Review Summary: A celebration, not a replacement
Metalheads share a certain principle, which dictates that no one should ever mess with their classics. This interdiction concerns even the very same artists who originally recorded any of these classics; even they, should be careful about the way they treat a record their fans regard as a masterpiece. This is why re-recording a heavy metal album can be a double-edged knife. It worked quite well in Testament’s case, where the band’s post-2000 version added extra force to two albums which didn’t lack quality, but lacked personality. It also worked really fine in Flotsam and Jetsam’s case, given that the re-recorded No Place for Disgrace benefited from Eric A.K.'s gracefully aged, thrashed-up voice and its modern production. Exodus on the other hand didn’t quite honor their debut when re-recording it, mainly because Paul Balloff’s one of a kind vocals proved to be more than integral in Bonded by Blood’ ultimate success.
As far as Manowar is concerned, Battle Hymns MMXI did justice to an album which needed the new version’s production values more than any other Manowar album. Instead of a hyper-excited gang, it demonstrated a confident band which performed heavy metal from the early 80s but in a modern way that prevented it from sounding dated or tired.
Now, over the years, it seems that the majority of Manowar’s fans see Kings of Metal as their favorite album. Objectively, it doesn’t even come close to being the best Manowar possible, but it did spring some of the band’s bona fide classics; Heart of Steel is indeed one of heavy metal’s trademark ballads; The Crown and The Ring, stripped of anything metal, relies on the only sure card in Manowar’s deck, Eric Adams, who delivers an amazing performance; finally, Hail and Kill is instantly recognizable Manowar, a live staple and honestly the most probable reason why Kings of Metal is held at such a high esteem among Manowar fans.
It also was a surprisingly diverse album, given that it started with an amazing thrasher, Wheels of Fire, featured standard British Steel-like heavy metal such as the title track, a ballad, a mostly orchestral song (The Crown and The Ring), a bass solo from DeMaio, galloping power metal in the Blood of The Kings and the downright epic of Hail and Kill. This is where Manowar dared to experiment with choirs, which appeared mostly over choruses. Overall, this is a record that, stylistically, didn’t really go that far from Fighting the World, (which somewhat reduced the epic element in their sound) but corrected some of its faults, especially the powerless, empty production and the mostly uninspired, commercial tensions of nearly the whole first side of Fighting The World.
Kings of Metal MMXIV finds the band approaching the original more freely than they did with Battle Hymns. This is understandable, given that the original album had already a masterful production, having made good use of every possible aid from contemporary technology. So Manowar do treat this version of Kings of Metal as a collection of songs forged in the fire of live performances for 25 years. There are times Manowar don’t really care to create dynamics as long as they can’t be delivered live; for example, while the original Wheels of Fire had several guitar and voice overdubs over the chorus which accentuated the fact that it was a chorus indeed, in the new version the chorus is flat, closer to the way it would sound when performed live. Also, the acoustic part in Hail and Kill is the one they play live, and so is the - once played with piano, now with acoustic guitars- intro to Heart of Steel. They don’t get completely loose however, they never do. The production is really heavy, the instruments down-tuned, the power is overwhelming. For the most part, this approach absolutely delivers, especially in the more aggressive side of Kings of metal, such as in Wheels of Fire, Hail and Kill and Blood of the Kings, but it doesn’t work out at all let’s say, for the title track, where Manowar can’t reconcile all the heaviness with the rock ’n’ roll feeling of this song.
Inevitably, the spotlight falls on Eric Adams, who now, and we must not lose sight of this fact, counts 62 years of age. In the mellow parts he is absolutely astonishing. You will definitely wish that there were more acoustic parts in Hail and Kill, a longer melodic section in Heart of Steel and that The Crown and the Ring would never end. When it comes to aggression, he is again absolutely reliable, only, he avoids stretching his voice too much; the chorus to Heart of Steel is, save for the last line in each chorus, not melodic at all, and in Blood of the Kings he rasps, but clearly feels more secure in the lower range of his vocals.
All of the above considered, the best performed song in Kings of Metal MMXIV is an outsider; Kingdome Come was already a very interesting case in Manowar’s career, because it had ballad-like vocals over heavy, rhythmic riffs. In the new version, the production underlined the heaviness, while Adams’ good form in the more melodic parts overall and his carefully performed multi-layered vocals makes that contrast of power and sensitivity, a wonderful surprise.
All in all, having listened to this new version of Manowar’s 1988 outing, one’s opinion on Kings of Metal shouldn’t change drastically. This new re-recorded version isn’t as successful as the one to Battle Hymns, and Manowar never manage to make quite clear what they’re trying to pull with this. It definitely doesn’t fall sort compared to the original, it is just not absolutely necessary. As a result, the key to enjoying this record lies obviously in the admission that Kings of Metal MMXIV doesn’t try to replace the original, it only celebrates it.