Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ranking the Manowar albums, even though it's 2016 and I'm 30 years old

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things"
- 1 Corinthians 13:11
"May your sword stay wet, like a young girl in her prime"
- Manowar, 'Hail and Kill'

If it's not an arrogant assertion, I'm fairly sure I hit maturity this year. There weren't any physical signs, like there were for that other substantial transition (I didn't spontaneously sprout any hair this time), but there were more subtle indicators.

Settling down in a physical, literally concrete way rather than merely being anchored by flimsy concepts like "love" and "contracts." Deciding that I might actually be prepared to be 50% responsible for a human life after all (still, give it a couple of years). Looking at a multipack of Fudgee bars in the fridge and having no desire whatsoever to cram that sickly goop into my mouth. Noticing Manowar in my music library and realising I was never, ever in the mood for non-ironically self-aggrandising battle hymns any more.

Manowar are a hilarious band, especially when you read enough interviews to finally realise they're 100% serious about the whole metal warriors shtick and lack the self-awareness to realise that posing in their underwear for a greased-up album photoshoot might not be received as intended. Their terminally cocky anthems and moronic lyrics are fun to play for a laugh, but if you're enough of a classic metal snob to accidentally discover the genuine merits in their early work, and realise you're duty-bound to defend them as classics of the genre, it can get a bit embarrassing.

But I'm done with the lot of them now. These days I don't listen to much of anything with lyrics, cheesy or otherwise, and all that shouting and guitar soloing is much too energetic for an old man of 30. So before I triumphantly delete these album folders to make space for boring symphonies and non-ish ambience, let's give them the Viking funerals they deserve - join me as I blow my speakers to the rousing battle cries of the Metal Kings! (And stream the later stuff on YouTube because I don't have it. I may have shit taste, but I still have some standards).

13. Battle Hymns MMXI Kings of Metal MMXIV

Re-recording your old songs with the benefit of polished modern production and the hindrance of being old and long past your prime always seemed like a lazy excuse for single B-sides to me. So it's not surprising that I wasn't impressed by Manowar putting out a pointless, inferior version of their first album as an independent, full-price release rather than bothering to make a new one. And then they did it again.

I wonder if any more of their back catalogue will get the same prestigious treatment? Or, now that Sir Christopher Lee is no longer with us, maybe they can put out another new recording of Battle Hymns MMXVII with James Earl Jones or someone dubbing over Lee's re-dubbing of the late Orson Welles' original narration? You lazy, greedy, deluded, redundant, mediocre, laughable, has-been, repressed, misogynistic old twats.

(I'm not all that angry about it really, I just ran out of things to say but needed enough text to square with the image).

12. The Lord of Steel (2012)

Even as their studio output grew less consistent over the years, you can see Manowar falling back on familiar patterns. Thus, their response to the consciously grandiose and orchestral Gods of War was to go back to the basics of electric instruments, stripped-down songs and racial metal purity. But this is a band a quarter of a century past its prime, so there's really not much left beneath that orchestral gloss. There's also an annoyingly persistent fuzz tone that either means Manowar shouldn't be trusted to produce their own albums or that the copy I illegally downloaded four years ago before immediately deleting it was shoddy. Like 2010s Manowar is worth paying money for!

11. Gods of War (2007)

If Manowar was all an epic joke, this would have been the perfect punchline before disbanding. Unfortunately they kept going, and an amusing nadir gave way to utter trash. Gods of War (sorry, my blog platform doesn't have a runes font) is metal's answer to those double albums put out by the most pompous prog bands, where each virtuoso member twiddles away in side-length solos with no regard for listenability, except Manowar bulks things out with excessive intros, segues and narration rather than talent. The preceding E.P., The Sons of Odin,  not only contains the album's better tracks, it also comprises most of the actual songs, rendering the album even more worthless.

I remember reading at the time that this was going to be the first in a tetralogy of concept albums covering all the classic pantheons. Turns out they couldn't be fucking arsed.

10. Warriors of the World (2002)

This was the current album when I became aware of the band, and it was clear they were already over the hill. In the years since, they've only kept on sliding (you might have noticed a rough chronological trend in these rankings).

Despite never having displayed any patriotism for their home country before - preferring to laud England, where people liked Warhammer and so were more receptive to what they were doing - the New Yorkers felt compelled to go all-out following the terror attacks on their city, and this is the bizarre result.

