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To call this demo "the dawn of epic metal" is a bit pretentious, I realize, as well as vague enough to seem inaccurate to many people. To call it the first epic metal release, on the other hand, is much more specific, if not necessarily true. I cite here one other earlier album often considered epic metal, and that is Legend's From the Fjords. However, having listened to the album, although it does have some epic moments, it really tends to be proto-metal - that is to say, epic progressive folk/hard rock, although it does have some metallic elements. Some may disagree, but it's my opinion that epic metal was born not in 1979, but 1981 - with Manowar's godly song "Battle Hymn".
Manowar's influences here are probably dualistic; on one side, the traditional metal sound of Judas Priest and their ilk is pretty obvious, while on the other, epic music a la the aforementioned Legend. I don't really listen to a lot of stuff pre-metal, so it's hard for me to say who they were really influenced by. Classical music? Folk music? Epic rock like Hawkwind? Possibly any and all of these, as this is really pretty fucking original for metal. Along with Kansas metallers Manilla Road, Manowar pretty much created the epic metal genre. Not to say that things hadn't been building up towards it, but they were the first practitioners, and a band from whom many similar bands sprung (although, to be fair, Manilla Road are more influential than they are).
Well, however it happened, here it is, and I can't help but think it's a pretty damn natural combination. Heavy metal was always a place of chaos, turmoil, and destruction, and the battlefield is a perfect place for that. Not only that, but I suspect Adams and co. (or at least the primary lyricist) were into escapist literature a la LotR to some extent, as "Battle Hymns" is quite medieval in theme - something not completely unheard of in metal at the time, but not exactly common. Obviously, this would become popular in both power metal and epic heavy metal, although rather than being directly influenced by Manowar, I'm fairly certain it's just a case of common interest; fantasy nerds saw metal as another form of escapism (as I certainly do).
While the production here is pretty abysmal, it's not unlistenable, and for a 1981 demo, it's hard to really discredit it. Adams sounds strong as ever with his strong, clear, masculine tenor, and the riffs are certainly nothing to sneeze at. Midpaced and chunky, they set the stage for future bands that play in the slower, more sprawling and atmospheric style found here. While not exactly doomy, they're bigger than most of those played in traditional metal at the time. The song structure on "Battle Hymns" is pretty simple, yet proud, with major chords and a cool bridge. Adams is probably the highlight here, but everything is in full gear, assuming you can make it past the production. Simply one of the finest songs heavy metal has to offer.
"Shellshock" on the other hand is not exactly what I've been describing; straightforward, rocking metal, it's not very epic (in the sense of the term I've been using), but still quite solid, with catchy riffs and another fantastic performance from Adams. Although I've been highlighting the title track here, make no mistake - this is a good song, as much as it may be dwarfed by its older and bigger cousin. Manowar show here that they're not messing around - although unfortunately, things wouldn't stay that way for very long. Still, this was a start to a very successful - if ultimately pretty shitty and boring - career, and an interesting, if not hugely enjoyable, listen.