I really don't like Manowar that much, you know. This is quite a strange way to start this review, no doubt about that - but, if it makes sense to warn the casual reader about my huge appreciation for Iron Maiden before writing about their records, it's equally reasonable to let you all know the forthcoming analyses about Manowar's merits and shortcomings are from someone who was always less than impressed by them in the first place. I only have one CD from Manowar in my collection, a piece of "Louder than Hell" I bought way back when it first came out; a record that never really impressed me, and I haven't listen to for nearly a decade. Besides, I always felt that the band's antics were too contrived and silly for comfort, and the "born to rock drink and fuck" bullshit aged even worse than expected, now sounding like a truly moronic display of eternal adolescence - not to say an apology for alienation, mysoginy and hatred against difference, but let's leave it at that. I won't delve into the subject of Joey DeMaio's arrogant and unfriendly behavior towards other bands, or waste any time with ex-guitarist Karl Logan and his repulsive connection with child pornography, because I'm pretty confident you have already catch my drift.
Oh yeah, I totally can read your mind right now: if the guy despises Manowar so much, why bother? Well, I guess it's something of a challenge, you see - trying to be fair and reasonable while talking about a band that, despite not being my cup of tea at all, undoubtedly left quite a mark in the metal music scene. But don't expect me to suffer through self-indulgent re-recordings, redundant live recordings, pointless compilations and so on: the reviews will be restricted to their studio input, and I'm not going to move beyond the aforementioned "Louder than Hell", unless someone pay me good money to do so. I mean, I just couldn't care less about listening to cringeworthy stuff as "The Lord of Steel" ever again, let alone with so many yet-unheard records from respectable artists waiting in my personal queue. Similarly, there will be little (if any) comments about the band's history and development, as 1) it takes some research, and I'm not inclined to make such an effort 2) you surely can find it elsewhere, done by people with far more commitment to the group's cause than myself. The albums, and the albums only: that's what you're going to get, so be warned!
That all said, let's get the party started, huh?
For starters, I feel it's interesting to note that Manowar was clearly a more collaborative band back then, with Ross the Boss and Joey DeMaio sharing most songwriting credits and, dare I say, a common vision about what Manowar should try to achieve. Actually, I can hear something of Ross' former band The Dictators on "Death Tone", a biker-friendly heavy rocker that also has more than a hint of late-70s Kiss to it. It could have been a real good song under different circumstances, but it ultimately leaves something to be desired when it comes to songwriting, most of all in the nonsensical chorus. I certainly wouldn't choose this kinda ramshackle track as an opener for my debut LP, but what do I know? "Metal Daze" comes next, and it is as over-the-top as it gets, the first in a long row of brain-dead lyrics about how cool it is to be a metal fan - and it comes with an immensely cheesy chorus most groups out there would be really ill-at-ease to employ. That said, it's all very light-hearted and catchy, this being a good-time, celebratory tune rather than anything more arrogant or contrived. Though far from an all-time classic, I must say that I like "Metal Daze" way better than, say, "Army of the Immortals" or "Brothers of Metal" - maybe because Manowar don't seem to take themselves too seriously on this one, and being over-pretentious is hardly the best approach when singing about something as trivial as enjoying a particular kind of music.
The production job is far from stellar (actually, it manages to be both thin and murky at the same time, which is an achievement of sorts I guess), but the early 80s metal records aren't exactly renowned by their pristine sound, so let's not overreact about it. In fact, it's not all out of place when you consider the rock-based structure of songs like "Fast Taker", a tune that could easily have been a Saxon song due to its (probably unintentional) NWOBHM feel. The solos from the Boss sound quite bluesy on this one, and it's a nice touch if you ask me. Lyrically, early Manowar were obviously miles away from any sophisticated poetry, but they didn't have completely lost their grip to reality just yet, and their macho-man imagery isn't there to embarass us just yet, fortunately. It even gets quite political on "Shell Shock", a heavy rocking tune about surviving the Vietnam War that is surely the more street-level and down-to-earth Manowar ever got - and I must say it's easily one of my favorite songs from their entire repertoire! It's a formative number for sure, and the fact that Manowar chose not to further pursue this particular formula should come as no surprise really - let's face it, there's nothing on this particular track that most competition weren't doing at precisely the same time, often with more accomplished results. But it's cool to hear Manowar trying to say something meaningful about the world around them for a change - and, though the innovative features in Manowar's music sure laid elsewhere, maybe they could have been a more endearing (and less self obsessed, and funnier) metal entity if they had kept some of the not-totally-serious spirit you can hear on the A side of their debut LP.
