Sunday, December 1, 2013

Manowar - Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy

Cover art for Manowar's 1992 "The Triumph of Steel" by Ken Kelly

There is some controversy over which band is the loudest in history. The Who were believed to be the loudest band of all time after they gave everyone, including themselves, hearing damage at 126 decibels at 1976’s The Valley concert, but a lot of time has passed since then and many bands have competed for the title of “loudest.” In 1984 Manowar successful reached 129.5 decibels and proudly pronounced themselves the loudest bad ever. Other bands managed to eclipsed the 129.5dB such as Motorhead (130dB), Gallows (132.5dB), and KISS (136dB), which forced Manowar to perform at the Magic Circle Fest in 2008 at 139dB, thus reclaiming the title. As of now Manowar is still on record for “loudest” band ever and they will probably hold on to the title for a long time, since it is dangerous to have concerts at such high volumes and also because it is hard to have a concert that loud that doesn’t end up breaking some kind of law or bylaw.

Because wearing a shirt is stupid.
Being the loudest band ever might be enough for Manowar to claim victory and call it a career, but fortunately for us Manowar is so much more than just loud. Manowar is one of the original American power metal bands and arguably the greatest of that specific subgenre. Power metal is typically filled with lyrics and themes of fantasy, and while Manowar’s stage presence and look is not what one might think of when discovering songs about dragons and wizards they do in fact sing a lot about magic and heroes. To be fair, Manowar with their muscles and war cry, do sing about more masculine sorts of fantasy adventure, songs about shamans conquering wind magic, mastering the use of magical swords to kill thy enemies, and other such narratives that could come right out of Conan the Barbarian. And it helps that since Monawar’s 1987 album “Fighting the World” artist Ken Kelly has done the cover art of every Manowar album, a man known for drawing warrior fantasy art, including Conan the Barbarian.

I am big fan of Ken Kelly’s and I recommend visiting his site:

"Fighting the World" the first of many
Manowar album covers by Ken Kelly
Many casual Manowar fans might fail to notice all the fantasy references in their music as they may be distracted by the equally reoccurring theme of warriors and war. In the noble effort of creating badass metal about magical warfare the logical conclusion is to write a song about the most epic war ever in all mythology, I am of course referring to the Trojan War. The feud between Achilles, the Mycenae champion and Hector Prince of Troy, is perhaps the best known grudge match between warriors in the history of all war, both real and fictional, which is interesting because Achilles and Hector are theoretically fictionally, but are tangibly real. Troy was a real city and it was sacked. Also historians are at least partially convinced that Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, the ruler of the Greek empire at the time of the sacking of Troy, may also be real, we even think we might have found his face captured in a gold disc. So it is not inconceivable to consider the possibility of a tough general named Hector defending the city of Troy or him being killed by a very tall really, really tanned Greek warrior named Achilles.

Agamemnon's face... maybe.
My favorite book is Homer's “The Iliad” and I loved the conflict between the two clashing heroes. Never before or after has anything in literature built up a clash between two opposing heroes as powerfully epic as the battle between Achilles and Hector. Hector is a perfect warrior but Achilles is a force of nature. Achilles is a literal demigod, his mother Thetis is the goddess of water, so this guy is literally half god. When Achilles enters the battleground he rips through the ranks of Trojans like a hurricane slaughtering everyone. In a book that is little more than a thorough depiction of endless fighting; every amazing feat by every hero, and there are many of them, are all put into the shadow of Achilles impossible power. He ends more lives in one chapter than every other named character combined. So who better to write a bloody and heroic metal epic about than Achilles? Enter Manowar’s “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy.”

I suppose Manowar was not content being the loudest band ever, they also wanted to write the longest song ever, and I believe that is why they wrote “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy.” At twenty-eight minutes and thirty-five seconds “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” is a long song, but it has to be it tells the entire story of “The Iliad.”

“Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” is in eight parts:

1. Hector Storms the Wall
2. The Death of Patroclus
3. Funeral March
4. Armor of the Gods
5. Hector’s Final Hour
6. Death Hector’s Reward
7. The Desecration of Hector’s Body
8. The Glory of Achilles

I will attempt to give you a quick explanation of the story being told here and the dramatic significance of each of the eight parts.

The city of Troy was very well protected by its high walls, so conquering the city was going to be difficult. Upon arriving on the sandy beaches of Troy, the Greeks conquered the surrounding towns and farms and secured a foothold on the territory so they could supply themselves during what was estimated to be a long siege. When it came time to divide up the spoils of war, including the women, Achilles took Briseis as his sex slave but Agamemnon took her from him once he was forced to give up his own sex slave Chryseis. I remind you, this story takes place over three thousand years ago, and we are talking about barbarians here. As a result of this archaic offensive Achilles withdraws from battle.

