departure of Ross the Boss and Columbus signaled the end of the magic. Triumph of Steel, with its Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy in Eight Parts, weighing in at a half an hour in length, signalled the end of the game. It became apparent that Ross the Boss had brought a melody and swing to the band that was now gone. Bereft of ideas, the band died on the vine. Several more lackluster albums led into the 21st century. Re-recordings of Battle Hymns and Kings of Metal now pass as their new albums, as the band finally admits that yes, the creative well has gone dry.
I will finish with some personal stories. In 1983 they were due to play in New England. Their sound and lights showed up at the theater in an 18 wheeler. No sign of the band though. The crew waited, waited, then pulled out. Half an hour before showtime, the band showed up. Fans were confused, mad, and felt cheated. One called and left a message on Manowar’s listed phone number. He let them know what fans thought-the band were chickenshit and acted like babies pulling out. Weeks later, the phone rang at a suburban Boston house at dinner time. Mom gets her 22 year old son to the phone “Joey DeMaio’s brother is on the phone honey” He got an earful. “How dare you call us pussies? We will play anywhere anytime anyhow!” The fan calmly noted that they hadn’t played a booked gig the past week, which sent the Manowar messenger into a berserk fury.
I finally saw them in the early 2000’s in a bowling alley. The ceiling was low, the lanes were closed, and an air of Spinal Tap pervaded the evening. The band had thrown a shit fit when witnessing what the venue looked like, but regained composure, turned the amps to twelve and proceeded to drop ceiling tiles in lieu of plaster. Drinks flowed like streams overflowing their banks, and the crowd was generally pummeled by the end of the show. 130 decibels, beers and shots, bodies started to drop. Exiting the bar as the dust settled, a large guy staggered into the night with a passed out girl thrown haphazardly over his shoulder. I yelled out “We will avenge our fallen!” Everyone laughed, everyone knew. Cuz we are Immortals.