Despite this mild appreciation to the not-at-all-brilliant, but still charming results of the first half, it's undeniable that the songs that made "Battle Hymns" a landmark release for the power metal scene are pretty much confined to the B side. "Manowar" is decent, but hardly a song to deserve more than a very brief mention; in fact, I'd say "Dark Avenger" is the first song here to really show what the fuss about the band was all about. The storytelling (helped in no small part by a cheesy, but still amusing narration by none other than Orson Welles) works remarkably well, and the contrast between the plodding first part and the fast paced attack when the main character gets his 'revenge' is expertly built and very effective. It's widely seen as a classic, and deservedly so, easily being one of the highlights of this album. "William's Tale" comes next, and it's the first instalment in the seemingly obligatory series of pointless instrumental cuts laid down on tape only to please Joey DeMaio's ego. He is a very precise bass player of course, with a fast picking that is all of his own, and the results are far from atrocious this time around, as this track (written by Gioachino Rossini) is a more well-humoured (there you go again) and (slightly) less indulgent display of dexterity than like-minded efforts like "Black Arrows" or "Thunderpick" (oh my).
But the true gem in "Battle Hymns" is its near-title track, no doubt about that. There's little doubt in my mind that this single tune is the crowning achievement in the band's career, most of all because it was a truly innovative number by the time it officially came out. Granted, there were lots of epic numbers in metal since at least the early 1970s ("War Pigs" comes immediately to mind), but playing a song that actually sounded like being in a battle wasn't that much a thing way back in 1982, believe me. The way the galloping basslines from DeMaio evoke an actual march is truly amazing, and the generic lyrics are actually a strong point rather than a hindrance: this ancient battle could be any battle, you know, and it doesn't take much imagination to picture yourself right there, holding a sword and shield to kill or die. It's one of the defining moments for Eric Adams' career as well: I'm not that huge a fan of his allegedly unbelievable singing prowess (more about that on future reviews), but here his over-the-top style is perfectly in place, adding to the grandiose imagery of the lyrics in no uncertain terms. Even the drumming of Donnie Hamzik, that pretty much keeps the beat and not much else through most of the record, works perfectly fine on "Battle Hymn", giving the exact muscular drive it needs to create its cinematic, all-conquering atmosphere. A true classic, no doubt about that, and a song that will forever keep Manowar among the true innovators from the heavy metal scene.
All things considered, "Battle Hymns" is a mandatory listen for anyone who wants to understand how epic power metal came to be, and it still holds its own remarkably well after nearly 40 years - let's face it, some of their later albums sound way more dated than this one nowadays! They were still trying to find their own niche, and some drastic changes were just around the corner (the arrival of powerhouse drummer Scott Columbus being the most significant of all), but this is the work of hungry musicians willing to leave a mark and fully commited to their cause, and I think it's always something to admire. It would be quite a bumpy ride for these American stalwarts in later years, but this is a CD I wouldn't at all be ashamed to have in my record collection - but don't expect me to buy a copy of "Battle Hymns MMXI", as I'm not at all enamoured with pointless re-recordings of classic releases!
Eric Adams (V), Ross "the Boss" Friedman (G/K), Joey DeMaio (B), Donnie Hamzik (D).
01. Death Tone (DeMaio, Friedman) 4:48
02. Metal Daze (DeMaio) 4:18
03. Fast Taker (DeMaio, Friedman) 3:56
04. Shell Shock (DeMaio, Friedman) 4:04
05. Manowar (DeMaio, Friedman) 3:35
06. Dark Avenger (DeMaio, Friedman) 6:20
07. William's Tale (DeMaio, Rossini) 1:52
08. Battle Hymn (DeMaio, Friedman) 6:55
Have you been involved with any of the bands mentioned here? Have any extra info and/or corrections? Please e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know!