Graded on a Curve: Manowar,
Sign of the Hammer

Sweet Odin’s armpit! What offense to the olfactory glands do we have here? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the worst heavy metal album in the universe!

I suppose I should hedge my bets, because I’ve never subjected myself to LPs by Yngwie Malmsteen or the Great Kat. But make no mistake–Manowar’s Sign of the Hammer (1984) is the real deal, an album so appalling in so many ways it transcends itself and becomes low comedy. Which actually makes it one of the best heavy metal albums in the universe!

“The Manowar Konzept” is as simple as it is dumb–four steroidal stand-ins for Conan the Barbarian play a testosterone-sodden species of operatic metal fitted out with fantasy lyrics extolling the Viking warrior code. The animal pelt loin cloths, leather and Thor hair are window dressing. Fleet-fingered bass player Joey DeMaio is a staunch proponent of the baroque overwrought. Singer Eric Adams shrieks like a Norseman with his balls in a forge. Backing Valkyries abound. Probably the best way to explain these nitwits from the land of ice and snow (i.e., Auburn, New York) is by noting they’re the only band in rock history to commit a solo bass rendition of “The Flight of the Bumblebees” to vinyl. If I were a bumblebee I’d commit suicide by bug zapper.

Indeed, the band’s ethos is so ludicrous it’s hard not to take it as an elaborate practical joke. And the fact that guitarist Ross “The Boss” Friedman was formerly a member of the Dictators, the funniest band to ever come out of New Yawk or anywhere for that manner, lends an element of plausibility to such suspicions. But no. The bombast is in earnest–chief songwriter and band genius DeMaio once complained to an MTV interviewer that “there’s a real lack of big, epic metal that is drenched with crashing guitars and choirs and orchestras.” But never you fear–Manowar to the rescue!

Sign of the Hammer doesn’t merit my Worst Metal LP in the Universe on band philosophy and presentation alone–what makes it so appallingly risible are its songs. Each one is uniquely ghastly, which makes this LP a kind of boutique of suck. Otherworldly boneheaded instrumental? Check. Bathetic balladry of the Hall of the Mountain King variety? Check. Big dumb Spinal Tap rocker? Check. Song about Thor that actually makes one nostalgic for Blackmore’s Night? Check. Oh, and where would we be without a Rococo Rock nod to the Jonestown tragedy that begins with the words, “Thanks for the Kool Aid, Reverend Jim”?

The best of the bunch is “All Men Play on Ten,” the band’s refreshingly bludgeoning mission statement. Seems the money men told the boys to “Wear a polyester suit, act real cute/Get a haircut and buy small gear.” But hell no sings Adams, cuz “All men play on ten/Never gonna turn down again!” This baby’s so goofy stoopid it’s genius, especially when Adams sings, “I’m jet fuel honey, plug me into 220/Step back and let my fingers fly/While I’m burning up my gear there’s a fire in your ear/That won’t stop until the day you die.” Better grab your ear extinguishers!

“Animals” is a palatable example of speed metal but boasts a risible set of lyrics of the welcome to the jungle variety–Adams is a predator on the prowl but it’s not food he’s looking, it’s poontang. Which if you know your jungle taxonomy makes genus Nugentus his biggest enemy! The final stanza is so hilarious it warrants to be quoted in full:

I’ve been looking, you’ve been watching from the side
There’s somethings you just can’t hide
Oh, you’re getting wet, you’re working up a sweat
Your hair’s standing up on end
Your skin is screaming, glad we met?
Tonight’s one night you won’t forget

“The Oath” is also a thrasher; Adams sings “Hear my war cry,” swears his enemies will “find no sanctuary hidden in their ancestral halls,” and talks about “lepers with disease” as if there are lepers out there who are 100% disease-free. Oh, and on the “swift as the Nordic wind” “Sign of the Hammer” Adams describes Manowar as “Four sworn to vengeance/See the hate in our eyes/Called by the gods, and given a sign.” Great Zeus’ golden taint!

“Mountains” is a beefy power ballad designed to moisten the eyes of the retired Vikings down at VFW (Vikings of Foreign Wars) Post 6954; think “Dust in the Wind” pumped full of human growth hormone, and synthesizer winds tousling Adam’s mighty mane as he sings, “Tall as a mountain, I’m gonna tear through the sky/Life’s for the taking.” The lamentable “Thunderpick” is yet another bass guitar instrumental and three and one half minutes of highly annoying showoffery. Boy does he know his way around a fret board! Boy are his fingers nimble! Boy would I love to silence him forever with mine trusty broadsword! As for “Thor (The Powerhead)” it’s all chariot of the gods power chords and angelic choirs and Adams’ keening bracing immortal epic poesy like, “He held up his hammer hiiiiiiiigggghhh/And called to Odin for a sign.” If you’re a Spinal Tap fan, you’ll love it.

The LP’s tour de folly and the one you REALLY gotta hear is “Guyana (Cult of the Damned).” The histrionics level is absurdly high, and DeMaio’s classical noodling is utterly incongruous given the subject matter. The drum tattoo and Adams’ howlingly funny histrionics, ditto. Jonestown might work as fodder for Jello Biafra-style black humor, but Manowar’s mock operatic frills simply don’t fit the squalid and sadly tragic circumstances surrounding Reverend Jim Jones’ mass murder of hundreds. “Guyaaaaaannnna!” shrieks Adams, then “Give us the word for the grand final stand.” But there was no grand final stand, just the cold-blooded murder of innocents, and all I can say is that all that weight-lifting hasn’t expanded their brain sizes any.

I highly recommend Sign of the Hammer to the manly men of the world; its got enough testosterone to turn Taylor Swift into the Mike Tyson, and has actually been FDA-approved as a body-building supplement. I’ve added 25 pounds to my bench pressing max since I’ve been listening to it! Oh, and it doesn’t induce ‘roid rage! That said, a few of the side effects are mildly alarming. Last night, for instance, I sprouted a loin cloth.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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