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Manowar: "People can think we're idiots..."

Manowar have spent over 30 years traversing the world, but it's Russia where their brand of metal really rings true

“The first date of this tour was actually sponsored by a gentleman whose son’s greatest wish was to see Manowar perform in his hometown, but the boy died at a very young age. It was interesting, to meet the father and hear the story. It was heavy-duty stuff. Can you imagine that? We were technically brought to that town because of one kid who really loved our music. That’s pretty deep, man.”

Never underestimate the power of heavy metal. As easy as it is to be cynical when it comes to our genre and its most ridiculous excesses, the positive and inspirational effect that metal plainly has on millions of people around the world is easy enough to see if you make the effort.

And it’s hard to imagine a more potent demonstration of the power of heavy metal than the spectacle of Manowar performing to a horde of rabid acolytes in Moscow, Russia. Metal Hammer has been invited here by band co-founder Joey DeMaio himself, partly to allow us to witness the band’s current stage show – which is based around the newly released Kings Of Metal MMXIV, a reworked version of Manowar’s classic 1989 album – but also partly to experience what this band are capable of in front of one of their most devoted crowds.

That earlier show, in the south-westerly city of Krasnodar, provided the tour with an unforgettable starting point; the fulfilling of a dying child’s last wish is clearly a task that Joey and the rest of his iron-plated brethren takes extremely seriously. But today in Moscow, Manowar are not allowing such emotionally charged experiences to have even the slightest effect on their over all focus. Welcome to what Joey DeMaio refers to as his “world of insanity” – an ongoing quest to make heavy metal as loud, proud and sonically spectacular as it can possibly be.

“This stack is the power amps. This one is the pre-amps. But I found a new way to mix everything together, to get a higher quality and fidelity from these components. It’s a clearer and more defined sound all round…”

It is just after 10 am. Joey DeMaio has been here at the Dvorets Sporta Luzhniki venue in Moscow for a couple of hours, pursuing a rigorous and unwavering schedule that necessitates his presence and involvement in every aspect of Manowar’s touring activities, from dawn to dusk and with scant opportunity to draw breath or put his feet up. Say what you like about Joey and his band – and the bassist is more than aware of all the negativity and mockery that are hurled in his band’s direction – but it is impossible to not be hugely impressed by the startling levels of commitment and attention to detail that Manowar’s crew and backstage team exhibit throughout our visit.

As Joey introduces us to virtually every major member of this thoroughly international road crew (“We have Spaniards, we have Germans, we have Czechs, we have Russians, we have Greeks, Brazilians, Norwegians, and we have some English guys, of course!” Joey proudly declares) and shares a few technical details about all the mind-blowing custom-built equipment that Manowar use to execute their legendarily bombastic and eardrum-slaughtering gigs, it swiftly becomes apparent that there is a real sense of family and unity within the band’s camp.

We can also only assume that someone has a sizeable stash of ear plugs, because as the front of house guys test the PA – which, as ever, has been flown in from elsewhere for the tour be cause normal venue s simply don’t have the kind of speaker systems that will be able to handle this band’s routine levels of sonic devastation – with, believe it or not, a brief blast of Linkin Park, the entire building seems to vibrate. Meanwhile, a huge high-definition screen has been erected at the back of the stage as Manowar ’s video crew prepare the unleashing of the new tour ’s visual embellishments with painstaking accuracy and care.

“It’s interesting, the way we tried to put this together,” Joey says as he surveys the stage from the mixing desk at the back of this cavernous 7,000-seater arena. “We’ve tried to present Kings Of Metal MMXIV by playing it, but also by putting in a little bit of documentary footage from when we made the original album. It ’s not a typical show. I don’t want to say it’s theatrical but it’s a little more cinematic. You get a metal concert and a metal movie!”

Manowar have been to Russia before, but there is a strong sense that the band are in the process of consolidating their relationship with those parts of the world that truly connect with their music and their message. The rest of this tour will see them perform in Estonia and Lithuania, with bigger shows planned in Poland, Israel and Turkey later in the year. Despite having recently pulled off what Joey describes a s their “first real tour” in the band’s native US, not to mention a successful run in the UK back in 2011, it is pretty obvious that Manowar have come to a few realisations about focusing their attention on places where they are most appreciated.

