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The eighties were an incredible and stupid time, though my own memories are admittedly vague and mainly concern Postman Pat and fish paste sandwiches. Heavy metal bands wearing codpieces and singing about historical battles were unusually motivated in their craft, and most managed to consistently release a brand new studio album every single year while also managing to fit in a painstaking world tour to promote the last one. In 1984, Manowar served up two doses of overkill in the form of ‘Hail to England’ and its less well-known successor, ‘Sign of the Hammer.’ While the New Yorkers were obviously heavily driven that year to spread their message of the glory of Vikings and heavy metal, two releases in such a short space of time arouse fears that these records will favour quantity over quality. But could you really get enough Manowar? The answer is clearly no. Shut up.
Manowar is often quite rightly seen as the silliest band of the lot, but these earlier albums are right up there with the best of eighties metal, filled with classic speed assaults and more relaxed and compelling offerings. The band’s penchant for showing off costs their releases a little of their otherwise high quality, particularly noticeable in Joey DeMaio’s trademark bass solo track for each album, but there aren’t many bands that achieved a similarly high level of consistency in the same period. ‘Sign of the Hammer’ is significantly the end of a era for Manowar, before they switched to the major label Atlantic Records and their more polished and commercially viable tirades against ‘false metal’ sell-outs took on a decidedly hypocritical side. Coming in at the tail-end of an exhaustive period that saw the band’s sound become increasingly epic and its subject matter more fantastical, this album is at once a satisfying culmination of all the disparate Manowar elements, summoned into a final desperate and somewhat knackered charge.
In terms of theme, Manowar’s first album featured songs about (in order) bikes, heavy metal, juvenile independence, Vietnam, the glory of Manowar and the glory of battle. Afterwards, the laughable focus on heavy metal and the band itself remained a staple, but the contemporary political angle was increasingly replaced with more epic songs about Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy battles and the violent side of Viking mythology. ‘Sign of the Hammer’ returns to the more mixed focus of the first album, with the classic final song referring specifically to the 1978 mass suicide of the Jonestown cult, balanced out by an opening song about the band itself that can’t help but be reminiscent of Spinal Tap and the by-now customary Viking song ‘Thor (The Powerhead),’ which is fittingly apt for the band’s last great album in dealing with the prophesied end of Viking civilisation when the gods will fight the giants.
The production quality of this album is unfortunately a little inferior to its predecessors, perhaps revealing a rushed nature to this second recording of the year, and it doesn’t help that attention is drawn that way in the opening ‘All Men Play on 10,’ as Eric Adams condemns his contemporaries in other bands that settle for ‘a sound that’s real thin.’ All Manowar albums thus far have begun with a fast and upbeat metal anthem such as this, and although it’s undeniably cool in the 80s metal fashion, it doesn’t really stand out against the competition, but the main guitar riff is distinctive and memorable. Its successor ‘Animals’ is an unfortunate piece of very early filler that manages to be fast and full of energy, but isn’t really about anything significant, and sounds more like KISS than anything. At only three and a half minutes it’s not long enough to become tedious or a problem, but the album really needed a stand-out track at this early point to win the listener over, and sadly this isn’t it. It’s a shame, as the mediocre song, which isn’t helped by its arbitrary thematic title, is the precursor to a very solid half-hour of Manowar at its finest, interrupted only by DeMaio’s inevitable bass session at the penultimate track.
The afore-mentioned ‘Thor (The Powerhead)’ starts things off brilliantly, a five minute mini-epic that remains exciting throughout. Ross “The Boss” excels at guitar, from the opening riffs to the long and very cool solo, backed up by Scott Columbus with some of his best drum work and the always reliable bass clunk of DeMaio. As they achieved with the astounding ‘Blood of My Enemies’ on the previous album, the band manages to evoke the ancient Viking landscape with all the atmosphere of a film score, but without having to rely on external gimmicks such as a keyboard or the orchestration that pervades their more recent work. In this respect, there’s a clear link between songs like ‘Thor,’ ‘Blood of My Enemies’ and the title track, discussed later, and the later ‘Viking metal’ genre pioneered by Bathory and other Scandinavian black metal artists. It may seem ludicrous to newcomers on first listen, but Manowar’s music has had far-reaching implications across the board, explaining why so many black, death, symphonic and power metal bands have covered their work.
