Sign of the Hammer
Released: 1984, 10 Records
Reviewer: Michael De Los Muertos
Like the origin of man, the meaning of life and what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, the question of what is the best Manowar album is one of those vexing inquiries that flexes every philosophical muscle in your head when you start thinking about it, yet it never really seems to have a solid answer. I’ve decided to give up trying to solve it, because such a solid case can be made for KINGS OF METAL or THE TRIUMPH OF STEEL (or this one) that you end up splitting hairs. So I’ll settle the controversy in my own mind with a somewhat more limited answer, and say that, if SIGN OF THE HAMMER is not the best Manowar album, it’s my personal favorite.
Let’s be honest. Like most Manowar fans, I’m obsessed. Turn on any Manowar album and I’m instantly transformed into a raging, maniacal, dogmatic fiend, total and vociferous in devotion and adulation, blinded to the merits of any other band, and murderously intolerant of even the smallest word of criticism about the Kings of Metal. This is not so unusual among Manowar fans, as even Manowar detractors admit. There’s something truly spiritual about their form of metal that makes it possible to forgive (and even support) things like wearing leather bikini briefs on-stage, loincloths and furry leg warmers on album covers, and foisting upon the world atrocities like the unforgettable “Gloves of Metal” video that still sets the ultimate benchmark for power-metallic “cheese” that not even Bal-Sagoth, Rhapsody or HammerFall have yet equaled. SIGN OF THE HAMMER, while something of the sleeper in Manowar’s catalogue, in many ways embodies their spirit more completely than any other album, while still having enough ties to the non-Manowar world (is there such a thing?) to warrant serious attention even by fans who are not as obsessed with Manowar as I am.
The standard, metal-kicks-ass, wimps-and-posers-leave-the-hall anthems get over with very early. “All Men Play On 10” and “Animals” aren’t much different than Manowar’s other songs of this stripe. The really special stuff starts with track three, “Thor The Powerhead,” a pounding hymn to Viking wotanism that ends with a monstrous 31-second vibrato screech by the one and only Eric Adams. Then comes “Mountains” (more later on that), and the title track, another anthem. The frenetic “The Oath” – a fast, punishing song even by Manowarian standards – precedes another Manowar convention, the interesting instrumental, “Thunderpick” in this case. And the final act – the seven-minute epic “Guyana (Cult of the Damned),” a dirgey saga about the evil cult of Jim Jones that committed mass suicide in the South American jungle. What’s interesting and unique about SIGN OF THE HAMMER is that it’s very minimalist. It’s Manowar’s most stripped-down, unelaborate, raw-sounding album ever – essentially Manowar’s AND JUSTICE FOR ALL. The production on this album is horrific. Hurriedly made in 1984 on a shoestring budget, many of these songs sound stunted by the shameful flatness of the production quality, but Manowar still manages to deliver quite a punch despite those obstacles. Only superior bands can do that.
The two centerpieces of this album are the epics. “Mountains,” track four, starts out like a ballad but turns into more of an epic, sprouting heaviness at the start of the chorus in an explosion of sound that is the whole album’s most powerful moment. The opening ballady parts are, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful lines ever sung in metal. This song melds soft, emotional mellowness with an inspiring power that only metal can deliver, and it does it artfully and perfectly. When I hear “Mountains” in my mind I’m forever in some small, dimly-lit smoky metal club on a wintry evening, pondering the deepness of the universe and the strength that lies buried in our souls. I’ve never felt so shaped or defined or so perfectly expressed by the spirit of metal than I have when listening to this song, and that is the honest truth.
“Guyana” is less gut-grabbing emotional, but certainly no less impressive. Joey DiMaio’s astonishing bass talent is never more finely showcased, and the haunting, pounding melody that appears once the song gets started sounds like nothing less than the armies of darkness gathering to march on the world. A sense of sorrow graces this song too, and that’s part of its magic; but it’s viscerally powerful too, especially through Eric Adams’s tremendous singing, right up until the frenzied a capella war cry that abruptly ends the song and the album. That thirty-minute Achilles business on THE TRIUMPH OF STEEL has nothing on the seven minutes of “Guyana,” in my opinion. With the exception of the poor production, there was never a finer Manowar epic ever recorded than this.
This album is tough to find. Perhaps an enterprising label has snapped it up for a reissue, but the last time I checked it was out of print. If you see it, buy it. It may take a while, but SIGN OF THE HAMMER may become your favorite Manowar album – and if you’re not careful, Manowar may become your favorite band. Perish the thought! Now where’s my loincloth?