Finding their label Music For Nations wanting, presumably puny, Manowar used the budget they were given to record their third album, 1984’s Hail to England, but used it sparingly: covertly working up an additional batch of tracks which they then used to win a record deal with Virgin/Ten Records. Sneakiness aside, Manowar achieved a heroic feat. They had recorded two of the very greatest albums in the history of heavy metal… at the same time.
So here’s the second of those peerless works, Sign Of The Hammer. It’s pure heavy metal, but Manowar’s explosive and idiosyncratic idea of what that might be. Joey DeMaio leads from the front with his humungous bass riffs and leads but the whole band is on stellar form. Eric Adams sings with absolute authority and commitment, Ross The Boss’ wild, off-the-cuff guitar solos are impossibly exciting and Scott Columbus pounds out the drum equivalent of shouting “FRESH HORSES” at the top of your voice. The songwriting is also godly, with opening lines like “black clouds on the horizon” and “burning embers of the second death will come in the night” 100% guaranteed to give all but the false true metal stirrings.
The album is near flawless. All Men Play On Ten and Animals kick the album off like KISS-on-steroids. Thor (The Power Head) is as thunderous and warring as its title suggests. Mountains is elemental in its epic scope and the black wind conjured up in The Oath and the Sign Of The Hammer tips the album into sheer aural chaos. There’s only one chink in the armour here and that’s the bass noodling of Thunderpick. It’s extremely skippable but, as always with Manowar, there’s mad genius at work as the workout proves to be an effective overture to the sublime album closer Guyana (Cult Of The Damned). Eric Adams excels here, delivering an account of mass suicide with chilling and heartbreaking sincerity.
This album has hopped around the top spot of my favourite albums of all time for decades now, vying with that other work of genius Hail To England. There are times when I seriously wonder if I’ve wasted my time listening to other music when I could have been listening to this and, listening to it again now, I reckon I probably was.