The usual odes to Odin and sycophantic wank-alongs for the fans sit alongside slow ballads bursting with eagle imagery, an unwise Elvis cover and a 'Nessun Dorma' cover that lacks context but at least means we don't get another Joey DeMaio classical bass solo.

9. Louder than Hell (1996)

Opinions will differ on the exact point at which Manowar became redundant, but for me this is their first absolutely disposable album (even if I still used to like it quite a bit). It's the other major example of the band rehabilitating after conceptual excess by going back to basics, but outside of new guitarist Karl Logan's enthusiastic solos, there isn't much to these songs. One of the choruses comes close to plagiarising Spın̈al Tap, but if this was intentional it's a disappointing lapse in an otherwise impeccably cultivated career-long gag and leaves me feeling more uncomfortable than amused. The cognitive dissonance of metal-glorifying anthems next to soppy piano ballads is also very confusing.

8. Fighting the World (1987)

Breaking the downward spiral for the first time, Manowar's major label debut falls victim to the worst excesses of trashy, cheesy 80s rock. You know, beyond what they were doing already. They try to convince us that they're still anti-establishment with a hypocritical diatribe against MTV and insecure assertions that the band will never change ("Stripes on a tiger don't wash away / Manowar's made of steel, not clay"), but there's no hiding that the first half is their most bare-faced attempt at getting radio play since their debut. Even worse than the songs is the weak and tinny early-digital production that spoils even the more satisfying (if overly repetitive) second half, just one album after they scoffed at their "thin"-sounding peers.

I used to be forgiving of this album on the strength of 'Defender,' which is one of their most accomplished songs and stands out a mile here. With good reason, as I later found out it was a re-recording of a non-album single from back when they still wrote good songs. So now, this only has the amusing self-parody angle going for it. To be fair, it does serve up a generous amount to chew on.

7. The Triumph of Steel (1992)

Despite containing a 28-minute opening track (half of which is given over to gratuitous drum and bass solos), a bombastic ode to metal and unnecessary sound effects throughout, I've always considered this to be one of the most restrained and even, dare I say, mature of Manowar's releases. I'm obviously mentally ill. Doubtless true Manowar purists have their beefs with this album, since only half the classic line-up remains and guitarist David Shankle is a strange, one-album curiosity between Ross "The Boss" and Karl Logan. His slow grooves and stripped-down soloing root this firmly in the 90s, and that's not a bad thing.

While few people will count atmospheric plodders like 'Spirit Horse of the Cherokee' or 'The Demon's Whip' among the best of Manowar's output, over time I've come to appreciate these filler tracks more than their ostentatious peers. I mean, before I matured, obviously. 'Master of the Wind' is still gay though.

6. Hail to England (1984)

Only wimps and posers release albums at a rate of one per year. Manowar put out two in '84! (Before that figure became twice a decade subsequently, but let's not focus on that). Unusually, the album they released just three months after this one (Sign of the Hammer) is easily the superior of the two, but Hail to England (what?) has its charms.

'Blood of My Enemies' might be the greatest Manowar song, inspiring Bathory and the whole loosely-defined genre of Viking-themed metal, while 'Bridge of Death' is another great, gloomy epitaph that doesn't care about your opinions on appropriate song lengths.

But outside of those bookends, I can't say I care much for the rest. 'Black Arrows' is another shit, show-off bass solo, the title track shamelessly panders to their British fans (and 'Army of the Immortals' to fans in general), 'Each Dawn I Die' is just kind of boring and ''Kill with Power,' despite its excellent title, is spoiled by annoying whistling feedback.

I mentioned they're an American band, right? They played all over Europe, not just Blighty. Weird decision process.

5. Kings of Metal (1988)

Whether it was intended or not, this is the album that would define Manowar forever after, and while it's far from my favourite, it does strike a remarkable balance between the genuinely good and the fucking absurd.

It helps that the production is finally as loud and powerful as the band has always claimed to be. If you can handle the album cover, you're sure to love the likes of 'Wheels of Fire,' 'The Crown and the Ring,' 'Hail and Kill' and 'Blood of the Kings,' but the outrageous sexism of 'Pleasure Slave' is probably too much for today's molly-coddled, trigger-warned youth to stomach. Relax kids, they're only joking (they're not joking).

