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Manowar seem to be a bit curious these days. When I first got into them, and for years afterwards, they were one of the bands that defined traditional Heavy Metal and how it should be played. From the straightforward debut Battle Hymns, through the more laid-back and accessible Fighting The World, to the bombastic The Triumph Of Steel, this was Heavy Metal that was powerful, memorable, and rarely failed to the the adrenaline flowing and heads banging.
These days, though...well, I don't know what's going on, really. This is only their third studio album in 15 years since the aforementioned Triumph Of Steel, and in the abscence of extensive touring to keep us happy, you'd expect these albums to be bloody exciting affairs. Unfortunately their last album, Warriors Of The World, has been gathering dust in my collection for years, owing to it being an EP's worth of Metal songs (and not their best at that) accompanied by rather dull orchestra pieces. Finding out that this album would be similarly orchestral sent alarm bells ringing, but, Hell, I thought...it can't be worse than the last one, and if it's done well it should be something epic. That's what Manowar do best, right?
Let's not fuck around here. This is an orchestral epic, both musically and in the amount of space on the album the strings take up. Given that this is a conceptual piece about Odin with some artistic liberties being taken - more a comic book story than an accurate representation of Pagan gods - you HAVE to take in this album as a whole and appreciate it as such. Dipping in from song to song will probably only disappoint. Though there's a good 40 minutes worth of Metal material here - remember when albums came on vinyl and lasted that long? - it's somewhat overwhelmed by the material around it. However, unlike last time, the Metal is interwoven into the orchestral pieces, and they work together to drive the album and story forward. The good old Mano-choir is ever-present to ensure continuity between the two styles, along with various spoken word passages and orchestral interludes scattered over the album. That bassist Joey DeMaio has produced and engineered the album and written almost all of the material is indicative of how this album is supposed to work as a whole. If you've got 73 minutes spare to sit through it, then fine. You'll need that to get the most out of it.
The orchestral parts themselves are listenable enough. Obviously they'll probably be more rewarding for fans of classical music...or maybe those people will find all kinds of faults to pick with it. I dunno. Those needing headbanging goodness all the way have probably figured out to steer clear by now, so never mind them. Those of us in the middle, though, will probably be able to enjoy these parts for their epic nature. They might even be more enjoyable than the actually Metal songs...
This is where things get awkward. These songs are good enough in themselves, and pleasing to the ear. However, they are pleasing to the ear because there's nothing pushing the boat out that could throw you off and ruin them. Unfortunately, because there's no boat being pushed out, there's nothing particularly great out them. No classic riffs or solos like before, nothing approaching technical playing (except about two guitar solos, maybe?). Eric Adams steals the show here, his voice still as pure and powerful as it was in 1982, even if the screaming of old is largely gone. Otherwise, it's standard riffs and rhythms. Good enough, but nothing to go crazy over. Thank god the band finally got a good producer though (cheers Joey!). I don't think the band has ever sounded so crisp, and this would have been essential for the album's musical concept to work. Helps make up for the lack of imagination in the songs too.
For all the faults mentioned here, though, I cannot emphasise enough how this has to be taken as a conceptual entireity. The whole is arguably greater than the sum of it's parts. Listened to from beginning to end, if the orchestra and epic theme can be appreciated, then it works. I tip my hat to Manowar to trying something different (though this is hardly different to fans of Rhapsody and their ilk, but they'll lap this one up anyway), but I do hope that when it comes to putting out a kick-ass, nothing but HEAVY METAL album, they'll be upping the ante again by playing their guitars, pounding the drums and screaming down the roof like before. If they keep to schedule, hopefully they can do something for 2012 that moves the world the same way that Battle Hymns did in 1982. In the meantime, this will do...
Originally written for http://www.metalmongrel.com