Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Conquest of Steel - Hammer & Fist

Conquest of Steel
Hammer & Fist
10 – 40:04
(review by James Edward Raggi IV)
I must say that when true/traditional heavy metal is presented with absolutely no thought, there really isn’t more embarrassing music on this planet.

When I think of England, I think of the ridiculously sensational media, from the Daily Mail all the way down to the language-mangling juggernaut that is Terrorizer. In that proud tradition comes the outspoken waivers of the metal flag, Conquest of Steel.

(I couldn’t decide which opening paragraph to use, but they both fit, and we’ve got a minor mess of an album on our hands.)

First, credit where it’s due: musically the album is pretty good, very Iron Maiden-inspired, at its best everything the band says it is (“Britain’s finest heavy metal warriors”), and at its worst merely some different ideas that don’t pay off. Vocalist Dan Durrant has a solid melodic voice and never once tries to do anything that he can’t – these guys are pros. If you’re not paying attention, there’s not much to complain about on this album.

Really, the band has a sharp sense of how to place hooks within their songs, and every single number is memorable and unique within their narrow style. So they succeed there where so many fail horribly. The only complaints I have involve their little sonic experiments, the little bits where they go to high harmony guitars and leave absolutely nothing filling out their sound below, in order to highlight a vocal passage. It’s not bad at all, but the drums and bass seem so inadequate here and they can’t make the idea work. Cheers to them for not filling in a phantom extra guitar track that would never be played live, at least.

Yet I still have a dirty feeling after giving Hammer & Fist a close listen and seeing what the band is all about in their lyrics and image. Every single member of the band is clad in denim vests adorned with a various patches, both in the band portrait and in the live shots. The singer runs around with a sword on stage, apparently. When this happens, there is no middle ground – it’s either pathetic or awe-inspiring. Shall we examine exactly what this band is singing about?

Metal. Heavy fucking metal. Heavy metal songs that surely “go down a storm” at their live shows as well as with people that consider Manowar their religion, and other unfortunates. It’s fan pandering, populist bullshit, like somebody with Down’s Syndrome got hold of Lost Horizon and Manowar albums and decided he wanted to be in a band just like them.

The problem is the juxtaposition of individualism and collectivism within the lyrics. The band, in all its metal fervor, pushes two completely opposed ideals and I wonder if they understand their Manowar albums at all.

It’s very simple. Lost Horizon was talking to its audience, commanding them, if you will, not to join together in some homogenous mass of metal, but to stand up and excel. There are no armies. Manowar exalts themselves and themselves only, even when they seemingly give praise to their fans. Read those lyrics from Army of the Immortals. It’s something akin to jingoistic manipulation for anyone to think that Manowar places true importance on their thralls. They sing about them a bit and laugh all the way to the bank. Perhaps this is why I like Manowar, but only the songs where they aren’t singing about heavy metal – they know what they’re doing and they do it well, but I don’t like being manipulated. In the Manowar world, that scary guy on their DVD trailer had it right. “Manowar is my religion!” he screams. And in a religion, there are gods, and there are the not-gods. It’s a frighteningly brilliant thirty-year campaign to build and keep a following, if you think about it.

Conquest of Steel either can’t figure this out, or think they can run around the truth of the matter. Time for them to be on the receiving end of the Clue Hammer:

You are a leader or you are a follower.
You are free, or you are not.
If you are in a crowd, you are not standing alone.

Which brings us to the brain-dead collection of words that are the lyrics to “A Million Strong.” They look the contradiction right in the face with the line, “Part of the pack you stand alone,” and there is no evidence to be found that they realize how silly that is. No effort to give meaning to or explain what that means. So I have to take it at face value. They’re idiots. The song starts by talking a good game about self-reliance and realizing one’s potential. It’s all about the individual and pressuring him to not be a fuck-up. Right out of the Lost Horizon book of tricks. But it goes from there directly into the chorus of “A million strong we are the ones / Who live our lives wild and free.” Say what? The next verse confuses everything further, going on about how a person, presumably the listener, is this alone-standing person who is part of the pack and becoming a great leader. And back to the chorus. And then it starts going on about a “primal tribal movement.” Ah yes, the primordial age of man, that great time for individualism. Really, the band is telling some mythical million listeners (do they actually aspire to be a pop band to have that many people listening to them?) that they are all capable of being leaders. Reminds me of my days working in an office when some middle-management fucktard was delivering a message from on high about employee empowerment. Yes, Conquest of Steel is the musical equivalent of the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert.

