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Omen = Conan - 97%

failsafeman, June 27th, 2008

Rather than giving a miniature genealogical lecture on what USPM is and where it came from and what varieties there are with various attendant examples, I’ll spare us both the time and just present a pair of simplified but serviceable similes. White-collar USPM is like Prince Hamlet; it’s intellectual, philosophical, filled with existential angst, preoccupied with mortality, and on occasion even teeters on the brink of insanity (Crimson Glory’s “Lost Reflection” provides us with an apt example of this last quality). Can’t you imagine Geoff Tate or Midnight contemplating Yorick’s skull and wailing out some great high note? On the other hand Blue-collar USPM, if you haven’t guessed from the title of the review, is like Conan the Barbarian. It’s violent, muscular, visceral, and preoccupied with mortality as well; but rather than its own, it’s preoccupied with the mortality of its enemies, people who stand in its way, people who have something it wants, people who may or may not have looked at it funny, and a lot of the time just people at random. Kidding aside, of course one’s own death is still dealt with (this is metal, you can’t spit without hitting a gravestone), on this album by songs such as “Last Rites” and “In the Arena”. But rather than exploring the inherent meaning of death and what it means for us, and musing on the afterlife or lack thereof as white-collar USPM so often does (like in Fates Warning’s “The Apparition”), the blue-collar variety tends to do the reverse in attempting to give death meaning not through what comes afterwards, but what comes before; ideally a life of bravery and large deeds (the gladiator from “In the Arena” may lose, but he does so in a glorious spectacle, while “Last Rites” laments the absence of such glory in the gallows).

Now, don’t let that description lead you to believe that Omen or other blue-collar USPM bands are totally obsessed with morbidity like much of death metal, or sheer violence like a lot of thrash; an equally main theme here is, as I see it, freedom. Now, thrash does exhibit similar leanings, with many bands chafing visibly under the yoke of an oppressive society they hate, and voicing discontent either metaphorically or in many cases quite literally (Watchtower and others sounding sometimes like political talk radio). The difference, however, is that blue-collar USPM usually shows us the other side of the coin; yoke thrown off, freedom attained. Notice how Omen & pals are so energetic and ecstatic? Reminds me of euphoric kids hysterically racing out of school after the bell signals the end of the last day before summer vacation (think of that image next time you listen to Flight of the Griffin). Of course, freedom is not without its price, and there are dangers to be faced and overcome; however, they are almost always things like fell beasts and dread foes, to be defeated through force in cave or battlefield, with glory for the victor and an honorable death for the vanquished. I don’t think the Axeman has ever had to worry about acting nice to asshole customers in order to keep some shit job, or getting his income taxes in on time. “In the days of darkness, man feared not the sword and the lance, nor did he fear the beast of fire; he feared...THE TAXMAN!!!” No, I don’t think so. Of all the blue-collar USPM albums and all the different takes on the style's ideals that I’ve spent the last two paragraphs describing, I believe Battle Cry captures them better than any.

Even with the best of intentions, though, a band can end up with crap; luckily, Omen are more than capable of backing up their claims. When you hear a label plugging some new release as “carrying on the spirit of True Metal,” Omen epitomizes that spirit they’re talking about. They were calling Omen “True Metal” back when they first debuted, and though that term has become watered down these days and has all but lost its original meaning, there are few things that encapsulate Omen’s sound as well. If you take nothing else out of this review, remember “Conan” and “True Metal”, and you’ll still have a good idea of what Battle Cry sounds like. Nevertheless, to delve a little deeper: the first thing anyone will notice is the formidable mid-range bellow of frontman J.D. Kimball. His voice sounds like that of an NWOBHM bellower such as David Potter taken to its logical extreme; Kimball doesn’t bellow or even sing so much as roar melodically. Imagine Lemmy plus early Harry Conklin, and that will get you in the general ballpark. Yeah, Kimball’s been smoking and drinking for years and it shows (even moreso on subsequent albums), but living large hasn’t dampened his energy or power here in the least. Is it any wonder the man died long before retirement age? I’d be willing to bet he lived more in his relatively short life than most people would if they made it to a hundred and fifty. I could throw around more names to compare to Kimball, but I’d just be blowing smoke up your ass because no one compares to his combination of style, power, and charisma; he’s easily one of my favorite metal singers. As for the foundations of the album, the chunky, catchy riffs are an interesting and effective amalgamation of the inevitable NWOBHM influence, American proto-power stuff like Riot and Manowar, and a touch of thrash and speed; guitarist Kenny Powell was previously in Savage Grace, and it shows. Apparently he even wrote the songs “Battle Cry” and “Die by the Blade” for his former band, but Savage Grace didn’t want them! Their loss. Little lead-bits are thrown in here and there, too, but they’re not really typical; just listen to that opening segment of “Death Rider”, and try to tell me that’s an NWOBHM ripoff. Finally we have the production, and hot damn, in 1984 you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better. The mix is perfect, the guitar tone is nice and meaty, Kimball’s voice is front-and-center without drowning anything out, and even the bass is clearly audible. How they lucked into such a great sound I don’t know, but it’s the proverbial icing on the cake; what is a weakness in many USPM albums is one of Battle Cry’s strengths.