Judging by the vast queue of fans that is assembling by the venue’s front entrance today, many hours before doors open, it is fairly obvious that Russia is one of those countries where their unapologetic creed of purest heavy metal has made a significant impact.

And thanks to the self-evident truth that, until relatively recently, Russian metalheads were somewhat impoverished when it comes to seeing their favourite bands play live or even getting hold of their CDs, the buzz around this tour has been nothing short of deafening, with all the shows close to selling out and a considerable amount of media coverage ensuring that this jaunt was a success before it had even begun.

“The fans here are amazing. They click with Manowar and our message better than most,” Joey muses, as he ushers us back into the venue’s labyrinth of backstage corridors, en route to some other vital task.

“We never came here at the time all the other bands did, so all the fans could do was read what was written in magazines. Now they can see what’s going on in other countries on YouTube and there’s been a big build-up. People know we’ve been doing this for years and we’re known for blowing people’s heads off with metal,” he grins, cheered by the thought. “They also know we haven’t compromised or changed or kissed ass and bent to the trends. I think that our message resonates in these times and deeply too. That’s just my guess. But it’s all of the above and I’m thankful for it all.”

The rest of Manowar won’t arrive at the venue until soundcheck, but their leader is incapable of taking his hands from the steering wheel for a single second because, as he frequently points out, everything has to be right for Manowar to deliver what their fans expect. Plenty of criticism has been levelled at the metal heroes, particularly in recent times, due to the perception that tickets for the gigs are priced way too high and that Joey may be suffering from delusions of grandeur, mistakenly believing his band to be far bigger than they actually are.

Ten minutes in his company, however, and all becomes clear: Manowar have simply disentangled themselves from the rest of the music industry and forged their own path, doing things their own way with little interest in how everyone else does things. You either buy into the ambition, the craziness and the unashamed extravagance of the whole thing, or you don’t. But don’t ever accuse Joey DeMaio of lacking belief in his band, his music or his fans.

“We have the same ticket prices as Metallica or Iron Maiden, it’s true,” he states. “It doesn’t mean we’re putting as many people on the ground, bar certain countries where it’s not too far away. But we do it a different way. We have to. We just can’t overlook any detail or any single component, because we don’t have the superstar manager, the superstar booking agent or the massive company behind us. The way I’m making our fans happy is not with smoke and mirrors or big sponsors. I’m doing it in a way that provides a level of quality in the experience of metal that delivers more metal and pure metal, from stem to stern, from the start of the experience to the end, and unabashedly so!”

It is now late afternoon in Moscow. Manowar have completed their soundcheck – and yes, it was fucking loud – and work is continuing on and around the stage, as the crew make their final preparations. But Joey DeMaio has vanished and no one seems willing to explain his whereabouts. After a bit of sneaky investigation, it transpires that Manowar have hired a Russian language coach, so that Joey can make a speech to the fans during the gig. Not content with the usual half-arsed attempts at bellowing “Good evening!” in a foreign language that most bands settle for, he has spent the best part of two hours being given very detailed and nuanced vocal instruction because, it hardly needs repeating, everything has to be right.

When the doors open, an hour before show time, Joey’s obsessive attention to detail begins to make perfect sense. The first rush of fans through the venue’s doors near takes them off their hinges and the subsequent stampede to Manowar’s amply stocked merchandise desk borders on alarming. Official merch guru Giovanna later states that the table separating the fans from the poor souls selling the shirts was practically overturned amid the mayhem and that she “couldn’t sell stuff quickly enough” and several items were completely sold out within 30 minutes.

Although they don’t look like a typical metal crowd, with very few band shirts and even fewer male fans with long hair, the punters in Russia are insanely passionate and dedicated to the Manowar cause.

