O2 Academy, Birmingham, April 20th 2019:
OK, let’s be honest about this. In fact, now I’ve actually seen them and am thus less worried about offending their representatives, I can be…
Much as I have always enjoyed Manowar’s music (particularly the first four albums) they arewithout a doubt one of the most ludicrous, preposterous bands in the entire history of rock’n’roll. But then again, you already knew that. Or, alternatively, perhaps you don’t: perhaps you’re one of the many (and trust me, I’ve met them, so they do exist) who truly believe that Eric Adams, Joey DeMaio and ‘the other two’ (i.e. whoever they’ve seen fit to fill the roles of Ross ‘The Boss’ Friedman and Scott Columbus with since their respective departures/deaths, including That-Bloke-Whose-Name-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned) are actually bold warrior gods from atop a lofty mountain peak in distant Valhalla and not just a bunch of geezers from upstate New York in daft leather pants and studded waistcoats. Though at least (thankfully, given the ages of the two remaining founders) they’ve now dispensed with the loincloths.
And if you do believe that, and you are one of those very Manowarriors, aka Brothers Of True Metaaaaaaaaaal Proud And Standing Tall – then fair play. Your commitment to your cause, however misplaced, is to be admired. I, on the other hand, prefer to take the more realistic approach: when all’s said and done, I’d be a piss-poor critic if I didn’t offer something by way of constructive criticism. And roughly, it goes somewhere along the following lines. Firstly, and just so there’s NO CONFUSION, let me make my feelings absolutely clear: Manowar are, without a doubt, one of the finest exponents of true Heavy Metal around. Apart from Sabbath and Priest (both of whom they were directly influenced by, and who they’re clearly honouring by choosing to perform their sole British dates in Brum) and with the possible exception of Maiden, Saxon and Angelwitch, there can be few other bands who epitomise the very essence of what Metal, in its purest form, is: even their occasional experiments with subgenres such as Thrash (Wheels Of Fire) or glam (Blow Your Speakers) – neither of which are included tonight, incidentally – stillsounded like the work of a thoroughbred Metal outfit, and bloody good job too. Moreover, they claim that they wouldn’t just fight for such music, but die for it: whether or not you actually believe this (or indeed under what circumstances such a sacrifice would ever be necessary) is I guess down to the individual, but let’s just say I’m prepared to give them the full benefit of the doubt. For the moment.
In addition, they have not only consolidated their (self-appointed) position as sole torchbearers for the genre, but expanded upon it: not in any form of ‘crossover’ way ala later generations of nu-ass ‘false metal’ pretenders, but by taking the symphonic and orchestral roots of their style to its ultimate conclusion and recording passages of actual opera, classical and liturgical music (occasionally graced by spoken-word sections from such renowned theatrical personages as Orson Welles, Brian Blessed and the most Metaal of all thespians, the late great Christopher Lee). Their penultimate full-length studio album to date, the stunning concept piece Gods Of War, was perhaps their most ambitious project ever: had they split straight after it came out, it would have made a perfect swan-song, and the fact that its solitary successor within the next 12 years (2012’s The Lord Of Steel) failed to match it in scope or return successfully to the no-frills approach of old speaks incredible volumes.
So rests the case for the defence: now let’s hear the contrary position. Upon reflection, the first phrase that immediately springs to mind is ‘smoke and mirrors’: you may disagree, but at least permit me to qualify. What I mean to say is that from the very get-go, there was always – even on those first four, raw-as-fuck, lean, mean’n’hungry albums between 1983-87, which I still consider their best – an element of vaudeville, braggadocio and chutzpah about the whole spectacle: before certain egos inflated out of proportion and senses of humour went squarely for a burton, only the most retentive of churls could deny the faint air of inauthenticity (comedy even) generated by watching a bunch of dudes originally from the Catskills, now living in tiny backstreet Bronx apartments whilst simultaneously banging on about how they were bold, fearless warrior men bestriding mediaeval battlefields (and how anyone else who claimed otherwise was delusional). Oh, the irony. Although to be fair, they had at least “met on English ground”, as they proudly declare in the first line of eponymous opener Manowar, whilst DeMaio was roadying here for his heroes Black Sabbath. That much was true.
Yet at the same time, it was this distinctly amateur approach that contributed majorly to their appeal: the paper-thin production of songs like Gloves Of Metaland Kill With Power – again, sadly omitted from tonight’s set – coupled with the genuinely raw, lo-fi piss’n’vinegar energy brought to the table by punk legend Friedman, formerly of the Dictators and Shakin’ Street (and thereby enabling them to cut their eye teeth at both CBGB and the Great Gildersleeves, an honour bestowed upon very few NY bands) was precisely what made them so exciting. Over here, the Bruce-fronted Maiden (under the aegis of Smallwood and Birch) and the post-NOBWOB, Lange-ified Leppard may have been going for gold with Big Rock, but in doing so, both soon forfeited the upstart grit of their early recordings: therefore, for those still craving that sound (with added doses of Purple and Heep, mostly thanks to Adams’ sonic resemblance to David Byron and Ian Gillan) Manowar’s arrival must have seemed amazingly fortuitous. What’s more, the songs were good.
