Graded on a Curve: Manowar,
Battle Hymns

Manly men, by which I mean loin-clothing-wearing barbarian types who own giant stereos and broadswords they keep in the livingroom closet, listen to Manowar. Manly pets, ditto. I have a goldfish that listens to nothing but Manowar, and he is one macho goldfish. He’s the only goldfish I’ve ever run across with 12-inch biceps. Playing Manowar at volumes loud enough to blow your speakers will even increase the muscle mass of inanimate objects. Since I’ve started listening to Manowar, my livingroom furniture has significantly bulked up. My loveseat, a 98-pound weakling as of a month ago, could now best Vin Diesel in a barroom brawl.

This is because Manowar isn’t a metal band, but a feral crew of dragon-riding, subhuman-hacking, loin-cloth-wearing steroidal cases of the sort who hold battle swords aloft on their album covers. Just as a quick point of comparison, the guys on the covers of Manowar’s albums make the guys on the covers of Molly Hatchet’s albums look like total pussies. And the guys in Manowar don’t include a rider in their contract specifying the color-content of the M&Ms in the bowls on the backstage buffet table; no, they have a rider specifying how many human heads on stakes they want surrounding said table.

I should add that Manowar holds the world’s record for playing the loudest performance ever. It deafened the entire principality of Liechtenstein, permanently. Manowar also holds the world’s record for playing the longest heavy metal performance ever, in Bulgaria. They played for 5 hours and 1 minute. They spent the extra minute directing their deafening powers at a promoter hiding in the very back of the arena. He finally jumped out a second-floor window. Manowar is huge in Bulgaria. Manowar is huge in nations like Bulgaria. Their fans call themselves the “Army of Immortals.” Set fire to one, and you will discover the label is purest hokum.

Hailing from Auburn, NY, well-known hotspot for dragons and the location of Thor’s summer home, Manowar formed in 1980 when former Dictators’ guitarist Ross “The Boss” Friedman decided to start a band with bassist Joey DeMaio. They completed their ranks with singer Eric “43-octave-range” Adams and drummer Carl Canedy, who was soon replaced by Donnie Hamzik. Manowar’s first LP, 1982’s Battle Hymns, featured a very fascistic-looking eagle on the cover, eight carrion-attracting songs, and one cameo by metal maniac Orson Welles, who was on hiatus from his lead-singing duties with the German band Schadenfreude Kollectiv.

LP starter “Death Tone” opens with the sound of chopped hogs, followed by Ross Friedman’s snarling guitar. Adams then takes over, and commences to sing about giving “some square the finger/Now he won’t look again.” Adams then adds, accompanied by some cool syncopated drumming, “You were sittin’ home/And I got sent to ‘Nam/I went to the big house/You just worked a job,” while Friedman lashes his guitar to within an inch of its life. Finally Adams sings, “Hear me coming/Can’t you hear my death tone/Hear me coming/Can’t you hear my death tone” after which Friedman delivers up a killer solo that lasts the remainder of the song, while Adams shrieks, “Death tone! Death tone!” behind him. It’s a great song, as is “Metal Daze” which follows. Adams does some industrial-strength shrieking to the accompaniment of some far-freaking-out guitar by Friedman and a great drum shuffle by Hamzik. A chorus sings, “Heavy metal!” after which Adams shrieks, “Heavy metal daze!” After which in comes Ross “The Boss” again, to prove he’s one of the most fluid and spastic guitarists in the metal biz. Meanwhile Adams’ voices goes from a bellow to a shriek in a blink, before he closes out the song with the words, “Heavy metal/Loud as it can be!”

“Fast Taker” opens with some big power chords and a building drum, then takes off like a rocket sled. Adams sings at the speed of light, finally exploding into some shrieking. Meanwhile the rhythm section beats out a savage tattoo, and Friedman launches into a solo that destroys everything in its path, and that goes on and on and on. Finally Adams returns to snap off his words one by one, before ending the tune in a fit of impressive shrieking that he continues on “Shell Shock,” singing, “Now I’m a ranger not a stranger/And I live in Saigon/We’ve got a team of Special Forces/And we deliver napalm.” And if he ever does get back, he shrieks, he’ll be “Shell shocked, whoa/Shell shocked, yeah.” At which point Friedman throws himself into one kill-em-all-and-let-God-sort-‘em-out guitar solo. Afterwards Adams is echoed by a deep voice groaning “shell shock,” while Friedman takes off on another killer solo that takes the song to finis.