Manowar begins their epic by introducing Hector and the opening line of this saga is:

“See my chariot run to your ships I'll drive you back to the sea.”

In case you didn’t know, Hector was most feared in combat when he rode his chariot, early during the war Hector terrorized the Greeks with it. Knowing Hector is a Trojan and a badass is all you really need to take away from part 1 – Hector Storms the Wall.

Achilles does not contribute to the war until the death of his cousin Patroclus, slain by the hands of Hector, which Manowar presents in part 2 – The Death of Patroclus. Patroclus entered the battle wearing Achilles armour so when Hector killed him he took the armour and wore it himself to mock Achilles.

He shouldn’t have done that.

I really like the instrumental parts three and four. The “Funeral March” is a great bridge towards the drum solo that is “Armor of the Gods.” Hephaestus the Greek god of fire makes Achilles a new suite of armor, this is represented in “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” with an eight minute drum solo, which has to be the best possible way to convey this moment, especially when you are Manowar.

My personal favoriate moment in the entire epic is part 5 “Hector’s Final Hour;”

“Here inside the walls of Troy, the gods weigh my fate,
From this bay do I abstain, to a memory of hate,
To pay for all the blood that spilled the many thousands I did kill,
No walls can contain the gods' almighty will.
I hear the silent voices I cannot hide.
The gods leave no choices so we all must die.
Oh Achilles let thy arrows fly, into the wind, where eagles cross the sky.
Today my mortal blood will mix with sand it was foretold,
I will die by thy hand into Hades my soul descend.”

I love this little bit of poetry of Hector lamenting his forthcoming doom. A reoccurring theme in Greek literature is the oracles and god prophesising what was to come, word always reaches the heroes and they often know how their adventures will end before they begin; just as Hector knew “this day was promised to me” he also knew his death by Achilles’ hands was coming. Achilles is sent into a great rage when Hector kills Patroclus and Manowar was the right band to capture this fury and this is the part of the song that is the most intense. There is good balance over the course of this twenty-eight and a half minute song, many peaks and valleys throughout in volume and intensity, though perhaps that is unavoidable for a song of this length. The soft moments like Hector’s lamentation bring a real strong humanity to the song which in turn makes the dramatic and violent moments of the same man’s death all the more exciting. I am unsure if this is intentional but the clash of peace and war like moments does well to reflect the same moments in “The Iliad.” There is a calm, albeit tense, moment Hector shares with his wife Andromache where the plume of his helm is frightening their child as it waves in the wind so Hector removes his helmet and kisses his son goodbye, by taking off his helm Hector shows he is more than a warrior, he is also a husband and father. Hector is a man. Then Achilles kills his ass!

A very reoccurring image in Greek pottery is Hector removing his helm before his wife and child.  
Hector and Andromache facing each other contrasted by Paris and Helen looking away from each other
is another reoccurring image in Greek art.  The good noble couple is contrasted by the bad trouble making couple.
Hector’s death is my favourite moment in “The Iliad;”

“Dying, Hector of the flashing helmet said:

‘How well I know you and see you for what you are! Your heart is hard as iron. I have been wasting my breath. But reflect now before you act, in case angry gods remember how you treated me, on the day Paris and Phoebus Apollo bring you down in all your greatness at the Scaean gate.’

As he spoke, the end that is death enveloped him. Life left his limbs and took wing for the house of Hades, bewailing its lot and the youth and the manhood it had left behind. But godlike Achilles spoke to him again, though he was gone:

‘Die! As for my death, I welcome it when Zeus and the other immortal gods wish it to be

I like to imagine there is a pause between Achilles yelling “die!’ and his brave acceptance of his eventually death. The idea of angry Achilles standing over fallen, dead, Hector and yelling at him to die as if it were one last hate filled command to his most despised enemy, just feels so right. Considering the great fury of Achilles I believe Manowar does a great job of capturing this rage in the parts 6 and 7, for Achilles is not content to kill Hector but deems it necessary to desecrate his body as well, in the hope it will damn him in the afterlife. 

"Fury of Achilles" by Charles-Antoine Coypel
Much like Blind Guardian writing an album about Middle Earth, or Metallica’s “Call of Ktulu,” I freaking love it when literature I love is combined with great music and Manowar kind of takes the cake. How better to honor the epic of the Trojan War then with an over the top metal epic? Oh Manowar you truly are the kings of power metal.

- King of Braves

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