“Born in Hell” reveals even more troublesome issues around this band’s philosophy. Check out the final bits of words that will inspire confidence:

All for the glory, all for the whores
All for the king of heavy metal
All for the glory, all for the whores
All for the glory, all for the whores
All for heavy metal
Pure heavy metal

Now, women haven’t been mentioned at all in this song, or on the album at all up to this point. But out of nowhere, “whores.” Classy. Just what we need from leaders of men, or a million-strong group of nitwits. Now I can understand completely if someone doesn’t like women, but I’m hardly going to take inspiration or advice from someone that doesn’t mention women, at all, aside from their being called “whores.” The chorus is full of elegance as well: “Show me the way, metal god of hell I pray.” Repeat. But there is more hidden idiocy here. First verse:

The metal god who burns inside
Born before the dawn of time
Almighty overlord we crave
To be the greatest of warrior banes
Fighting ‘till death, on our knees
All for heavy metal’s greatest deeds

That first line makes me wonder if these guys aren’t just a bunch of heavy metal Scientologists and if Hammer & Fist isn’t just a musical Battlefield Earth. I really doubt the band has a solid enough command of advanced literary techniques like metaphor to be saying anything of substance here. And the little bridge with “I’ll fight for the one, I’ll bleed ‘till the end,” I just know the band isn’t intending to say that heavy metal is just one big suicide cult run by some “overlord,” but damn their intentions, that is actually what their words are saying.

Third verse:

Born in hell metal’s son
Master of the sword number one
Leader to the ranks of men
Who live for metal ‘till the end
With steel we ride never to die
Victory burns in our eyes

Compare carefully the verses. Note the use of “we” and “our” in the first verse, as the song tells us we crave an overlord and we’re going to fight until we die. In the third verse, note that the “we” are the ranks of men, not the leader, and we get a contradiction of whether we are going to die or not for heavy metal. Fight ’till death for heavy metal? Live for metal ‘till the end?

This is the problem with singing about heavy metal. Heavy metal is a bunch of malcontents guys sitting in a cramped room (or by themselves!) fiddling around on tools made of wood, plastic, and yes, metal. Heavy metal is a tool, heavy metal is a servant of its makers and of its listeners. If all you’re using heavy metal for is to glorify heavy metal, you’re caught in a feedback loop of worthlessness, because you aren’t creating anything of yourself with this tool… you’re just glorifying what other people have done before you, and you can’t rise to the level of the gods if you won’t even stop kneeling before them.

How about “Taste the Metal”? It’s all about the devil possessing you. Check out the chorus:

The beast declares your soul
Your mind your form his own
Forever now your (sic) dwell
Blackened tainted realms
Bleeding raping
The sadist feeding taking
Burnt and twisted your life
Belongs to him now

Now this isn’t some 80s Satanic Panic advisory. I’ve got albums that are more blatantly Satanic and if you take your metal seriously, so do you. The problem is these same lyrics are grouped in the same song as this shit:

You’ll taste the metal, you’ll taste your tears
You’ll be forever the pilgrim without fear
You’ll kneel and worship before the
Altar of steel You’ll know you’re worth it
More than any man can feel

See, if they’re a Satanic band, whatever, but this kind of confused thinking reminds me of Christian zealots who think Satan is so much more powerful than their own God that the faithful are going to be tricked, tricked, tricked into wickedness and only by pointing out how insidious the devil is, and only by getting rid of everything that might even sort of have a passing resemblance to deviltry can the all-powerful God be safe from that powerless trickster Satan. And these British Boneheads take this Satanic philosophy as described by people who hate Satan and apply it directly into their art without comment, without sarcasm, without irony. Imbeciles!

Then there’s the bog-standard lyrical topics like valkyries and pirates and stuff before the final proper song, “Warrior’s Decree.”

Ever in this night we belong
This stage is ours by right
Never fading the flame is gaining
Souls rising with strength beyond

At least here (and on the opening song) they seem to realize the artist/audience divide, but really, I’m just done. You’ve been cool and you’re the best reader of this issue. Give yourself a hearty round of applause for all your support of LotFP – I really appreciate it.

The shame is they have the potential to be producing solid, non-dairy heavy metal. The song “Lamentations of War” (even this band wouldn’t dare put the word lamentations on a bunch of bullshit) is great. It’s an effective and powerful condemnation of… war and the manipulation of people by their leaders. You know, the shit they spend the rest of their album glorifying.



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