I’m not much of trend follower or fad supporter (except that whole Pet Rock thing, which was mint). Contrarian nature aside, one trend invading the metalverse that really boils my lobster is the whole “re-recording of classic albums” thing. Ever since I paid $40 for an import of Sodom‘s Obsessed by Cruelty on CD only to discover it was a completely different version than the one I grew up worshipping, my hatred of re-recordings has run strong and deep.
Over time, this concept of bands revisiting the glory days by redoing classic albums seems to have taken root in the genre’s collective consciousness. Everyone from Exodus, Destruction, Dimmu Borgir and Iced Earth have tried it with mostly underwhelming results. While it’s easy to dismiss such releases as mere vanity projects, they’re appearing more frequently and at least one major band seems to prefer re-recording their older albums over attempting new material.
Case in point, both Manowar and Flotsam & Jetsam releasing re-recorded versions of their “classic period” albums this month (both from 1988). Both showcase way older, less vibrant bands re-visiting songs that greatly benefitted from the exuberance, urgency and hunger of youth. In other words, these are exercises in diminished returns suffering from a chronic inability to recapture the magic of old, no matter how much cash and studio wizardry is thrown at the problem. Let’s examine them one at a time, shall we?
Manowar – Kings of Metal MMXIV
This marks the second time the Lords of the Leather Loincloth have gone to the well of their salad days to re-record classic material (everybody sing “Manowar Manowar living in the past”). The first attempt was the shockingly bad Battle Hymms MMXI in which the only highlight was Christopher Lee’s over-the-top narration in “Dark Avenger.” Failing to learn from their mistakes, we get a second dose of reboot and the results are predictable.
These new versions aren’t particularly good and add nothing positive to the originals, but they do take much away. “Hail and Kill” is one of the best pure metal songs of all time, but here it’s dialed down and noticeably slower, making it feel watered down and weak as a kitten. The new recording and “seasoned” performances suck all the life from it, leaving it sounding like Manowar doing the soundtrack for a Lifetime Movie of the Week. The other songs don’t fare much better, with only “Wheels of Fire” and Kingdom Come” somewhat holding their own against the towering shadow cast by the originals.
A big problem is that Manowar has always been about the powerhouse vocals of Eric Adams. He’s been one of metal’s best and most versatile vocalists since the early 80s and he’s the reason their classic material worked so damn well. In his prime, the man could sing a hole through a brick wall and do it live on stage night after night. Sadly, people age and even the best voices diminish with time. While Eric can still out-sing 95% of metal vocalists half his age, these re-recordings show how much he’s lost in power and range over the decades of living the trve metal life. Now explain to me why a loyal fan would pay to hear rejiggered versions of songs Eric could sing up to Valhalla back in 1988, when it’s depressing to hear that he can’t quite do it anymore in 2014? That’s right, you can’t explain it.
The next problem is Joey DeMaio’s new arrangements of these classic songs. They’re classics for a reason (they were really good and didn’t need to be fuckered with). Altering the song order, adding new lyrics, new segments and orchestral pomp to them doesn’t do much except annoy me and drive me back to the original versions. I appreciate the inclusion of more country names during “Blood of the Kings,” but is that worth the purchase price?
“Heart of Steel” is one of my all time favorite songs, and taking that and making it more acoustic and orchestral doesn’t do a damn thing except sap it of its power and might. And why does Manowar, the most metal band of all time, think their fans want to hear LESS metal versions of their music? It simply defies logic, common sense and the very core of the Manowar ethos. Hell, they even managed to make the always annoying voiceover that led into “Blood of the Kings” even more annoying, though it features beloved English actor Brian Blessed, best known as Prince Vultan of the bird men in Flash Gordon (First wave….DIIIIVE!). He actually sounds a lot like Patrick Stewart (Professor X, John Luc Picard), and he really, really overdoes it.
The biggest issue here is two-fold. You can’t fuck with the classics and come out on top, and you certainly can’t do it 20 or 30 years removed from the original album when the whole band is careworn and age-limited. No matter how hard a band may try, these redos inevitably sound like the musings of old musicians who’ve had these songs hanging around their necks for decades like some kind of once glorious albatross. It sounds cruel and cynical, but after playing their classics live for so long, a band can’t help but sound like they’re just going thru the motions at some point. Manowar has reached that point.
In lukewarm defense of Kings of Metal MMXVI, it does come with a second disc featuring an instrumental version of the entire Kings of Metal album. While the appeal of that is lost on me, some fans may enjoy the novelty of a Manowar-approved soundtrack for their LARPing outings. Even with the bonus disc, I find this a completely superfluous, unnecessary cash grab by a band that realizes their new material isn’t up to snuff. Manowar Manowar, give us some new fucking songs or at least re-record Into Glory Ride!
Flotsam & Jetsam – No Place for Disgrace
Flotsam & Jetsam were born under an unlucky star and spent the bulk of a once promising career being best known as the band Jason Newsted was in before Metallica. Career misadventures aside, their sophomore album No Place for Disgrace was a winner and a big fish in the 80s thrash era.
After a string of forgettable outings, the band has seen fit to revisit their last truly great release with this re-recording featuring the album’s original line-up (minus bassist Troy Gregory). Where Manowar tried to refit, reprocess and embellish their golden oldies, The Flots-meisters opt for more of a traditional do-over with relatively minor tweaks to lyrics and melodies. This is No Place for Disgrace 2.0 as done by dudes 25 years older and one would assume, wiser.
At first, the elder Flotsmen sound quite spry and able to hold up under the pressure of a note for note replay of this thrashing material, though it soon becomes apparent most songs are slowed down, with a few being much slower. This makes the material sound very deliberate at times. They add a cheesy synth intro to “Escape From Within” which isn’t helpful, but once the song kicks in, it’s essentially faithful to the original. They dial down the heaviness significantly during the cover of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” which defeats the purpose of a thrash band covering an Elton John song in the first place. That big ugly guitar tone on the original cover version made the song work, and with the heaviness gone, so is the appeal.
“Hard on You” also features a less crushing guitar tone and the lyrics now seem to deal with illegal downloading. The classic “I Live You Die” seems more restrained and slowed down than the other songs, which is a minor tragedy in and of itself.
The only song that ends up being an improvement is “P.A.A.B.,” which sounds more interesting and powerful than it did originally due to a raw guitar sound shockingly close to that heard on Metallica‘s Kill Em’ All. This leads to the obvious question, “why didn’t they do this on the rest of the songs?”
Erik A.K.’s vocals sound pretty solid and though his voice is deeper than before, it still sounds steady and strong. However, it’s clear by the end of the opening title track that Father Time has robbed him of those glass shattering high notes and screeches he was once known for. Sadly, those highs heavily adorned the original album, and their absence is felt dearly here. The rest of the band does their thing more or less as effectively as they did originally, but slower and more deliberately, which isn’t a real selling point for a classic thrash album.
I’d rather listen to this re-recording than Manowar‘s, but that’s a low bar and hardly a ringing endorsement. It’s competently done and still pretty speedy, but if I want to relive my thrashing youth, why would I choose this slower version which lacks the badass screams? Does anyone prefer the live versions of “Angel of Death” when Tom Araya replaces that wicked opening scream with his pirate-y ARRRRRRRR sound? Didn’t think so. And that’s the root of the problem here. Growing old sucks, so why shine a big spotlight on it?