As the venue itself begins to fill up, there is a steadily mounting roar of excitement. And then the giant screen flickers into life at the back of the stage and all hell breaks loose as Joey, singer Eric Adams, guitarist Karl Logan and drummer Donnie Hamzik stride out and launch into their titular theme song. The sound, as promised by Joey, is both skull-crushingly loud and thrillingly crystal clear, but the sound of the Moscow hordes roaring along with every word is equally unmistakable.

With a setlist that begins with a handful of revered classics and ends with a complete reading of the new/old album and final clatters through Warriors Of The World United and Black Wind, Fire And Steel, the music itself is stirring in a way that few bands ever come close to. Meanwhile, the visual aspects of the show make the whole shebang seem genuinely special, as everything from footage from the recording sessions of the original Kings Of Metal through to grainy clips of Brian Blessed reciting the words to The Warrior’s Prayer in the studio – and, by Christ, his voice resounds around the venue like a bomb going off – add to an overall sense that tonight is about more than just ticking a box on a tour itinerary.

The greatest moment comes before the encores, when Joey strides out onto the stage – wearing the most preposterous pair of boots this side of Gene Simmons – and delivers his speech. He does it slowly but determinedly, relishing each unfamiliar syllable to overwhelming cheers of appreciation.

As we stand near the front, Metal Hammer asks a fan, Andrei, whether Joey is nailing his declaration. “It is perfect!” he grins. “I didn’t know he spoke Russian! He is using slang and making jokes. Everybody is really happy right now ha ha ha!”

Therein lies the difference between Manowar and, well, everyone else. This is not a band for casual observers or fairweather fans, and the diehards know that every penny they spend on tickets, CDs or merchandise will be reinvested to ensure that the next time the Kings Of Metal roll into town, they will bring a show that redefines what it means to be a balls-out heavy metal band. And yes, you can laugh at Manowar if you want to. Joey DeMaio hasn’t got time to argue about it. There is metallic perfection to achieve, and other far-flung corners of the globe to reduce to a heap of smoking rubble.

“You know, people are welcome to think that I’m an idiot, they’re welcome to not like the music or the way we look… it’s all good, but at the end of the day, if the fans are happy, that’s all that counts,” Joey concludes over breakfast the following morning. “We won’t stop for anyone. It’s like the army of 300, right? When the general burned the boats at the shore the night before the battle. You’ve got nowhere to retreat. So you’ve got to move forward or you’re going to die. We’ve been doing this for a very long time. And we’re definitely not prepared to die.”


METAL'S ALIIIIVE!

Acting legend Brian Blessed explains why he loves Manowar

WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH A BAND LIKE MANOWAR?

“My life is a great adventure and working with Manowar and narrating The Warrior’s Prayer for the Kings Of Metal album has become another great part of that adventure. Joey DeMaio is a very, very impressive man. He is an artist and a man of great being. He has great gravitas and vision. He’s an evolved human being. He won’t stand for any bullshit and nor will I, so we got on immediately!”

WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE WHOLE EXPERIENCE?

“I was astonished by the depth of thought and the sensitivity that goes into their music. Of course, there’s tremendous power involved too, but then when you meet them, they’re incredibly quiet, sensitive and thoughtful people. They’re artists to their fingertips. In my younger days I was in the RAF and did 76 parachute jumps and so forth, I was a black belt in judo in my teens and played for the British team, and so the warrior side of me is something I’m very proud of.

AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE WARRIOR’S PRAYER?

The Warrior’s Prayer is a magnificent piece of writing, on many levels. It’s subtle, it’s esoteric, it’s dramatic and it’s full of mystery. I don’t think it will ever be fully understood. When I read it I felt like a million dollars, like I was flying. A lot of actors would’ve done the narration and filled it with meaningless subtlety. There’s a nakedness, a purity, something godlike in The Warrior’s Prayer. I think it has great mystery like the deepest Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or Hindu prayer. It has infinite depth! There’s genius in the writing and we worked tirelessly until we got it right. I feel as if I fit into the heavy metal world perfectly. I find it all madly exciting!”


This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #258.

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