The songs themselves are generally in a brisk, aggressive, minor-key vein, typified by such gems as “Death Rider” and “The Axeman”. However, they deviate quite a bit here and there, with the excellent “Last Rites” being a bit slower; it goes for a “Hallowed Be Thy Name” kind of thing in terms of mood and lyrics (which I discussed back in the first paragraph), albeit from a slightly more detached narrative perspective rather than that of the condemned himself. It’s not quite as godly as Iron Maiden’s lengthy masterpiece, but then at under four minutes it’s clearly not trying to be either. “Dragon’s Breath” brings us back to the more upbeat mood of the opening two, and is yet another excellent song. After that we have “Be My Wench”, which is a point of some contention among fans, due to the sexual lyrical content; however, to me, it fits right in with their image in a way few other bands have been able to do with such subject matter. Rather than stumbling through cliché relationship nonsense or the “woman, you so fine” rock/pop holdover crap that metal usually descends to for such songs, Omen again bring to mind Conan with Kimball’s sheer violent, animal lust. Holding up the improved lyrics is the musical side of things, which is just as aggressive as on any of their other songs. Manowar didn’t get in touch with their feminine sides and talk about their feelings when they were raping daughters and wives, and neither do Omen. “Torture Me”, the band’s contribution to Metal Massacre V and a bonus track after “Be My Wench” on my version, is also in this same vein, except with an S&M flair. Again, a good take on romance without losing the metal aesthetic.

And then there is the title track. It’s easily one of the best of the album, and there’s just something so catchy about it that when I’m actually hearing it I have to drop everything and sing along; not with just that great gang chorus, but the entire thing. When I’m not even listening to it I still get the urge sometimes. A SMELL OF DEATH LINGERS IN THE AIR, BLOODSTAINED BODIES SCATTERED EVERYWHERE!!! Sorry, I couldn’t contain myself. The recurring shriek of “Battle CRRYYYYYYY” especially is awesome. “Die by the Blade” is another quality song in the vein of the first couple, but maybe not quite as legendary. “Prince of Darkness” however is better, especially the chorus (“do you know his name??”). “Bring out the Beast” is another one like “Be My Wench”, but unfortunately I’ve always found it to be a bit dull. It’s nothing blatant, just for some reason the spark that lights the rest of the songs seems to be absent here; this is compounded by the fact that it’s the second-longest song on the album at 4:10. However, all is quickly forgiven and forgotten when the clean minor-key intro to “In the Arena” ominously kicks into the pounding main riff. The atmosphere of this one is just really strong, with the melancholy hopelessness combining with the violence necessary to survive (of course, the gladiator in question doesn’t, adding to the poignancy of the song). Somehow it manages to be very epic while being just over 4 minutes long, and it’s one of those songs that feels a lot longer than it is, in a good way; the atmosphere sucks you in such that it feels timeless. A perfect end to a near-perfect album.

Speaking of track length, that’s something else Omen are very good at here; they know when to end a song, and don’t overextend any ideas (with the lamentable exception of “Bring out the Beast”, as I mentioned above). That is certainly a major contributing factor to the quality of the album, as the band knows that more isn’t always better, and that simplicity can be just as effective as complexity when done right. It’s a common misconception among metal bands and fans that a song must be long to be epic, but Omen prove that’s simply not true. I’d take any of the short-but-sweet songs here over some overblown “epic” like “Alexander the Great” or the ones Rhapsody write any day of the week. Every song is polished until it shines with class, and there is nothing misplaced or ill-advised in the songwriting; you can just tell the band members have a tremendous chemistry together and are not only all on the same page, but the very same letter as well.

One thing I’ve seen Omen accused of is being cliché, which to a certain extent is true; they do display a lot of the metal archetypes prominently (sword & sorcery-style fantasy lyrics, with dragonslaying, barbarians, etc.), but they do so with such skill and vigor that, despite conventional themes, I don’t think anyone could reasonably accuse them of being boring or even cheesy (besides, back in 1984 such themes were much less conventional in metal than they are today). Hell, over all the years I’ve owned this album I literally hadn’t even considered the possibility of anyone (let alone me) thinking of it as cheesy until I started writing this very review; Omen are just so dead serious that you believe everything without question. There is a review of Conan the Barbarian (the movie) that has a section in it which I found applies wonderfully to Battle Cry as well.

“The cool thing about Conan The Barbarian is how it takes its silly, episodic, and cartoonish story, and not only presents it straight, but presents it as if it were The Greatest Story of All Time. Conan, Cimmeria, and all of the other creations were never anything more than the product of the imagination of a drunk Texan, but director John Milius (who co-wrote the script with Oliver Stone) presents it all as if it’s a ‘real’ mythology - and what are myths, if not silly, episodic, and cartoonish? The important thing about myths is that once, people believed every word, and took it more seriously than their next meal. Conan the Barbarian is presented with absolutely no doubt about its stature among the greatest stories ever told.” – Brian J. Wright on Conan the Barbarian

Yes, Battle Cry is without a doubt one of the greatest metal albums, and one of my personal favorites as well. I bought it sometime in 2004 when I stumbled across the 3 disc reissue in a mall in Berlin; having recently started delving into odd corners of metal, I was inevitably smitten by the album art, replete with amateurishly drawn yet nevertheless enticing skull-headed barbarians standing amidst the fruits of slaughter. It was probably my third or fourth USPM album overall, and at that point I doubt I had even heard the term “USPM” before. Four years and many, many albums later (USPM and otherwise), and it’s still one of my favorites. Rather than diminishing in the face of countless comparisons, it’s only grown in my estimation; to me, the definition of a classic is something you can hold up to unbiased scrutiny time and time again and come away with high praise on each occasion. Battle Cry fits that description without a doubt.