“Manowar” is a fast-moving war anthem in which Adams sings, “Manowar/Born to live forever more/The right to conquer every shore/Hold your ground and give no more,” followed by yet another feral monstrosity of a guitar solo by Ross “The Boss.” Meanwhile Adams holds notes like hand grenades, especially at the end of the song, which is followed by “Dark Avenger,” which Adams sings in a lower register: “He broke the laws of the elders/So they plucked out his eye/Took his land and fortune/Left him to die.” And on it goes, a slow ponderous crawl across a deserted beach as “Circling lower, the vultures fly,” until Orson Welles shows up to narrate the story of the dead man’s revenge, which comes in the form of “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/They brought forth their demon horse/Called, ‘Black Death,’ a grim steed.” And up he returns, the dead man, following a shriekback of a Friedman guitar solo, to wreak, in Adams’ words, “Burning, death, destruction/Raping their daughters and wives,” sparing “not land or servants/My wake is smoke and flame/I take their wives and daughters/They stand there watching.” Adams reaches some incredible high notes, and is followed by yet another flashy, fret-burning Friedman solo, which ends on a dime, taking the song with it.

“William’s Tale” is an instrumental adaptation of Gioachino Antonio Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” for bass, and is blessedly brief. For a moment I panicked, thinking I was listening to the theme of “Bonanza,” and actually shouted, “Hoss, get thee hence!” before I realized that Manowar was pulling an ELP, which is a terrible thing to do to anyone, including Bulgarians. Fortunately “William’s Tale” is soon followed by the hard-charging “Battle Hymn,” which features a strong rhythm section, orchestral voices on the chorus, and lots of cries of “Victory! Victory!” from Adams. It also features a slow section incorporating bells, more orchestral voices, and some dainty guitar work by Friedman, which he turns into a full-fledged solo followed by cries of “Kill! Kill!” from Adams, some heavy cymbal work by Hamzik, and a heavy, drum-laden conclusion complete with a sustained note of feedback by Friedman.

I love Battle Hymns because it walks that fine line between inspired and just plain stupid. In this respect, it’s a totally characteristic Manowar album. Manowar is an impossible band to take seriously, but I can sit down and listen to Battle Hymns with real pleasure, thanks largely to Ross “The Boss” Friedman’s guitar pyrotechnics, Eric Adams’ A-bomb of a voice, and the straight-ahead nature of Manowar’s songs. I may not be thrilled by the album’s final two tunes, but the rest of its selections are A-okay by me, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I prefer Manowar, despite its cartoonish aspects, to such bands as Metallica and Megadeth. Or perhaps I should say I prefer Manowar because of its cartoonish aspects to such bands; Manowar came up with the slogan “Death to false metal,” writes songs that evoke chaos and devastation and war, and as such tunes as “Death Tone” and “Shell Shock” demonstrate, is obsessed with such subjects as Vietnam and combat and the psychic cost of returning to civilization with the echoes of explosions still resounding in your skull.

I anticipated panning Battle Hymns, and making fun of Manowar, but if I came to scoff I remained to pray. I am not one of Manowar’s “Army of Immortals,” but I’m a camp follower. And you could do worse than crank Battle Hymns up around the house. At the very least, you’ll end up with some muscle-bound goldfish and a loveseat that can kick Vin Diesel’s ass. And who doesn’t want that?

As for Ross “The Boss” Friedman’s solos, they’re purest artistry, and I hereby retract all my negative comments over the years about his going from the Dictators to Manowar. Call it what you will, this is kick-ass rock’n’roll, and if it causes you to laugh it will also inspire you to sing along. Sort of like The Angry Samoans, another great band that’ll have you singing and cracking up simultaneously.


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