I can’t think of many metal instrumentals I would pick out as album highlights but here’s one: Final Gates, from Running Wild’s 1988 pirate metal classic Port Royal. Written by, and showcasing, Running Wild’s new bassist Jens Becker, Final Gates is a cut above: avoiding the usual pitfalls of skippable atmospheric scene-setting or virtuoso showboating. Instead, it’s a track that stands on its own: creative and restrained with wonderful guitar solos and Becker going all Geddy Lee on some infuriatingly catchy bass lines. It’s a wonderful, funky odd-man-out amidst a bounty of power metal swashbuckling.
Manowar once pledged “if you don’t strap your nuts to your leg, they’re going to get blown off.” On their latest release, 2019’s The Final Battle I, it seems like the straps are now optional. The EP is inspired by the “legions of loyal Manowarriors” and they, like me, will find it enjoyable enough. It sounds great, the orchestral intro is quite stirring, Blood And Steel is the heroic pumper and SwordOf The Highlands is the elegiac (if overly Hobbit-y) ballad. Closing track You Shall Die Before I Die even turns the clock back to the band’s doomier early days. But there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before, better. I’ll tap my feet and hum along but where’s the guts? Where’s the glory? Why are my unstrapped nuts still safely intact? This is supposedly the first EP of a trilogy. But two years on, there hasn’t been a follow-up and I’d hate this to be the last thing the Kings Of Metal put out. Come on Manowar! Stop preaching to the converted. Defy the naysayers, kill all the unbelievers. Give us part two and, this time, fucking go down fighting and take all the false metal with you. Blood! BLOOOOD!!
Back to 1989 for a song that puts the “power” into power metal. It’s German legends Helloween with a storming version of How Many Tears from their Live In The U.K. album. It’s a full-on assault of pounding vrrrs, grrrs and drrrs. The riffs are Scorpions-on-steroids, late drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg is on ferocious form and when the intro riff returns after a dreamy interlude it manages the impossible feat of being even more gigantic than before.
It’s also a thrill to hear Michael Kiske add his high-flying vocal stamp to a song originally sung by the grittier Kai Hansen (who just plays guitar here). And I believe this is the last recording to feature both Kiske and Hansen until they reunited with the band in 2017. Both are set to appear on the band’s new studio album Helloween, released 18th June. If the album is even half as good as this then I’ll be one happy pumpkin.
They were an unknown band at the time but that didn’t stop Manowar from securing the services of screen legend Orson Welles who (clearly recognising that he was in the midst of fellow geniuses) agreed to record narration for their debut album: 1982’s Battle Hymns. His narration was used on that album’s Dark Avenger but in the same session Welles also recorded two more pieces: a cool stage intro (that the band has used ever since) and narration for a strange and glorious second song, Defender.
Mostly spoken word set to music, it’s the kind of thing other bands would have used to flesh out an album. But Manowar are not “other bands” so Defender was released as a non-album single in 1983. Not the kind of stuff to tear up the charts but a great introduction to Manowar’s barbarian muscle metal. Windswept Conan tones in the mellow intro, Welles’ baritone gravitas, that killer “ride like the wind” chorus and goosebumps galore when vocalist Eric Adams finally chips in.
I slightly prefer the more direct, streamlined Fighting The World version from 1987 (which used the same narration but re-recorded and rearranged the rest of the song) but the original has its own appeal. It almost sounds like a metallized take on classic Kansas with Adams’ soaring vocals and Ross The Boss’ bluesier guitar solo. And best of all it has a longer, more epic atmosphere with the “Tree Of Woe” vibe that characterized the band’s early work. It’s a must-hear and a must-have rarity for any Manowar fan. This is the music God has sent.
The joyous glory of the middle eight. Is there anything better? I’m talking about the section, usually 8-bars in length and two thirds of the way into the song, that introduces a new element and adds a new layer of feeling and meaning. One famous example would be the “looks like nothing’s gonna change” vocal part in (Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay.
Metal artists will often use guitar solos, rifferamas and mosh-friendly breakdowns to get that variety and shifting intensity into their songs and we all know our favourite examples of those. But what about the classic vocal middle eights in metal? Here’s a great one: Gamma Ray’s Lust For Life. Taken from their debut album Heading For Tomorrow, it’s a definitive power metal track with all the happy hallmarks of the genre. It’s already intense stuff but, following a superb and sprawling guitar solo, vocalist Ralf Scheepers whooooaas into a middle eight that takes the track into a transcendent area of giant awesomeness. It’s the best part of the song and it just wouldn’t be the same without it. Maybe it’s that uplifting or transcendent feeling that isn’t always a great fit for metal songs, especially as you get into the more extreme echelons. But on a track called Lust For Life it’s just what the doctor ordered.
I’m instantly thinking of other great ones (like the “take my hand” section in Maiden’s Heaven Can Wait) but what are your favourites? Let me know in the comments.
Saxon concluded their 90s catalogue in robust fashion with the aptly-titled Metalhead. It continued the dark, heavy vein of 1997’s Unleash The Beast but with a vigour and confidence bolstered by a traditional metal renaissance in Europe.
The crushing metal chugs and ominous tones of tracks like Metalhead and Are We Travellers In Time have a contemporary edge but also a technicality to the riffage that bulldozers away the boozier, spritlier charm of the band’s early days. But Saxon’s spirit and songcraft remains. Even at its heaviest, the album sports durable melodies and there’s a welcome lighter touch and variety on songs like the bouncy Prisoner, grooving What Goes Around and the proggy Sea Of Life. It’s not all gleaming and modern: the Saxon traditions of headbanging and tales of olde are upheld in the thrilling All Guns Blazing and the rousing Conquistador.