Personally, my biggest problem is with the extraordinarily terrible interlude 'The Warrior's Prayer,' which is hilarious the first time you hear it but really should have been rigged to self-destruct after that. Would they admit their mistake and leave this track off the pointless 2014 re-recording of the album? Of course not, because Manowar exists in a different reality and their stupid fans are enablers.

4. Battle Hymns (1982)

Like the later, lesser Fighting the World, Manowar's energetic debut aims for radio play in its first side with typical anthems about bikes, teenage rebellion, 'Nam, metal (obviously) and the band itself (obviously), which is all fine if unremarkable. But it's the second half that's more rewarding, and was thankfully the angle they pursued in the rest of their short-lived classic era.

I'm no metal scholar, but the title track predates the likes of Bathory in its epic scope, and 'Dark Avenger' is a fantastically dark, bassy, rapey mythology piece boosted by half-arsed narration by Orson Welles.

Joey DeMaio does a pathetic, attention-seeking bass cover of 'William Tell' in-between, but even that doesn't spoil the mood. Battle Hymns is a rusty classic, just a shame the cover looks a bit... doesn't it?

3. Sign of the Hammer (1984)

With the possible exception of The Triumph of Steel, this is the last Manowar album you can appreciate without the requirement of a sense of humour or genuine passion for sword 'n' sorcery fantasy and sexism. But that always helps.

Don't be put off by the self-aggrandising first song... or the daft second song, because after that it's classic heavy metal all the way. Even the bass solo doesn't stand out like a frantically manipulated phallus this time: it actually serves its purpose as an atmospheric segue. Who knew Joey had it in him?

With references to Norse mythology in 'Thor (The Powerhead)' and even some near current affairs discourse in 'Guyana (Cult of the Damned),' it's probably their least dumb album lyrically, and I don't say that lightly. When I was young and full of spunk, I thought this was a pretty boring album and much preferred the band's over-wrought later efforts. Now that I'm old and boring too, I'd rather listen to the slow and atmospheric 'Mountain' and 'Guyana' than anything else they've done. Not that I'm allowed to listen to them now I'm mature, of course. What, not even this album?

2. Into Glory Ride (1983)

Don't worry: I may objectively rate this as one of the most notable early 80s metal albums, but you'll still get your chuckles. Look at the band pretending to be from the olden days on the cover. Listen to the underage-sex-glorifying opening skit on 'Warlord.' See 'Gloves of Metal' on the tracklist and wonder why they focused on that particular accessory.

Once you've got that out of your system, be prepared for a shock, Kings of Metal fans, as you experience one solid metal anthem after another. Manowar actually started out as a decent band!

This is like the good halves of Battle Hymns and Hail to England combined, and the energy even picks up as it goes along, culminating in the double-metal-gloved-punch of the thundering 'Revelation' and triumphant 'March for Revenge.'

When I said I'd rather listen to their boring songs these days, I'd forgotten how good some of these are. MANOWAR KILLS! When they're not tarnishing their own legacy.

1. Virgin Steele's Invictus (1996)

It's not like I didn't know Manowar was a ridiculous band from the onset (the first song I heard was 'Pleasure Slave'), but it wasn't until I listened to Virgin Steele a few years later that I realised what Manowar could have been if they'd had any self-awareness.

These fellow New Yorkers are less well-known than their sillier counterparts, probably because they don't have canny promotional songs like 'Pleasure Slave' that cause nerdy 16-year-olds to spit out their Pepsi and enthusiastically seek our more from this hilarious joke band, then convert into loyal metal warriors when they discover some material of worth.

Virgin Steele relies more on crusty metal veterans aimlessly clicking through YouTube and ending up at 'Veni, Vidi, Vici,' then being slightly disappointed that the rest of the catalogue, though solid, doesn't quite live up to it.

So that's it for me and Manowar. Maybe as this decade goes on, I'll succeed in putting away more childish things (Dizzy games, Doctor Who, self-indulgent blogging), until I do make that child and have the excuse to take all the toys out again.

And I fully expect that in 10 years or so I'll enjoy a mildlife crisis kidulthood, reject my premature maturity and reconnect with my old passions, so hopefully the Metal Kings will have released something worthwhile by then. Gods of War II? A two-disc adaptation of the Titanomachy in 19 parts featuring five overlong drum solos? The longer this joke drags on, the more spectacular the final punchline is going to be.

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