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Compilations like this one are really no more than a snare for the unwary traveller, but The Hell of Steel somehow manages to defy its origins to serve as a fairly decent route in to the wacky world of Manowar. I'd imagine the band's antipathy towards the album's existence probably stems more from financial disagreements with Atlantic rather than serious professional pride, but it's definitely a bit naughty calling what at times seems like a random collection of songs from a mid-career three album stretch "the best of" anything. The track selection is definitely a little iffy, and while most of the big hitters of the era are all present and correct, a couple of baffling choices make you wonder whether the person at Atlantic responsible was either unsuited for the task of picking a Manowar best of, or was just taking the piss a little.
But while The Hell of Steel doesn't serve as anything like a proper representation of Manowar's overall sound (either the ultra-manly early stuff or the more divisive Karl Logan era that was still only on the horizon at this point), it does manage to encapsulate where the band were in the late 80s and early 90s rather succinctly. This was the time when Manowar really went for it in terms of big production values (very much of their time) and booming crowd-pleasing anthems at the expense of a lot of the rawness and muscular musicianship of their formative years. They rightly catch some flak for this, and to many more casual listeners (or detractors) this sound is often seen as all Manowar were ever about. Leaving that aside though, there's no denying this part of Manowar's history turned out some genuine classics, and for all its faults, this compilation manages to capture that trademark mix of camp and outright metal majesty quite nicely. With that being said, only the Fighting the World tracks truly suffer from the buttery digital recording technique, with Kings of Metal a step back in the right back direction and The Triumph of Steel being no less than a masterclass in production values and musicianship as the band eased away from their commercial flirtations again. Another thing to keep in mind is that while the production was less raw on these albums and Joey DeMaio reigned in his completely over-the-top bass playing technique quite considerably, Eric Adams' leonine vocals remained as forceful and emotive as ever, benefiting in some cases from being at the undisputed forefront of many of the songs.
The Hell of Steel was in fact my own personal introduction to Manowar, and while I naturally had a lot to learn, it's fair to say that it left a pretty big impression on me even if it did take a little while for it to work its charms. The order the tracks appear in probably had something to do with that, as 20 year old Radagast definitely took himself a great deal more seriously than his older, fatter counterpart does. I can still remember sitting in the pub with my friend the day he bought the album (my CD-R copy yet to be burned) and the two of us - one headphone each - having a laugh at how the first two songs were both about the amount of ass the band performing them kicked.
In a strange sort of way, The Hell of Steel actually rolls sort of like a big, flabby, extended version of an early 80s (all right, classic era) Manowar album, as all the simpler, rocking songs appear in the first half while the metal scorchers mostly appear in the second. The lopsided pacing is serendipitously quite representative of all three major label Manowar albums, and it takes a while for things to really take flight. It starts with the sharp one-two with the title tracks from Fighting the World and Kings of Metal, but then comes a nearly eight-minute song that just sort of trudges along for the first six or seven, then a hilariously bad spoken work track followed by a big ballad, which is in turn followed by an even bigger ballad. Not exactly setting the heather alight, and trying to fathom what The Warrior's Prayer is even doing here could drive a person to madness.
The Demon's Whip is the aforementioned trudger, an otherwise largely forgotten number from The Triumph of Steel that is here at the expense of a couple of better songs from the same album. One thing it does offer though is maybe the fastest and most intense playing Manowar have ever delivered once it finally bursts into life. The classic Manowar line-up will, correctly, always be seen as Eric-Joey-Ross-Scott, but in terms of pure musicianship, the work done on The Triumph of Steel with David Shankle and Rhino was at times breathtaking.
Defender is the first of those two ballads, and is probably the song where Manowar finally clicked for me all those years ago. I'd transitioned from awkward role-playing teenager into awkward David Gemmell book reading university student quite handily around that time, and the epic fantasy vibe of this song really swept me away. In a way, it is Manowar defined; I mean, it is undoubtedly completely ridiculous - the vocal delivery is camp, and the narration (by Orson fucking Welles, don't forget) riotously overwrought, yet somehow at the same time the song is both emotional and awe-inspiring. If something could ever be both the most stupid and also the best thing you've ever heard, it would probably be Manowar, and Defender would be one of the most compelling pieces of evidence at that particular trial.
So it's been an admittedly bumpy ride so far, and after the majesty of The Crown and the Ring (I won't start burning through the songs one at time, but let's just say a church choir and organ ballad is a pretty fucking audacious move) we hit quite a deep pothole with the rather tragic Blow Your Speakers. Make no mistake, Manowar always wrote rock songs. Pretty much the whole first side of their debut album is such, but while in their early years the songs were overblown, testosterone-pumped hangovers from 1970s New York, Blow Your Speakers is just a goofy, clueless attempt to get on the radio. The lyrics, intended as an ironic put-down of MTV culture, just end up coming back around again and sounding like a sad, angry plea to be loved that probably went on to birth a thousand YouTube comments about how people should be listening to REAL MUSIC.
But hey, we're past the rough patch now, and onto all the true metal we were promised earlier on the songs with big booming disco drums. Indeed, you'd be lucky to ever hear such a perfect metal trifecta as Black Wind, Fire and Steel followed by Hail and Kill and then The Power of Thy Sword anywhere else. The former two get a lot of plaudits for being among the best songs Manowar have ever done, and quite rightly so, but I think the latter is really unfairly overlooked. Brewing a stunning atmosphere, the solos are Shankle at his very best, and the overlapping vocals on the concluding choruses are just absurdly brilliant.
More ballads! And not just any bloody ballads either. It's probably just for the sake of boosting the album's collectability that the record company decided to throw the German version of Heart of Steel on here (as result it was the version I was most familiar with for quite a few years), but it is no less brimming with sorrow and wonder than the original. It must be to the song's credit that even with the lyrics rendered largely incomprehensible that it remains so inspiring and evocative. This and the soothing acoustic closer Master of the Wind really show how Manowar could strip back the strutting and masculinity (but thankfully not the glorious homoeroticism) to make music that was just beautiful on its own terms and required no degree of self-awareness to enjoy to its fullest.
Want to hear a charming anecdote about the song Kings of Metal? Sure you do. It was on what used to be the annual pilgrimage to the Sweden Rock Festival, on the train to Sölvesborg, where myself and a couple of others were listening to the song on a pair of speakers, singing along at a decent volume and having a drink while we were at it. Freaking those squares out, in other words. So of course we had just hit the immortal line "we won't turn down for anyone, we do just what we please!" when a conductor asked in a polite but firm voice if we would turn the speakers down, and was met with profuse apologies and immediate compliance. I've led a drunken choir through the streets of Birmingham on the way to a Manowar show, but I think believing that I was cool as fuck only to swiftly be reminded that I absolutely wasn't is probably the Manowarriest moment of my life.
And I've got The Hell of Steel to thank for it. It's uneven, it's far detached from the more exuberant early days of the band and it's motivated purely by money...in other words, it's Manowar. It may not be a perfect representation of the Metal Kings' overall body of work, but it gives a fair enough idea of the kind of shenanigans you'd be letting yourself in for, and is a largely brilliant collection of individual songs in any case.
And if anyone ever figures out what the hell is going on in that album cover, please drop me a line.