Manilla Road has more lives than Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees and much like those respective masked lunatics, they just won’t die. Although toiling away since the late 70s, Manilla Road and founder/vocalist/guitarist Mark “The Shark” Shelton have achieved nothing more than obscure, cult status in the metal world. They are the quintessential “true” metal act and have been releasing slight variations on their old school, American proto metal style since I was in grade school. As a long time listener, I’ll admit to being disappointed as often as satisfied by their output, and for every successful album like Crystal Logic or Out of the Abyss, there were some duds. Still, the potential Mark Shelton holds in his iron fist always brings me back to see what he’s wrought. I was unimpressed by 2011s Playground of the Damned, but was blown away by Shelton’s Hellwell collaboration with former Manilla Road keyboard guru, E.C. Hellwell. With such disparate results arriving in recent years, I was quite unsure what to expect with Mysterium. Happily, while it falls short of Hellwell‘s quality, it’s a far better album than we’ve heard from the Road crew in some time. The songs are stronger, have more varied moods, feel more convincing, and for lack of a better word, “true.” There’s a significant uptick in heaviness, speed and balls and even the emotional “ballad” packs a wicked punch. In effect, they steal back their sound from acts like Argus and Sinister Realm, who have been doing it better than them of late. I guess there’s some life left in these mysterious metal misers after all!
There’s no doubt this is a tougher, more battle-ready Manilla Road, as the muscular power-doom attack of “The Grey God Passes” and “Stand Your Ground” demonstrates. The riffing is heavy, aggressive and even thrashy at times in an homage to the Out of the Abyss days. Mark sounds tougher and meaner than usual and his riffing and soloing sounds more intense and urgent. “Only the Brave” has fast, riffy leads much like Ozzy‘s “Bark at the Moon.” “The Battle of Bonchester Bridge” incorporates some early Maiden in the riffing and the whole song is cloaked in a moody, somber feel with restrained, tasteful vocals. “The Hermitage” is hooky and has a winning chorus, and has all the classic Road elements.
The big standout to me is “The Fountain,” which is a folksy, acoustic tune that reminds me of something Wino would have on his solo albums. It’s melancholy, but hopeful and very memorable. It’s one of the best songs in their vast catalogue and it improves with every spin.
While most of the songs are pretty respectable, the title track is a bit too long at over eleven minutes and “Do What Thou Will” is pretty flat. A lot of the material isn’t immediate either and it took me several spins for some of the songs to grow on me. As a whole, Mysterium feels a tad overlong and would’ve had more impact as a brisk, seven or eight song affair.
As always, Shelton’s vocals are a love or hate proposition. His unique nasal whine causes hysterical psychosis in roughly 22.4% of the population, but I always enjoyed it. As on the past few albums, he splits time at the mic with Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick. I never saw the point in this shared duty and much prefer Mark’s voice, but Patrick does a decent job here. Marks’s guitar playing is great as usual and as metal as it gets. His free-form, jamming solos are especially enjoyable and some of his best noodling to date is captured here.
Probably the biggest surprise in store for long time Road fans is the production, which hardly sucks at all compared to the level of aural suckitude on past releases. It’s hardly a model of modern recording technology and it’s still a muddy mess, but at least this time it doesn’t distract from the music. If I had to compare the sound, I’d say it comes closest to that on Out of the Abyss, but it might be a tad cleaner (cleaner being a highly contextual term here). Maybe I’m becoming immune to the typically shit Manilla Road mix jobs in my old age, but I think they’re finally figuring out what those knobs and dials do after thirty-five years in the biz.
I’m happy to hear Mark the Shark sounding so vibrant and vital again. I guess his recent work with Hellwell lit a fire under his ass and Mysterium is definitely a step back toward old school glory. Still, this will only appeal to a small percentage of the Metalverse, and for many it will feel too much like a history lesson on the beginnings of Iron Age. However, if you like it true, then join the Road crew! Hails.