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Fists Like Hammers Fill the Air - 40%

Frankingsteins, September 28th, 2007

Manowar’s major label debut brought their self-styled brand of bass-driven, ear-splitting, macho heavy metal to a wider audience, raising concerns among long-time fans that their favourite stupid-but-excellent band had sold out to the same faceless institution they had assaulted in earlier songs such as ‘All Men Play on 10.’ Clearly aware of this, Manowar lays rest to such fears in their customary way with the single ‘Blow Your Speakers,’ in which Eric Adams yells his love of true metal and hatred of mainstream labels against a catchy, Village People-style backing chorus and stilted guitars. Something here is awry.

Released three years after the last of Manowar’s previous four albums, which were released in rapid succession, as detailed in my review for ‘Sign of the Hammer,’ the ‘Fighting the World’ album likely represents the greatest disappointment of their career. It isn’t their worst album by far, as the few releases of the past decade have all been disappointing in unique ways, but it represents a significant drop in quality and an unappreciated change in direction from the dark and epic heavy metal of their earlier efforts towards something resembling, in places, the ‘false metal’ the band boasts so much hatred for. Whether this was due to pressure from Atlantic Records to create something easier to sell is unclear, though it must have become obvious soon after that only those with a certain frame of mind were going to buy Manowar records in the first place, and the band should essentially be allowed to do their inexplicably popular thing uninterrupted.

Thematically it’s much the same as everything bass player and songwriter Joey DeMaio puts out, a mix of songs set in the present day of the metal-loving, bike-riding East Coast, and tales of battle fought in ancient history. There’s even a song about Vietnam which harks back to the debut album, and as usual a couple of pieces glorifying Manowar’s fans and the band itself. Anyone who had followed Manowar up to this point would recognise the usual shift in style from straightforward metal anthems in the first, ‘present day’ side of the album to the more grandiose style of the later songs that continues the style the band excels at the most. With this significant split between styles, the album is structured similarly to the classic debut ‘Battle Hymns,’ but most of the material sadly falls short of its predecessor. It’s notable, and disappointing, that the only truly excellent song here is the epic ‘Defender,’ which I discovered years later was written way back in the glorious era of ‘Into Glory Ride,’ but jettisoned from that album for issues of space.

1. Fighting the World
2. Blow Your Speakers
3. Carry On
4. Violence and Bloodshed
5. Defender
6. Drums of Doom
7. Holy War
8. Master of Revenge
9. Black Wind, Fire and Steel

The first four tracks have a noticeably different audience than the later songs, and it’s clear they were placed at the beginning, as usual with Manowar releases, to provide something more straightforward for newcomers that won’t put them off persevering to the later, more seasoned territory. Not that there isn’t an awful lot to put people off in these arrogant and hypocritical heavy metal anthems, which display a far more commercial side of the band not heard since the opening songs of ‘Battle Hymns,’ before the band found its feet. ‘Fighting the World’ itself is a medium pace rocker with lyrics that are too embarrassing even to be considered amusing in the traditional Manowar sense (‘stripes on a tiger don’t wash away / Manowar’s made of steel, not clay’), and even in terms of the music that these lyrics uncharacteristically overshadow to a large degree, the plodding drum beat, predictable guitar riff and overly repetitive chorus isn’t what listeners have come to expect from a Manowar opener. ‘Blow Your Speakers’ is even worse, and the music video was placed in VH1’s list of ‘Most Awesomely Bad Metal Songs,’ though for the long-time Manowar fan it’s more of a crushing disappointment than a cheesy laugh. It’s clear that this is a re-tread of the older song ‘Metal Daze,’ but the backing chorus, mentioned earlier, is many times worse, and once again the lyrics are abominable (‘I wrote a letter to the MTV / Said “what’s going on, don’t you care about me?”’). This pair of slow, preachy dance floor songs (presumably the result of the lyric, ‘people want music to get ’em movin’), lacks the energy and compelling sincerity of Manowar’s traditional shorter songs, and makes an unforgivably poor start to the album.

