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‘Kings of Metal’ has all the makings of a self-consciously definitive Manowar album, like the Black Album was for Metallica. Now forming the centre of their discography, it does indeed represent pretty much everything Manowar is about: the good, and the incredibly bad. The style is a seamless blend of their earlier, more traditional heavy metal style, and the delusions of Wagnerian grandeur that have only increased in the twenty years since, culminating in the tedious embarrassment of their most recent concept effort ‘Gods of War.’ On first listening to ‘Kings of Metal,’ the same overarching themes appear to be present: songs of Odin, Viking conquest, and drinking thy last ale, but elsewhere the subject matter returns to the other characteristic Manowar staples with songs about bikes, women and the glory of Manowar itself. You would be hard pressed to find a more arrogant, chauvinistic and nerdy album even in the eighties metal scene, and while it’s arguable whether this is Manowar at their finest, it certainly catches them at their most hilarious.
This was Manowar’s second major label album after the previous year’s disappointing ‘Fighting the World,’ and the band put their increased budget to use. The production is pretty excellent for an album of the eighties, surpassing the other major metal albums of that year, while an authentic choir of old European men provides the chorus for ‘The Crown and the Ring.’ This album effectively marks the end of an era, as it would be the final outing for guitarist Ross “The Boss” and drummer Scott Columbus, though the latter would return some years later, but also set the standard for all albums that came after, focusing heavily on the contrast between extremely loud and fast heavy metal and more calm and reflective pieces, all striving for the label of ‘epic.’ Although the album is let down by its numerous weak spots and bold but ludicrous experimentation, it still remains their last ‘classic’ album and stands out from the discography. And not just for the hilarious macho cover, in fact there are far worse examples elsewhere.
It’s a fairly straightforward task to divide the album into the tracks that are more traditionally ‘metal’ and those that aren’t, with the first, second, sixth, seventh, eighth and tenth being the former, and the others being... well, the best term would indeed be ‘something else.’ ‘Heart of Steel’ is led by piano, and gives Eric Adams a chance to show off his vocal cords in a more refined setting, before crushing drums return to a more familiar heavy territory. ‘The Crown and the Ring’ does something similar, only with a male choir replacing the need for heaviness and Adams reaching the high notes in a very minimal soundscape, with some more rousing lyrics as his character rides between battles. ‘Sting of the Bumblebee’ is the trademark Joey DeMaio bass guitar interpretation on a classical theme, this time Rimsky Korsakov’s speedy piano ditty, and as usual is several borderline-unendurable minutes of a cocky musician showing off, scoring over earlier efforts simply for the inclusion of drums towards the end. The final oddball is the enigmatic ‘The Warrior’s Prayer,’ which I still can’t determine is serious or just an in-joke. I would love it to be the latter, I’d have an enormous amount of respect for Manowar if all of this over-the-top performance has all just been a big laugh, but sadly I have heard all of their albums, and watched some interviews, and the reality is that they’re just pretty dumb. Here we have an overlong narrative between a bombastic grandfather and an annoying child, telling a tale of four ultimate warriors wielding weapons that doesn’t even bother veiling itself as an obvious allegory for Manowar, leading into the self-aggrandising finale.
The majority of the album follows the style that has continued since the band’s debut album, but increased volume of guitars and screams doesn’t live up to the simplistic enjoyment and energy of the first four classic albums. ‘Wheels of Fire’ opens with motorbike sound effects, the third time a Manowar album has done this, and although the increased volume of the chorus allows for the clear production of the guitars and double bass drums to be admired, it does tend to be a little too overpowering. The title track is better, a little unoriginal in its medium speed but delightfully pompous in its lyrics, as Eric Adams sings about how amazing Manowar are for playing loud and ‘wearing jeans and leather, not crackerjack clothes,’ for about the fifth time. ‘Kingdom Come’ is the closest thing to filler on this diverse album, a solid metal song that plods along enjoyably but a little uninterestingly until the incredible screamathon over the relentless guitar solo at the conclusion, but is probably the song least likely to be remembered afterwards.
‘Pleasure Slave,’ on the other hand, is instantly shockingly memorable for the band’s unadulterated honesty about the use of women. It could be argued that the lyrics are written from the voice of a character rather than the band themselves, but as they identify so much with the brave warriors elsewhere, and since, as I said, I’ve seen interviews and music videos, there’s no irony to be found here. Depending on the listener, it will provoke a strong reaction towards laughter, offence or possibly a sincere nod of agreement. I know which group I belong to. The final song, ‘Blood of the Kings,’ seems to pick up where ‘Wheels of Fire’ left off, and is similarly loud and furious, but as with the finale to the previous few albums, doesn’t really know when to call it quits with guitars and drums winding down for a couple of minutes just when you thought everything was over.
‘Kings of Metal’ has a clear target audience, and Manowar is very strict on the issue of compromise. ‘We don’t attract wimps cause we’re too loud, just true metal people that’s Manowar’s crowd,’ they proclaim. While their definition of true metal is a little debatable (half of this album consisting of classically influenced piano, choral and bass songs, with one really stupid spoken word piece), this would nevertheless most likely suit the tastes of someone whose appetite has already been whetted by the more accessible likes of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest or Metallica. Then again, anyone who braves the album cover and the track titles should know what they’re getting into, and any offence they find in suggestions that women should remove their garments, kneel before men, and be chained unto the bed is completely their own fault. This borders on being a classic metal album, and was doubtless as influential as its predecessors towards the evolution of fantasy metal genres in the past decade, but far from Manowar’s finest forty seven minutes.