However, as time went by, ambitions inevitably grew to the detriment of origins: and by the late Eighties, not only had the increasingly blues-punk leaning Ross been given his marching orders and replaced by some pillock called Dave The Death Dealer (I knew him during my teens, I think his brother Tom The Toyota Dealer had a showroom over near Cotteridge somewhere) but soon, the boasts and proclamations as to what the quartet could actually achieve were far outweighing the finished product (a bit like a heavy metal Soda Stream in that regard) with a series of quite poor albums (Fighting The World, Kings Of Metal, Triumph Of Steel, Louder Than Hell) ensuing. Claims to be the “only true Metal band” fell on deaf ears as Thrash, Death, Doom and Black Metal took their hold on both America and Britain’s yoot: sure, they were still massive in Germany, Scandinavia and Hispanic countries worldwide (still are, actually) but on English-speaking turf, it was plain as a pikestaff that Joey and his fellow Deacons of metal simply weren’t as huge as they thought they were, with reports half-full Hammersmith Odeons and Glasgow Barrowlands fast becoming a semi-regular fixture of the nation’s rock periodicals. More worryingly, it seemed that the only people unprepared to admit this were the band themselves- even during the Nineties when the rise of alternative rock and nu-metal had rendered them almost invisible to all but the faithful.
Obviously, a lot’s changed since then. Thank Fuck. In fact it could be said that ‘true’ metal is more popular now than it’s been in over 30 years, with even the distinctly cultish likes of Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road finally making their first appearances on these shores. Thus, expectations for these shows are high: the fact that they’re doing two rather than one is surely a good sign in itself, and indeed, a cursory glance at the Academy website a week before clearly states “sorry, no more tickets available for this event”. A sellout then? Could be. The venue only holds 2000 after all, and people from all over the world, not just from Brum, Cov and the Black Country, are meant to be making their way here this weekend to kneel before their iron gods.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my colleagues and I (yep, the London posse are up) trundle down Horsefair at 7.40 to find practically no queue, even 40 minutes before the band are due on: what’s even more of a shock, having meandered extremely easily in with nary an “oops, sorry, excuse me” of the kind usually par for the course at the Acad, is that not only is the downstairs so sparsely filled (with huge gaps down each far side) that I can circumnavigate the entire audience in a minute flat, but the upstairs is completely curtained off. Granted, I wasn’t here the previous night, but if attendances were in any way similar, this is an extremely disconcerting predicament for our heroes: perhaps the scandal concerning He-Whom-Shall-Notteth-Be-Spokeneth-Ofeth genuinely has shorn them of a few fans after all, or perhaps being American, they have no conception of British bank holiday weekends (mind you, seeing as I never get any fucking time off in this industry, neither do I) thereby not realising that half their potential audience would be likely to piss off to warmer climes. Alternatively, perhaps the stupidly ostentatious ticket prices (£85 plus £15 booking fee, so basically a ton) are a contributory factor: or maybe, there is just the slightest chance that even now, they’re simply not as popular over here as they want you to think they are. I’ll let you guess which I’m leaning towards…
In addition to which, as they burst onstage, the paucity of their budget is clearly visible – their rubbery mediaeval castle-style set looks distinctly Spinal Tap-esque (to the point where it may actually be in danger of being crushed by a dwarf) and rather than the expected footage of knights, mages and sages, their flaming back-projection screen displays outsize, expanded images of…. them. As they are now. Right this moment, playing the very songs they’re currently playing. Clearly, no expense has been… er, spent. Yet even so, none of the above stops them being extremely entertaining. And that, my friends, is what ultimately proves their salvation – not the bells, whistles or flim-flams, but the music and how they perform it. Indeed, from the moment Adams emerges (having sung the first verse of Manowar offstage, Halford-stylee) in cheering crowd-baiting mode, they’re on fire – a fire that continues unabated as they rampage enthusiastically and powerfully through such behemoths as Thor, Call To Armsand the astounding Blood Of My Enemies. Their clear and genuine enthusiasm at being in Birmingham, home of metal, feeds back threefold through every riff cranked, every Drum Of Doom battered and each shape thrown: if they keep this up, this could transpire to be one of the gigs of the year….
And it must be said, for the most part they do. The Gods Made Heavy Metal is a hair-raising, fist-punching anthem of the finest vintage: Sons Of Odin is the power ballad to end all power ballads (at least in symphonic metal terms) and DeMaio’s feted solo spot Sting Of The Bumblebee reminds us all that, take the piss though we occasionally might, he isa superb bassist. There’s no way anyone with eyes and ears could possibly deny it. In fact, they’re all amazing players: despite not having been in the band that long, axemeister EV Martel and skinsman Anders Johansson have already learnt their craft to a tee, and all fears concerning Adams’ vocal power are soon allayed as he traverses the full breadth of his range from deep guttural growls to extreme soprano shrieks with minimum effort. They’re definitely not past it: quite the opposite in fact, and if they wanted to, they could easily stick this out for another decade and still retain their dignity.
