The upstate New York metal band Manowar has led a strangely split existence for almost three decades. Though they perform before massive, adoring crowds in Europe, they've never been more than a cult act in their home country. The disconnect has gotten so extreme that bassist and bandleader Joey DeMaio said a couple of years ago that they may never play America again. But when they do play the States, they've shown a particular affection for Northeast Ohio.
The band performed exactly one U.S. show in support of 1992's The Triumph of Steel: at the defunct Flash's here in Cleveland. Four years later, following the release of 1996's Louder Than Hell, they played the Machine in Massillon and filmed a video for their song "Return of the Warlord" at the club.
Given all this, it's a bit surprising that Manowar are playing three U.S. shows this year. It's less surprising that two of them are in Cleveland. The band comes to the Agora this weekend for a two-night stand that will include a complete performance of their debut album, 1982's Battle Hymns, and a greatest-hits set.
And since Manowar have released a series of live DVDs over the years, it's totally possible that the two Agora shows will be filmed for release. (Though, for the record, DeMaio says he's "not sure at this point.")
Even within the metal scene, Manowar's music can be polarizing. Their best songs are pure metal, with anthemic power conveyed through thundering rhythms, screaming guitar leads, Eric Adams' powerful Halford/Plant-style vocals, and DeMaio's prominent and melodic bass lines.
They make no concessions to radio or trends, but if you grew up on classic metal by Dio and Judas Priest, there's plenty to love about Manowar albums like Sign of the Hammer, The Triumph of Steel, and especially Battle Hymns. (If you want a single starting point, their 2007 album Gods of War Live covers almost their entire career.)
On recent albums Warriors of the World and Gods of War, they've balanced headbanging anthems with symphonic interludes and some unexpected covers (check out their take on Elvis' patriotic "An American Trilogy" medley). But late last year, following the return of original drummer Donnie Hamzik, the group scrapped Hammer of the Gods, a concept album they had been working on with German fantasy novelist Wolfgang Hohlbein, and rerecorded their debut, releasing it as Battle Hymns MMXI.
"We didn't go into this thinking we were going to improve Battle Hymns," says DeMaio. "What we did want to do was take advantage of the technology that allows one to make a record today with a lot more power and dynamic range than we were able to back then."
Indeed, the new versions of these songs aren't radical departures from the originals — the mix is slightly different, with more space for DeMaio's virtuosic bass lines and a few '80s-style vocal effects omitted, which lets Adams display the power he's retained (and at times increased) over 30 years of concerts.
There are two major differences between the original and rerecorded versions of Battle Hymns. Orson Welles' original narration on "Dark Avenger" is replaced by a newly recorded one by Christopher Lee. And the title track gained three whole minutes, bringing its total running time to nine minutes on the new CD.
That's merely a result of playing the song onstage for so many years, says DeMaio. "One of the nice things about making a record and being able to perform live is that you have the chance to interpret and reinterpret the songs over the course of years," he says. "And the little things you do sometimes yield interesting and great results."
That may be the first time the words "little things" have been used when talking about Manowar's music. The live show will be as epic as anything in metal, even if they're playing in front of just a few thousand very patient U.S. fans, rather than the 50,000-plus they typically draw in Germany.