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Manowar’s debut is widely regarded as a classic of early 80s heavy metal before the spawning of ‘false metal’ glam acts, as well as Manowar’s own increasing movement towards self-parody, robbed the genre of its credibility. That’s not to say that ‘Battle Hymns,’ for all its legacy, is an entirely sombre and sinister affair, featuring the band’s usual ridiculous lyrics on numerous themes from bikes to heavy metal to ancient battles, but sung over music that remains true to the spirit and sound of early, simplistic metal without any of the pompous excess that would later turn the band into a laughing stock.
Collecting most of the songs recorded by the band in the previous two years, ‘Battle Hymns’ is something of a mixed bag with songs heading in often wildly different directions, the earlier pieces tending more towards a party atmosphere in the vein of Kiss, but with more testosterone, and the final three songs experimenting with a more epic sound that had never been attempted before, but has since spawned numerous sub-genres within heavy metal. Eric Adams’ distinctive wail hasn’t reached its full power yet despite a valiant effort to hold notes at the end of many songs, and like many bands’ first releases it’s entertaining to hear how much younger he sounds than on their definitive ‘Kings of Metal.’ Joey DeMaio is the band’s founder, primary song-writer and bass player, and there are no limits to his ego. Not only does DeMaio intersperse most songs with complex and foregrounded bass riffs over the guitars, but the penultimate song is handed over to him entirely as he speeds through the William Tell Overture with no thought for the safety of his fingers or the attention span of the listener, also writing the band’s title song that explains their English origins (DeMaio was a roadie and tech for Black Sabbath, where he ‘heard the call’) and the steps that led to them becoming, clearly, the most powerful force on the planet.
The remainder of the band comprises musicians who would both soon depart, making way for the classic line-up. Ross Funicello’s guitar work is good, but is noticeably weak compared to DeMaio’s bass work, requiring the talents of his later replacement Ross “The Boss” to provide more effective competition. As such, most of the riffs are very simplistic to the point of sounding derivative of other bands, and the guitar solos are nothing spectacular, though the long-forgotten Funicello admirably keeps up to speed on the faster pieces such as ‘Manowar,’ and employs interesting effects in the songs that follow. Scott Columbus’ predecessor on the drum kit is Donnie Hamzik, drafted in from a newspaper advertisement put out by DeMaio and Adams and doing his job as promised, but once again failing to make a lasting impression. There’s nothing here to rival the drums on later songs such as ‘March for Revenge,’ but for the more straightforward songs that dominate this album, Hamzik is essentially required to play fast and hard, and he does so competently.
1. Death Tone
2. Metal Daze
3. Fast Taker
4. Shell Shock
6. Dark Avenger
7. William’s Tale
8. Battle Hymn
As mentioned earlier, there is a very clear split in this album between the two styles of song, made even more obvious by the original double-sided vinyl than the CD version. Opener ‘Death Tone’ is a fairly fast and energetic song in which the character of a juvenile biker spouts some truly abominable lyrics (‘I give some square the finger,’ etc.), and is very similar both lyrically and musically to ‘Fast Taker,’ the appropriately faster speed of which makes it the more exciting of the two, as well as its more original guitar work. The song between, ‘Metal Daze,’ is the first of oh-so-many anthems dedicated to the glory of heavy metal, and easily my least favourite song on the album due to its unwise and unconvincing chorus chanting. Later live versions are much more credible, as the crowd sings along instead of this stilted-sounding noise, but it’s also incredibly uneventful and dull, especially at this early point. ‘Shell Shock’ is one of the more memorable songs, describing the debilitating after-effects of Vietnam from the perspective of an ex-soldier but also scorning those who escaped the war, represented by the despised ‘businessman at home.’ I’m sure there are several thousand more emotive and worthwhile songs about the Vietnam conflict out there, but with its cool riff, incredibly catchy rhythm and fine chorus, this would still be my favourite. This first, uneven ‘half’ of the album is concluded with the band’s titular song ‘Manowar,’ which strives to be even faster and more full of energy than those that have come before it, and succeeds to some extent. At only three-and-a-half minutes long it feels a little unsatisfying and brief, despite another great chorus, but the band would make sure to record many more testaments to their own greatness over the next twenty-five years and beyond. Excellent.
While the first half of the album effectively offers a slightly rougher and more energetic version of the sound Judas Priest had moved beyond two years previously, it’s the remaining songs of the album (with one very definite exception that is easy to spot) that elevate this record to classic and influential status, beginning the epic sound that the band would embrace more fully on their second album as they began to deal with Viking themes. ‘Dark Avenger’ is a brilliant song of two halves, the first a slow, dark and foreboding bass and guitar instrumental of sorts overlaid with narration from the inimitable diaphragm of Orson Welles. The dialogue is fairly silly and simplistic fantasy pap, detailing the story of the eponymous dark avenger riding up from Hell on his demon horse Black Death, before an escalating ‘woah’ from Eric Adams rises to an ear-splitting scream and the song hits its stride. The final few minutes are back in familiar territory, but with grander aspirations, and some humorously sexist lyrics that the band encourage us to sing along to, not for the last time. The bass instrumental ‘William’s Tale’ then proceeds to waste a couple of minutes in an extremely shoddy sounding display of fast string-plucking to an over-familiar tune, before the album delivers its final and most satisfying punch in the form of the semi-titular ‘Battle Hymn.’ Originally recorded for Manowar’s demo release, this song takes the slow and heavy approach of ‘Dark Avenger’ and mixes in some lighter sections of acoustic guitar and even a very drastic piano break, which ends up sounding a little too out of place and lullaby-like amidst all the death and destruction. It’s one of the purest Manowar classics, and the song that launched a thousand thousand geeky fantasy metal bands.
Manowar’s debut is far from being their strongest album, being beaten very satisfyingly by the next few subsequent releases before the band’s deterioration with their move to a major label towards the end of the decade. It nevertheless remains one of their most enduringly popular, especially among non-hardcore fans who can appreciate its greater simplicity in the era of NWOB(A)HM, the New Wave of British (and American) Heavy Metal, and who would likely find the greater excesses of all their subsequent albums a little off-putting. I enjoy this album for its diversity, but with the far greater things they would produce soon hereafter it’s not an album I often listen to in full, often opting for a quick blast of ‘Dark Avenger’ or ‘Shell Shock,’ two very different songs, one of which will always be ideally suited to my mood at any given time.