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On the Heels of the Gifted - 96%

lonerider, May 25th, 2012

“Sign of the Hammer” is Manowar’s fourth studio album. Incredibly enough, their first four full-lengths were all published in a span of little more than two years and, as a both varied and highly consistent effort, is deserving of the highest praise. In this humble reviewer’s opinion, this is in fact Manowar at their very best, as it stands as one of very few of the band’s albums without any bad songs on it and, beside some very good ones, boasts a number of standout tracks as well, be it the fast and furious title track, the majestic and pounding “Thor (The Powerhead)” or the truly epic “Guyana” and “Mountains”.

Even the prototypical filler track, “Thunderpick”, works much better than most previous or later instrumentals whose sole purpose is really to provide a platform allowing Joey DeMaio to show off his phenomenal bass-playing skills (cf. “William’s Tale” or “Black Arrows”). The reason is that “Thunderpick” actually features some rather catchy passages and, with its unmistakably South American-tinged melodies, makes perfect sense as a kind of overture to the following epic track “Guyana”. In fact, I don’t even see them as two separate tracks but rather consider “Thunderpick” to be the intro to “Guyana”. Consequently, even when I don’t listen to the album as a whole, I hardly ever listen to “Guyana” without playing “Thunderpick” first.

Track number two, “Animals”, features incredibly goofy, sexually charged lyrics but otherwise passes as a solid hard-rocking tune that’s really fun to sing along with. Then again, if you were seriously expecting to find meaningful, thought-provoking or even poetic lyrics on a Manowar album of all places, you must have spent the past thirty years living under some sort of rock. When speaking of lyrics, though, “Sign of the Hammer” nonetheless has to be considered one of Manowar’s best or, if nothing else, least embarrassing efforts. Even the usual self-adulating fare as in “All Men Play on Ten” has a likeable tongue-in-cheek quality to it that makes it a lot more palatable than the many instances when Manowar were seriously touting themselves as THE heaviest, fastest, most brilliant, most uncompromising – in short, most earth-shattering heavy metal band of all time. “Thor (The Powerhead)” is based on Norse mythology, “The Oath” delivers an occult and gore-inspired message and the title track includes some very memorable lines as well. It is the two long tracks, however, which deserve special mention in this regard: as a song title, “Mountains” may sound kind of dumb at first, but the song is not so much about mountaineering or mountains in a physical but more in a metaphorical sense, using mountains as a symbol for human ambition and perseverance. The final track “Guyana (Cult of the Damned)” may even be the band’s best lyrical effort ever, dealing with Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and the mass suicide of his followers in Guyana in 1978. It is a very sinister subject in and of itself and, knowing what really transpired back in the day, the infamous opening line (“Thank you for the Kool-Aid, Reverend Jim”) is downright creepy. Overall, the song serves as a grim and surprisingly thoughtful tale of blind faith and devotion gone horribly wrong.

The production on “Sign of the Hammer” is nothing to write home about, as it sounds quite dated – this was released in 1984 after all – and more than a little muffled, but it serves as one of those examples where an underwhelming production doesn’t detract from the overall quality of an album but rather lends it some additional charm. This is clearly a product of the eighties musically, so that typical early 1980s sound is only fitting.

The cover artwork is somewhat peculiar, sporting a black hammer symbol (the eponymous sign of the hammer, supposedly) in a white square that is tilted by 45 degrees. The square is placed inside a red box displaying the band logo and name of the album, and that box in turn is set against a background that looks distinctively like tree bark. It is a rather curious design, but it is quite unique and easily beats out the legendary band pictures depicting the guys with loin cloths and swords held high, one of which was even put on the front cover of their second album “Into Glory Ride”.

Since the 1980s were arguably the time when Manowar were at their creative peak and “Sign of the Hammer” is an almost flawless album that may well be their best from that period, I would conclude that it also ranks as Manowar’s best album ever – well, at least in my book. To sum it up briefly, this is a true metal classic and a must-have for every metalhead!