What’s more, the realisation of that gameplan may be more likely than you think – particularly as we later discover that the much-trumpeted tour title The Final Battleappertains only to the title of their new EP, and not, regardless of what the promotional material might have said, to any alleged decision to retire after all. Still, it helps raise the profile and fleece the more gullible contingent of the fanbase, as if charging £40 for a t-shirt (£60 for a hoody) doesn’t do that ably enough already. Sure, I didn’t pay to get in, so it’s no personal skin off my nose: but yet again, it’s just one of manythings about Manowar – and how they operate overall – that leave a perpetually sour taste in my mouth, no matter how much I adore their music. And might I remind you, I genuinely do – well, maybe not that shite Elvis cover, but practically everything else.
Indeed, unlike practically every other journalist (except Dom Lawson, who as DeMaio points out is “in the house tonight and possibly the only writer that still writes good shit about Manowar”) I do think that it’s way too easy to satirise their stance, often overlooking the power of the band’s music in the process. Fair enough, they do ask for it half the time – not just with their inflated boasts, but by inserting the words “steel”, “hall”, “fight”, “true”, “battlecry”, “warrior”, “night”, “thunder”, “brothers” (very little mention of sisters, though), “gods”, “Valhalla”, “sword” and, of course, “metal” into every song they write, to the point where you could almost input them into an online generator and knock up your own album in under an hour. That, and the fact that many of them are simply nonsensical: for instance, if you’re “born to live forevermore”, then why would you need to issue instructions on what should happen if you “fall in battle?” If you have “the right to conquer every shore”, does that mean you lose all your inland skirmishes? Why would the armies of the night needs to march into the darkness, when they’re already in it? If, by moonlight, ten thousand ride “side by side”, how fucking wide is the land on which they’re riding? Wouldn’t some of them have to be behind each other, lest they fell off a mountain at some point? And just what the fuck is a “metal sky”? Come on Joe, we wanna know!! Yet they’re far from the only rock band in the world to rely on a tried and trusted formula – and when all’s said and done and the battle is won (oh bollocks, I’m doing it now) they’re verygood at it. And that can never be taken away from them.
Tracks like the galloping The Power Of Thy Sword(see, told you) however ludicrous they may initially appear, still set my pulse racing, Fighting The Worldstruts like a cocksure strutting thing, and Warriors Of The World United is now every inch the anthem it always threatened to become: though again, its video once more belies far more humble origins than its sonic grandiosity suggests, looking suspiciously like it was shot for about $100 in a disused quarry outside Yonkers somewhere, in a live setting it’s simply immense (at European festivals like Wacken, almost unbelievably so, with thousands “wo-oh” ing in sinister unison) and even in this intimate venue, the response is overpowering.
By those standards alone, they are the qualified victors and we the vanquished: a celebratory banquet surely awaits our brave Metal Warriors, even though ironically, they don’t actually play that song itself. In spite of the noticeable discarding of many perennial faves – Battle Hymn, Animal, Into Glory Ride etc are also eschewed – in favour of newer material, and the utter waste of time that is Joey’s totally unexpected ten-minute proto-feminist “treat a woman with respect, talk about things she digs rather than boring her with rock’n’roll or sports shit” schpiel/rant during which time at least one more number could easily have been inserted, they are musically flawless: it’s also evident that, whether on an ironic or entirely candid level, this audience loves Manowar, greeting encores Hail And Killand Black Wind Fire & Steel with the kind of bellicose roars I haven’t heard since Ozzy first rejoined the Sabs,
And, unashamedly, I too love Manowar. I just loved them that little bit more when they didn’t mind people knowing they were a bunch of rough and ready Noo Yoik rawk’n’rawlers, with not just worshipful respect for but aspirations to sound like their British forebears. What’s let them down since is that now they finally have the technology to create the sound they always craved, a point further illustrated by the rerecording of two earlier albums, about 50 percent of their songwriting suss seems to have deserted them in return – and fond as I am of overlong neo-classical epics (for fucks sakes already, I’m a Yes fan) I’d still happily trade them all for another balls-to-the-wall record in the mould of Hail To England or Sign Of The Hammer. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Yet for all that, the Manowar I see before me now are still a perfectly commendable battalion of combatants, and even if it is all a big con (see, ambivalence again) I hope they do live to fight another day: after the shit they’ve been forced to endure lately thanks to You-Know-Whom, they certainly deserve it. Considering I’m going to see both Bananarama and Rufus Wainwright next week, I can’t really make any claims about how “if you’re not into Metaaaaal, then you are not my friend”: nonetheless, tonight, Manowar have reminded me what it means to be a Brother. And yes, my sword is wet, and that bike in the yard is my wife. “For as long as we’re together, then forever carry on”. Wiser words were rarely spoken.