[dropcap]H[/dropcap]eavy metal, as a competitive genre battlefield, is like an enormous mountain of sand: just as an act thinks that they’ve discovered a pathway to the top, the floor beneath them collapses. To some, the route to the top is blinding speed, or raging virtuosity, or relentless grimness and gore; but for almost all who choose one of these routes to metal victory, the destination is often not the top but an Anvil-esque hell of fading glory, obsolescence and irrelevance.
Because to succeed in metal, you must change, but not change; be ridiculous, but be not ridiculous; comprehend your own stupidity, and yet be bullheaded in your own self-seriousness. In short, success in metal requires a heart of steel, and there is no band whose legacy represents steel-hearted heavy metal at its purist than Auburn, New York legends Manowar, who a quarter-century ago today released their pinnacle statement, 1988’s Kings Of Metal.
Auburn is a pretty rinky-dink town in Central New York; a sweep through reveals sad outdated strip malls surrounding a depressing downtown containing numerous landmarks to a long-gone Gilded Age heyday and a sizeable prison. About 35 miles southwest from Auburn finds you in an even sadder downtown mecca, Cortland, the childhood home of Ronald Padavona a/k/a Ronnie James Dio.
Like Dio before them, Joey DeMaio and Louis Marullo were teenage opera buffs who got seduced into the burgeoning world of ’70s hard rock as a way to escape their small town depression. DeMaio managed to turn his time in an early-’70s touring version of Godspell into a gig working pyrotechnics for the Dio-era Sabbath; when Dio himself introduced DeMaio to guitarist Ross Friedman a/k/a Ross The Boss, a staggeringly talented shredmeister who had been a founding member of NYC punk legends Dictators (and who was at the time playing guitar for Sabbath support act Shakin’ Street), the origin of Manowar commenced.
DeMaio drafted his high school buddy Marullo because he was the one guy who could hit the Ian Gillen-esque high notes required for the heavy metal libretto that he was dreaming up with Ross. Marullo rechristened himself Eric Adams, and it wasn’t long before their first demo began attracting attention amongst the heavy metal cognoscenti.
DeMaio, Friedman, Marullo, all were old and wizened vets by the time they put together Manowar: DeMaio had a decade in the biz both onstage and behind the curtain; Friedman had transitioned from early-’70s CBGB grime to stadium big-timing; and Marullo was old enough to have released singles with his teenage garage band in the mid-’60s (when he formed Manowar, his stage name is derived from the names of his children).
When Manowar finally hit the big time in the early-to-mid-’80s, metal was largely composed of dumb teenage hicks from America’s heartland just off the bus at the Hollywood Strip. But Manowar weren’t filled with desperate teenage ambition: they were men with experience, talent and a mission.
Metal wasn’t a party, it was a sword in the stone to be pulled out only by those worthy of the genre’s legacy.
Manowar revealed themselves over the next eight years as a band willing to do ridiculous things in the service of metal’s glory: bounding in front of audiences made up like a Frank Frazetta fantasy, standing atop stages literally made of amplifiers, Manowar conflated a self-serious pursuit of honor in (fictitious) battle with a cartoon-ish slobbering lust for amplified volume.
Early-’80s metal is often heralded today for its NWOBHM-derived shift away from Tolkien-esque fantasy, and thrash metal’s Big Four explored depression, anxiety and global conflict in song. Manowar, then, were the complete opposite, creating a world in their music that existed entirely outside of the world of its creators and listeners. Few ’80s teenaged boys had experience hefting a broadsword or knew anything of the weighty responsibility of being the king of a land, and yet there is something universally adolescent about the mindset that can pen lines like “May your sword stay wet like a young girl in her prime.”
Manowar’s aesthetic was as cheesy as the special effects in Conan (and often as disturbing as a John Norman Gor novel), but was a million miles away from the strip club lingerie-clad eyeliner crew that represented heavy metal to the millions of mid-’80s MTV addicts.
Much is made of Manowar’s open quest to officially become the loudest band in the world — indeed, they made the Guinness Book of World Recordsfor a 1984 show that hit over 129 dB, before Guinness decided that having the category encouraged hearing damage. But Manowar’s legacy is forged far more from the band’s figurative loudness than the actual number of decibels — you can crank Kings of Metal and turn the volume knob up or down, but you can’t avoid the band’s stylistic brashness. The operatic shrieks, the trem-picks speed duels, the string-laden melodrama, the hammer-blow riffage stomp: Manowar’s music, at least during the band’s initial run, distinguished itself from a sea of metal competitors by being clean, clear, and true to a mission of heavy metal bombast.
DeMaio and Co. may have obsessively quested for speed and loudness, but their music never hid behind a cloak of noise or incomprehensible din, like so many of their time. More importantly, Manowar were not afraid to be capital-D dumb.
Kings of Metal wasn’t just the pinnacle of the band’s career, it was the end of an era for them — on tour in support of the record, DeMaio foolishly fired Ross The Boss, citing irreconcilable differences. Without Ross, Manowar continued to be ridiculous, perhaps even more ridiculous than before, but without the chops and Ross’s wicked sense of comic overload that he brought to Manowar from his Dictators days.
The Boss-less Manowar somehow managed the seemingly impossible feat of becoming parodies of themselves, which isn’t easy for a band that was already a parody of a parody of a parody. That said, it’s hard to imagine Manowar being able to top Kings of Metal, even with Ross, as the ’80s turned to the ’90s.
As rock and metal went through the grotesque ugliness of ’90s culture, culminating in the complete debasement of music that was late-’90s nü-metal, the ’80s work of Manowar revealed a more triumphant path for metal greatness. As 2000s metal bands looked for a way out of the wreckage of nü-metal, Manowar’s ’80s victory laps provided a blueprint for everyone from High On Fire to Amon Amarth.
Raising the blade and shrieking “Hail and kill” seemed less and less ridiculous with each passing year. In a sense, Manowar’s problem during its initial run was that it was difficult to be both legendary warriors of metal and a new band on the scene; for Manowar to truly come into their own, their metal conquests had to fade into time, to become forgotten as current albums but be revered as sacred texts of legendary metal.
With Kings of Metal, the band in some ways wrote their own epitaph, capping nearly a decade of metal skirmishing with odes to final battles and noble sacrifice. Quoth DeMaio in “The Crown And The Ring (Lament Of The Kings)”:
Odin I await thee
Your true son am I
I hail you now as I die
I pledge you my sword and to no man I kneel
Ours is the kingdom of steel
A quarter-century on, let us all hoist a chalice to the ever-looming legacy of this metal kingdom — long may its legend live on in our hearts and souls of fire and steel.