Metal is an absurd theater, when you stop and think about it. Much of the music we love is played with unwavering conviction, as though an amplifier turned up high enough can actually transmit the music to the Gods. It sounds stupid, but it's exactly why we become fans, and why we stay involved with the scene, no matter how many people may point and laugh at the more outlandish escapades of our heroes. Metal has a long history of being cheesy, over-the-top, and utterly ridiculous, and no band has ever been so guilty as Manowar. The truest of true metal warriors, the foursome has endured lineup changes, culture shifts, and the sands of time to become not just an elder statesman of the scene, but one of metal's longest running jokes.
As a fan of heavy music who comes from a town with no scene to speak of, the revelation that the mighty Manowar sprung from the same ground I live upon was amazing. Here were heroes who were able to conquer the world from my own little corner of it. The pull was like the local sports team, where for inexplicable reasons you want so badly to love them. And for a long while, Manowar was able to inspire that kind of devotion. The classic era of the band, with Ross the Boss, was one of the blueprints upon which 'true metal' was erected. The later incarnations of the band became more and more laughable for not changing with the times, but nostalgia was enough to wash down the rehashed songs they continued to pound out. Even their Odin-themed concept record had enough bravado to look past the absurdity of four guys from upstate New York writing songs about Norse mythology.
Like all jokes, there comes a time when they're no longer funny, when hearing them over and over again makes the punchline a groan instead of a laugh. For Manowar, that time has finally come. “The Lord Of Steel” is the perfect encapsulation of everything that could possibly go wrong with a Manowar album. In the run-up to release bassist and band leader Joey DeMaio said “this album is going to sound like... somebody put gasoline on your fucking balls and lit it.” I couldn't have written a more apt description of the pain this album causes.
“The Lord Of Steel” is cliché after cliché, forty-five minutes of recycling that eventually becomes circular. By the time “Hail Kill And Die” finishes the album by recalling past glories throughout the lyrics, it is apparent that the band is clinging to the past as much as we are. They write songs about their fans (“Manowarriors”), about war and violence (“Annihilation”), and of course, about steel. Heavy metal is not just the type of music they adhere to, it's far too often their lyrical content. It would be funny, if the joke wasn't so terrible.
The one thing that could always be said about Manowar is that no matter how ridiculous their image, Joey DeMaio's ability to play the bass and Eric Adams' voice could never be questioned, especially the latter. Adams still puts forth a valiant effort, but may be the only saving grace for the album. Criticism of the epic nature of their last album made Manowar strip the sound down this time, making “The Lord Of Steel” as bare-bones as can be. The album is ten tracks of thundering metal that tries so hard to be heavy that it becomes as effective as an actor in blackface. DeMaio makes the baffling decision to drown his bass in a wash of fuzz, making it sound as though the electronics shorted out during recording. The effect is so distracting it makes the songs impossible to listen to during the all-too-common sections where the guitars drop out to make room for DeMaio to take the lead.
Even this could be forgiven, though not forgotten, if the songs delivered. Unfortunately, Manowar appears to have lost the creative spark. Instead of sounding like impending doom marching closer, the songs plod along with lethargic energy, the drums and bass rarely breaking up the four/four monotony, a staple of their sound. None of the tracks offer the kind of epic shout-along choruses that characterized their best works, leaving Adams nothing to work with. His voice is fine, but can't propel the songs that barely exist.
“El Gringo”, the first single released, is the rare instance of a song that finds its footing. The riffs are stock, and the chorus doesn't soar, but it has enough charm to stand out. Still, everything on the album feels like leftovers from better albums, failing to reach the level of quality even the bonus tracks from the “Warriors Of The World” era managed. It's second rate Manowar music, but with first-rate self-promotion.
Ultimately, “The Lord Of Steel” is exactly what Manowar haters have been waiting for, the moment the music could no longer justify the image. This isn't music that's harder that steel, nor is it true heavy metal. Metal was always about writing what was in your heart, being true to yourself no matter what people thought about you. Manowar, especially now, is an act, and “The Lord Of Steel” is their worst performance. The metal gods have fallen back to earth, fallen hard. Welcome home.