Some inevitable clunkers (Piss Off and the forgettable Watching You) and a sense of solid proficiency prevent it ranking alongside inspired classics like Power & The Glory. But with Metalhead Saxon made their stongest, timeliest statement of the decade. I’ll bang my head to that.
*Worth pointing out that Nigel Glockler had left (again) due to injury, replaced by Fritz Randow. But you won’t notice the difference.
Twilight Of The Gods were formed as an all-star Bathory tribute act featuring the likes of Mayhem’s Blasphemer, Primordial’s Alan Averill and blast legend Nick Barker. In 2013 they took the plunge and released their own album of irony-free epic metal Fire On The Mountain.
It’s a treat to hear a black metal veteran take on the chest-beating, anthemic style of Manowar, Manilla Road, Omen and the like but it’s all a bit too sincere. There’s a pervading doom-laden vibe that works well on the moodier tracks like the Primordial-like Children Of Cain and the apocalyptic Sword Of Damocles, but the more anthemic efforts like Preacher Man and Destiny Forged In Blood prove a bit too stiff for comfort.
Alan Averill’s unique voice adds much-needed charisma, his lyrics are a lot of fun (“Van Stahrenberg stands with the Holy See of the Roman Empire”) and the band does a sterling job of launching into Maiden-style instrumental jousts, most notably on the rousing title track.
Fire On The Mountain places pretty low in the pantheon when stacked up against the classic bands that inspired it but there are enough great moments here to make it disappointing that they haven’t followed it up with a second album. It’s a solid effort for fans of the main players and for anyone that likes their metal with a bit of hair on its chest.
I’m not a big fan of the most recent Virgin Steele album Nocturnes Of Hellfire & Damnation but I still occasionally hanker for it. The opener Lucifer’s Hammer is classic chest-beating metal and Persephone is a grand retelling of the Greek myth that ranks up with the band’s best material. And do any of you remember the mysteriously anonymous 80s speed metal band Exorcist? Well, it turns out they were Virgin Steele all along and on this album they finally own up to it, reworking two Exorcist songs Queen Of The Dead and Black Mass in power metal fashion. It’s great stuff and a lot more rifftastic than the preceding VS album The Black Light Bacchanalia. But that album had a romantic, overblown grandiosity that proved fascinating and rewarding and Nocturnes Of Hellfire & Damnation has none of that richness or consistency. The shifts from the Exorcist tracks to piano balladry like Hymns To Damnation to bizarre raunch metal like Demolition Queen and Glamour make for a disjointed listen and the overlong arrangements and dark, moody atmosphere means promising tracks like Delirium and Devilhead come across as dreary. If you’re a Virgin Steele acolyte like me there are just enough bright spots here to make it worth your time but everyone else will find Nocturnes a long, colourless night that will most likely send them to sleep.
Riot’s history as a band is the stuff of metal legend, thanks to decades of perseverance through bad breaks and tragedy. But musically I’ve been largely unfamiliar with the band’s career beyond the early Guy Speranza-fronted albums of the late 70s/early 80s. With the passing of founding guitarist Mark Reale in 2012 there is now no-one left from those early days. But the US band, respectfully renamed Riot V due to Reale’s passing, have vowed to carry on his good work.
And on their latest album Armor Of Light they do a pretty good job of it. Like a more polished version of 1988’s Thundersteel, it’s upbeat melodic power metal akin to Gamma Ray or Dragonforce. Todd Michael Hall’s soaring Kiske-esque vocals deliver some instantly memorable choruses with high-flying aplomb. Songs like Victory, End Of The World, Heart Of A Lion and Angel’s Thunder, Devil’s Reign sound like the sort of warring, singalong stuff that will go over a storm at festivals. The guitar soloing is superb too: jousting, harmonized Helloween-type stuff.
But there isn’t quite enough killer riffing here, and it all starts to go through the motions in the second half. The band is too content to chug along with the double-kicks, and many potentially interesting parts are drowned out by the relentless drums. But there’s good pure metal fun to be had here. The first side is a blast, I guarantee you a good two or three songs that will instantly embed in your brain and warrant further listens. A solid effort rather than a great one; but if the goal is to uphold the legacy of Reale and Riot then it achieves its aim. I definitely want to catch up and hear more.
Unleash The Beast, Saxon’s thirteenth studio album and the first to feature the band’s current line-up, finds the band dialling up the kind of heaviness previously hinted at on older tracks like Altar Of The Gods, Battle Cry and Dogs Of War.
As usual for Saxon, this 1997 album’s big classic is the title-track: a brilliant thrasher with a chorus hewn from pure gold. But the harder edge comes at the expense of the band’s usual chemistry and charisma. The serious mood fits songs like the dark, grooving Cut Out The Disease and the moody, slow-burner The Preacher. But songs like Ministry Of Fools and The Thin Red Line fall strangely flat when they should be uplifting. The driving Terminal Velocity, uncannily catchy Circle Of Light and vigorously rowdy All Hell’s Breaking Loose inject much-needed sparks of excitement but can’t quite lift the album into the classic zone.
Its po-faced proficiency makes it one to appreciate rather than love but Saxon’s consistency and focus impresses and this was a crucial album for them. As well as unleashing the beast, they ushered in a new era, finding a style and purpose that would restore their credibility and serve them well for years to come. The story of modern Saxon starts here.