Despite the foreboding generality of a title similar to that of ‘Animals,’ ‘Mountains’ proves to be the far more impressive of the two, and is executed at a far slower pace. DeMaio’s bass provides the rhythm while Ross “The Boss” is free to exude some atmospheric minimalism with his down-tuned guitar, never striving for the soaring melodies of other bands, only becoming prominent and heavy in the slow choruses. Eric Adams’ triumphal vocals are punctuated by drumming in a sequence that’s a little over the top, but should just be enjoyed for the optimistic ‘feel-good’ anthem that it is. Unfortunately, this is the one song on the album that outstays its welcome, somehow lasting past seven minutes without much variation, aside from a pleasant atmospheric section led by the bass in the middle. A cacophonous riff breaks the silence at the end as ‘Sign of the Hammer’ begins, another great battle anthem that seems thematically linked to ‘Thor,’ but only as much as any of Manowar’s battle songs are related to each other. The pace is relentless and exhausting, not up to the impossible heights later set by death metal but beating all of the band’s contemporaries, and Adams screams along very satisfyingly above the pounding instruments in the chorus. It’s a shame, really, that a couple of minutes weren’t transferred from ‘Mountains’ to this one, but that probably would have ruined things.
‘The Oath’ suffers a little from its position so late in the album as it doesn’t offer anything that hasn’t been heard a little better elsewhere, but it’s essential listening for Eric Adams going even more out of control than he did on the previous song, and for approaching the thrash metal of the band’s earlier ‘Kill With Power.’ The main riff is memorable, and if this had opened the album it would be a Manowar classic, rather than the second rate song it’s relegated to at track six. Afterwards, it’s bass solo time again with the standable ‘Thunderpick,’ a little longer than DeMaio usually puts us through but apparently a rhythm of his own devising this time, rather than a butchering of a classical piano melody. The one advantage of this song, which is at the same time a little irritating, is that its conclusion really does lead perfectly into ‘Guyana (Cult of the Damned),’ making that final song sound a little incomplete without it. ‘Guyana’ is similar to ‘Mountains’ in its reflective and atmospheric sound, but this time builds brilliantly over the first minutes with Adams’ sinister thanks echoing over a marching drum-beat leading to the inevitable moment of mass suicide and the song’s bitter finale. It’s not a subject matter Manowar are more remembered for, and seems very tucked away at the end of this comparatively obscure album, but it’s among their better songs from the period.
Overall, ‘Sign of the Hammer’ tries to be something of a reworking of the first album aided by several years’ worth of valuable experience, but it falls a little flat. The debut album worked so well for beginning with very traditional Motörhead/Judas Priest hard rock and moving towards the grander and more original epic style towards the end, the style that would dominate the next two albums and the majority of this release. ‘Sign of the Hammer’ struggles to recapture that innocent simplicity in the first two songs, but the band no longer seem confident in the stripped down approach. It’s just as well, because epic territory is where they always excelled the best, and ‘Thor (The Powerhead),’ ‘Sign of the Hammer,’ ‘The Oath’ and ‘Guyana (Cult of the Damned)’ stand proudly alongside songs from the earlier albums such as ‘Dark Avenger,’ ‘Battle Hymn,’ ‘Blood of My Enemies,’ ‘Army of the Immortals’ and the entire ‘Into Glory Ride’ album (bet you can’t wait for that review) as the band’s finest work.
The question remains whether more patience that year would have resulted in a single, highly consistent album in the vein of ‘Into Glory Ride,’ rather than this mostly good album and the fairly mediocre ‘Hail to England.’ It’s probable that some of the more throwaway songs on both would have been discarded in favour of putting more work into the better ones, but that would mean essentially losing all the enjoyable rubbish and not gaining very much for songs like ‘Thor’ which the band couldn’t conceivably improve. It’s probably for the best that ‘Hail to England’ was rushed out when it was so that work could begin on its more worthwhile predecessor, it’s probably just a case of the band being too impatient to wait around perfecting things when they’re all ready to go. Either way, Manowar wouldn’t release another album for a comparatively astonishing three years, after which things would never be quite so good again...