18 albums into their crusade to bring Kansas proto-metal to the masses and Manilla Road keeps right on truckin’. To Kill a King is yet another cobblestone on their pathway to Vahalla and predictably delivers a flying buttress of epic, olde-timey metal mixed with doom and 70s hard rock, sounding like Atlantean Kodex would if the current members were replaced by dirty bikers. Founder Mark Shelton likely plans to keep passing his epic metal stones until Odin calls him home, and at this point it seems he can crank out an album a year without breaking a sweat. Hero-worship aside, it can sometimes feel as though he’s spinning wheels and grinding the gears on his ageless metal machine. Luckily, most of the shortcomings on any Manilla Road outing are at least partially offset by Shelton’s dazzling, dizzying guitar-work and wild, free-form jammage, and this platter is no exception. In for a penny, in for a jammy, that’s what I always say.
Nice guys that they are, the band eases you into the flow with the 10-minute title track, which tells the tale of the original emo prince, Hamlet of Denmark. Luckily, in the hands of Mr. Shelton, there’s far less hemming, hawing and angsty self-reflection and way more chopping and usurping, as a proper metal lord is wont to do. For an oversized opus, the song plays out pretty smoothly and allows for plenty of extended guitar showcases. It has everything a classic metal tune should, though Mark’s vocals are way too sedate and somnambulistic for such a slow-building saga of hate and revenge. In sharp contrast, “Conqueror” is far more aggressive and in-your-face, with heavy riffage and straightforward momentum. It almost feels like an early Candlemass song that ran away from home and became a greasy thug, and the fluid, long-winded jams add an interesting spin to things.
“In the Wake” is one of the more “accessible” songs Manilla Road ever penned, with a touch of of Brainstorm in the song structure and riffs. “The Talisman” has a noticeable Danzig vibe to the leads, and “Ghost Warriors” is a lot doomier and reminiscent of early Pentagram. While no song is outright bad, “Castle of the Devil” begins to feel monotonous before it wraps, and closer “Blood Island” is about The Isle of Dr. Moreau and all I can think of is Marlon Brando in a moo moo with an ice bucket on his head, and nothing in the music is compelling enough to shake me from that disturbing visage.
At over an hour, To Kill a King is way too long and feels it by the seventh track. Another issue is how the band seems to be composing lately. Many of the songs feel like simple shells designed solely to give Mr. Shelton a platform to drop monster jams upon. Many don’t feel thought out, and all are saved by big league soloing. When song after song feels average, but gets elevated by inspired jams, it’s hard to say the band’s writing is at maximum effectiveness. This results in tedium and fatigue two-thirds of the way in, where I just want to get to the fret-board gymnastics and skip the pretense of “song craft.”
In the plus column, this has one of the best productions ever heard on a Manilla Road platter. Long known for clunky, slipshod sounding albums, To Kill a King sounds decent, if a bit muddy and cluttered. Baby steps!
With this band, you come for the guitar-work and stay for the mead and swordplay. Shelton is a chaos wizard at loose, improvisational solos and he’s essentially the Jerry Garcia of proto-metal. There’s plenty of his soulful, 70s-influenced playing here to savor and it’s always trippy fun. Guitar ability notwithstanding. Mr. Shelton’s voice is always a risky proposition. While never considered a “good” singer in the classic sense, his nasal whine always added an oddly endearing element to the music. Sad as it is to say, his vocals sound weaker and more washed out here than I can ever recall hearing. Frankly, he sounds tired, and aside from some attempts at harsh vocals on “The Arena,” it seems like he’s struggling to put more punch in his delivery. Bryan “Hellroadie” Patrick adds vocals here and there, but he’s so similar to Shelton it’s often tough to tell them apart.
Manilla Road is as kvlt and trve as any band will ever be, and their catalog reads like the history of metal itself. To Kill a King has all the expected thrills, chills and epical noodling, but in sum it’s not an album I imagine coming back to much in the future. The writing was way more interesting on 2015s The Blessed Curse and even the recent Hellwell. With a career this long, not every album can be gold, but I’ll always hail them for a lengthy career of trveness.