‘Carry On’ is a slight improvement, and works alright as a cheesy eighties metal song complete with TV game show solo, but still isn’t what the album needs to get on track. Notably, it’s Manowar’s first real foray into the rousing crowd chant style that would appear on many releases hereafter, beginning with a plodding drum and Adams’ irresistible vocals before breaking into a speedier riff for the verses and returning in the chorus. I have a soft spot for this song, but it’s still essentially crap. Things continue to improve, slowly but surely, with the excitingly titled ‘Violence and Bloodshed,’ promising the aggression of some of Manowar’s finest songs and delivering this to an extent. The drastically improved production quality of all albums released hereafter makes this song sound stilted and unfulfilled by comparison, as we’re not hearing the full effect a live performance would provide, but it’s still a step in the right direction at last. Ross “The Boss” delivers his first notable riff of the album and creates quite a cacophony, while Eric Adams is at his vocal best in both the driving verses and excellent chorus, which sees him increase the pitch of his wail incrementally after each power chord.

‘Defender,’ the finest song on the album, takes the listener back to an undisclosed time of warfare for the remainder of the performance, and is a fine example of a slow, epic song executed to perfection. The late Orson Welles provides narration as he did for the similarly excellent ‘Dark Avenger’ on the debut album, recorded four years earlier for the original version of the song in which time Welles had passed away, and his steady, deep tone contrasts excellently with Eric Adams’ high singing, especially when the two voices of ‘father and son’ are pitted against each other in the finale. It’s touching in a very simplistic way, as a young warrior reads a letter written by his late father explaining why he had to leave and ultimately die in service of his kingdom/country/warlord, and the boy promises to follow his example. Ross “The Boss” gives a nice solo, and the bass and drum rhythm is vital in holding the whole thing together, but this is very clearly a song dominated and led by the two great vocal performances, the higher one of which acts almost like a guitar solo in itself.

‘Drums of Doom’ is nothing more than a short drum solo designed to introduce the next song, complete with the sound effects of horses galloping that begin what will later become an obsession with inserting sound samples into the music. The best thing about this song is that drummer Scott Columbus’ simplistic and non-flamboyant performance replaces any lengthy bass solo track that might have made its way onto the album like all others before it (and most afterwards). ‘Holy War’ returns to the battle metal sound of Manowar’s great Viking epics, beginning softly before erupting into a bass-dominated and highly energetic performance that can’t help but be seen, in hindsight, like a direct precursor to ‘Hail and Kill’ on the subsequent release. This is easily one of the best songs on the album, but is spoiled slightly by the decision to make tracks six to nine flow together in something of a contrived suite, meaning that the song can’t really be played in isolation without sounding odd at the beginning and end as it catches the tail-end of other songs.

It’s worse that the following song, ‘Master of Revenge,’ is merely a one-minute prelude to the final song in which Ross “The Boss” plays a repetitive riff over Adams’ wailing vocals, something that would sound good as part of a longer piece but doesn’t really work here. Closer ‘Black Wind, Fire and Steel’ is a bit of an over-rated album closer as it lies uncomfortably between epic and speedy territory and, as usual for Manowar finales, takes an excruciating amount of time to actually finish once the song is over, including a ridiculous wailing section towards the close. The bulk of the song itself is pretty good, led by DeMaio’s hyper clanging bass and putting Eric Adams through his paces as his verse vocals have to keep up. The chorus is incredibly memorable and catchy, if a little meaningless, and if it wasn’t for the regrettable finale this would be on even par with ‘Holy War,’ both of which suffer slightly thanks to whoever came up with the seguing idea.

It’s both sad and embarrassing that Manowar had such a bad start on their major label debut, failing to live up their own standards and slogans as they struggle to weakly cobble together something more commercially viable, but at the same time decide to go overboard on the ridiculous lyrics and attitude that are the most off-putting aspect of even their best work. Without the re-use of ‘Defender,’ this album would truly be feeble, and no amount of studio trickery and fake song suites can elevate it to the classic status of their earlier releases (tracks six to nine are all different songs, and no amount of cross-fading is going to convince people otherwise). The performances from DeMaio and Adams are superb on occasion, compared to the fairly average contributions from Ross “The Boss” and Columbus, but this album feels like a severe mis-step even after the slightly directionless ‘Sign of the Hammer.’ The following year’s definitive ‘Kings of Metal’ would solidify Manowar’s ambitions and objectives forever after, making them appear even stupider in some ways but also much more focused and determined to spread their message, making ‘Fighting the World’ an insignificant and hopefully forgettable stepping stone between the Manowar of the early eighties and the band that continues to grow ever more elaborate today.

I really should talk about the album cover... no, I think it’s fairly self-explanatory.